Kevin Newman: The canal where the bomb went off was the only way out
We don't yet know whether any Canadian-bound interpreters were killed in Thursday's bombing in Kabul, but that's where we sent them.
The site of a sewage canal filled with Afghans desperate to flee the country prior to Thursday’s explosion. Canadian cases were advised to wear red.
CORRECTION: An earlier headline on this article was inaccurate. The fault remains solely with your Line Editors. It has been corrected and this file re-sent. We regret the error.
By: Kevin Newman
The only way out of Afghanistan for hundreds of approved immigrants to Canada was through a sewage canal bordering the Kabul airport. On Thursday, an explosive device was detonated at that site.
A day earlier, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada had alerted by text dozens of families to head to the Baron Hotel, and to join a huge line that spilled into the swamp — the only route that got them close to the Abbey Gate, the entrance to the airport tarmac, and a waiting Canadian Armed Forces plane.
Until early Wednesday, soldiers from Canada had joined other nations guarding that canal. Then they left and, according to eyewitness texts and images, were replaced by armed Taliban fighters.
And so the refugees waited, until late last night when Canadian visa holders received a mass email from IRCC.
“Because of security threats outside the gates of the Kabul airport, we are advising you to avoid travelling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time,” the email read. For those already waiting outside the airport “we recommend that you leave and find a safe place to stay.”
Trapped in this no-man's land between the hope and freedom of a flight to Canada on one side, and Taliban checkpoints and beatings on the other, we do not yet know how many of our former interpreters and staffers took — or could take — this advice.
I have been receiving and verifying images and eyewitness accounts of what has been happening at the airport for days from a Canadian network of veterans and journalists and aid workers struggling to help these people escape from Afghanistan these past weeks.
Today the images are sickening. That network has been desperate to find out if any Canadian applicants were still in the swamp when someone blew themselves up.
Sometime on Wednesday, the soldiers guarding the canal were replaced by Taliban fighters.
Barely an hour before the bomb went off, the Chief of Canada’s Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, revealed that the airlift of mostly Canadian passport holders and connected Afghans had ended, and that a “very small” contingent of Canadian Armed Forces personnel had been left behind to share intelligence.
Aghans trying to flee the country show their Canadian passports.
From two other officials representing Global Affairs Canada and Immigration and Refugee Canada on the remote conference call for reporters, there was no contrition, not an ounce of empathy expressed for the thousands left behind. They insisted they couldn’t provide a precise count of how many of their applicants were now trapped in Kabul with no hope of immediate rescue, even thoughmost other allies can, and share them with their media.
“We offer our deepest regret to all those who have stayed behind in Afghanistan” the IRCC spokesperson read dispassionately from a prepared statement. General Eyre was asked whether Canada had left too many people to die. His response was tinged with anger. “We have to remember the Taliban are responsible for this crisis. Put the blame on them please.”
But the general should know first-hand it’s much more complex than that. The family of one of the interpreters he worked alongside in 2006 during Canada’s military mission has been caught in Canada’s haphazard, late, and at times blatantly cruel handling of Afghans.
This interpreter — whom I’ll refer to as “Abdul” to protect his life and that of his family — has been in regular touch with our volunteer veterans’ network, and is desperate to help his family.
Abdul was one of the many young Afghans paid to help soldiers, journalists and aid workers understand their culture, tribal politics, and multiple dialects. He was eager to be exposed to Westerners and, like many, bonded with the Canadians he met. The connections forged in dangerous and disastrous places are some of the deepest human experiences, and the loyalty that blossoms from it is never broken.
Abdul was rewarded for his service and offered passage to Canada — but only for himself, as per the Harper government’s restrictive immigration program, which brought in about 800 interpreters and local staff who had lengthy contracts with Canadian entities.
Eventually, he says, he was able to sponsor his brother for citizenship, and the two men worked hard for years to reunite with their wives, children, and extended family. It was only in recent weeks that the Trudeau government finally bowed to pressure to create a new path to citizenship for them. Before that, Abdul and his brother (we’ll call him Sayed) were ignored.
Sayed, who was also an interpreter for the Canadian military, went back to Kabul carrying his Canadian passport when he heard immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announce a way for families to be reunited back in July. He applied for his wife and children in Kandahar, and also for his brothers and sisters and their families. Typically, Afghan families are large and members live in the same houses. When the Taliban reached and retook Kandahar, Sayed moved his whole family to Kabul and into safe houses that had been established and financed through generous donations of private Canadians through the charity Veterans Transition Network (donate here). They hid there for days as Kabul quickly fell to the Taliban.
What happened next to Sayed, his wife, children, brothers and sisters was typical of the Canadian government’s un-coordinated and unsophisticated response to this crisis. They had applied as a family for immigration to Canada, but their applications were approved individually.
This meant families were separated by Canadian officials and soldiers on the ground. Just as Donald Trump’s border agents did to families at the Mexican border, they were given an impossible Sophie’s Choice: send the members of the family approved to come to Canada and leave the others behind, or stay together and miss what may be their only flight to safety.
Who does that to people fearing for their lives? Canada did.
Sayed made a desperate appeal to a woman representing the IRCC at the entrance to the airport, a person who was deciding who had the appropriate paperwork to leave — and who didn’t. A Canadian soldier tried to help out, putting Sayed’s extended family before this woman. She said only those with full IRCC approval could pass, but breast-feeding mothers with incomplete paperwork could too. That included Sayed and Abdul’s sister, but not her two older children and husband. Or anyone else.
So Sayed, his wife and children and sister chose to board that final Canadian C-17 jet out of the hellhole in Kabul Thursday. When they landed in Qatar, they heard about the terrorist attack in the swamp, and watched the horrific videos of carnage at the blast sites on their cellphones of where they had just been standing hours before. At the time I am writing in the quiet of Canada, there is no word from Sayed or Abdul whether their sister’s children and the rest of their family were there when the bomb went off.
I will never understand why it was so hard to quickly extract 2,000 people whose loyalty to Canada was obvious when they risked their lives to help save some of ours. Why an entire immigration ministry was so heartless and clued out. Or why Canada’s Armed Forces performed only a few days of extraction missions into Kabul for Canadian citizens and “high-value targets” of the Taliban, and left it completely to private Canadians citizens to try to arrange safe passage to the airport for the Afghan interpreters we know. We all let them down. I include myself.
The government’s message has remained the same as the nightmare unfolds. Only a few days ago, Mendicino called our efforts to date “nothing short of miraculous."
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has also been asked, repeatedly, about Canada's response to Afghanistan on the campaign trail.
“It is an extremely difficult situation, but I can assure you that I, and our ministers, and our government is working extremely hard to ease all the barriers, whether they be around paperwork or bureaucratic, to ensure that people are getting out of there as quickly as possible and to safety,” he said last week.
But some Canadians know other people who understand what it means to really try. We’ve been hearing from them for weeks. They are now completely abandoned to their fate. Soon we can expect to hear if some of them are now dead.
Kevin Newman is a retired journalist who reported from Afghanistan. He has been helping the veteran volunteer network trying to save their interpreters and families.