Desperate Afghan families recount narrow escape from ISIS attack at Kabul airport

Fears for children in crush at gates led two families to leave only hours before terrorists struck

Crowds of people show their documents to US troops outside the airport in Kabul. Reuters
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Barialai Khoshhal, a 21-year-old journalist, fled his home town of Kandahar as the Taliban took over the province, sheltering in Kabul while looking for a way out of Afghanistan for himself and his family.

On Thursday, after waiting near Kabul Airport’s Abbey Gate, they narrowly escaped the bombing and gunfire that killed at least 100 people, including 13 US troops, and injured hundreds.

“The crowds were pushing and my 14-month-old son Danial couldn’t breathe. I was scared he would suffocate, so we turned around,” Mr Khoshhal told The National via Instagram.

His mother and sister hold visas to go to the US, but left with the family when they deemed the queues too dangerous for Danial. A number of people, including children, have suffocated in the crush of people trying to flee.

A few hours later, the attackers struck.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that a suicide bomber targeted “translators and collaborators with the American Army”. The US has vowed retribution and remains on alert for further attacks.

“We’re scared,” Mr Khoshhal, who worked as a photographer and writer in Kandahar, said of his family's narrow escape. “Today we’re not even trying.”

But the family remains adamant about leaving, believing that as a journalist, Mr Khoshhal could be a target for the Taliban.

“We still can’t stay in Afghanistan,” he said. “It is too dangerous.”

As the deadline of August 31 for the US troop withdrawal draws closer – and with it, the end of the window to make it on to any evacuation flights out Kabul – there is growing panic among Afghans seeking to leave. Despite the carnage of the previous day, thousands flocked to the airport on Friday, where a few managed to leave as flights out of the country resumed.

“We’re desperate to leave,” said Zainab Haqio, a grandmother in her 50s who was waiting to enter Abbey Gate with her two grandchildren, Maryam, 2, and Abdullah, 6, less than an hour before the attack.

“The children were tired, sick and exhausted. They couldn’t wait in the crowds any longer, so we left. Our lives are saved and we are at home,” she told The National by phone.

The family had already experienced heartbreak the previous day. After days of trying to enter the airport unsuccessfully, even though their documents showed they would be granted asylum in the US, the children's mother managed to get through on Wednesday but lost Ms Haqio, Maryam and Abdullah in the mad rush.

By the time she realised her family had not made it, it was too late. Soldiers manning the gate refused to let her out, instead motioning her towards a bus that would drop her off at passenger registration.

Hours later she was standing near the runway, crying as she waited to board a plane to Qatar, with a trip onward to the US later.

“We were separated,” she sobbed, tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched her children's passports.

“When will I see them again? What if they don’t make it at all? They don’t even have their passports now. What if they don’t survive?”

A US Marine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said many families were separated while trying to push into the airport, leaving unaccompanied children on both sides of the gates.

Ms Haqio said she was determined to make it through, if only for her grandchildren to be reunited with their mother.

“We don’t have much time left,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. We risk our lives when we stay here, but we also risk it trying to leave.

"Afghans have been tortured for so long. Even as we try to find a better and safer life, we might die trying to do so.”

Updated: February 24, 2022, 5:38 PM