A picture from Kabul airport taken on August 17, 2021 | Photo:  Reuters
A picture from Kabul airport taken on August 17, 2021 | Photo: Reuters

As Western forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August, thousands of Afghans waited at the airport in the hope of being evacuated with them. Some succeeded while others died in the attempt. Now the families of two of the deceased remember their loved ones and the desperation that pushed them to run alongside an American cargo plane as it took off from Kabul.

Videos on YouTube and on most of the major news channels in the last month testify to the chaos and desperation present among many at Kabul airport hoping to flee the country as the Taliban marched in and took over Afghanistan.

But one in particular has the power to make your heart sink. It is one of about nine men clinging to the wheel hub of an American cargo plane as the plane begins to taxi down the runway. More men run alongside the plane. Later, as the plane is already in the sky, at least two black dots fall from the plane, one appears to hit further down the runway, the other remains unclear as the plane banks left and rises still further.

The video was posted on Twitter by George Allison, among others, a "self-described journalist" who writes on a website entitled UK Defence Journal. On the website, he says the journal is staffed by a 'team of volunteers' and that he writes in his spare time and has an interest in defence but is not funded by anyone. The same events were also reported by many others, including Air Force Magazine in the US.

Fida Mohammad

Fida Mohammad was a 24-year-old dentist and he has been identified as one of those who fell out of the plane. Last year, he got married in a ceremony which cost his family about €11,000, according to the news agency Associated Press (AP). He was a man with his life before him, "full of hope," his family told AP.

The young dentist had already opened his own clinic in Kabul when the Taliban marched into the Afghan capital and the previous government fell. At that moment, "all the possibilities for [Fida’s] future seemed to disappear," his father, Painda Mohammed told AP.

It was perhaps these fears, or the wish to repay his family’s outlay for his wedding which pushed Fida Mohammad to try and stowaway inside the wheel hub of an American C-17 cargo plane on August 16. Mohammad wasn’t the only one who tried that. Videos from the day show hundreds of Afghan men clinging to the wings, running alongside the plane as the engines rumble and the plane starts to lumber down the runway.

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Afghans wait to leave the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021 | Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP
Afghans wait to leave the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021 | Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP

Events 'remain unclear'

As AP reports, "more than a month later, much remains unclear about what happened in that tragic takeoff on August 16." However, several mobile phone videos appear to capture at least two tiny dots falling from the sky after the plane had lifted off the ground. The US are still investigating, but according to AP, the crew decided not to unload the cargo they were carrying because of the chaos on the runway and instead took off again.

Fida Mohammad was one of two bodies found on a concrete roof in Kabul, the phone number and name of his father tucked into his pocket. Local media, reported AP, said the name of the second man was Safiullah Hotak.

The man whose roof the two men hit is called Abdullah Waiz. He remembers being asleep when he was "awakened by a powerful noise." At first, he told AP, he thought it was an explosion, but as he rushed outside, neighbors "gestured toward his roof and told him of the bodies tumbling from the sky."

Waiz says he believes the two men may have been holding hands since they fell in the same place. He collected some of their remains on a cloth and carried them to a nearby mosque. "For 48 hours after that, I couldn’t sleep or eat," remembers Waiz.

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Black dots fall from the sky

Although videos show what looks like two black dots falling from the sky, the fact that two bodies were found in the same spot suggests at least a third person may also have fallen out of the plane on that day in August.

The US military has also confirmed that it found "human remains in the wheel well of the C-17 when it landed in Qatar," although they didn’t specify, reports AP, how many people that might be. A young football player died even before the plane took off, crushed by the C-17’s wheels. His name was Zaki Anwari and he was just 16 years old.

Anwari’s brother, Zakir spoke to AP, saying that Zaki, who dreamed of playing football for Afghanistan, was worried that the Taliban would stop him from playing sport and crush his dreams. Zaki went to the airport, recounts his brother, with another brother and a cousin. Zaki was meant to look after the car, while the cousin who had worked for an American company tried to get into the airport.

What will you do in America?

Instead of staying with the car though, Zaki climbed the airport boundary wall and called his brother Zakir, saying he was "inside the airport and soon getting onto a plane." Zakir told AP he pleaded with his brother not to go and asked him "What will you do in America?" But Zaki was undeterred.

Scenes from Kabul airport published by the BBC in August 2021 | Screenshot: BBC News
Scenes from Kabul airport published by the BBC in August 2021 | Screenshot: BBC News


According to Zakir, Zaki then called his mother and asked her to "pray for me. I am going to America." His mother too begged him to "Come home," but Zaki ran alongside the plane as it picked up speed.

AP says that as he was running, Zaki was knocked from the side and fell under the wheel and died. The BBC reported on August 19 that Zaki had not just run alongside the plane but had tried to stowaway in or on the wheel hub and he was one of those who fell from the plane on to the runway. They said his death was confirmed in a statement on Facebook by Afghanistan's Directorate for Physical Education and Sports.

'Rest in peace'

The sporting body wrote: "May he rest in peace in heaven and pray to God for his family, friends and sports colleagues." A follower of the page wrote that Zaki's departure was a "great sorrow" and that his memory would always "be dear to me."

The American airforce are still investigating what went on that day, but have already offered psychological help to the crew of the C-17 as well as personnel who were working at the airport.

For Fida Mohammad’s father though, there is no help at hand. Instead, Painda Mohammed says he has spent "hours imagining his son’s final minutes, the fear he must have felt as the earth below him began to disappear and the wheels swung in, knowing he had no choice but to let go."

When he is not thinking about Fida’s last day, Painda watches videos from his son’s wedding, the man dancing happily to music. Through his tears, reports AP, Painda says, "He [Fida] was a gift from God and now God has taken him back."

Based on an AP feature by Kathy Gannon

 

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