Ukrainian troops risked their lives to escort 19 Canada-bound Afghans to Kabul’s airport. Vanessa Lee on their heroic effort.
TORONTO – A plane carrying Afghan interpreters and their families landed in Kyiv this weekend, after Ukrainian troops stationed at Kabul airport completed a daring rescue operation on Friday, co-ordinated by The Globe and Mail.
It was a moment these Afghan families feared would never come.
Just days ago, they were desperately trying to escape bullets, explosions and targeted executions.
Jawed Haqmal, a former Canadian military translator, had tried for weeks to get on a rescue flight out of Afghanistan, but it was impossible.
Even though the airport was less than two kilometres away, it was too chaotic and dangerous.
“There was no hope for us because we thought we would be finished,” Haqmal told CTV News.
So Ukrainian troops took a risk others had not, and went to him.
On Friday, after the deadly suicide attack that killed at least 170 Afghans, the soldiers ventured into Kabul on foot to escort two minibuses to the airfield, saving a total of 19 people.
“We are very grateful, because the last one month or two months we didn’t see any American or Canadian or other one come out from the airport because it was so dangerous,” Haqmal said.
“But these guys were angels, they have big hearts. They come out just because of us.”
Haqmal is one of two Afghan translators who will soon be en route to Canada.
Mohammed Sharif Sharaf is a 49-year-old father of five. He worked as a fixer and translator for The Globe and Mail.
“I like to stay in Canada because I work more with Canadians,” he said. “Five years in Kandadar and five years in Kabul with them. So I like Canada, good to settle there with my family.”
It was the Globe who co-ordinated this daring operation with Ukraine, even though they didn’t rescue anyone with ties to that country.
Mark MacKinnon, the newspaper’s senior international correspondent, not only broke the story but was integral in co-ordinating the rescue. He told CTV News Channel Monday that he and his colleagues had tried “everything” to get the translators out of Afghanistan.
“This was an amazing rescue,” MacKinnon said. “We tried many different rescue groups, we had a couple of plans with the Canadian army to get them inside the Kabul airport that didn’t work, we had a plan with the U.S. State Department who was giving us guidance on how to get them in, but that fell apart after the suicide bombings last week.”
MacKinnon said that contacts he had with the Ukrainian presidency and other diplomatic channels came through, and the rescue plan was hatched.
“They said, ‘tell your guys to get into some vehicles, take some pictures of the license plates of those cars and send those pictures to the Ukrainian military,’” he said. “They told the cars to drive near the airport.”
When the two mini-buses carrying 19 people –Canada-bound translators and their families — arrived near the airport, Ukrainian troops left the base and walked through the crowd to surround the vehicles and bring them safely through to where they could board a plane. The evacuees were flown to Islamabad, Pakistan and then on to Kyiv.
“Remember they don’t have any direct connection to these people,” MacKinnon said of the Ukrainian troops. “They were risking their own lives to save these translators and their families.”
Canadian forces had already left Kabul at the time of the rescue and MacKinnon said that the operation may have been Ukraine’s indirect “thank you” to Canada, which has supported the country for the past seven years in its fight against Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region.
MacKinnon, who is based in London but was in Kyiv on assignment, got to reunite with Sharaf, whom he hired for coverage of the Canadian operation in Kandahar back in 2002, he said.
“It was amazing to see Sharif again, to see his family, to get to know them a little over the past few days,” he said.
The route the rescued Afghan translators took may open some doors for those left behind in Afghanistan who were unable to make it onto rescue flights in the few last weeks, as the federal government has promised to take in Afghans who can make their way to third countries.
MacKinnon and The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian government is in talks with Ukraine on whether they would be willing to transport other Canada-bound evacuees to Kyiv, where they can be processed before moving on to Canada to settle.
But the logistics of processing rescued Afghans, many of whom do not have passports and may only have Afghan ID cards, has been highlighted as an obstacle for any further rescue missions, MacKinnon said.
“They arrived here in Kyiv with documents that the immigration ministry…got many Afghan interpreters laissez-passer documents that are supposed to be like a Canadian passport, and governments are supposed to recognize it for onward travel, but it’s a new document” MacKinnon said, adding that customs and border officials have been struggling to interpret the rights associated with them.
“We’re going to test how long this takes, we’re going to see how long the legal process takes here in Ukraine, but I think everybody is very keen to have this work,” he continued. “It might just be a path to things getting better.”
When asked Monday if Canadian troops should have done more to get people out, this was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s answer.
“Canada and Canadians can be proud of the contributions we made in getting out almost 4,000 people,” he said.
Canada and its allies are now left to trust the Taliban at its word – that it will allow foreign nationals and those approved to re-setttle in other countries and to leave Afghanistan.