Just one more gate and Hussain would have reached his goal and his path out of the country would have been free. But the gate is blocked. It’s Tuesday morning, and the young Afghan is standing in front of the wall surrounding the airport in Kabul. A sandstorm passes over the area and Hussain sends photos via Facebook Messenger of people holding scarves over their eyes.
Hussain, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, spent years working as an interpreter for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, during their deployment in Afghanistan. Together with around 50 other people who used to work for the Germans and their families, Hussain tries to reach the airport that morning. The Bundeswehr Airbus A400M aircraft that are being used to rescue people from Afghanistan are taking off from the military section of the airport. The rescue flights are Hussain’s only real chance of getting out of the country. Otherwise, he could be facing the Taliban's retribution.
But armed men block the group from making their way to the airport. Hussain writes that the men are firing into the air as a warning and that they are waving around long antennas that would normally be attached to military vehicles. He writes that a car has just driven past and that he recognized the white flag of the Taliban on the roof. "I’m trembling with fear," he types into his phone.
Thousands of former Bundeswehr workers are currently in the same situation as Hussain. German government agencies refer to the former workers as "local hires."
For months now, a bureaucratic process has been in place for Afghans to apply for protection in Germany. The German Defense Ministry promised it would move quickly to help them, but officials went strictly by the book and the procedure dragged on and on – until it was too late.
The Path To The Airport Has Become a Deathtrap
Now, after the fall of Kabul, which took the West completely by surprise, most of the former local Afghan hires are stranded. The Bundeswehr has so far only succeeded in flying out a handful of them.
Many of the men fled to Kabul to escape the approaching Taliban, but now, the Islamists have set up checkpoints on the way to the airport. They are examining each car and only letting foreigners through. Afghans, they say, should stay in the country. The Taliban allege that they fear there will be "brain drain," an exodus of the well-educated. Or are they out for revenge?
One internal document from the German Defense Ministry on Tuesday states that: "By sealing off the airport to Afghan nationals, the evacuation of former Afghan local hires has become more difficult." In actuality, though, the route to the airport has become a potential death trap.
A Taliban checkpoint at the entrance to Afghanistan's international airport in KabulFoto: via www.imago-images.de / imago images/Kyodo News
To board the planes to Germany, the men must have their employment papers with them. That, though, means that the Taliban could discover the documents and identify the former local hires, a concern shared by the German government.
Hussain’s sister, who has traveled with him to the airport, is hiding the papers, signed by a brigadier general, proving that he worked for the German armed forces from 2006 to 2008. He says that women aren’t being searched.
In Berlin, no one dares any longer to promise help to the local hires. "This is unfortunately out of our hands now," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday. Whether the evacuations can be carried out "depends on the situation in Kabul," she said. The German Foreign Ministry is at work trying to find a way to help get the Afghan local hires to the airport. But Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has admitted that there has been no promise from the Taliban that local hires would be allowed access to the airport.
And even if they reach the airport, they may not be allowed in. American soldiers and their Afghan allies aren’t letting any Afghans pass through at the moment either. They apparently fear the kind of mass panic experienced on Monday, when hundreds of Afghans stormed the tarmac, clinging to the departing planes in desperation.
Afghan families walk by aircraft at the Kabul airport.Foto: WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP
In desperation, the German government now wants to negotiate directly with the Taliban to allow the local hires to leave the country. German Ambassador Markus Potzel is seeking to negotiate a deal in Doha, where the Taliban maintains official representation.
It has now become clearer than ever that the German government woke up far too late. And that its months of procrastination will likely cost lives.
"In principle, negotiations over the local hires are the right thing to do," says Tony Hofreiter, the parliamentary group leader of the Green Party. "But the fact that the German government now has to beg the Taliban for their safety is the price it has to pay for months of refusing to help them quickly and without red tape."
Safe Houses in Kabul
The man who saw the disaster coming is Marcus Grotian. Months ago, the Bundeswehr soldier founded the Afghan Local Hires Sponsorship Network. He wrote letters directly to the German chancellor several times asking her to fly the local hires out of Afghanistan immediately, at a time when it would have been possible without too much trouble. He argues that everyone has basically been aware of that responsibility since April. But nothing was done.
In desperation, Grotian privately rented safe houses in Kabul in July, where he kept local hires safe. With the Taliban going from door to door in the city, he has now disbanded them. A house full of local hires would be too unsafe, he says, almost an invitation.
Grotian no longer believes things are going to end well. "We will be very lucky if we are even able to save anyone there," he says. "The blood of every local hire killed is on the hands of the responsible politicians in the government." He says he is receiving messages from desperate Afghans every second, every minute, and he will never forget the cries for help.
One of the men who has been calling for help as loudly as he can for days is Samim Jabari. The 28-year-old once worked as a journalist and helped the Bundeswehr shine a positive light on the Afghan army. At the same time, though, he insulted the Taliban in his videos and put them down over and over again. Jabari says the videos made him famous. The Taliban might forgive some local hires, but surely not him.
Samim Jabari on Tuesday in KabulFoto: privat
DER SPIEGEL managed to reach Jabari on Tuesday at noon. He’s sitting with his wife and two children in a friend’s sparsely furnished apartment. The power has just gone out, clothes are spread out on the bed, and Jabari is standing in his white T-shirt in the middle of it. All it takes is one question and it all bursts out of him.
"I’ve sent so many emails with contracts, references, certificates and photos," he shouts into the telephone. He says he called all the numbers he has for the German armed forces. But none of that helped. Years ago, the contract he had with the Bundeswehr was transferred to an Afghan company. According to the Germans, Jabari should have written a danger report at the time, but he didn’t. Now, an email from the Germans, which DER SPIEGEL has seen, states that they unfortunately can no longer take him in.
It's a very German experience, not having submitted an application correctly at some point. Except that in this instance, it could prove to be deadly.
Jabari is one of the many local Bundeswehr hires who have fallen through the coarsely knit net of the German government’s protection program for local hires. During the last few weeks before its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of June, the Bundeswehr did distribute around 2,000 visas for former local hires and their closest family members.
But many Afghans who worked for the Germans didn’t fit into the catalog of criteria drawn up by Berlin to qualify to go to Germany: Some had worked for Bundeswehr before the cut-off-date that had initially been determined. Others had been unable to provide the documentation required to obtain visas to Germany. One large group of applicants failed to get visas because the UN’s International Organization for Migration, which was supposed to accept their applications, started its work later than planned and then abruptly closed down.
"The Germans are so incredibly fixated on paperwork," says Jabari. He says the treatment he has received as been short on empathy. "They don’t care about me. They don’t care about my life!" Jabari says he has already lost everything because of the work he did for the Bundeswehr. The house in Mazar-e-Sharif, his car, even the bed he shared with his wife. He hasn’t been able to earn any money in months.
Jabari still hasn’t given up complete hope that the Germans will change their minds. It’s a political decision, he says, and perhaps the government will take pity on him. Nevertheless, he’s still skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban. Of course the German government must talk to the Taliban, he says. But he is reluctant about ending up as a pawn of the very Islamists he had always fought.
Former Bundeswehr local hire Hussain, who waited in vain for hours at the northern gate on Tuesday, is similarly disillusioned. "It’s a shame that the German government has betrayed us," he writes. That evening, he drives back to downtown Kabul by car. On the way, he passes three Taliban checkpoints. "They just wanted to know where we were going, Hussain says, "but we were so scared."
On Wednesday, when the Germans’ planes take off again, he probably won’t try to get to the airport again. He thinks the trip is too dangerous. Hussain now wants to wait until the Germans call him.