On Aug. 14, a restaurant owner inside the Kabul airport terminal suddenly sold out his entire stock of food, as passengers flocked to the airport. Then he noticed the Afghan customs officers, airport police and other officials changing out of their uniforms and into civilian clothes. Some were looking frantically for seats on the last flights out.
Other changes also came swiftly. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his cabinet fled the country. The U.S. Embassy staff, already slimmed down, relocated to the military side of the Kabul airport. The civilian side and the runway fell under an avalanche of desperate people afraid of the Taliban.
Some of those people had been trying to leave Afghanistan for years. They included Afghans who worked for the U.S. military. When you added in their immediate family members, they numbered around 100,000.
Others knew they were in danger, but didn’t anticipate the Taliban would take all the country’s major cities in less than a month. They included human rights proponents, women activists, and minorities.
Thousands more feared an intensified civil war or a return to the near starvation economy of the Taliban in the 1990s. The pictures of those who died clinging to the landing gear of a departing U.S. military transport plane would become a defining image of the end of America’s war.
Even as U.S. troops with the 82nd Airborne flooded into Kabul and re-established security around the airport, they were also creating a system for keeping people out. This, despite the fact that their mission was to get people in.
The massive airlift capacity of the U.S. military and private chartered planes was separated from the tens of thousands of Afghans mobbing the airport by a few pedestrian gates. A State Department official described it as two bodies of water separated by a straw.
American friends of these Afghans soon came to another realization –- helping America’s Afghan allies escape was down to them. Informal networks of former diplomats, activists, politicians and many, many U.S. war veterans sprang up to help out.
Invoking a legendary Marine
Most Americans, let alone Afghans, don’t know the name Chesty Puller. But every U.S. Marine guarding the gates to Kabul Airport last week knows who he was.
Puller is the most decorated Marine in history, legendary for his leadership in World War II and Korea. Which is why the Marines at the gate perked up when they saw an Afghan family of eight, carrying cardboard signs and walking toward them.
“Word had gotten passed down from the battalion leadership, down to the point man on the ground, to look out for a guy who’s going to be holding the signs that say ‘Chesty Puller,'” said Gus Biggio, who served with the Marines in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.
The father of that “Chesty Puller” family — whom NPR is not naming for the safety of his family — had risked his life to help Biggio and his Marines in the restive Nawa district of Helmand back in 2009. That made him a marked man as the Taliban took over.
However, his application for a special immigrant visa (SIV) had languished, as was the case for many Afghans seeking the right to move to the U.S. in exchange for their assistance to the Americans.
Now he needed urgent help from veterans thousands of miles away in America. Biggio, who was in Washington, DC, connected the Chesty family with a grassroots network trying to locate American citizens and vulnerable Afghans, and get them through the gates of the airport.
Among them was an Army vet named Ben Owen, who runs a data intelligence company called BlackRifle in Georgia.
“I started making contact with them just to see if we could locate them,” said Owen. “So my role kind of spun from the data side, more to managing the family side. I was communicating directly with families on the ground and trying to get them to the gate.”
Coordinating with active duty Marines inside the airport, the family was instructed to make signs that read “Chesty Puller,” and “Teufel Hunden,” meaning “Devil Dog,’ the name German troops used for Marines in World War I. The sign also included the founding date of the U.S. Marine Corps, “10 Nov., 1775.”
If the family could get close enough to the gate to be spotted, it seemed like an irresistible message to the Marines.
“People holding up these signs, about 20 inches square with black writing – amongst the densely packed crowd of similarly dressed people. You can’t help but notice these six white placards,” said Biggio.
While Biggio was waiting for news from his friends, Owen was talking with them by mobile phone, guiding them to the gate. But somewhere in the long-distance game of telephone, the wires got crossed.
“This is a story that repeated a thousand times, we couldn’t get him into Abbey Gate despite having all their documentation. We got them literally within meters of the gate and could not get them in,” said Owen.
The desperate family, on the run from the Taliban, and now unable to enter the airport, headed back into the crowd, with Owen and Biggio assuring them they shouldn’t give up.
The German convoy
As former ambassadors and retired generals worked any source they could to get their interpreters out, journalists, activists and sympathetic private citizens also scrambled to get their former staff and vulnerable friends out of Kabul.
Theresa Breuer, who made a film about Afghan women mountaineers, was one of them.
Breuer had been watching from Germany as the Taliban swept the country. She tapped her connections and raised enough money to charter a plane to Afghanistan, which she arrived on days after Kabul fell.
“I had figured out that there was the option of getting a Qatari escort to the airport, so we thought this was probably the only safe way,” Breuer said.
In a few publicized accounts, the Qataris assisted several buses through the city, apparently with the cooperation of the Taliban.
Working with an Australian film-maker named Jordan Byron, who had stayed in Kabul, Breuer’s group secured dozens of rooms in a hotel and chartered several buses. Their passenger list soon grew to 189 Afghans, including small children and grandparents.
Time was running short as they loaded the buses. It was a week before the American deadline to leave, but rumors of an early departure or a Taliban shutdown of the airport kept circulating. American security alerts would cause gates to be shut, and now the Taliban were clearly in charge of several checkpoints leading to the airport.
The passengers were halfway through what would be a grueling three-day journey to drive the few miles from the city to the airport, when a suicide bomber attacked the Abbey gate, killing 13 U.S. troops and well over 100 Afghans.
That Thursday, Aug. 26, was the day Gus Biggio and Ben Owen instructed the “Chesty Puller” family to try again. Owen guided them to the Abbey gate with their handmade signs, and this time it seemed to be working.
“My understanding is that a team of Marines essentially waded out into the crowd and the best way to describe it is that they went there and they snatched him,” said Biggio.
Owen had been guiding them by phone, and when they made it up to the gate he quickly switched to another family the Marines were trying to help.
“We got them back to Abbey gate and at that point, I went back to trying to deal with other families, because I had several at the time that I was trying to get out,” he said.
Owen was on video chat with the other family, whom he had code named “Stars and Stripes” because they had been dressing their infant child in an American flag. He was watching over the video as the bomb went off.
“For a little while there, I was just an absolute shock,” Owen said, stunned at the loss of life. The “Stars and Stripes” family fled the scene.
“About an hour later I realized “Chesty” was still there when that happened,” said Owen.
He assumed the worst. It was another hour or more before word came through that the “Chesty Puller” family, all eight of them, had made it through the gate to the airport just in time. In reply to a frantic call asking if he was ok, the “Chesty” father replied, “Of course I’m good – I’m with Marines.”
“So when we found out they actually made it in, I cried. I think a lot of us did,” said Owen.
The Germans, again
The suicide bombing not only caused terrible carnage, it seemed to doom the hopes of thousands more who were still trying to get inside. It seemed the Americans might shut down the operation.
“Our bus convoy was roaming about the city for almost two nights straight,” said Breuer. “Our guy on the ground had been up for about 48 hours, defending the buses against people trying to break in, people hiding in the luggage compartment.”
By this time a bizarre process had evolved, with rings of Taliban security around the airport zone, in direct contact with the U.S. troops and diplomats inside the airport. Since most of the translators had fled, communication was a problem.
“We had random [people] come up,” said a U.S. government official on the scene, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We had people who were American citizens, who volunteered to help. I had one guy who was with me for 10 hours. When we brought him and his family in the gates, he said, ‘Hey, you know, I wanna help.’ Imagine being an Afghan, and to volunteer to be the interpreter between you and the Taliban, who they’re definitely afraid of.”
The Afghans on the German convoy were also afraid as the Taliban stopped their bus at various checkpoints. On Friday night, Aug. 27, they reached the second ring of Taliban security, and watched in disbelief as Taliban fighters board the bus and take a list of names. Then they sat at the checkpoint. It seemed the Taliban were cooperating with the Americans to evacuate U.S. citizens only.
“The Taliban had decided that no normal Afghans should leave. The convoy had to turn around because the Taliban pushed the convoy back and then set up a checkpoint with MRAPs,” said Breuer, using the term for huge American-made armored trucks looted from the Afghan Army.
As the convoy looked desperately for other ways in, the U.S. Embassy sent out another alert about a credible threat of attack on the crowd outside the airport. After the bombing, the warning couldn’t be ignored, and the gates shut down. The convoy had no choice but to leave. The families went home or to safe houses, relieved to be off the bus and safe, if demoralized. By the next morning, the organizers of the convoy sent them a sobering note.
“We are out of options,” it said. “There is absolutely no way we can help you to get into the airport anymore. Everything is shutting down there. It is absolutely heartbreaking for us, but you are on your own now. Try to get to a safe place.”
The note went on, “We are so sorry to say that, we did our best, but it was not enough.”
It was two days until the last American troops would leave Afghanistan, and the military had begun transitioning to getting its own people and equipment out. Vulnerable Afghans started fleeing by land toward the borders. Still, the momentum to rescue these Afghans kept building among the informal networks pressuring governments and military officers to make it happen.
“To be perfectly honest, I still don’t really know how everything fell into place. I received mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. Places in the U.S. saying, I heard your convoy didn’t make it through. Let me see what I can do,” said Breuer. “And then the next day, they seem to be a much larger effort and will on the American side of the airport, to assist them, to assist our team.”
If the Taliban says No
Only hours after sending the heartbreaking note, Breuer’s team sent out another to their points of contact.
“There might be a small window to get into the airport now. We are currently trying to organize the logistics,” it said.
Breuer, still inside the Kabul airport, discovered that the coordination with the Taliban had reached a new level as she lobbied American officials for help.
“They said, ‘Well, basically if the Taliban say no, the Taliban say no.’ And it had only on that day become clear to me that the Americans were giving the passenger manifests to the Taliban and the Taliban had to approve them as well,” the documentary filmmaker said.
“It was a very uncomfortable feeling because it makes you think like what will happen to all the convoys that were turned around because the Taliban do have these manifests,” she said.
The weary travelers assembled again, with little more than the clothes on their backs. This time when they approached the Taliban checkpoints, the passenger’s names were already known, and required to match exactly with the manifest from the day before.
In the early hours of Sunday, 189 Afghans left the buses and walked in through the gates of the airport. Four passengers were turned back by the Taliban, says Breuer, and her organization is still trying to get them out.
“I think it’s not for us to feel guilty about who didn’t get in because…it’s the international community that failed the Afghan people,” Breuer said. “Everybody who knew anything about Afghanistan, knew this was coming, maybe not this rapidly, but it was coming and there was no strategy in place to help the people who deserve it.”
For the large informal networks of veterans, it’s hard to feel guilt-free. Many personally promised to help their Afghan partners in the sincere belief that the SIV program would keep their word.
Instead the program was hobbled by red-tape in the decade that it worked. What the Biden Administration has called the greatest airlift in history may have managed to evacuate less than half of the SIVs according to a recent State Department estimate.
Included in those left behind is the “Stars and Stripes” family that Ben Owen was speaking with as the bomb went off
“They are still in. It’s killing me inside,” he said. “My wife has spent hours on the phone with these women crying and praying. It’s a surreal experience. We’re Christian and they’re Muslim and we’re on the other side of the world and we’ve never met, but we’re sending each other pictures of our kids. I can’t even describe the level of gratitude these people have. And we keep failing them.”
The network Owen is part of estimates they helped 1,000 Afghans escape, but he says the story now is about those left behind.