Hand Me That Child – Azerbaijan’s Soldiers Remain on Duty Ensuring a Degree of Order to the International Evacuation
Azerbaijan's 120-strong contingent of peacekeeping troops are part of the team protecting Kabul's international airport. Image: Azertag.az
A widely shared video circulating this morning on social media shows a heavily armed man in military fatigues and dark glasses standing on an imposingly high wall surrounded by coils of razor wire. From below, two children are hoisted aloft, one by one. As dazed crowds look on, the man lifts the two confused but compliant little figures across the various hazards and hands them down to colleagues surrounding an armoured vehicle on the other side. The scene is not a kidnap but part of the long flight to safety for an Afghan family – one of many such stories playing out in the aftermath of Kabul’s sudden capitulation to the Taliban on August 16, 2021. The men are part of Azerbaijan’s 120-strong peacekeeping force whose thankless role, with fellow Turkish troops, is to guard the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Although reports suggest that the Taliban conquest has yet to result in massacres as dire as some had predicted, the crush of people attempting to reach the airport has been intense. As a result, heart-breaking life-and-death decisions have had to be made as to who receives space on the very limited capacity flights forming an emergency air bridge out of the country. Understandably, this has led to continued chaos as those not on the official asylum lists attempt to reach the airport in last-gasp hopes of finding a way out for themselves. This has meant that even for those with the approved documentation, reaching the terminal is a challenge. In the past week, as many as 40 casualties have been reported in assorted crushes, stampedes and runway incidents and on Friday morning (August 20), things got so bad that tear gas was used to disburse those outside the main gates.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures during an online news conference after a NATO Foreign Ministers video meeting following developments in Afghanistan, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium August 20, 2021. Francisco Seco/Pool via REUTERS
Meanwhile, since on-site crowd filtration has become essentially impossible, ‘secret’ text messages are now sent to alert approved evacuees of routes to reach specific rendezvous points along the airport perimeter wall where crowds are more manageable. Ladders are then temporarily erected and, for the short time before the site’s presence becomes more widely known, soldiers help to get them across the razor wire to the relative safety of the tarmac for evacuation processing, in far from easy conditions. Organizing these wall-jumps, and the occasional need to care for ‘lost’ babies, is undoubtedly not the job that the Azerbaijani and Turkish peacekeepers imagined when they were posted to Kabul.
But their integral role in maintaining at least a degree of orderliness to the situation was acknowledged in a statement by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who thanked NATO members (including Turkey) and NATO ‘partner’ Azerbaijan, for their “vital role” at the airport.