There were already more evacuation flights, but today the Netherlands managed to get a group of Afghan interpreters and their families out of Kabul for the first time since the Take-over by the Taliban. It is a great success for the Ministry of State, but that success was very difficult due to problems with expired passports and the flight delay.
“Keep your phone close to you tomorrow.” The first sign of a possible evacuation appears a week ago in an app group with some 25 Afghan interpreters. One of the Dutch in the group is suddenly particularly positive, after a few weeks of hopelessness. “You can expect good news tomorrow.”
The interpreters have been hiding for more than a month, most of them in Kabul. They did try to get to the airport when the Americans left the service there, but the crowds did not succeed.
Now they often sit with four or five children in family apartments. They start to complain: everyone has a hard time in economically very difficult times, six or seven additional mouths to feed daily are a heavy burden.
One day after that first positive message, all members of the group are staring on their phones all day long. Around 12.30 pm Dutch time the first will receive a phone call from the Netherlands. He reports that in the group, but if the rest starts by asking for the exact content of the phone call, it stays silent. He even deletes his previous posts.
Then the big wait starts to weigh even more heavily for the rest. And to their frustration, it stays quiet for most. Wednesday morning they are still hoping for a phone call, but the Dutchman who announced the good news on Monday they are told that it will not happen that week. “Theyre only calling on Tuesdays.”
The Lucky Ones
The fact that the interpreter who did get a good message is leaving the group is no coincidence. Foreign Affairs asks the lucky ones not to tell the rest how the evacuation continues. In the app group, at least three people are among the lucky ones, and for them the race against time begins. Within 48 hours they have to stand at the airport with their families for evacuation. To do so, they must have negative PCR tests and visas to enter Pakistan.
latter is a problem. Many of the interpreters have no passport at all. They never had them or they lost it in the crowd around the airport. Others have expired passports, after it has been virtually impossible to apply for a new passport in Afghanistan in recent times. In two of the three families with whom theCCeit was in contact over the past week, this problem affects at least one family member.
The interpreters themselves say that Dutch officials have promised them for weeks that an expired passport is not an obstacle to evacuation, but that turns out to be different. The Netherlands asks them to get their visa from the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) agency. But they dont know about that. And expired passports, they dont accept them.
It is the beginning of an ever-repeating journey from the locker to the wall. Its hard to say where the mistake lies: in Afghanistan near the PIA office (“the employees there are busier drinking tea than working,” an interpreter sighing), Pakistan or in the Netherlands. The fact is that every time the Netherlands reports the interpreters that the problem has been resolved, the PIA staff say they know nothing about it. People with a valid passport get their stamps, people with expired passports do not.
It threatens to pull families apart. One of the interpreters has an expired passport, his wifes passport and two sons is still valid. “They have to leave, Ill stay. My sons are 16 and 14 and are suffering from the Taliban. They go crazy, not school, always hiding inside. I have to accept that we break up. A difficult choice, but at least they will be safe in the Netherlands”, he apts.
He would then follow his family by land later. The report that 58 Afghans reached Pakistans capital Islamabad by land last week makes the stragglers restless. Certainly those without a passport think that the land route, however dangerous, may be more likely to be evacuated than waiting in Kabul.
Whether it has to do with the passport issue is not clear, but late Wednesday evening interpreters will be told that Thursdays flight will be postponed. A reason is not given. “A new flight time is not known yet.”
the same time, the interpreters are asked if they can partly solve the passport problem themselves. The Netherlands would recommend that they call Pakistani ministries on their own. “But Pakistanis look down on Afghans, theyre not going to help us. Were no chance there,” says one ofthem.
Another says he gets an app from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs around this time. “I advise you to see if you can renew your passport,” says. “I sincerely hope that succeeds.”
The app group laughs about it. “If we ask for a new passport now, we might as well be picked up directly by the Taliban,” says one. “Hahahaha, indeed,” another reacts.
Renewing a passport in Kabul requires more than a simple ride to the municipal office. Hundreds of people are lining up to request a new passport. According to unconfirmed reports, former military personnel from the Afghan army have been pulled out of line and arrested. It also warns against attacks by Islamic State.
Even more postponement
Where the flight was scheduled to depart on Thursday, the interpreters are told that it will be Saturday on that day. On Friday they are told that Saturday is unfortunately not successful either, Monday is the new day, and on Sunday it is not going on and the plane does not leave until Tuesday. Thats the day the flight really starts to leave.
Its hard for interpreters. They have to ask their family members every time if they can stay any longer. But in Foreign Affairs, sources say its no different. Reasons are not given, just that it is not up to the passport issue.
The ministry does have every interest in the event that this flight succeeds in the end. In a letter of parliament, Minister Knapen writes on Monday that he wants to have a total of 2,000 people picked up with an Afghan passport. Thats very ambitious, but if it doesnt even manage to make this first flight with interpreters succeed, that ambition seems to be quite a chance. The other way around: if the flight succeeds, there is hope for the rest.
Today, the day of the evacuation, app traffic with interpreters is largely silent. Theyre at the airport. One of them asks if they will be taken care of in Islamabad, if anyone is ready for them. It turns out to be.
The plane was scheduled to leave at 10.30 am Dutch time this morning. Thats about two hours later. The Taliban still make another problem with the expired passports of two of the interpreters, but they too eventually get through it. At 12.30 p.m., the plane finally starts to move on the radar that is certainly followed in the ministries in The Hague. The mission has succeeded.