A few days after the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban, on August 15th 2021, the coordination for the rescue of targeted women from Afghanistan and their families, begins.
Article in Vice Greece by Epaminondas Farmakis, general director, and co-founder of HumanRights360
A small organization from Greece and the evacuation plan from Afghanistan
Just before August 15th, we started observing the developments in Afghanistan and we realized that things were not evolving well. Our thought was focusing on how we could help. We did not expect the situation to develop so quickly but we expected that there would be a little more time to organize. We also believed that the US government would not withdraw at the end of August but later.
When we saw that thousands of people started to gather at Kabul airport, we decided that we should try it: we are a small organization but for so many years we have been in contact with Afghan communities both in Greece and abroad and we have gained connections. We have also heard directly stories about what the Taliban terror means. Finally, it was also very important that we had key people in various organizations and agencies. So, I thought we should try at least for some very vulnerable cases.
Speaking with Manos Moschopoulos from the Open Society Foundations, who shared the concern but also the willingness to help, he told us that he could secure a first financial contribution, if the Greek government agreed to accept the people from Afghanistan in its territory. The contribution of people like Manos was crucial for the success of the project.
Our hopes to complete the effort
The truth is that we had a recent statement from Minister Mitarachi that Greece would not accept any refugees from Afghanistan, which were in line with other European governments and the EU. So, we were afraid that we would face denial, but we had nothing to lose if we tried. We started some correspondence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it turned out to be a very positive situation that the Greek Embassy there had a number of people who were their associates and whom they had not been able to bring in Greece. Thus, after contacting both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Secretary General for Equality, we concluded that, if we could have a credible plan, with people of increased vulnerability, including those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we could get the permit to start the transfer.
The list and the huge effort for the coordination
In collaboration with Nadina Christopoulou from Melissa Network. The main issue at that point, was to find people on the ground, to coordinate the list. This important role was taken over by a member of parliament from the list, Z.K., a very militant and active personality who is now safe in Greece. Most of the evacuees were in Kabul, but we also had people in Mazar and elsewhere, in a country with very long distances. We finally came up with a list of 151 women, MPs, athletes, journalists, activists. That list, the members of their families were also added, in addition to the embassy staff. By August 20, we had received the approval for this list from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After that we divided them into groups of 40-50 people, so that they could be transported by bus and other means to the airport. In each group there was a focal point, usually an MP, who ensured that all needed papers, passport numbers, etc. were available. All the above needed to be done in complete secrecy so as not to arouse suspicion from the Taliban.
We saw that the situation was deteriorating rapidly, so an actual race started. Luckily, we had the valuable support of the American Εmbassy in Athens. We managed to charter two planes through a Romanian airline company, get the flight and landing licenses – you understand we are talking about procedures unprecedented for us during a state of war – and we managed to schedule a flight for August 26th. The groups I mentioned previously had to move very carefully to the airport, they were carrying nothing but some plastic bags with the absolutely essentials so that, if they were stopped by the blocks, the Taliban would not understand that they were heading to the airport. The women had to be fully covered and appear to be accompanied by men so as not to arouse any suspicion. Imagine an hour-long journey from Kabul to the airport lasted 8 hours because the rest of the country and the perimeter of the airport were controlled by the Taliban who had checkpoints everywhere.
The bomb attacks in the airport of Kabul and the cancelation of the flight
August 26 was a very stressful day. Imagine that there is no such thing as an airplane runway, boarding gates, etc., Kabul Airport was in a state of panic and only military flights were allowed. So, we have this list, the so-called manifest list, with the approved names that must be approved by the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, NATO, the American Minister of Foreign Affairs, because the gates of the airport were controlled by various forces.
The two planes we had chartered from Romania were on their way and stopped in Georgia for refueling. Starting from Georgia, we learnt that the plane of the Greek government was also on a flight from Pakistan to pick up the people on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs list. At that moment, our people, some by taxi, some by bus, some on foot, have started to gather in a hotel near the airport, because for security reasons we only had one hour to wait for each plane. Everything had to be done in a flash.
It was exactly at that moment we learnt about the bombing at the airport. The planes returned and we could not even try again because, in the midst of all this terror, the insurance companies withdrew the insurances that were required to fly a plane and so we found ourselves at a dead end.
Unbelievable, yes. Some of our people managed to leave with flights with destination to other countries because they were already inside the airport and their names were already on the manifest list. Unfortunately, most of them were stuck there. At this point begun the next effort, which was made by land through neighbor countries. A group came out of Iran, but then this possibility was also closed. Some went through Pakistan, but the women MPs feared that Pakistan would be more dangerous for them. Finally, we used the opportunity to escape by road through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where things were a little easier. From there, they traveled to Northern Macedonia and finally to Greece.
Value of the experience.
Obviously, we feel satisfaction and a tremendous feeling of fulfilling the purpose in such a meaningful effort. The day we went to pick up the women and their families from the airport was a day of great joy!
But I do not forget the huge moral dilemmas that such a business entails: okay, there is the parameter that you have a list of specific names that has been approved, but this does not solve the huge moral issue, that by saving these people you participate in a “sorting” of who will be saved and who will be left behind.
Moreover, always having in mind the “do no harm” principle, that during the operation someone can be arrested, injured, or even killed. This is something that keeps you awake at night. I do not want to hide from that along the way we faced some very cynical approaches and a lot of fundraising mentality dealing with the human life. It was an extra sock experience.
In the end, you do what needs to be done to save people, but moral dilemmas remain enormous. And of course, we do not forget that such operations should be coordinated and handled by the adequate authorities. We should be there to help – not to put such a heavy burden on civil society organizations.