Editor’s NoteIn late August 2021, Ukrainian special forces managed to rescue a group of Canadian translators from Taliban-held Afghanistan in what The Globe and Mail called a “daring operation” — for US and Canadian troops declined to conduct such a dangerous maneuver. The Canadians were among a group of 700 people that Ukraine had evacuated. How did Ukraine manage to pull this off? The Ukrainian newspaper Babel found out about this in an interview with one of the participants of the operation.
On 29 August, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported on the successful operation of Ukrainian special forces which managed to evacuate a group of translators who worked with the Canadian military and press from Kabul, the Afghan capital that fell to the Taliban on 15 August, to the city’s international airport, from where the evacuees were successfully flown to safety.
According to The Globe and Mail, previous efforts to get the group to the airport by the Canadian military and then the U.S. State Department failed as those efforts relied on the Afghans and their families to reach meeting points near the airport by themselves, which couldn’t be done amid thousands of locals who congregated outside the facility hoping to get airlifted abroad.
“The Ukrainian operation succeeded where others had collapsed because the Ukrainian military deployed special forces troops into the city on foot to conduct the rescue,” The Globe and Mail wrote.
The Ukrainian online newspaper Babel.ua got in touch with Oleh, an employee of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine who took part in the Kabul operation, to get more details on the developments in Kabul Airport. The newspaper didn’t disclose his identity calling him only by name. The text below is an abridged translation of Babel’s interview.
Ukraine didn’t have its troops deployed in Afghanistan. In total, the Ukrainian special forces and aviation managed to airlift about 700 people from Kabul in late August 2021.
When and why did you end up in Kabul?
It was a special operation, the so-called evacuation mission. The task was set by the Ukrainian leadership in close coordination with the Foreign Ministry, the Migration Service, and others. It started on 16 August, and on the 28th we came back.
Ukrainian special forces who rescued people in Kabul. Photo: Facebook / Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense
You arrived in Kabul on 16 August, a day after the Taliban entered the city. What did you see there? What happened in Kabul, at the airport?
The airport was divided into two parts by the runway. The northern military part was controlled by coalition forces. We were there. The other part – the civilian one – was under the Taliban’s control.
By the way, the Russians claim that they deported 500 people from Kabul, including Ukrainians. We saw their planes – and those were sitting just on the Taliban’s side, but we didn’t record any embarkment process. I guess, it didn’t happen or it was about a smaller number of people.
You mean the Russians had an agreement with the Taliban?
Most likely, yes. They took people away from that part. And we didn’t see Russians in the city either.
Now, the contingent of coalition forces that were at the airport didn’t leave the place. I don’t know how our partners brought people there. But they took them directly from the gates at the entrance to the airport. There were several walled perimeters. At one perimeter, people were inspected for explosives or firearms then brought to refugee collection points, then to planes to get embarked, airlifted. The pace was insane, sometimes planes flew in and out every 5-7 minutes.
Were these planes taking away refugees?
Yes. Everything was well-organized at the airport. We knew where the Turks, Azerbaijanis, British, Americans, Germans were. The latter once approached us and we offered help.
There was chaos in the city at that time as the shooting didn’t stop, people were running, there was always a threat of explosions. There were many women with children on the streets, and there seemed to be more of them than men. The airport was literally besieged by people who wanted to fly out of the country.
Ukrainian military at Kabul Airport. August 2021. Photo: Facebook / Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense
Let’s talk in more detail about your tasks. What exactly were you supposed to do in Kabul?
We had only one task – the evacuation of people according to the lists provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In priority were the citizens of Ukraine and members of their families – we couldn’t split families, so we took all of them away. Then there were those having a permanent or temporary residence permit in Ukraine and members of their families. If possible, we didn’t refuse to citizens from partner countries – from Europe, North America, Great Britain. The only condition was that they should have had documents.
How did the evacuation unfold? Did you know the places where the people were and hurried there?
We created coordination and information groups on social media and told people where they should go.
At first, the assembly point was the gate at the airport which they had to use to enter. But the gate was often simply impossible to reach. People stalled in traffic jams or stopped reaching the crowd and couldn’t enter. In such cases, we conducted foot operations – we went outside the airport and accompanied people on foot. It was difficult.
Then we decided that a better way would be to gather people on buses and try to bring them through the American-controlled gates.
We also took people from Kabul proper. We went where no one else dared. When they got to the first perimeter of the airport, we took everyone from the bus, separated men and women for a full inspection, and forced them to discard food, water, and perishables. We had our own food to offer, MREs. Then we compared the lists and their IDs and took the people directly to the plane, where they expected departure.
Is the evacuation mission to the city an undercover raid or you were there in your uniform?
In uniform, in full uniform.
But there were Taliban members in the city, how did they react?
They are accustomed to having coalition forces in their country, and our uniforms are not much different. We weren’t hostile to the Taliban, but, of course, we were on guard.
There is anarchy and chaos in Kabul. Laws don’t work. If you go to the city without weapons, there is a chance that you won’t return to the airport. For example, those 12 Ukrainians (former Ukrainian servicemen who, under the contract of a UN contractor, were at one of Kabul’s military bases and couldn’t leave, – Ed.) who we had contacted, told that they couldn’t leave the base they guard, because all around is just a zombieland – as you go out the crowd starts to tear everything off of you and take your bags away.
During each of our outings, we showed with all our appearance that we must bring people out and we will do it at any cost.
How many people did you bring at a time?
It differed, at least 15, and the largest group had 29 people.
And how many such raids did you have?
Every day we went out to the city 3-4 times, sometimes to no avail. Sometimes people couldn’t identify themselves, or we just couldn’t find them. Meanwhile, staying in the city for a long time was dangerous, and you had to return to the airport.
Ukraine’s Intel Directorate’s video shows some footage of the evacuation:
So the Taliban could gather and attack?
Of course, they could, but it was difficult not only in the city. We also went out to the gates of Abbey Gate, where later was a terrorist attack. It is also very difficult to find someone there with barbed wire labyrinths and a river flowing along the perimeter. And there are Afghans in it, waist-deep in water, waving passports and asking to be taken away. Noisy, and it is difficult to find someone, and if did you still need to shout and somehow get there.
Tell us, how did you evacuate the 12 guys who were at the military base?
They are former soldiers, so it was easier with them. They got to the gate in a very organized fashion and we met them there.
Tell us about the evacuation of translators.
It was the same as all the other ones. I don’t know who exactly contacted whom and how they organized it. We had lists, there were contact persons we should contact. It was one of several tasks, and we worked just like a conveyor belt – we take these, then those, and then other ones. Anyway, we went to places where there were buses with these people, so we had the opportunity to pick them up.
From left: Globe reporter Mark MacKinnon, fixer Mohammed Sharif Sharaf, former Canadian military translator Jawed Haqmal in Kyiv on 29 August. Photo: theglobeandmail.com
How many people have you managed to evacuate?
Some 700: Ukrainians, Canadians, citizens of other countries, with journalists, translators, employees of non-governmental organizations among them.
Is it true that you brought people through Abbey Gate shortly before the suicide attack near it?
Yes, it was near Abbey Gate. There is a very narrow passage near the river and there are always a lot of people. From the outside, the entrance was controlled by the Taliban, the inner perimeter by the Americans and the British. That means for passing you need to pass both. An ordinary person wouldn’t pass there without inspection. How the suicide bomber got there isn’t clear to me. He blew himself up in a crowd of people by the river, between the city and the airport.
An hour before the terrorist attack, we tried to get people out through this gate, but the Taliban either didn’t let them in or those couldn’t get through the crowd. We recommended that they show them Ukrainian passports, because the Taliban was more willing to allow foreigners to pass through. The terrorist attack happened when we were no longer there.
What impressed or shocked you the most?
I was struck by hopelessness. These events pushed Afghans back 20-40 years. We had cases when people forced their way into our buses and we had to identify and get them out.
Also, children startled me. There were families with children in their arms in this crowd near the gate. The shooting all around, constant aggression, sometimes the crowd was dispersed by light and noise grenades, and children right next to the explosions were waiting to quickly pick up the rubber caps from the grenades – they are not afraid of explosions or shootings.
Even when we interviewed people near the plane, we realized that women can do nothing without men – neither pass nor answer. A family comes up to me, I start writing them down saying, “Fatima,” the man points at her sitting there. I ask her to come and say, “Do you speak Ukrainian, Russian, or English?” She remains silent and looks at him to have him answer. He replies, “No, she’s not talking.” I asked why he replied instead of her as she’d have to communicate with people, take the children to kindergarten, go to the store, she had to learn to communicate. He promised that she would learn it.
Evacuees waiting for their flight near the Ukrainian military Ilyushin Il-76 plane. Photo: Facebook / Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense
In short, by the standards of an average Ukrainian, it is scary there. This is a war going on, they are shooting there. Human life is basically worthless there. When someone was falling down from the landing gear, people on the runway almost didn’t react. The same way they treated the people killed and crushed in the crowd.
Ukraine has made a total of six flights to evacuate people from Afghanistan, bringing back about 160 citizens of Ukraine, as well as citizens of other countries. The total number of those evacuated is about 700. The last flight departed from Kabul on August 28 and arrived in Kyiv on the morning of the 29th.
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