An Afghan karate champion with three children, including her two-year-old, had to stand in a sewage canal for six hours in her third attempt to get access to Kabul airport, as she fled the country.
It followed a five-day ordeal that included being physically beaten by the Taliban and having her car shot at.
Teenage footballers from the women’s national team were told to insert vital papers and money into their bodies before trying to pass Taliban checkpoints as they began their own precarious journey out of Afghanistan to Australia, after being granted emergency visas.
Two Paralympians who found themselves abandoned at the airport by Afghanistan’s National Paralympic Committee officials, outside the wrong gate, while losing confidence and suffering from exhaustion, sent a one-word message to an Australian WhatsApp group saying simply, “help”.
These are only a few of the stories that are emerging from an organic rescue mission dubbed ‘operation dust in the eyes’ for the constant need to wipe away tears as four key people guided a large group of at-risk female athletes and their dependents to Kabul airport, through security and onto Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) planes.
The group was working out of two rooms in suburban Sydney, a quarantine hotel room in Brisbane, and a home office in London.
As the last RAAF plane taxied down the runway at Hamad Kazai International Airport late on Thursday, only hours before a bomb detonated behind the security wall, killing almost 170 people at last count, the last of 95 athletes and closest family members had been successfully evacuated to an allied-forces base in the desert outside Dubai and on their way to Australia on emergency visas.
This group came together through the sports network, adding new meaning to the well-known Australian term “the awesome foursome”.
They credit the athletes for getting themselves out and point to the devastation of those who didn’t.
“I’ve been trying to reflect on what an extraordinary group of people, not only that we worked for but I had the privilege of working with,” said Nikki Dryden, a human rights lawyer and former Olympian who bypassed the conversations about how to help and just started “doing something”.
Dryden said the athletes were “resilient and taught me so much about the human spirit”, while the colleagues she worked with were “remarkable” for their “perseverance”.
“There was no-one coming to save them… we had five countries talking about operations to come and extract, nobody came to save them, they saved themselves.”
‘People saved themselves’
Her first call was to Human Rights for All (HR4A) founder, Alison Battinsson, to tap into her Australian immigration law expertise.
Battisson, like Dryden, is still processing her thoughts of the past two weeks after little sleep and buckets of adrenalin.
“I am acutely aware of the people that didn’t make it. I am acutely aware of the families that were left in the ditch and were so close. I am acutely aware of people who weren’t able to get assistance if and when they needed it,” Battisson told The Ticket.
“I go through periods of great joy over what occurred but then great sadness over who was left behind… it is still very distressing.
“It’s not that we saved people, we’re very clear on this message, people saved themselves.”
Dryden also connected with London-based human rights lawyer Kat Craig, whose not-for-profit consultancy Athlead works with athletes to use their voice to make positive change.
“I said to everybody no matter what we achieved, if we got one person out or a hundred people out, we’ll occasionally feel happy, but most of the time we’ll feel sad because it’s a really, really awful situation,” Craig said.
“The very thing that drives us to engage is the humanity and solidarity we feel with women and men but particularly these women athletes in that horrible situation.
“I am still in the space of how can we try and support more people, either those who are trying to leave and certainly those who are out. I think this is going to be a long hard journey, and it is a fallacy that people arrive in a safe space and are then delighted at the new life ahead of them.
“Their country is burning, many of them have left their families behind, everything that they built there, their athletic record, their education, it counts for very little when they don’t speak the language and they are isolated, so I’m looking at that as well, and we’ve had some fantastic offers of support.”
“I”ve had the best successes in human rights crises by getting out of the blocks quick and just keep on running… it’s about stamina and, yes, we’re running on empty, but that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Relentless reassurance by phone
Other former athletes, including independent MP Zali Steggall, refugee advocate Craig Foster, and Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, were contacted to use their political connections, alerting the government to the imminent threat to life of Afghanistan’s female athletes who were immediate targets for the Taliban.
Convincing these at-risk women to travel through Taliban controlled checkpoints to get themselves to the front of thousands of others pushing frantically at the airport boundaries was a relentless 24/7 task.
All of this done remotely by phone — sometimes a call, mostly by message.
But once they were at the airport perimeter, transferring the information from those outside to the defence personnel inside required someone with different connections.
Into the frame came Neil Fergus, the CEO of security advisory firm Intelligent Risks, another sporting connection.
The former senior diplomat with DFAT has strong defence connections and a deep understanding of the regional threats around Afghanistan.
He said without the record-speed with which Dryden and the team began the processing of getting the at-risk Afghans documented, and the political influence of Steggall, his team could not have succeeded in getting the support of the ADF troops inside the airport.
“Our job is a functional job, it’s what we as a team do in high-risk environment – getting people to safety.
“But we can’t get people to safety without the documentation, without the political will and that was forthcoming because of the people I’ve just mentioned.”
Family beaten by Taliban
This group all have exterior appearances that are calm and reassuring.
It’s what helped get the trust of the athletes – who were being asked to rely on people they had never met, from countries that on the one hand were deserting them and on the other were their only hope of fleeing the clear and present danger.
They have quick analytical minds being able to relay messages clearly to sometimes panicked young women, at the same time spotting dangers ahead and shifting plans without the time to explain why.
They operated for a period of over a week on two levels: having the safety and security of the desperate women and their families balanced against the absolute risk of the journey they were asking them to take — a journey of survival.
Fergus was talking to some of them. At the same time he was emailing his ADF contacts inside the airport, keeping them updated and corresponding on a separate WhatsApp group about the need to ramp up the mission, or slow it down, or change tactics altogether.
“What we do is take them from their home, or wherever they are, and I don’t mean holding their hands, we can’t do that, but talking them through,” Fergus said.
“Through the checkpoints, through the Taliban, telling them turn left don’t go straight ahead, don’t continue that way, or stop and retreat, and bring them to a point where they can be extracted by the heroic men and women of the Australian Defence Forces.
“I won’t go into where that was, and sometimes it changed. We were working hand in glove with the brilliant ADF inside the wire to get people to the point where they could be lifted.
“These people were not soft, these people knew in most cases they had one chance of a future and they had to trust us and we had to trust the ADF and get them to where they needed to go.
“It wasn’t without mishap: we had one brave family go three times, they were beaten by the Taliban on a number of occasions, they had a sick two-year-old child, and they trusted us to get them where they needed to go, and they are now in Dubai.
“Every one of them is a story in itself… every one of them had to be manoeuvred, and negotiated with, and navigated to get to where they could be safe.”
‘That’s what Australians do’
Nobody knew how the mission would go.
The challenge for those involved was to keep their minds sharp and focussed, and to deal later with their own emotions, the stress and the exhaustion of days and nights without sleep.
“We all need to have a moment, and you can’t be human if you don’t get emotional when you’re talking to a mother with a child, or her husband here in Australia who’s telling us her phone must be flat.
“Yes, were all humans, but when we’re talking to them, we’ve got to keep a grip on it, because we’ve got to get them there, and they have to confidence in us that we’re not letting our emotions overtake logic and reason and a planned operation and a planned movement.
“Sleep is a wonderful commodity, and none of us are very familiar with it at the moment. It’s been a week of just soldiering on, but we remind ourselves we live in the lucky country. We’re not in Taliban-controlled Kabul, and we have families and a future… we just want a few more of them to enjoy what we often take for granted.
“I’ll tell you one story — the last people that got on the last RAAF flight out of Kabul, with the invaluable assistance of the ADF, was a woman with a three-year old child. Her phone went flat right at the last moment.
“We thought they were gone. If we can’t talk to them, we can’t get them there. The ADF searched that airfield and found them and held the last RAAF evacuation flight to put them on board.
“That woman and child are now on their way to re-join her husband who is in Australia.
“It wouldn’t have happened without Eliza [Thorn, a colleague] doing that, it wouldn’t have happened without Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, and Lieutenant Colonel Luke Sanders and the ADF team in that airport pulling out every last stop for them.
“That’s what Australians do.”
The last flight out of Kabul is not the end of the story, in many ways it’s just the beginning.
New lives will be made in the suburbs of Australia, assistance will need to be given to help traumatised people settle into a foreign country with different ways and expectations.
After an unexpected pause from their day jobs Dryden, Battisson, Craig and Fergus, along with the countless others who responded when called, will go back to work this week with many not knowing what role they played in saving lives.
But there are 95 Afghans, and their families, who will never forget.