The six Bangladeshi nationals working at Afghan Wireless had to make several attempts to fly out of the Afghan capital as the Taliban took charge and consolidated their power.
A bomb attack threat scuppered their first attempt to reach the airport. On their second, an attack claimed by the Islamic State killed 169 Afghan civilians and 13 US military personnel.
On their third attempt, the group braved fighting and gunfire to reach the airport and evacuated safely.
Razib Bin Islam, a member of the group, gave an account of the harrowing experience to bdnews24.com.
Razib, an engineer, oversaw the PBX network and Contact Centre of Afghan American company Afghan Wireless, the top mobile phone and internet service provider in the country.
“We always believed we could get home if we could just get to the airport,” Razib said.
“We never lost our courage.”
Razib joined Afghan Wireless in 2007. Initially, there were many Bangladeshis working at the company, but only about nine were employed there at the time of the Taliban takeover. About a hundred other foreign nationals worked at the company.
When the Taliban approached Kabul in August, taking nearby provinces one by one, Razib and his colleagues were still at work. On Aug 14, as the situation deteriorated, the company decided to move its foreign staff out of Afghanistan.
It booked Emirates Airlines tickets for six Bangladeshi members of staff, including Razib, to leave on Aug 16. As they were taking their COVID-19 tests for the trip, Kabul airport suspended all commercial flights.
“We got our negative COVID-19 test results around 7.30pm on Aug 15. Just after that we received a message from Emirates Airlines informing us that all their flights from Kabul had been suspended,” Razib said.
The Taliban took over Jalalabad, a prominent province in the east, on Aug 15 and surrounded Kabul. They began to enter the capital later that day.
To avoid any bloodshed, the Afghan government announced a ‘peaceful handover of power’ after the insurgents entered.
“On the afternoon of Aug 15 we began hearing reports that members of the Taliban were seen in different parts of the city. Panic gripped us all, including our local colleagues,” Razib said.
People from different provinces took refuge in Kabul in a bid to save themselves from the war between the Taliban and the Afghan forces, Razib said.
“People of all age groups, including children, took refuge inside the city, believing it would take time for the Taliban to capture Kabul and that Afghan forces would confront them as the presidential palace is located there.”
Razib and his colleagues were scheduled to leave Kabul for home on Aug 16, when thousands of Afghans descended on the runway at the Kabul airport.
“We realised that, in that state, no flights could land there, let alone take off,” Razib said.
“We thought we would wait until the situation at the airport became normal.”
A FUTILE ATTEMPT TO RETURN HOME
After commercial flights were suspended, 14 Bangladeshi nationals, including Razib were scheduled to be sent home alongside some 160 Afghan students of the Asian University for Women in Chattogram aboard a special flight.
On Aug 25, the Afghan students and the Bangladeshis set off for Hamid Karzai International Airport. But, despite crossing several barricades and enduring a long wait, they were turned back. The US and UK had issued a warning of a possible attack at the Kabul airport.
The following day, they made a second attempt to enter the airport.
As the civilian gate on the west side of the airport was closed, the only possible entry was through the military gate on the east.
The group of 174 started for that gate in seven buses. The first time they were stopped on the way was at a Taliban check point. They were allowed to pass but they still needed permission from the US forces at the next checkpoint before entering the airport.
“We hung around the gate in an attempt to reach the airport. It wasn’t easy. They wouldn’t let you in just because you reached the gate,” said Razib.
In addition to the Afghans, many foreigners were also turned away from those checkpoints, he said.
“Since we had Afghan students with us, and we were a large group, we needed a slew of permissions. They wouldn’t allow us in due to security reasons.”
The group then received an order to go to the commercial entrance. Authorities told them special permission had been granted to open that gate for the group, Razib said.
“We drove for half an hour from the gate at the back of the airport towards the front.”
When they arrived, they heard there had been an explosion at the gate they were at just a half hour ago.
”We were told to stay a safe distance away as gunshots could be heard around the airport.”
Some of the gunshots were distant, but others were too close for comfort, said Razib.
“We couldn’t move forward as there were blockades on the road in front of the airport. We parked our buses on the side of the road and waited. We thought we could move towards the airport again when the blockades were removed,” he said.
“But we never got off the bus. The gunfire continued for four to six hours. We were afraid to get off.”
At one point in the night, the buses were asked to move towards the commercial gate, but they could not go very far.
“We tried to reach the gate, but there were roadblocks. They eventually turned our buses away because of the security situation,” said Razib.
“At around 10:30 that night we returned to the previous point where we had parked and stayed on the road hoping for the roadblocks to be removed. We could try again after two or three hours had passed, we thought.”
At least five of the seven buses carrying the group tried to return to the road. But the drivers of two of the buses were afraid of the gunfire. They did not want to drive to the airport at night any more.
That night they returned to the compound where they stayed. On the road they faced interrogation by the Taliban.
“There were barricades at different points of the road and our buses were stopped. At one place, members of the new ruling party (Taliban) got on the bus and asked who we were and where we were headed. After we provided our identity, they let us leave and we returned to our compound.”
RESCUED BY A US FLIGHT
Razib and five other Bangladeshis, along with several other Nepalese colleagues, separated from the Afghan students and headed off to the airport the following day, Aug 27.
Razib’s companions included Md Kamruzzaman, a director of the Afghan Wireless BSS and RS department, Md Nazrul Islam, senior manager of power operations, Imran Hossain, senior microwave engineer, Abu Zafar Md Masud Karim, assistant manager of radio frequency and Sheikh Farid Uddin, a power supervisor.
“The six Bangladeshis from our company, and several other Nepalese colleagues went to the airport the next day, showed our passports and documents and were allowed to enter,” Razib said.
“There were US Army personnel inside, we approached them and told them we were Bangladeshis with passports who worked at a mobile phone company there. They then accommodated us on their next flight.”
Carrying almost 600 passengers, the plane was initially supposed to fly to Germany but later changed destination to Qatar’s Doha and landed at a US military base there.
Upon reaching Doha that afternoon, they were able to contact Dhaka through Mashfee Binte Shams, secretary (east) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After spending nearly 24 hours at the base, they were greeted by a Qatar foreign ministry official who accompanied them to the Hotel Hyatt Regency in Doha.
Razib and the others stayed at the hotel for a couple of days before Afghan Wireless arranged their tickets home.
On the night of Aug 31, they flew from Doha to Dhaka via Dubai.
Despite facing such ordeals to make it back safely, Razib said the group had been eager to help others.
“We thought we’d be able to contact the foreign ministry or whoever we needed to get in touch with once we entered the airport. We thought we’d be able to do something, one way or another.”
Although Razib and his colleagues are continuing the work for their company online for now, uncertainty looms over a return to Afghanistan.
“We were able to get back to our home after overcoming these trials. Now we are working from here and will keep doing so unless a new government is formed and the situation returns to normal.”
“Later, when our government and the company feel that things are under control, when colleagues from other countries decide to return… we might join them and continue working there.”
AFGHANISTAN’S QUALITY OF LIFE
During his 14-year stay in Afghanistan, Razib witnessed the country’s progress first-hand and thinks the life there is quite normal.
“Their quality of life is of the usual standard. Most of the time they are a peace-loving people and do not appreciate war or conflict. No one actually desires war.”
According to his accounts, the educational institutions, and the position of men and women at workplaces and their attire reflect that of a moderate Muslim nation like Bangladesh.
Razib said the men and women in Afghanistan choose dresses according to their social situation while women generally wear a hijab.
“I’ve also seen conservative communities, they wear burqas, which is also popular in our country. These are very normal things.”
“On the streets, boys and girls move about freely, similar to what ours do in our country. They are not too different from us in terms of quality of life.”
The Taliban have recently said that if women continue to work and study, it must be according to the Islamic Sharia laws.
“As this group takes power, people are a bit anxious about whether the people, the women in particular, will be able to move freely, go to schools and colleges and workplaces like they used to before,” Razib said.
He thinks the issue will only become clear once the Taliban government starts its regular work.
“But from what I’ve come to know from colleagues there, women have been able to join some private firms and the media.”