As the sun beat down on the throng massed outside Kabul airport, Najia Babakarkhail willed herself into silence, her face hidden by a makeshift disguise.
Taliban fighters, armed with AK-47s, clad in black, were scanning the crowd where Babakarkhail, her daughter, and twin granddaughters stood, three generations of Afghan women all desperate to flee the recently fallen capital.
Babakarkhail knew one small slip would betray them.
She was a high-value target and easily recognisable to the Taliban.
An Afghan politician and activist, outspoken on issues of social justice, her face had been regularly splashed across television and the papers in her province of Paktika, in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban had already killed her brother and bodyguard. They had issued warnings directly to Babakarkhail herself.
“So I wore sunglasses and I wore my skirt on my head,” she told the Guardian via an interpreter. “I was covering from everyone, and even I was not talking, I was afraid someone would recognise my voice.”
For a week-and-a-half after the Taliban’s sudden capture of the capital, her family of seven had hid in their Kabul home, waiting for an inevitable knock on the door.
“‘They can do anything, they will kill us’, I was thinking like this,” she said. “I was not afraid of death, but I was afraid for my family, I couldn’t see my family in danger.”
Babakarkhail’s lifeline came from an unlikely source.
Half a world away, in Australia, members of a small, unofficial group calling itself the 21st Kabul Lancers reached out to Babakarkhail’s daughter, Walwala Sayed, after she applied for a visa in her desperation to escape Afghanistan.
The Lancers, all Australian and Afghan military and government figures, began working quietly as the Taliban’s march through Afghanistan gained momentum earlier this year. They have so far helped more than 300 people, including Australian citizens and residents, flee Afghanistan and reach Australia.
The message the Lancers gave Walwala and her family was clear: they had a chance to escape to Australia. But it meant braving the chaos of Hamid Karzai International Airport to reach Australian soldiers.
The family were told to wear specific coloured-headscarves, which would alert the Australians to their identity.
The Lancers dispatched a driver to their house to ferry them to the airport.
When they arrived, the crowds and chaos were too much. Taliban fighters were everywhere, some shooting into the sky.
“I was crying, that was a very difficult time,” Walwala said. “So my mother told me to tell them ‘we are not going, it is better to stay here rather than dying outside of the airport’.”
The Lancers convinced them to try again.
Walwala remembers her twin daughters crying desperately, their skin frying in the relentless sun. One of the girls collapsed in the heat.
“I said to them ‘sorry, we can’t come, it’s too dangerous. It’s impossible’,” she said.
As night descended, the Lancers tried once more. The family were given coordinates for a bus and told to look out for its lights in the early morning darkness.
The army were then sent to find the bus and ask for Babakarkhail’s family.
Miraculously, the plan worked. The family were whisked to the airport, flown from Afghanistan, and eventually arrived in Australia.
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The story of the Lancers is remarkable, but one not told officially by the Australian government. Forming as a “private and personal humanitarian venture to assist friends and acquaintances”, the group’s work is done independently.
The Lancers have helped Australian-trained Afghan soldiers, interpreters, journalists and politicians flee Afghanistan, using local contacts and maintaining communication channels with a network of officials working on the evacuation. They provided escorts to transport targets via foot or vehicle. Groups were advised to carry bright coloured scarfs or umbrellas to help security forces identify them once they arrived at the airport.
The group’s work includes helping Afghans bypass Taliban checkpoints, hide in safehouses, and link up with Coalition troops at Kabul airport.
“The fall of Afghanistan was an unprecedented and extraordinary situation, met with acts of bravery, courage, and heroism from the Afghan people, the ADF, and Australian government officials and our allied mission partners,” one member tells Guardian Australia on condition of anonymity. “There are many who have stories of escape from Afghanistan, but even more stories continuing of those surviving in Afghanistan and those settling across the world and Australia.”
‘That day was very difficult’As the Taliban entered Kabul, high-ranking defence officials were in Kabul’s Ministry of Defence building, holding their usual morning meetings.
No one imagined the Kabul would take the city so quickly.
One official, who cannot be identified to avoid endangering his family, remembers being in the room with president Ashraf Ghani’s defence minister, Bismillah Khan, when he realised Ghani had fled the country.
It soon became clear the government had collapsed.
“When we realised that the president is not more there, he left Afghanistan … he was the man who was commanding everything,” he told Guardian Australia. “So when he escaped, then the leadership of the Ministry of Defence said that now everything is all up, so we should not kill the people, because inside the Kabul city, it was very difficult to fight against Taliban.”
The official quickly began to fear for his own life. He fled with the defence minister, and managed to get on a flight to Uzbekistan.
His family were trapped in Kabul.
“That day was very difficult to move anywhere, but I was talking to my mum and brothers, and I told them to be inside the house, don’t go anywhere,” he said.
“After the Taliban started searching our place, one day they were coming to take the car, one day they were coming to take the weapons. And every day they keep coming. Even still they are searching, they are coming, they are asking especially for me.”
The official managed to find the Lancers through an Australian who had previously advised the Afghan Ministry of Defence.
The Lancers assisted a broader government effort to get him and other senior officers to fly from Uzbekistan to Australia.
“All of them they have been evacuated by [the Lancers] to their Australia,” he said.
Those who have escaped are hugely thankful to the Lancers and Australia for getting them to safety.
But they also fear for their friends, family, and for Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
“Everything was just destroyed in one day,” Babakarkhail said.
“It’s very difficult. Even now I am not feeling good. I can’t stop thinking about my country, what will happen to our people, what will happen to our government. Why all the world is silent? Why no one is talking about our country?”