Of all the haunting images to have emerged from Kabul this week – stampedes of Afghans desperately trying to flee the fallen city, even passing babies over barbed wire in the hope the soldiers on the other side will give their children a better life – the sight of a near empty aeroplane leaving the Taliban stronghold was enough to break your heart.
Kaisa Farthing, wife of British former Royal Marine Pen Farthing who runs the animal rescue charity Nowzad in the Afghan capital, was on that plane and knows only too well the agony of leaving so many behind.
When she finally embraced her mother at Oslo airport yesterday, her head was ‘spinning’ and she ‘couldn’t think straight’ as she tried to reconcile the fact she was safe whilst so many of those she loves remain in peril.
Former Royal Marine commando Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing, who runs an animal sanctuary in Kabul, with his wife Kaisa Helene
Mr Farthing, a British expat who lives in Kabul, got separated from his wife during the Taliban takeover. He shared the image on Twitter last night, writing: ‘Kaisa is on her way home! BUT this aircraft is empty’
Talking to me from Oslo yesterday, Kaisa said: ‘The Norwegian military got all the Norwegians available and they got us on the flight. There were less than 50 of us. They said, “We’re trying to reach out to the other governments and ask them if they have anyone who is ready. We’re trying to fill the plane up.”
‘We sat there for about two hours but they couldn’t find anyone who had been processed. It’s because of the crowds. People can’t get in. You are pushed, squeezed. My heart was racing. I cried.
‘We left behind some really young kids who had been separated from their parents in the chaos outside. What can you do? You can’t ask a one-year-old, “Who’s your mum?”. We were leaving those behind on a virtually empty plane. I cried for those little babies.’
The second time she cried was when she landed in Norway. ‘My heart and my mind were still in Kabul. I did not want to leave. My work is there. My life is there. I left behind every single item of clothes I have. I left behind my wedding photo of Pen and me. All I have is deodorant and a toothbrush.’
This was Kaisa’s second attempt to leave Kabul. On Tuesday, she found herself caught up in similarly chaotic scenes at the airport – scenes during which, she revealed to me as I talked to her and Pen on Zoom the next day, she was subjected to a sexual assault.
‘The second we [she and a 34-week pregnant worker from the charity] were in the crowd we were pushed, squeezed and trapped,’ she told me. ‘People were pushing, pushing. There was a lady in front of me who was crying, “My baby, my baby is not breathing.” I looked at the baby who was crying and said, “It’s you who needs to breathe because I think you’re panicking right now.”
‘I remember the face of the friend [the pregnant worker] I was with. I knew her pregnant belly was that big.’ She shows me with her hand, ‘but her face was that close’. Now she holds her hand against her cheek. ‘I thought, “That’s dangerous.” But we were being pushed squeezed – really, really squeezed.’
As Kaisa spoke to me on Zoom, she looked towards her husband, a red flush staining her neck.
‘I was sexually assaulted… It started when someone – an older guy – grabbed my a***,’ she states before giving more detail. Then she adds: ‘I wanted to turn round and punch him in the face and my hand was on the way up, but then I realised, “I’m in a crowd. I cannot defend myself because the second I do that we will all be in danger.” So I just had this anger inside me.’
Pen listened to his 30-year-old wife. He said nothing, but his body was taut with fury.
In the long hours before Kaisa extricated herself from that seething mob, Pen was beside himself. So much so he tweeted he would hold Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘personally responsible’ if any harm should come to her.
When she finally made it back to Nowzad’s headquarters, his joy was clear to see. Kaisa is a lovely, fresh-faced woman but her blue eyes were dulled by what she had seen. She, like so many here, did not want to leave this country or her husband – they were only married four months ago – but she had no choice. Kaisa, 30, was employed by a non-governmental organisation working to mentor and empower Afghan’s young women. She risked being shot or worse if she stayed.
Nevertheless her decision to leave has been an agonising one.
‘I had 75 girls in the programme to raise the position of girls in society and ten female staff,’ Kaisa told me. ‘They are not just my staff they are my friends, inviting me to their homes. They are the ones who surprised us [in April] throwing us a big wedding party with beautiful traditional dresses and nice traditional Afghan food.
‘I say to my girls now, “Go to your homes, cover up and stay low. That’s the safest place for you.” They’re sending me messages all the time saying, “The Taliban is outside my house. They’re watching me.”’ Even then, Kaisa’s loyalties were torn. ‘I cannot leave my friends,’ she said, looking to Pen for support.
‘You’re going,’ Pen said firmly. Their quiet devotion was humbling to witness. Kaisa stood behind him, draping her arms over his shoulders and rubbing her cheek against his head. ‘When will I see you? Will I ever see you?’ she asked.
Keeping his emotions in check, Pen simply replied: ‘You need to get ready.’ He has spoken to her only briefly since she’s arrived in Norway. ‘She told me she has landed so I said, “Brilliant, I’ll speak to you whenever.” We haven’t got time for pleasantries at the moment. We just need to get this job done.’
In a week that has seen the Taliban seize control of the Afghan capital, this heroic man has run the gamut of emotions: disbelief, fear, hope, bewilderment and fury – but mostly fury, particularly at the British Government’s ‘clusterf***’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Yesterday a mob of armed Taliban fighters arrived at the Kabul compound where Pen works night and day to save his Afghan staff and 156 rescue animals. ‘It was a bit of a heart-pounding moment,’ he says.
Talking to me on Zoom yesterday, the monumental pressure he’s under was evident on his face: ‘They came to our gate this morning. There were about 15 of them – all armed and ready to go. We thought they were going to come in but, thankfully, just as they were about to, their radios and walkie talkies went crazy so they ran, jumped in their cars and left. Now we are just waiting to see if they come back.’
During the last 48 hours, the Taliban have been searching door-to-door, hunting those who stood against them with the US and UK forces. There are reports of torture and executions.
Pen served with the elite 42 Commando in the Battle of Nawzad against Taliban insurgents in 2006. ‘If they do come back, my office manager and I will go out and meet them,’ he says. ‘We are going to tell them we are a non-government organisation so they have got no worry from us. Yes, I was a marine but that was a long time ago and I’ve spent my last 15 years here working in a peaceful charity that only wants to improve Afghanistan. So, let’s see what they say.’
Pen has a plane on standby to rescue his 25 staff – including six women – their immediate families and his beloved cats and dogs. He has jobs, and training schemes for every one of them, but is still waiting for the government to say, ‘Yes you can go’. Yesterday, a woman and two children were trampled in the increasingly chaotic scenes at Kabul airport bringing the death toll to 16. UK armed forces minister James Heappey finally admitted flights might only continue for a few more days and people who had been promised sanctuary will be left behind.
Safe: Kaisa Farthing with her mum, Sissel, in Oslo, yesterday
‘I am still hearing politicians saying, “Oh, it’s a little bit of congestion outside the airport”. Thousands of people are desperate to get away. That’s not congestion. It’s a humanitarian disaster,’ says Pen.
‘If people are so desperate that they’re clinging on to the sides of an aircraft now, can you imagine what the hell is going to happen on the last day when the British or American troops fly out?’ Pen left the Royal Marines in 2009 but the Commando spirit – courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity – remains the biggest part of him. He’d no more leave a single one of his staff or his rescued cats and dogs here than leave a fellow marine in the field. It’s part of the reason he is so furious with the politicians who’ve displayed the greatest dereliction of duty.
For along with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who was sunning himself in Crete when the Taliban overran the city, it has since emerged senior civil servants at the Foreign Office, Home Office and MoD were also all away on holiday.
‘All I can say is any of them who are on holiday don’t deserve to be in office or in their jobs. They’re the ones who made the call to send British troops here. They should be back at their desks watching every single moment,’ he says, frustration showing on his face.
This is a man who has barely snatched three hours sleep a night in the past six days and won’t until his ‘mission’ to evacuate his staff and animals is accomplished.
He set up his charity after rescuing a horribly mutilated dog that was used by Afghans in dogfights. It became the first of 1,700 dogs he has saved. The Taliban class dogs as dirty animals so won’t allow them to be kept as pets. ‘I’m not going to leave my staff here to face persecution and reprisals because they supported the rescue of soldiers’ dogs,’ he says.
‘I justified what we [the British troops] did here so girls could go to school. It was an amazing sight to see – kids who were keen for life, women who loved the fact they had a job and an income.
‘In the space of literally weeks we’ve said, “Nah, we’ll give this country back to the Taliban” – the very people British troops removed from power, hundreds sacrificing their lives, to give the Afghan people aspirations, hope and dreams for a better future.
‘The Western governments have just ripped up that sacrifice – that future – and thrown it down the plughole. Can someone, anywhere, explain why we did that because I don’t think there’ll ever be anyone who can… it’s heart breaking.’
He introduces me on video link to 26-year-old Dr Hamida Shabae. She is a gentle, pretty woman who graduated from university in 2016 and, when she joined Pen’s charity was beside herself with joy. Now her eyes are red raw from crying.
Her father continues to fight for the remaining Afghan military in a district north of Kabul. Her mother weeps ‘every hour’ at the thought of her daughter leaving Afghanistan but knows she cannot stay. ‘When I was a child, I saw women wearing burkas. They didn’t let their daughters go to school. During the last 20 years everything changed. When I saw women bowling or going to the gym I’d smile because I was so happy to see women improving their standing in society.
‘Everything went wrong in one day. Now women are wearing burkas again. We’re back to 20 years ago. We’ve heard in some provinces the Taliban are searching each house to get girls who are between 14 and 45 to marry them. I will not be a sex slave of the Taliban. I don’t want to leave my country but I don’t want to stay here. At least Pen can save my life.’
It is a huge responsibility, but one Pen is determined to shoulder. He understands from the Home Office that the Government will grant his staff visas. His challenge now is to set plans in motion to get them and his animals to the airport.
‘Everything comes down to, how do I get into the airport? The British troops can’t push out from the airport because it only takes one trigger happy Tali or some nervous soldier and we are severely in trouble so we are going to have to find a way to get ourselves there. Hence there might be a rather rich Tali after this.’ He frowns.
‘I hate the thought of giving the Taliban money but this is the only choice I’ve got so that’s what I’m going to have to do.’
The dogs bark. We freeze. Are the Taliban back? Thankfully, they are not. ‘Getting scared is not going to change the situation,’ he reasons. ‘It’s not going to make anything better so I might as well just try to stay as calm as possible and think rationally. That’s what the Marines spent a long time training me to do.
‘If people don’t get out, the West has got a mass hostage situation on its hands,’ he states.
The International Monetary Fund has said Afghanistan will no longer be able to access the lender’s resources and the US has frozen nearly $9.5billion (£7billion) of the country’s assets. Pen explains: ‘When they decide to stop the money all the Taliban has to do is go around and find someone with a British or American passport, throw them on the TV and say, “We are going to chop off their heads unless we get funding.” That’s the scenario if we don’t get out.
‘They could have done this so differently but the Western governments have just demonstrated a master class of how to screw up a country. Whatever is coming our way, people need to hold their heads in shame because they created this. I was really angry but now it’s just numbness because there’s nothing you can do. The Taliban are now in charge.
‘Do you know something?’ he says. ‘Yesterday was actually Afghan Independence Day so we had a little cheer in the office. It’s kind of ironic – Afghan Independence Day.’
Sadly, the irony and tragedy are lost on no one.
Donations for the animals and staff seeking sanctuary in Britain can be made at www.nowzad.com