August 27, 2021 3:05:23 am
For Professor Sarbajeet Mukherjee, the journey to Kabul airport last week turned from the usual ten-minute drive into an eight-hour journey amid the extreme chaos of evacuation from the Afghan capital as the Taliban took over the country. In comparison, 33-year-old Tamal Bhattacharjee of Nimta in North Dum Dum faced an even bigger 22-hour ordeal on his journey to safety.
Both men managed to overcome the pandemonium in the Afghanistan capital as armed Taliban fighters took over the city at a lightning speed and entered Kabul on August 15. And they managed to get past armed Taliban fighters, and thousands of people, mostly Afghans, who thronged the road leading to the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Tamal and Sarbajeet were among the 168 people who were evacuated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on a C-17 transport aircraft that touched down at the Hindon Air Force Station in Ghaziabad, near New Delhi, on August 22.
The two shared their experience with The Indian Express after returning home, surrounded by relieved family members. Both said the Taliban behaved well with them, and assured them of their safety. Sarbajeet, whose family lives on Jatin Das Road, even expressed a desire to return to the strife-torn country once things settle down.
“We heard gunfire at the airport by US soldiers as well as the Taliban fighters. Every 15 to 20 minutes, warning shots were being fired just to scare away the people,” said Sarbajeet, who was teaching international relations at Kardan University in Kabul.
As usual, the 44-year-old was at his workplace on August 15. But that day, the vice-chancellor of the university came running into his office. “My V-C came running towards me saying, leave the campus and go back home immediately as Taliban soldiers have entered Kabul. By the evening, Taliban fighters took over university’s security and the apartment’s security,” said Sarbajeet, who taught at the Royal University of Bhutan before moving to the war-torn country 17 months ago.
Asked if moving from Bhutan, he said he never felt unsafe working in a conflict zone like Afghanistan until August 15. Then again, things were worsening outside only the airport, he added.
“When you see so many people panic-stricken, and you see your colleagues from Pakistan, Africa, Canada and the United States…leaving the country, it affects you. In the back of my mind, I was anxious but I was initially reluctant to come back. All the chaos was in and around the airport as that was the only exit point for anyone. All other borders are closed and under the control of the Taliban. Apart from the airport, things were pretty normal on the ground. The markets were open, traffic was moving, schools and colleges were functioning, but banks were closed. Only the Afghan forces and the traffic people were replaced by the Taliban,” said Sarbajeet.
He was staying in an apartment in a neighbourhood about a 10-minute drive from the airport. But it was taking people a day to travel from the locality to the airport, added the professor. “It was taking one day for people from my area to reach the airport. As one moved closer to the airport, one could see thousands and thousands of people on the road waiting for their turn to escape the country.”
Sarbajeet got out in one of the eight buses to the airport arranged by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He said there were doctors, NGO workers, and other teachers like him on the buses. Though the Indian evacuees got close to the airport, it took them almost eight hours to cross the crowd and enter the airport. It was at this time that Taliban militants came to question them.
“I was asked who I was, what brought me here, and when they came to know that I am a professor, whom they address as ‘ustad’, they asked why I was leaving. One of them interestingly said they share a very good relationship with Indians and said, ‘Afghan and Hind are friends’. They were speaking in Urdu and English.”
Tears rolling down, Sarbajeet said he hadn’t resigned from the university and plans to return once the situation normalises. “I miss my students, there were so many women in our university, I hope they continue to study. I miss their food such as the Turkish baklava and mehmaan navazi [hospitality]. I love their nature and food.”
Despite the bleak scenes that he witnessed on the road leading to the airport, including the death of one person from bullet wounds, Tamal Bhattacharjee said the Taliban showed respect to him and his companions. “They were soft with us and had respect for ustads,” said Bhattacharjee who taught science at an international school in Kabul for five months before resigning on August 14, along with a friend from Tripura, as the security situation deteriorated.
“The Americans said Kabul would fall in three months but the way Taliban controlled the other provinces we knew they would enter Kabul in few weeks. They entered much earlier than expected. On August 15, I froze in fear as the Taliban took over and the transition happened. I thought that it was my last day on earth,” said Tamal.
He received a call from the MEA on August 18 in which the government told him to stay ready as evacuation could happen any time. The following day, Tamal tried to reach the airport on his own with two of his friends. As he walked towards the airport, he saw several warning shots being fired.
“I saw one person dying with bullet injury just 20 metres from me, but all I knew was I had to reach the airport. I saw several shots being fired in the air. As we were heading towards the airport, they [some Afghanis] told us to back off or they will fire at us; we stepped back and later came to the airport in a bus provided by the MEA.”
On August 20, the Nimta resident boarded the bus with several others and set out for the north gate of the airport. With thousands thronging the gate, the group remained stranded in the vehicle.
Describing the journey as the toughest of his life, the schoolteacher said, “Hitting the north gate was like going closer to death. During our journey towards the airport, the chaos near a petrol pump was horrifying. The Taliban did assure us that they would protect us. We saw babies, tiny newborns in the worst of conditions. People were spending nights on road dividers. The last few hours were the worst. We were stuck in a bus for 22 hours.”
The following morning, Taliban fighters showed up. They took the group to a nearby outpost, where they took their passports and conducted an interrogation. “Later when actually the evacuation started, we were taken to the airport through the main gate, which was much easier and organised,” Tamal added.
Throughout the past week, as the two men went through tribulations, they remained indoors and in touch with their concerned family members via Skype and video calls. Surrounded by his loved ones, a grateful Tamal thanked the Indian government for getting him back to them safely.
“I will take this experience with me to my grave. I think I will live a longer life since I escaped death very recently. I would like to thank the Ministry of External Affairs for evacuating us safely,” he said.
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