They call them ‘Simba moments’. Many times a day, small children become accidentally separated from their parents in the chaos outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and the British paratroopers who find them will hold them high in the air, much like the newborn Simba was presented to his father’s subjects in Disney’s The Lion King.
Sometimes their panicking mothers and fathers will spot them, and these tiny figures will be passed back above the heads of the crowds for an emotional family reunion. But not all are so lucky.
All around you see harrowing, hand-made posters begging for information about missing sons and daughters who could be anywhere in the stinking, rubbish-strewn approach road which is still filled with thousands of people desperately hoping they might be allowed into the airport and on a flight to sanctuary.
Bad as it is, it’s not the outright mayhem it was a few days ago when people were crushed to death and I witnessed bodies covered in white sheets being carried from the crowd.
In part, this is because of the brutal crowd-control techniques used by the Taliban fighters, who now preside over the scene from the tops of the sea containers the paras have installed to create a screening barrier.
Many times a day, small children become accidentally separated from their parents in the chaos outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and the British paratroopers who find them will hold them high in the air
Seeing them standing alongside British troops is surreal, but containing the crowds is vital here and clearing up this evacuation mess requires some lateral thinking in working with the ‘enemy’.
After 20 years of fighting, this is a culture shock for both sides; but a reminder of what the Taliban are capable of comes with their vicious beating of anyone who defies their orders.
Everyone is aware that we are fast approaching President Biden’s controversial troop pull-out deadline of August 31.
With the Taliban issuing blood-curdling threats about what will happen if that deadline changes, U.S. media reports suggest that the President has decided not to extend it.
Boris Johnson announced yesterday that the G7 had agreed a ‘road map’ for future engagement with the Taliban, which will include insisting on the ‘safe passage’ of people who want to leave beyond August 31.
Whether that will be taken seriously remains to be seen. With the window for those who want to flee Afghanistan fast closing, the Sky News team here is in talks with the Ministry of Defence, who are suggesting we should get out while we can.
As someone who has been covering Afghanistan for the past 20 years, I wouldn’t say I’m scared but I’m very unsettled by the chaotic, out-of-control crowds, the volatile relationship with the Taliban and not knowing how they could deal with the evacuation, and the constant threats of IS attacks.
For the moment we remain in a hotel, just next to the airport, which is being used as the British processing centre.
Sometimes their panicking mothers and fathers will spot them, and these tiny figures will be passed back above the heads of the crowds for an emotional family reunion. But not all are so lucky
The grim joke among the international correspondents staying here is that you can see it as either the best military base in the world or the worst Butlin’s.
But we know how fortunate we are compared with those nearby — the thousands of children, parents and grandparents sleeping rough and snatching a few moments’ rest when they can, or simply passing out from exhaustion.
With the rising sun comes another day of roasting heat. There is scarcely any water and no food or shade, only what can be fashioned from scarves or plastic bags.
The other day I met a girl who can’t have been more than 12 or 13 who looked as though she’d been punched in the face, so damaged was the skin around her eyes.
In fact, she was suffering from sunburn. ‘Will my eyes ever get better?’ she asked me in a heartbreakingly plaintive voice.
As the day gets hotter, the mood becomes more agitated. These are people who have already made it through very aggressive Taliban checkpoints.
They know the decisions made about the validity of their claims to leave could mean the difference between life and death.
Stuart Ramsay delivers a vivid and harrowing dispatch to make you weep
The appalling conditions here mean that many will not survive long enough for that decision to be made, particularly the very young and the old.
The stresses on the bodies of pregnant women mean that many are giving birth prematurely and you see many newborns among the crowds, including one I saw being held by its mother in the queue. He or she can have been no more than two days old.
Some of the most horrendous scenes are in what we call the ‘hopeful zone’ — a holding pen for people who might have the right paperwork. Here, they wait next to a sewage canal which acts as a moat between them and the soldiers who can be seen behind a wall on the other side.
The most desperate will step into the stream of putrid waste, waving their documents at the troops and pleading for attention.
If the soldiers see someone with what appears to be the correct documentation, they will drag them out of the canal. But, often, their papers are deemed invalid, and they will have immersed themselves in the city’s effluent for nothing.
This canal was the escape route for one family helped by my producer Dominique van Heerden. She managed to persuade the soldiers that their claim to leave had been mistakenly rejected, but the soldiers were reluctant to let them through the barbed-wire gate leading into the airport compound for fear that others would try to rush through.
Instead, they were forced to enter via the sewage canal, the father ferrying across his children on his shoulders then going back for his wife and mother-in-law. They made it onto a flight later that day.
‘Time is running out for escape’
Aziz spent ten years with British Forces, many of them on the frontline. But he was never as frightened confronting the Taliban on the battlefield as he was when trapped with his young family at Kabul airport.
The former translator was caught in the mayhem with his wife and four children as they tried to reach a flight out of Kabul. Aziz feared his son and three daughters, aged between seven and one, would be killed.
Aziz (right) spent ten years with British Forces, many of them on the frontline
Even after reaching the front of the queue and waiting for entry to the area controlled by the British, he claimed the numbers were overwhelming and he took the ‘heartbreaking’ decision to turn back.
Aziz, 40, said: ‘I feared for my children’s lives. We were exhausted; one passed out and my baby was screaming and vomiting because there was nothing to eat or drink. It was dangerously hot and I thought the risk to my children of staying there was too great.’
Aziz said he was originally turned down for relocation. But that decision was reversed and he received an email telling him to go to the airport for his evacuation flight to Britain.
Unlike others, he did not experience any problems passing through Taliban checkpoints; his brother, a doctor, helped him get through.
Aziz, who told the Mail he planned to try again last night, said he has received five Taliban death threat letters and has twice survived attacks.
He said: ‘The number of people at the airport is intimidating. Everyone fights to reach the front. But we will have to try again because we know that time is running out and the airport may close with no chance of escape.’
Every morning, we wake to dozens of emails asking for such help. Sadly, we know that many people don’t have the valid credentials for getting through but, sometimes, there is something we can do and the soldiers at the airport are genuinely happy to help and listen to our arguments about why someone’s case should be heard.
Many of these young men are barely out of basic training. Only 18 or 19 years old, they are effectively being asked to make decisions about who should live or die and I know from talking to one Army captain that they are being offered special counselling. Even hardened veterans are finding it hard to cope.
One Sergeant Major on his third tour of Afghanistan told me that it is easily the worst thing he has ever experienced. In effect, these troops are trying to deal with a humanitarian crisis in what is one step away from a war zone. I have seen some of them in tears as they make life-changing decisions minute by minute, hour by hour.
I have also been in tears, and what upsets the soldiers — and us — is when we hear our leaders pronouncing that things are calming down, or moving substantially forward, when people are still dying all around us.
Thirst and starvation are but two of the threats. There is also the terrible fear of a suicide bomb attack on the waiting crowds.
We understand that the Taliban command structure is holding but we are talking about an extreme group with extreme members, and it only takes one fundamentalist with no compunction about blowing people up to disobey orders and turn this vision of misery into a scene of bloody carnage.
While that is a very real concern for us and those waiting here, they have little choice but to wait while soldiers slowly try to work through paperwork belonging to thousands of people.
With the U.S. applying stricter conditions of entry, more and more are failing their eligibility test. Even those who have been contacted by the State Department to go to the airport have been denied a flight at the last hurdle.
We met one woman, who had worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and fought through the crowd for a day with her family and elderly mother.
They were allowed through the airport gate, had their documents checked numerous times and spent the night outside sleeping without any food or water, to be told at the last minute that the flight was only for American passport holders.
They were then thrown out of the airport complex and will have to run the gauntlet again, if they can bear to do so.
In the past 24 hours, as the deadline for military withdrawal grows ever nearer, tension has grown. There are still thousands of people waiting to go through the system and there is a sense of panic.
What will that translate to when the troops finally leave? Will those who realise their hopes of sanctuary are about to be dashed once again storm the airport, in scenes reminiscent of last week’s horror as people clung to departing planes, only to plummet to their deaths on the runway?
We will have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the convoys of people carriers, led by armoured cars, which are full of people designated fit to fly.
Some are those who stood shoulder to shoulder with British and American troops against the Taliban, among them Nooragha Hashimi, a translator for the Royal Engineers in Helmand Province.
As he told me, everyone in his community knew of his involvement with the British military and there was no question that he would be killed if he didn’t get his family out.
In anticipation of being air-lifted out by the RAF, his five-year-old twin daughters were in their party dresses, as filmed by Sky camera operator Toby Nash, in which they were pictured on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Mail.
But for those left behind there remains nothing to celebrate — stuck as they are in the purgatory which may yet become a hell.
Stuart Ramsay is an Emmy award-winning reporter and Sky News’s Chief Correspondent in Kabul.