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Snapshot of suffering: Afghans trying to reach airport are penned up, beaten by Taliban

The whistle of the lash, the cries of the injured.

At a dusty traffic circle just outside the Kabul airport, amped-up Taliban fighters had corralled hundreds of unarmed Afghans. There, under a punishing afternoon sun, another tragic and tumultuous scene from the U.S. withdrawal played out on Tuesday.

Men try to help a wounded woman after Taliban fighters became violent with a crowd of thousands waiting outside the Kabul airport.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The young men with the Taliban numbered only in the dozens, but the crowds cowered before them. The men fired automatic weapons indiscriminately into the air, and sometimes aimed them at the assembled men, women and children.

Some of the bearded fighters were dressed in traditional shalwar kameez — baggy trousers and a long tunic — but others adopted incongruous accessories: high-top sneakers, gold watches, knee-high socks.

The beatings seemed to be administered almost at random, but with chilling deliberateness. Sticks, lengths of rubber hose, knotted rope, rifle butts — the fighters wielded them all.

Some of those on the receiving end of the blows were trying to slip away through a hole in the fence to get inside the airport perimeter, but others were simply squatting on the ground, trying to shield themselves.

A man weeps as he and others watch Taliban fighters attack fellow Afghans in a crowd waiting to get to Kabul’s airport.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

This photographer, trying to capture an image of a fighter pointing his gun at the crowd, was whipped in the leg.

Gunfire could be heard every few moments in the traffic circle, which was blocked off by Afghan army vehicles commandeered by the militants when the capital fell. One fighter, after letting loose a volley of shots, directed a smile at one of his comrades.

At least a dozen people were wounded. A woman and child were left covered in blood; a few men in the crowd pulled them across the street to safety, hustling them into a yellow Toyota Corolla taxi that then sped off. An elderly man in a bloodstained sports jacket carried a limp child, whose eyes were open to reveal only the whites.

Then, as if the scene were not harrowing enough, a choking dust storm began to envelop the area. People squinted their eyes and covered their mouths, using scarves as makeshift masks.

The crowd nearby grew bigger, and some young men played a cat-and-mouse game with Taliban fighters, trying to cross the road en masse to get closer to the airport. That drew more barrages of gunfire.

One of the young men defying the fighters was university student Samirullah Asil. Clad in a black-and-white flannel shirt, with greasy side-parted hair, he was with five friends between the ages of 21 and 25, all from the same village.

Afghans begin to run away as Taliban fighters get violent to control the crowd outside the Kabul airport.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Two weeks ago, as swaths of countryside and village districts were falling to the Taliban, the six young men fled west, across the border with Iran. They stayed three days before they were caught and sent back to Afghanistan’s Nimruz province.

From there, they tried their luck in the capital. Asil, who is studying business administration, saw on Facebook that the Americans were airlifting some Afghans out of Kabul.

A child cries as man carries a bloodied child after Taliban fighters lashed out to control thousands of Afghans waiting to get to the airport.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Before leaving his family, he had promised to send money home if he could. Perhaps he would be able to build a better life.

For Asil and his friends, that was the dream — but it was shadowed by an overriding fear: that they would be conscripted into the ranks of the Taliban. The same fighters now tormenting this crowd.

The young men’s cat-and-mouse game continued. The fighters kept firing. And the dust blew and blew.

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