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Thousands of men hurried towards Kabul’s international airport on Wednesday evening after a rumour spread that Turkey’s government were organising flights for volunteers to help with earthquake relief.
By 8pm the main road leading to the airport was blocked with vehicles and pedestrians. Taliban security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowds, witnesses told The National.
“Half of Kabul was on their way to the airport,” said Salahuddin, 19, high school graduate who tried to reach the airport with his father, a government employee.
They set off at about 6pm after hearing the rumour, but found themselves stuck at a roundabout near the site of the former US embassy for more than an hour.
Salahuddin said security forces were hitting cars with batons and pushing back pedestrians who were heading for the airport.
Nangyalai, 27, says he too had been convinced to head to the airport by a friend who called at 7pm from outside his home in eastern Kabul.
“My friend called and said, ‘Have you heard, they’re sending people to Turkey? Hurry, let’s go to the airport'.”
Nangyalai said he was hesitant and asked his friend how it was possible to get on a plane to Turkey without any documents or permission but his friend managed to convince him and within minutes they were on the street looking for a taxi to take five of them on the 35-minute journey to the airport.
“Car after car passed but no one stopped. When we finally found one, he was scared to the go to the airport but we said we’d pay extra.”
Nangyalai said the crowds grew larger and the traffic jams increased as they approached the road to the airport entrance.
“Eventually we had to walk but we could hear the aerial fire as we got closer and closer to the airport.”
He said the crowd grew larger as they got nearer. “People were running away from the gunfire then rushing back towards the airport, over and over again.
“We waited for half an hour, constantly trying to move up closer and enter the airport but we saw there was no way. The crowds were too big, there were shots ringing out and eventually we just turned back to go home.”
By 11pm, Khalid Zadran, Kabul police spokesman, released a video urging Afghans not to believe the rumours because they would be turned back before reaching the airport.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Majid also warned people to stay away.
“Some people have spread rumours that undocumented people are being sent to Turkey from Kabul airport, or Turkish planes have arrived and undocumented people are being brought back to that country,” he wrote on Twitter. "These rumours have no truth. Do not enter the airport and do not disturb public order."
By Thursday morning, Facebook users in the country said their feeds were full of people posting old pictures from flights and claiming to have made it to Turkey.
“Friends, I’ve gone to Turkey,” said the caption of one photo showing a man wearing a Covid mask aboard a Turkish Airlines flight.
"Who else is going to Turkey by air?" read the caption of another photo showing a young woman pointing to a daytime sky from a plane window.
The confusion, crowds and aerial fire were reminiscent of the scenes outside the airport in August 2021 as tens of thousands of people sought to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control.
For Salahuddin, the reported recruitment of volunteers offered a second chance to reach Turkey after what he saw as a missed opportunity to do so on the evening of August 15, 2021.
“My friends called me that night saying ‘Hurry, come to the airport’, but my father just laughed at me and now those boys are in Europe and the United States," he said.