BOUQUETS FOR THE IAF
'When I stepped on Indian soil, I lay down on the ground and kissed my homeland.'
We do not have any direct air-route to go to Afghanistan. The shortest route is through Pakistan, but, as always, Pakistan is a big hurdle in this. That's why Indian planes have to take a longer route and go via Iran and one has pay heavy costs for flying over any country and using their Airport. Each sortie runs into lakhs of rupees.
For this, GoI first obtained approval from Iran for using its airspace for IAF aircraft. Getting this approval was not such an easy task because no country allows its airspace to another country and that too for a military aircraft. But the Indian government was successful in getting this permission from Iran at very steep charges. Even after obtaining this permission, there was another issue that Indian planes could not land directly at Kabul Airport. This is because India's relations with Taliban have never been good. Therefore, the Indian government could not rely on the Taliban enough to keep the IAF plane safe while parked there for a long time. Moreover, in view of the chaos and huge crowds at Kabul Airport, it was not possible for Indian planes to remain there for long. To solve this problem, the Government of India found another way. For this, it made arrangements with the airport of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan’s neighbour on its north-east. Once again Indian diplomacy was successful and the IAF got permission to use Kazakhstan airport, again involving huge costs.
GOI also had another problem at hand, of how to transport Indians to Kabul airport because after its capture by the Taliban fighters, they had set up numerous check posts & barricades at many places and they not only searched every person minutely but also harassed them on the way to Kabul airport. It was not possible for Indians officials to gather evacuees at Kabul airport for long duration due to the chaos at Kabul airport.
Eventually the Indian authorities found a solution for this too. They arranged a large garage near the Kabul airport, where they could assemble and house around 150-200 Indians at one time.
Now, Indians are first gathered in the garage everyday and this work of gathering Indians goes on day and night. For this, the Indian officers themselves take their cars and reach the place where the Indians are staying and bring the evacuees along with them to the garage adjacent to the Kabul airport, while struggling & bearing the heckling of the Talibanis at the numerous check posts on the way. When enough Indians have been gathered in the garage, the information is passed on to the Indian Air Force officers stationed in Kazakhstan and the US officials stationed at Kabul Airport. It is noteworthy that the ATS control and security control of Kabul Airport is still in the hands of the US Army. After this, clearance is given by the US Army to land the IAF aircraft at Kabul; it flies from Kazakhstan to Kabul Airport. By the time IAF plane reaches Kabul, all the Indians from the garage reach inside the airport in the US Army vehicles. They are immediately taken into the IAF plane and within 15 minutes, the aircraft starts its journey back to India, again via Iran with the rescued Indians onboard.
The IAF has once again come to the rescue of stranded Indian people as well as those of numerous countries in an exemplary manner. It has shown the world why it is so highly rated. It is terrifying to think of what could have happened in Taliban controlled Afghanistan had they not evacuated people amidst extraordinary hostility. We salute them!
On August 15, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Shirin Pathare was on the tarmac of the airport seeing off an Air India flight to India. Little did he know what was to follow. In his own words:
I reached Kabul for the first time in October 2020. It was chilly weather and I could see icy mountains. People were very nice and everything was so good for me because I was the security head for Air India's Kabul flights. It was a very important posting for me.
A month after my reaching Kabul the peace talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban, the US, Turkey and Qatar got derailed. Around that time news came in that all American forces will withdraw from Afghanistan from May 2021. There was not much violence in Afghanistan then except sporadic incidents. The only incident of violence I recall was when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan came to Kabul in the last week of November. After he left, there were explosions in Kabul. I was traveling on a tricycle rickshaw at that time and saw rocket launchers being used openly. I saw 24 rockets launched in front of me. I could not believe the daring of the attackers.
By February the Indian embassy in Kabul issued a no-go alert to Indians living in Afghanistan -- asking us not to travel at night or travel to unsafe locations -- due to an increase in kidnapping incidents.
The Biden administration's announcement that the US forces would leave Afghanistan by August 31, 2021 aggravated the violence from the Taliban side. The violence started in March and it was brutal. In May, the Taliban surrounded Kandahar. They surrounded the city from all sides and cut off the supply routes by road. This led to food shortages, leading to the Afghan forces' surrender.
The Taliban followed this up in Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif. When they captured Mazar-e-Sharif we realised that Kabul would be next as it is only 425 km away. On Eid I saw rocket launchers being aimed at the location where President Ashraf Ghani was attending prayers.
On July 29, I lost my father in Mumbai. After the last rites, I went back to Kabul on August 12. When I arrived in Kabul, my friends asked why I had returned. I said it was my duty to come back. If I didn't return, who would operate the Air India flights in Kabul? On August 13 and 14, the Air India flights were full. On August 15, I called my wife and children and wished them Happy Independence Day.
At 11 am, a colleague came rushing in. He said the Taliban were only 11 km away from Kabul airport. I was leaving home and till this day I wonder why I did not take my passport with me to work that day. If I had taken it along, I would have been in India on August 15 itself.
On August 15, AI 244 -- the Air India flight from Kabul to New Delhi -- had a full load of 160 passengers. I realised only 35 passengers had checked in. Slowly, more passengers started coming in and soon there were 100 more passengers. One of my colleagues showed me a video on his phone. In the video, I could see the building where I stayed under attack. The Taliban had surrounded the building.
I knew I could not show my distress to the passengers. I am the security chief and I had to put up a brave front. I asked all my staff not to see videos on their mobiles. All mobiles were to be switch off. 31 passengers could not reach Kabul airport for the flight. I told the flight commander about the situation. He told me to leave Afghanistan without my passport. I said, 'No.'
He asked, 'Why not?' I told him I had seen Kaala Pathar in my childhood. In the movie there is a scene where Amitabh Bachchan, the captain of his ship, abandons it to reach safety. When he gets up the next morning, he sees the ship is intact. He is dismissed from service and lives all his life in guilt. I told the Air India captain that I do not want to live in guilt. I told him I don't want to be called a bhagoda (coward) all my life.
'Aagey aap ki marzi (as you wish),' the flight commander said. If there is a God, I responded, then he will save me.
Qatar Airways, Pakistan International Airlines, another small PIA plane were all on the tarmac, but were not taking off as they had not got the green light. Qatar Air was a full flight and was waiting for three hours on the tarmac with 300 passengers inside the plane. I wondered what was wrong, why were these flights not taking off? Luckily, by 4.30 pm, the Air India flight got the chance to take off from Kabul airport. And this was the last flight to take off that time.
I did not leave the airport till I saw the Air India flight up in the air over Kabul. Within minutes of the Air India flight taking off, Taliban fighters reached Kabul airport. Firing started. At 5 pm, the message came that nobody could leave the airport. Worse, our driver abandoned the car and fled. All our friends at the airport too disappeared within minutes.
Luckily, I met a protocol officer of the Indian embassy at the airport. He too was stuck in the melee. He called the embassy. We managed to arrange a bullet-proof car. I told the driver not to stop anywhere and drive to the Indian embassy which was only five km from the airport. When we reached the Green Zone, which is always heavily guarded as most embassies of the world are located in Kabul, it had no guards. There was no one. It was 6.30 pm. I decided to go back home in Kabul and pick up my passport. I wanted my passport because it had American, Canadian and UK visas. To get those visas again would be a big problem. I arranged for another car with the help of an Indian friend. He arranged for a car with three Afghan locals. One was from Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.
At 7.30 pm, I entered my building. The owner of the flat told me the Taliban would enter any moment and I would have to vacate immediately. He gave me 15 minutes time to pack up and leave. I left most of my luggage behind and exited. At that time, the coordination between my heart and mind had stopped functioning. I was numb. I could see Taliban on the streets. People were running on the roads with household supplies. I asked my driver what are they taking. The Afghans told me to keep shut and not open my mouth till we reached the Indian embassy.
I prayed to God, my mother and my kuldevi. My blood pressure started shooting up. Our car was stopped by the Taliban outside the Canadian embassy. There were 15 of them. They had guns and rocket launchers. It was 8.30 pm. I took my wife and children's photograph out of my pocket. I felt perhaps this would be the last time I would see them. I was not scared of the Taliban, I was more worried about the ISI. I felt what happened to Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui could happen to me. The three Afghans whom my Indian friend had sent along with me were messengers of God for me.
They spoke to the Taliban and did some smooth talking. It was dark so the Taliban could not see our faces.Since it was dark the Taliban soldiers did not find out I was Indian. The car halted for 20 minutes and every second was a matter of life and death for all of us. I sat still. I thought each breath would be my last breath.
While talking to the Afghans, a Taliban fired in the air. I thought this is it, my life is over. The driver then got out and started speaking to the Taliban. Luckily, at that very moment, a top Taliban commander's convoy was approaching the area. All of a sudden, the Taliban uttered one word in Pashto, which I will remember all my life: 'Burro'. It means 'go away.' Without wasting a second, we left for the Indian embassy.
I ate dinner at the embassy and tried to sleep, but could not sleep. I didn't know at that time that one more huge hurdle was left for me before reaching India. On August 16, we stayed in the embassy. The Taliban created a hostage kind of situation where no one could enter the embassy and no one could leave the embassy. We thought we were going to be stuck in the embassy and there was no way we would leave Kabul until a new government was formed.
I called my family on August 16 and told them that I was alive and not to worry. There were roughly 150 Indians in the embassy on August 16. At 9.30 pm on August 16, the embassy got a message from the Taliban that they would let us travel to Kabul airport. By 10 pm, we got ready to leave. The Taliban looked at us as if we were specimens from another planet. Four vehicles with Taliban escorted us. One was a pilot vehicle, another vehicle was in between, the others were behind our convoy.
There were 20 Land Cruisers and 150 Indians had to fit in them. It is a 20 minute drive from the Indian embassy to Kabul airport, but it took us five hours to reach that night.It was the worst journey of my life. Every now and then, Afghans used to jump on our convoy and the Taliban escorting us started firing in the air to disperse the crowds. I have no idea whether they were good Taliban or bad Taliban, but they were very nice to us.
After 2 am, we reached Kabul airport. We entered through the Turkish gate and not through the normal gate where Afghans were gathered in huge numbers. They wanted to escape Kabul, but could not do so because the airport was closed. The Taliban escort handed us over to the Turkish soldiers guarding the Kabul airport. The Turks screened us and handed us over to the Americans. The Americans again screened us and took us to the tarmac. Around 3.30 am we reached the US air force base within Kabul airport.
The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan had a meeting with American military officers. The Indian Air Force plane landed at 4 am in Kabul. We started boarding the flight. The Americans told us that all Indians must leave Kabul airport by 6 am. Hats off to the Indian government and its planning on how they evacuated us from Kabul. Everything was planned to precision.
When our flight took off from Kabul, there were moist eyes all around. Everybody was very emotional because they had lived to see another day. The flight flew over Tajikistan, over Iran, before arriving at Jamnagar in Gujarat. We took off from Kabul at 5.50 am and reached Jamnagar at 11.30 am IST.
When the IAF pilot told us that we were going to land at Jamnagar, the first thought that came to my mind was astronaut Rakesh Sharma's reply to Indira Gandhi from space: 'Saare Jahan Se Accha, Hindustan Hamara'. When I stepped on Indian soil, I lay down on the ground and kissed my homeland.
'My country, my India,' I said.