DISPATCH: Inside Kabul Airport — ‘A Death Metal Show With One Exit. And the Place Is on Fire’

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What’s it like to get somebody past the gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport? A lot of media and people seem to think it’s like signing in your girlfriend when you lived in the barracks.

It’s not that simple.

It’s more like trying to pick up someone who doesn’t speak your language and looks exactly like everyone else there. “There” being a fucking death metal concert at Madison Square Garden.

And it’s at triple capacity.

And only one door is open.

And the place is on fire.

I’m not a religious person, but the word that comes to mind is “biblical.” It’s like Hurricane Katrina meets Dien Bien Phu.

Anyone who has ever been deployed would recognize HKIA’s entry control points: big barricades with multiple checkpoints. When you get to the last one, that’s Taliban. And then the Taliban kind of spit them out at us.

So when we went out to get our people, I was 5 meters — 15 feet — from the Taliban multiple times. Like, just kicking it. Wild feeling for a guy who spent his career in the military as an Army Ranger with 15 deployments.

Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

Inside Hamid Karzai International Airport, US service members provide assistance during the evacuation of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla.

U.S. service members provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 22. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)

But with the main checkpoints a mess, people are improvising. There’s a gray-water canal that the refugees found, and if you can get across the canal to the walls of the airport, you don’t have to go through the Taliban.

So on the walls are Marines and other Americans and every kind of coalition SOF — Norwegians, Belgians, Swedes, Canadians, French. And the Afghans will yell for the nationality they worked for — “I’m looking for Canadians!” — trying to connect with their guys. And soldiers will yell back, asking them for paperwork.

The lip is about 10 to 12 feet high. If you jumped into the canal, you’d probably get hurt. And you’d be thigh-deep in shit water. If someone hoping to use the canal has the right paperwork or our blue passport, the troops will yell across, “Come on,” and that someone will jump in the shit water and come across. Others, who don’t have passports, might just hang out down there and beg for the foreign service members to let them up, showing a bunch of random paperwork.

So, the guidance is — well, I haven’t seen any guidance from anywhere, except by word of mouth, and dudes are just getting things done anyway. But the guidance is that, if you have a US passport or green card, you can get in. But the Special Immigrant Visas — or SIVs — the State Department has been processing are almost worthless.

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A child smiles as she waits to board her flight during the evacuation, inside Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.

If I cruise up with myself and an SIV, they’re probably going to let me in. But if I pull up with an SIV and I have a wife, cousin, and mom, I’m not getting in. They say, “You can’t bring all these people with you, sorry.” People with passports and green cards get all their family members, but even then, it’s immediate family only.

I’ve deployed 15 times, and this is the worst living and working conditions I’ve seen for US troops. I’m a little used to this kind of work, unlike the many young Marines and other service members who are having to sentence these Afghans. They tell someone, “Hey, you can’t come in,” and it’s like telling the person he’s probably going to die.

These kids — the Marines and soldiers — are worn the fuck out.

I helped out with an Afghan general and an Afghan colonel who ran a commando battalion. They drove from Helmand because the Taliban came to their house to kill them. One member of their group of eight had a cellphone, and they got in touch with us.

We went and got them from the unit they arrived with. They had nothing for paperwork except these recommendation letters, all the things you need to apply for an SIV. We were able to email and print some documents. One of the two had a copy of a copy of a recommendation letter.

So we walk the guys through the process, and it feels like “these are not the droids you’re looking for” every step of the way.

Finally, we get to the pax terminal, and I tell the people working there, “He doesn’t have this visa because he applied for it. Here’s these letters. I personally know him.”

It’s like bro code. I have yet to see someone bungle a common-sense decision. It may be coming. I don’t want to jinx it.

Update, 5 p.m. EST, Aug. 24: Late Tuesday, I learned the two men I walked through processing had been rejected from a flight and sent back outside the airport. By 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time — early morning in Kabul — access at the airport gates had been restricted to US citizens and Afghans with immigration visas.

Coffee or Die Magazine’s Jariko Denman, a former Army Ranger with 15 combat deployments under his belt, is on the ground inside the Kabul airport to report on and volunteer his experience to the evolving evacuation, an effort being called America’s “Digital Dunkirk.” Denman is traveling with Ark Salus, which is a group of a dozen or so US veterans and civilians taking matters into their own hands to save former Afghan colleagues and their families.

This story is compiled from Denman’s on-site dispatches and further reporting by Coffee or Die military editor Matt White.

Read Next: DISPATCH: On the Ground in Kabul With Ark Salus

Jariko Denman is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. He is a retired U.S. Army Ranger and deployed to combat 15 times in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002-2012, amounting to 54 months of total combat experience as part of a Joint Special Operations Task Force. He now lives in Los Angeles and has advised on several major motion pictures, national ad campaigns, and television series’ as well as continuing to train and work within government and tactical industries.
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