Anguish for Britons left behind in Kabul

Deep anger at UK government among scores of citizens who spoke to 'The National'

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As the reality that he has been left behind in Kabul sets in, the tone of Ahmad Ahmadzai’s voice drops.

“Are you sure they can’t send a bus to get us in [to the airport]?” he asks.

Impossible. There are no British soldiers left; they have gone home, as has the ambassador, Laurie Bristow.

Mr Ahmadzai, a taxi driver from Glasgow, and his family are among hundreds of citizens left behind in Afghanistan after the UK’s evacuation efforts came to an end late on Saturday. He had been visiting family when the country fell to the Taliban.

As crowds gathered outside the Abbey Gate entrance to Kabul Airport last week, Mr Ahmadzai and his family tried to navigate the seething mass of bodies – both Afghan and foreign – all desperate to escape Taliban rule.

As a citizen, Mr Ahmadzai and his dependents were eligible to be evacuated to the UK, but the reality was that even getting into the airport was almost impossible. An automated email from the Foreign Office called them to assemble at the nearby Baron Hotel, but his email stood for little at Taliban checkpoints, and amid the swelling crowd.

“There were chances to get in only for myself. When I just looked back to my kids, I said, 'no, no, I'm not going to try this'. Because they were going to get squeezed and squashed in. I didn’t think I was going to see them alive again.”

On Thursday, under the baking heat, he was wading through the sewage canal that runs parallel to the gate, his seven-day-old baby in his arms and his four other children in tow. His wife had given birth on August 19 – Afghanistan’s Independence Day.

Fearful for the baby’s safety, he had given up for the day, as he had been forced to do the previous five days.

Five minutes later, as he walked away from the Baron Hotel where the UK was processing people for evacuation, a suicide bombing ripped through the crowd, killing more than 160 people, among them 14 US service personnel. Two British citizens were killed in the blast, later claimed by Afghanistan's ISIS affiliate – ISIS-K.

“If I was hanging about for five minutes more, I would have been, I mean, you know, I would have been dead,” says Mr Ahmadzai.

Mr Ahmadzai’s adult life has been bookended by the fall and rise of the Taliban. In 2001, as a 21-year-old, he fled Nangarhar as the US invaded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.

It took him two years to reach the UK, where he faced attempts by the Home Office to deport him. Now, as he tries to work out how he might escape Afghanistan again, he has to deal with the same hardline militants that he fled 20 years ago.

Mr Ahmadzai received his British passport in 2020, almost 20 years after fleeing Afghanistan. His journey was complete, or so he thought. Today he speaks with a thick Glasgow drawl. He recently voted in Scottish elections for the first time. Yet the country he committed himself to barely returned his calls and emails – his email inbox is a mess of automated replies.

I was born in war, I grew up in war and I escaped the war. Now I’ve got to escape the war again
Ahmad Ahmadzai, Afghan-born UK citizen

“I cannot explain the expression which I feel right now, and in the past seven days. The way they treated their citizens – they would barely answer the phone to me,” he says.

“The future of Afghanistan is going to be dark like it was between 1995 and 2001, I can tell.

“I was born in war, I grew up in war and I escaped the war. Now I’ve got to escape the war again.”

The National spoke to more than 40 UK citizens and their dependents, all now stranded in Afghanistan, fearful of the Taliban and exasperated at their government. Many said their calls and emails to the Foreign Office and British MPs had gone unanswered.

Others sat on hold to Foreign Office helplines for hours, building up charges of hundreds of pounds.

They spoke with despair for themselves and for their families, as it dawned on them that the UK’s mission to evacuate British citizens had wrapped up without them. The total number of UK citizens left behind is believed to be more than 150.

There is growing anger in Britain over the evacuation’s failings. On Sunday, it was reported that thousands of emails to the Foreign Office had been left unread, including cases flagged by senior government ministers, while those The National spoke to all said that the Foreign Office phone's lines had failed, or kept them on hold for hours. Several senior figures, including Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, have called for an inquiry into the exit.

The UK says more than 15,000 people have been flown out since August 14. Yet with more than 100 UK passport holders and more than 1,000 Afghans who worked for the British left behind, anger is unabated.

The evacuation of former British Marine Paul 'Pen' Farthing and hundreds of his rescue pets has prompted deep resentment that animals were prioritised over UK citizens and vulnerable Afghans.

Azeem Ibrahim, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute and an expert on UK Foreign policy, said that the UK needed to work out alternative arrangements to help the citizens it had left behind.

“The government urgently needs to come up with a plan to get them out now that evacuation flights have stopped. It needs to step up discussions with neighbouring states,” he said.

As Mr Ahmadzai hides in a friend's house, his fury turns to emotion.

“If I get back, I'm going to tell the whole story. I'm going to show the videos and everything to the world,” he says, his voice breaking.

“I'm ashamed to be a British citizen.”

* Ahmad Ahmadzai’s name has been changed, as he is fearful of Taliban reprisals. The UK government has been informed of his real name.

Updated: August 29, 2021, 6:40 PM