Kevin Newman: The people we left behind at the gas station

Despite claims of "miraculous" progress, we are still failing to evacuate our people from Afghanistan

This is the latest reporting we can get from the ground in Afghanistan. Read Kevin Newman’s previous piece on Canadian evacuation efforts in Kabul here.

By: Kevin Newman

In the age-old tradition of large lumbering bureaucracies and armies and reporter stake-outs, this was an excruciating weekend of “hurry up and wait.” Their only shelter in the dusty and brutal Afghan sun was the red, white and blue canopy of a self-serve gas bar. Maybe 10 families who had completed the path to Canadian citizenship were told by government of Canada text to come to this spot late Friday with the promise of a Canadian Armed Forces flight waiting on the nearby airport tarmac.

Each family included an average of 10 people — so make it a hundred — told it was time to leave for Canada. Others followed, and pretty soon there were 500 Afghans at the gas station hoping for rescue. Some in the huge crowd were told to wear red to identify themselves on a list Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) had compiled. One even wore a Roots Canada jacket a soldier had sent over to him years ago. But it didn’t matter. No one from Canada was there to meet them.

After being advised to wear read so IRCC officials could identify him, a hopeful Afghan evacuee wears a Roots jacket that he had been given years earlier by a Canadian solider.

There are no Canadian network or newspaper reporters in Kabul currently, so it is the Afghan interpreters themselves who are our eyes and ears on whether any progress is being made at airlifting them out to safety from the encroaching and threatening Taliban. They have been sharing their frustration on social media and with veterans and journalists they know from Canada’s military deployment that ended in 2014. Eight hours after they received that initial promising text from IRCC, another came telling them the airport had been closed — that there was no chance they could enter the airport from the gas station entrance — and they should leave but take care of their own safety. No one else would. When they tried to move as a group, several Afghans reported they encountered a massive Taliban checkpoint on one side, and former heavily armed Afghan security forces on the other firing above crowds.

For at least another 40 hours they sat at that gas station, trapped in the middle, unable to leave, with no further word from Canada on whether they should attempt to return to hiding, or keep praying for a miracle.

It is impossible to piece together, or understand, why no one from Canada would come out of the military protection of the airport to speak to them over the past two days. Because there must have been a whole lot of talking happening on the safe side of the razor wire barrier separating the Afghans from the terminal. Late Friday, a Canadian C-17 carrying more soldiers and a few diplomatic and immigration staff arrived at Kabul’s military air terminal. They had a plan to work with American forces to get some of the gas station people out of the country. There seemed to be renewed confidence expressed in media interviews by Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino that, finally, things would happen.

Instead the Americans started executing rapid-retrieval missions into Kabul to get their own people out, sealed the entrance where Canada’s gas station people were waiting, and co-operation with Canadian forces seemed to disintegrate.

In the meantime, there was a game of numbers to play. With so few Canadian cases on that C-17 ready to return to a third country, the big grey plane was loaded with Afghans that other countries had successfully brought to the airport. A picture and story was fed to political reporters on the campaign trails in Canada declaring broadly that “106 Afghans have been flown out on a Canadian C17” — but National Defence would not reveal if any of those passengers had been Canadian cases.

According to the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Chase, there had been none on the only other Canadian flight of 175 to leave the airport 24 hours earlier, even as the government boasted of another “success.” For weeks, the prime minister and his besieged cabinet had also been talking about 20,000 refugees coming to Canada. That too was misleading in is vagueness, according to Global News’ Mercedes Stephenson, as all but a handful are coming from outside Afghanistan and even then, it’s over many years.

There is zero evidence from multiple Afghan sources around the airport that any of those the prime minister Canada is “rescuing” (LGTBQ2, human rights advocates, women and journalists) have come from Kabul or any part of Afghanistan in the past month.

With all that, the government continues to claim a C-17 will come and go each day. But do the math. If even a hundred daily Canadian cases make those flights (no where near that many have so far), there is no way the vast majority of applicants will make it here before the window closes for evacuations. Canada’s commitment of men and materials in no way matches the need. So, will Immigration officials confess this to those with no hope of rescue and admit that they won’t get out in time? That number is likely in the thousands. They need to develop a more realistic way to survive the Taliban.

The mystery in this deadly absurdity is the government’s obsession with paperwork. Even today Canadian officials on the safe side of the airport controlling who might get through were reported by eyewitnesses to be taking an “extremely strict” approach to paperwork verification. Only those granted full Canadian citizenship under the government’s Special Immigration Measure are being told they qualify to leave. That requires a lot more work to process and is perhaps less than a tenth of all the Afghans who are known to have applied and are in various stages of completing multiple forms.

Other countries have also been willing to grant refugee status to their interpreters and families, which doesn’t guarantee citizenship, but is it is a much faster way to process many more people, and it gives Afghans more choices should air rescue be impossible. In a news conference, Mendicino claimed his department’s agent in Kabul has authority to overlook the passport and biometric fingerprint requirements. But the evidence on the ground suggests he is being ignored.

As the weekend ended and the brutal sun set, the gas station waiting area was evolving into a humanitarian concern. There were many children, pregnant mothers and the elderly who had gone days without food and water and were losing strength. Some of the single men who were younger, more nimble, and could move alone left the group and made it inside the gates on convoys from other countries and the United Nations. The 10 families guaranteed passage to Canada two days ago were still looking for guidance on whether to stay at the gas station. The IRCC chose to delay sending any more interpreter applicants to flights they might not make. Slowly, and painfully, it was dawning on thousands of poor, exhausted Afghans that the promises Canada was not willing, or not able, to honour the promise to bring them to safety.

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.

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