“When the IAF pilot told us that we were going to land at Jamnagar, Gujarat, 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'”, said Shirin Pathare, the Air India employee who was flown out of Kabul on August 16, lauding the Indian government for carrying out the rescue mission with so much precision.
Hats off: the rescued Air India employee lauds govt of India
“Hats off to the Indian government and its planning on how they evacuated us from Kabul. Everything was planned to precision”, said the officer who was amongst the first batch of 45 Indians who were successfully evacuated from Afghanistan.
In an interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf of Rediff.com, Pathare recalled the harrowing day of August 15 when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Shirin Pathare said that he had no idea what was to follow.
At around 11 am on August 15 a colleague went rushing to him to inform him that the Taliban were only 11 km away from Kabul airport.
“On August 15, AI 244, the Air India flight from Kabul to New Delhi, had a full load of 160 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”, recalled the Air India officer, adding that when he apprised the flight commander about the situation he had advised him to leave Afghanistan without his passport. However, he decided to stay back as he did not want to abandon his passengers and lead the rest of his life in guilt.
“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 at that time”, said Pathare.
He further added that within minutes of the Air India flight taking off, the Taliban reached the Kabul airport and started firing indiscriminately. At around 5 pm the message came that nobody could leave the airport.
Luckily, the officer bumped into a protocol officer of the Indian embassy at the airport, who arranged for a bulletproof car in which he left for the embassy, recalled the Air India employee.
The officer said that when he was on his way to the Indian Embassy, he remembered that he had left his passport behind in his house. When he returned to collect his passport he said he could see Taliban on the streets. People were running on the roads with household supplies.
I was more worried about the ISI. I felt what happened to Danish Siddiqui could happen to me: Air India rescued staff
“At that time, the coordination between my heart and mind had stopped functioning. I was numb. I prayed to God, my mother and my kuldevi. My blood pressure started shooting up”, added Pathare, recalling how his car was near the Canadian Embassy when it was stopped by the Taliban.
“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”, said the Air India staff.
Here he recalls how the car which was taking him to the Embassy was halted by the Islamic fundamentalists. “While talking to the Afghans, a Taliban fired in the air. I thought this is it, my life is over.” However, they managed a thin escape since, at that very moment, a top Taliban commander’s convoy approached the area and the Taliban asked them to leave.
Pathare said that though he reached the Indian Embassy he thought he was going to be stuck in there and that there was no way they would leave Kabul until a new government was formed, until, at 9.30 pm on August 16, the embassy got a message from the Taliban that they would let us travel to Kabul airport.
“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”.
“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,” said Pathare.
“When I stepped on Indian soil, I lay down on the ground and kissed my homeland. ‘My country, my India,’ I said”, the Air India officer recalled.
India continues its rescue mission amid Afghanistan crisis
Ever since the Taliban has recaptured Afghanistan, the Indian government has successfully evacuated many stranded Indian nationals and Afghan citizens from the war-torn country. A day after it was reported that around 150 Indians were allegedly kidnapped by the Taliban from outside the Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul, the stranded individuals were successfully rescued by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Sunday (August 22).
Besides, more than 20 Afghan Sikhs, including Afghanistan Member of Parliament Narender Singh Khalsa, were rescued from the Taliban in Kabul by the Indian Air Force on Saturday (August 21). Along with him, Dr Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, first Sikh woman MP of Afghanistan, was also rescued.
According to the reports, the Indian Air Force C-17 aircraft took off from Kabul with another 168 people, including 107 Indians and some 20 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus for Hindon IAF base in Ghaziabad.
Other than the previous evacuation missions, three flights with as many as 390 Indians, Afghans and other nationals were to land in India on August 22. 168 people are evacuated from Kabul, 135 from Doha (brought by NATO forces from Afghanistan) and 87 from Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan.