Alumni

Mission Impossible- rescue Haseen from Afghanistan

On Saturday, 13/08/2021, the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating by the minute. It was a matter of hours before Kabul would have fallen to the Taliban. An Alumni of UWC Mostar reached out to her longtime friends asking for help amidst the prevailing chaos. She was a prominent women's rights activist, volunteered with the US embassy in Kabul, attended a United World College in Mostar, was born into the Hazara minority, identifies as a Shia Muslim, and publicly criticized the Taliban. Women, in particular Hazaras, have been targeted by the Taliban in the past, and there was no reason to think this time would be any different. Her friends were quick to set up a fundraiser, gathering money for airplane tickets out of the still-functioning airport in Kabul. By early Sunday morning, they managed to purchase tickets for her and one of her brothers. Without a valid Pakistani visa, it was not possible to get hold of tickets for the youngest brother, nor for their mother whose passport had expired in 2019. She had only 200 dollars left but we decided it was time for her to spend part of it in a taxi with her family and go to the airport. They headed towards the airport some 30 kilometers from their home. Some minutes before reaching it she started seeing people out in the streets taking selfies with the Taliban. No media was reporting about it and we couldn't believe they took control of the whole country in less than two weeks. Some hours later Al Jazeera would confirm the worst, they were already inside the capital. However, she told the taxi to go on and 100 meters before the airport entrance was stopped by US soldiers. - “You cannot continue, the airport is reserved for evacuations of foreigners only” - “I have four plane tickets, my flight is leaving in some hours, I collaborated a lot with the US embassy and I am facing great danger” (Haseen). - “We know but we cannot let you in. If you keep going, we shoot you”. When Haseen saw the director of the airport beside the US soldiers being denied access to evacuate on a plane, she knew she had no chance of evacuation that day and decided going home was her safest option. After calling and being given information about the whole situation that was rapidly unfolding in Kabul by Haseen, we told her to stay close by to the Airport given that we had seen over news telecasts that the Taliban were erecting checkpoints all over the capital which we feared would later block Haseen from being able to return to the airport once more. That night Haseen and her family would sleep at her uncle’s place a few minutes from the landing strip. A mere few hours after this event, their tickets were canceled. There were no more international flights leaving Kabul insight, not a single company was flying inside the Afghani airspace. The only remaining path of escape was evacuation planes sent by US troops to evacuate western diplomats and prominent Afghan officials. The group working to evacuate Haseen knew that a high-profile connection would now be needed to put her on the evacuation list of one of the countries evacuating their personnel and Afghan allies. Her friends reached out to every person they thought was in a position to know somebody. Friends, alumni, UWC donors, teachers, parents, friends-of-friends. Most were keen to help, but little provided useful information or direct contacts at the start, though as an “evacuation team” we worked to push through with the few leads we’d found that we felt we could follow up on. The next few days were filled with emails, phone calls, visa applications, and more phone calls. Videos of airport shootouts and people clinging onto the wheels of C-17 transport planes were circling on the internet. Through our persistent efforts, we were able to get a letter from a French minister ordering immediate repatriation of her and her family, this meant we had her on the french evacuation list which was the first step towards many. We had also managed to make Canadian and US officials personally aware of her case, both those on the ground in Kabul and those internationally overseas. As the days went on we’d finally seen that the airport had begun to let Afghan civilians in through different gates they’d opened. We felt Haseen had a higher chance of escape if she’d try to go to the airport for the second time. Haseen knew that even if we were able to evacuate her and her brother, she would have to be ready for the possibility of leaving her remaining family behind. The thought of this was heartbreaking and knowing we had to have those stressful talks with her, especially given the situation that was unfolding in her country, though she dared to accept this possibility and take any option it took. As she went to the airport with her family the Taliban had set up filters between them and the US troops as a way to control the crowds and unfortunately the Taliban would proceed to beat her and her three-year-old brother and mother with the shoulder stocks of their machine guns. The Taliban had also begun to shoot towards the sky to scare and stress people, preventing them from wanting to come to the Airport out of fear of being hurt or killed. Powerless but more determined than ever to succeed, she decided to stay there and with the biggest stroke of luck there was a breach in the filter. She quickly rushed into it, making it past Taliban lines and into troop territory, which at the time was called the ‘Green zone’. With the crowds of people blocking her way to speak to the troops about evacuating with her french letter she knew that having made it this far, she wasn’t prepared to give up now. Haseen would wait from 7am to 6pm in the heat with limited phone battery, continuing to communicate what she could to us along the way. At around 6pm there was a breakthrough, Haseen having finally been able to get a hold of a US soldier. It came as a bittersweet moment as we’d find out the French minister’s letter she’d been given was not enough to authorise her evacuation, even with the fact she was on the list, as there was no way to prove the validation of either. Our contacts sadly were unable to take the risk of revealing themselves as they were helping Afghans with little to no links with their countries, this being before they’d even evacuated all their own citizens. The US, Poland, Netherlands and Germany would proceed to call the people at the top of their lists for evacuation, Haseen standing there, hungry, thirsty with almost no battery on her phone. She was waiting for her name and her family to be called but everything got interrupted when the Taliban’s started shooting at the sky, before some of them redirected their aim at the crowd. A human stampede followed and she saw kids die asphyxiated in front of her eyes. The airport had become too dangerous as we saw it unfolding on the live airport updates the news had been putting out. Haseen, having gone back to her uncles, would later tell us that “Her eyes hurt after seeing kids die in front of her”. It’s now Wednesday, we’ve been sleeping in shifts to be awake for if Haseen called or any further advancements from contacts we’d been speaking to came out over the series of five days. After looking at all of our options and their outcomes, even having looked at the option of evacuating her through car transport to the Pakistan border with little to no luck having found out the Taliban had taken the borders we find ourselves back to square one. She is now back at home and far from the airport. The situation becomes more dangerous by the minute as the Taliban take over skyrocketed prices for both phone credits and basic necessities, such as food and water. We attempt to send her money but all money transfers are now blocked. Wednesday night we receive a text saying she’s going to go to bed on an empty stomach. It is now Thursday morning, we are all hopeful of new possibilities and breakthroughs. We had previously contacted the Spanish on Monday seeking the help from their end. We are suddenly alerted by a member of our group as they tell us they’ve received contact from a European member of parliament that has been engaged for years against terrorism and helping victims of terrorism. Another hopeful piece of news arises when we are told she’s been placed on the Spanish list and will soon receive an email from the Spanish ministry of defense with the date of her evacuation flight. On Sunday we finally receive the email from the Spanish government. “Tell her and the family to come to the Abbey gate wearing red and yellow scarves and to shout España when nearby the soldiers”. We come to find that not only is Haseen getting evacuated, but her family is going to be taken to Spain too. Within minutes we also receive an email from our US contact communicating that Haseen’s evacuation is closer than ever and soldiers have said they are going to pick her up at her house to avoid danger. However the US contact, which is the only one present at Kabul airport is unable to tell us when her exact day and time of pick up will be as US soldiers have not yet been given clearance to pick people up from their homes. Every hour we watch as the situation in Kabul takes a turn for the worse, the group finally deciding for the third time to send Haesen and her family to the airport abbey gate. We know it’s a risk as Haseen will be using the little money she has left to take a taxi, risking her and her family's lives for the little chance at being evacuated. It’s our last shot. She arrives at around 11am in the airport. Some 12 hours later we receive a call and an explanation from Haseen on the situation. There are three filters, filter A, B and C. This time A is being controlled by the Taliban, B by ISIS-K, and C by US soldiers. At 1am we receive a message by Haseen telling us she’s made it through A, and in about two hours time will be facing ISIS-K and Taliban. The night is chaotic, none of us sleep as we wait on the news from Haseen. She texts in secret, explaining how the Taliban have been drinking (yes! drinking) and beating people. She becomes very scared by the extreme violence she is witnessing from ISIS-K. We ask her to be careful and avoid texting around them, as we fear something could happen. It’s now 3am and she has texted us that she has made it through ISIS-K filters and is on her way to hopeful freedom. One hour later, thanks to the combination of our Canadian and US contacts as well as the spanish government letter we had received she is set to embark on a spanish military plane, being granted access to the airport with her family, a pure moment of joy shared among the group as we now settle in for the long wait of an evacuation plane. The family (mother,daughter, and two younger brothers) safe. For her friends it is almost 4am, we share a few more laughs of joy and tears before resting. The next morning we all wake to news that Haseen has received a green band around her arm, along with her family with only a photo. We chat amongst ourselves and ask her what this means, to which she responds that she has been given the all okay to fly on an evacuation plane later that day to Spain. Once again we all share a moment of pure joy and relief as we wait for Haseen to board her flight. An intense wait and hours later we receive a photo of her and her family on the plane, on their way to a new life. A moment of joy but sadness as we realise that Haseen, although flying to safety with her family, will have to leave behind her home, friends and other importances in her life in Afghanistan. UWC Mostar’s beloved alumni and family have now seeked asylum in Spain, before she moves to continue her education. A big thank you has been extended to everyone who’s helped them escape with their lives in whatever little way possible. For a follow up of their story, follow the UWC Alumni group and the teams separate posts. As the family escaped with little to no money, fundraising campaigns have been set up to help them restart a new life. Once again, the UWC community will have a chance to show the amount of good it can do when everyone contributes just a little bit. Thank you for reading our story.

 

 Signed Lola Sweeney (Singapore, UWCiM 19-21, UWCSEA 09-16), Lea Casucci (Italy, UWCiM 19-21), Carlos Valverde (Spain, UWCiM 19-21), Pablo Chabalier (France/Spain, UWCiM 18-20) David Busley (Germany, UWCiM 18-20) and Maj Mis (Slovenia, UWCiM 18-20).

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