Afghanistan: first flights land at Kabul airport since Taliban takeover

Doha dispatched technical teams to assist airport staff getting terminal up and running again

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Kabul airport is again operational with commercial flights arriving on Sunday from the northern cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.

Two international flights bringing aid and support services for the airport also arrived from Dubai and Doha less than a week after the last US troops flew out of the country after nearly 20 years.

“The airport is open again,” Ahmad Farhad, who works for the General Aviation Awareness Council and handles ground operations, told The National. “I haven’t seen or experienced anything similar to the last few weeks and I am happy we are back to work, happy that the airport is once again up and running.”

On Sunday afternoon, flights from two domestic airlines — Bakhtar Afghan Airlines and Ariana Afghan Airlines — touched down at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The first arrived from Mazar-e-Sharif, the latter from Herat.

While passengers disembarked, members of the Taliban busied themselves putting up new banners, replacing those of the fallen Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with freshly printed Islamic Emirate ones.

Support teams from Doha have arrived in recent days to help run the airport, which is now cleaned of the strewn rubbish and debris left in the hasty international evacuation as tens of thousands of foreign citizens and allies were flown out of the country after the Taliban took Kabul in mid-August.

“This is my second flight under the flag of the [Islamic] Emirate,” said Bakhtar Airlines captain Abdul Qader Alozay, sitting in the cockpit with his first officer.

“Yesterday I flew to Mazar-e-Sharif with 34 passengers, today I returned to Kabul with 16 passengers. I’m glad to be back to flying because this is my passion. I don’t care who is ruling the country, for me, it’s about receiving a salary, especially here in Afghanistan.”

Several passengers arriving in Kabul said they came to the capital to visit friends or to look for ways to leave the country.

Minutes after Bakhtar Airlines touched down on the sunny day in Kabul, Ariana Afghan Airline’s flight from Herat arrived safely. It was carrying about a third of a planeload of passengers, including some Taliban members.

Elhan Rasuli, a 28-year-old woman who had arrived from Herat with her husband, said she had a good flight but had come to Kabul for a specific reason.

“I want to leave the country,” she said, “either to the US or to Canada.”

Outside the airport’s gates, heavily armed Taliban fighters have set up security checkpoints, but so far only male arrivals undergo body and bag checks. There were no female guards to check women passengers due to travel.

Remainders of the last few weeks continue to litter the road between the first checkpoint at the airport gate and the domestic terminal: abandoned suitcases filled with clothes, paperwork, photographs, Afghan flags.

Belongings of those who, in the past weeks, desperately tried to leave their country since the Taliban’s takeover of the capital on August 15.

Tens of thousands have fled the country — either by land or in the hasty international airlift from Kabul airport. The international operation, however, ended with the last US soldiers boarding flights just before midnight on August 31, with thousands still in the country seeking resettlement overseas.

Many fear reprisals from the former government-turned-insurgent force upon their return to power after 20 years.

Western officials have sounded a warning that the Taliban will be judged on their actions in the coming weeks and months as they urge the conservative group to protect hard-won freedom including women’s rights, female access to education and free speech.

Further domestic and international flights are expected over the coming days, with ground personnel hoping all operations will be back to normal soon.

“We’re happy to work,” said Qais Popal, part of Bakhtar Afghan Airline’s flight crew. “Tomorrow we’re going to Kandahar.”

Updated: September 05, 2021, 3:30 PM