Relief and emotion as special charter flight leaves Afghanistan

For hours, passengers waited in the departure hall of the newly restored Kabul Airport, their flight — the first to leave the Afghan capital since the US withdrawal was completed — repeatedly delayed. 

When they were finally called to board as the sun set, their relief was clear.  

“Deutschland, Germany,” beamed one man, when he was asked his final destination. 

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August, more than 120,000 people were airlifted from Kabul airport in a US-led evacuation marred by chaos and a devastating bomb attack.

Ten days after the last US troops left the country, a Qatar Airways plane landed at Kabul Airport to take stranded Afghans and foreigners away from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. 

A mother wheeled a toddler in a pushchair, while her husband shepherded their two excited young boys onto the bus for the short ride to the plane.

Another passenger, an Afghan-American dual citizen who did not give his name for security reasons, said his family of six had tried several times to leave since the Taliban seized power.

“We were not able to go through the checkpoints of the Taliban,” he told AFP, adding that he was beaten by fighters.

“We have been at home, but not giving up,” he said.

“It’s mixed emotions because I am leaving my mother and brothers here, and they also do not feel safe,” he said.

“For us and my kids, it’s really emotional to go.”

– Up and running –

The airport terminal that the passengers passed through on Thursday was unrecognisable from the state of disrepair it was left in when foreign forces departed.

The building was trashed during the chaos of the early days of the Taliban takeover, leaving the passenger halls destroyed and critical infrastructure in pieces.

But a mammoth clear-up operation led by a Qatari team transformed the complex into a functional international terminal.

A temporary “Welcome to Kabul Airport” sign stood in the check-in area, with new television screens above the desks, shiny marble floors and neat barriers for queuing passengers.

Inside the terminal, wood-panelled booths have been installed in the pristine immigration area, while two luggage carousels were once again operational in the arrivals hall.

The security operation for the flight was run by no-nonsense Qatari personnel, dressed in black and heavily armed.

As the aircraft was loaded with equipment and fuel, six men stood guard, while inside the terminal security marshalled the passengers through.

The Taliban took up posts at some points around the airport, mainly near the side entrances to the runway, and every so often a pick-up truck loaded with armed fighters whizzed up and down the road alongside.

Some strolled onto the runway to take selfies, called back by the Qatari security personnel in time for the flight to take off into a darkening sky. 

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