Taliban takeover: British troops feared they would not make it home during the evacuation

Troops reveal the horror of watching children crushed to death as thousands tried to escape the Taliban

Squadron Leader Diana Bird feared she would not make it back to the UK following the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Photo: Channel 4
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British Royal Air Force personnel who helped thousands leave Kabul following the Taliban takeover have revealed how they feared it was one mission too far.

In a revealing documentary being aired in the UK over the next few days, officers speak candidly of the two-week scramble to rescue people from Kabul during Operation Pitting.

The three-part Channel 4 documentary Evacuation exposes the anguish felt by personnel as they desperately tried to help Afghans in August 2021.

Squadron Leader Diana Bird had told her commander she needed as many people as possible on the mission.

“If we’re talking Kabul and the Taliban have taken over and it’s the Fall of Saigon two, I need every single person you can give me,” she told him.

“I was taking 19-year-olds, it was like taking a sixth-form field trip to Kabul. That first night, there was still this peace and clam but my gut told me it was all about to go south and it was just going to get nasty.

“I didn’t anticipate how quickly that was going to happen.”

She had set up an operations centre next to the airport that was soon under attack.

“We heard gunfire outside at the airport and the alarms went off. It was an emotional night, we had been attacked and the Taliban were now in the area around the airport,” she said.

“We didn’t know what the Taliban were going to do and all bets were off.

“I went up on to the balcony and looked out across this sea of people and I thought we are completely surrounded, you cannot fly out of the airfield, nothing can take off or land that is big.

“The Taliban are surrounding the airport so we can’t drive, there is no where to go the country has fallen. I thought I may not be going home, this may have been a trip too far.

“There was an awful lot of gunfire coming from that crowd. If we get overrun now, I’m dead.”

Thousands of people descended on the airport in a desperate bid to leave the country.

People were crushed while others tried to cling to the wings of planes and even jumped into sewers to reach the airfield.

“There were a large number of Afghan nationals at the extreme rim of the airfield,” Parachute Regiment Sgt Maj Adam told the filmmakers.

“The Turkish were keeping them under control. I remember thinking if all of them at one moment decide to break through how can we control this situation.

“I first saw the runway being completely swamped with Afghan nationals and thousands more behind them. The runway was completely unworkable.

“They kept jumping on the wheels and wings, anything they could. They were climbing in through the under carriage. I have never seen desperation like it.”

The scene by the processing hotel was a similar picture and the forces explain how they needed the Taliban’s help to control the situation.

Ahmad Fahim, a private in the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who was born in Kabul, said he had previously been shot by the Taliban and has been in horrific ambushes where he nearly died.

He said he had seen Taliban fighters stopping a bus and randomly taking people off and shooting them dead in the road.

His job was to go and speak to the Taliban to ask if they would let the British get on with the evacuation.

“In that moment, I had to control my feelings and focus on the job to convince them that it was in their best interest for us to [leave] as fast as we can,” he said. “If they want us to go they have to help us.”

The soldiers said it was easier for the Taliban to control the crowd as people feared them.

“Numerous women and children were crushed to death and we were stood there helpless,” said Sgt Maj Gaz McMahon.

Prior to the final planes leaving, a suicide bomber set a bomb off in the crowd. The soldiers interviewed had been in the same spot on a daily basis.

They spoke of the harrowing scenes and seeing children lying dead in the street.

“I have seen some grim stuff and that was grim,” Sgt Maj Gaz McMahon said. “It was absolute devastation.”

The blast killed 170 civilians and 13 US marines.

“The spot where the bomb went off, I was there every day,” Fahim said.

A total of 15,722 people were evacuated from Kabul by the August 31 deadline.

US marine injured during Afghanistan withdrawal gives tearful account of airport bombing

Marine Sgt.  Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was gravely injured, losing an arm and a leg in a suicide attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, becomes emotional as he recounts his story during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the United States evacuation from Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.  (AP Photo / Andrew Harnik)

Sgt Maj Gaz was the last British military person to leave.

“I was the last person to shut the army gate. There were civilians following us and we had to shut the gate in their face and leave them,” he said.

“That bothered me but in terms of seats on the aircraft, we had maxed them out.”

Reflecting on the scene left behind, Sgt Maj Adam said: “We couldn’t save everyone, there were too many people. It was unachievable. We should have gone earlier.”

The second parts of the documentary will be shown on Monday and Tuesday.

Updated: July 03, 2023, 7:50 PM