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Afghans rush to Kabul airport as Turkey earthquake rumours spread

Thousands of Afghans hoping to go to Turkey to take part in earthquake relief work were turned back by Taliban guards
A Taliban fighter walks across the tarmac at Kabul Airport, October 2021 (AFP)
By Ali M Latifi in Kabul

On Wednesday evening, Habib received a call from a friend telling him to head to Kabul International Airport.

Turkey was asking for Afghan volunteers to help with the 7.8 and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes that struck the nation and its neighbour Syria on Monday. Here was a chance for Habib to leave Afghanistan.

'There were Taliban everywhere, saying, 'Go away, go home. Nothing is going on, why are you here?'

- Habib, Afghan trying to leave for Turkey

Hesitant at first, the 32-year-old law graduate decided to try his luck. He called his older brother to come along.

“I knew my nephew had been trying to leave the country, so I called them and told them to grab their passports and IDs,” Habib told Middle East Eye.

Soon, the three men and several friends of theirs were off to the airport, only a 15-minute drive away, along a newly-constructed road near their house. But as they approached the final turn leading to the roundabout in front of the airport, things changed.

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“There were Taliban everywhere, saying. ‘Go away, go home. Nothing is going on, why are you here?'" Habib said.

The group of seven men, ranging in age from 18 to 42, were travelling in two cars and were constantly receiving calls from their worried families at home. “My mother called me freaking out, saying, ‘Turn around, what if they send you to Syria instead?’”

Meanwhile, Taliban security forces fired shots into the air as they tried to disburse the waves of people and cars approaching the airport.

What ultimately did convince them to turn around was when a Taliban member approached their car and showed them a video from inside the airport, with empty planes sitting on a clearly inactive tarmac.

But thousands of others, mostly men, did not get the message and continued to try to head to the airport late into the evening.

Zalmai, a guard at a bank along one of the roads leading to the airport, said he saw crowds of young men coming and going until nearly midnight.

“They kept coming, 10, 15 at a time, asking which way to the airport,” he said.

Habib said there were similar crowds of people heading towards his neighborhood all through the night. “It was clear they had been driven away by the Taliban, they just kept running in this direction,” he said.

Witnesses outside the airport and the roads leading to it said the Taliban were firing into the air and even hitting people with the butts of their guns to get them to disburse.

Finally, at around 11pm local time, Khalid Zadran, Kabul police department spokesman, issued a video statement warning people not to fall for “rumours” about Turkey seeking Afghan volunteers.

'Why aren't you in Turkey?'

By Thursday morning, the crowds heading to the airport were the talk of the town.

Everyone from delivery workers for restaurants to bridal shops and shoe cobblers were either recalling stories of friends’ botched attempts or making jokes, asking one another, “Why aren’t you in Turkey?”

The same kind of thing was being posted on Afghan social media. A former Taliban general posted a satirical video on TikTok, in which he can be seen laughing and saying, “Brothers, there is no Turkey, no Bangladesh, no Punjab… Where do you think you’re going?” 

But despite the Kabul police statement and a similar one issued by Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, some in the capital still believed that people did make it out of the country.

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Zalmai, the guard, said he heard that 13 planes departed with at least 5,000 people on them. A day labourer outside one of the city’s biggest mosques said he had heard about the flights but didn’t go because "the Taliban only sent their own people, what good would it be to try and go?”

Though no Afghans were actually dispatched to Turkey, the Taliban government did do its part for the earthquake relief. Earlier this week, the Afghan foreign ministry announced it was sending $165,000 in cash aid to Turkey and Syria.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan... announces a relief package of 10m Afghanis ($111,024) and 5m Afghanis ($55,512) to Turkiye and Syria respectively on the basis of shared humanity and Islamic brotherhood,” the Tuesday statement read.

Afghans themselves have also been affected by the earthquakes. At least 200 Afghans are reported to be among the 21,000 who lost their lives in the quakes.

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