Afghanistan: Shukria Barakzai's whispered voice notes and dramatic escape

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Shukria Barakzai, August 2021
Shukria Barakzai, August 2021

For Shukria Barakzai, 15 August seemed, at first, an unremarkable Sunday morning. A prominent journalist and politician, a former member of the Afghan parliament and ambassador to Norway, she was a frequent traveller. She already had a few bags packed, as she was due to fly to Turkey later that day for a brief trip.

"To be honest, everything was just on schedule, like a normal day for me."

From the window of her car she saw long queues outside banks, and the traffic on the road out to Hamid Karzai International Airport was heavier than usual. But it wasn't until she got to the airport itself, and joined the queue for a Covid PCR test that she realised that something was wrong.

"I saw all my former colleagues - members of parliament, governors, ministers - they were all queuing. And I said: 'Oh, are we all going, is everything OK?'"

That's when she heard the news. The Taliban were at the gates of the city - Kabul had fallen.

Suddenly, everyone was rushing to get on a plane. Ms Barakzai's flight to Turkey was cancelled. She quickly found another flight and tried to buy a ticket, but the airline would not accept her credit card. Cash only. She only had US$100 (£73) on her, not enough for new tickets. She found a friend in the crowd and borrowed the extra money, bought tickets for herself and her husband, and they quickly boarded the plane. It looked like they would get out just in time.

They were just settling into their seats when a crowd from the airport forced their way onto the aircraft. She said the captain announced that since people in the crowd were carrying guns, the plane could not take off. Eventually, when they refused to disembark, the pilot switched off the lights and the ventilation, and left.

"And that's when the nightmare started," she says.

Shukria Barakzai talking to her campaign team in Kabul, 2010
Shukria Barakzai with her campaign team in Kabul, 2010

By now, Taliban fighters were roaming the city, so Ms Barakzai and her husband decided to spend the night on board the stranded aircraft, along with a number of other passengers.

"One of my friends sent me a photo, saying, 'Shukria, Taliban are in your house.' I thought the airport was the safest place. Unfortunately, I was absolutely wrong."

By Monday morning, the Taliban had taken over the main terminal. Ms Barakzai tried to make it to the safety of the military side, where US forces were still in control. But it was chaos and the Americans would not allow them through. That's when she realised the Taliban were looking for her.

"I saw a kind of undercover [Taliban fighter] without a gun. And I realised that the Taliban were here to find and identify faces. They were looking for me. The way they were speaking and the way they were staring. You know, they just wanted to make sure it was me."

She had good reason to be fearful. A powerful woman and outspoken critic of the Taliban, in 2014 a suicide bomber attacked her car. Three people were killed, and Ms Barakzai narrowly escaped with her life.

The scene of a suicide car bomb attack that targeted Shukria Barakzai in Kabul, November 2014
The aftermath of the suicide car bomb attack that targeted Shukria Barakzai - Kabul, November 2014

So as Kabul airport descended into chaos, Ms Barakzai began messaging anyone and everyone who might help get her out. She tried her contacts at the US Embassy, but none responded. Then she tried a contact in the UK - Debbie Abrahams, MP at Westminster for Oldham East and Saddleworth. The two became friends about four years ago.

"I sent a message to her local number," Ms Abrahams says. "She rang me and we spoke. The desperation in her voice, I never want to hear that from anybody again."

Ms Abrahams immediately began calling all her contacts in Whitehall to try to get Ms Barakzai and her husband on a list of potential evacuees. But the panicked calls from Kabul airport kept coming.

The messages on Debbie's phone - texts and voice notes - testify to that desperation. In one audio message, Ms Barakzai's husband can be heard pleading for help while hiding in a toilet.

"Debbie please help us, madam… madam please help us. We want to go towards the British officials. Just please inform the US army so they can let us go inside, the Talibans are here… please, I am in the washroom. Please madam, please!"

In another message Ms Barakzai sounds defeated, saying, "I think it's better to go to them, and give myself to the Taliban… this is the last chance I had," while a burst of gunfire is heard in the background.

Messages from Shukria Barakzai to Debbie Abrahams MP
Messages from Shukria Barakzai to Debbie Abrahams MP

By now on that Monday, night had fallen. Through the crowd, Ms Barakzai and her husband saw Taliban fighters coming straight towards them.

"They came and they [looked like they were] prepared to shoot. But first they beat [my husband], and they beat me."

Somehow, in the chaos of the melee, they managed to get away.

"We just ran. We just ran. It was a very long way, we ran. It was extremely dark, I could only see red [tracer] bullets being exchanged between both sides."

Under cover of darkness, they slipped away from the airport and back into the city.

Meanwhile, Ms Abrahams was making progress. She made formal applications for the couple's evacuation via the Home Office, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. But it wasn't clear which department was in charge or what the process was for getting evacuees out.

"There was nothing in place at that time. Nobody knew who was coordinating what and where to put the enquiry into. So I just contacted everybody I knew, and then I used my unofficial networks just to try to find out what was going on."

Ms Abrahams contacted Tariq (Lord) Ahmad, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for South Asia. And he wasted no time. By the middle of the afternoon on Monday 16th, he sent Debbie a message to say that Ms Barakzai and her husband had been put on the list of priority cases, that they still had to get final clearance, but that evacuation should be imminent.

But evacuation was not imminent.

Shukria Barakzai distributing electoral pamphlets to school girls as she campaigns for the parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan - August 2005
Shukria Barakzai distributing electoral pamphlets to school girls as she campaigns for the parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan - August 2005

Shukria Barakzai

  • Born in 1970 into an educated Afghan family

  • Maternal grandfather was a senator during the time of King Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973

  • Appointed to the 2003 loya jirga, a body which passed the new constitution after the fall of the Taliban

  • Elected to the House of the People (Wolesi Jirga) - the lower house of the National Assembly of Afghanistan - in 2004

  • Spoke up for women's rights and faced death threats for her views

  • Injured in a targeted suicide attack in Kabul in2014

  • Served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Norway

For the next five days, Ms Abrahams, Lord Ahmad and others sent scores of messages to contacts in Whitehall. They confirmed that Ms Barakzai and her husband were on a list, but no-one seemed to know when she might be called for a flight, or how she should coordinate the perilous journey from Kabul city to the airport, which was guarded by US, British and Turkish forces.

Meanwhile Ms Barakzai and her husband were hiding in the city, moving from house to house, as the Taliban continued to track them. On Wednesday the 18th, she sent her friend another voice note:

"Hi Debbie, sorry to bother you again. When will I be able to get to the British camp or safe shelter? Because I'm afraid I may not have any shelter for tonight. And nowhere is safe for me to go."

By Thursday she had moved again, to a place she thought would be safe - until some Taliban fighters moved into an abandoned building next door. But then there was a hopeful development. In a whispered voice note Ms Barakzai said she had received a call from someone at the Foreign Office.

The official, who gave his name as James, asked her whether she and her husband were UK passport holders, even though the FCDO had been sent copies of their Afghan passports on Monday. When Ms Barakzai explained that they were Afghan citizens, the official said he would consult with colleagues and call back. But night fell and the call did not come.

Debbie Abrahams MP
Debbie Abrahams MP

Back in the UK, Ms Abrahams was hitting brick walls.

"I sent a message again to Tariq [Lord Ahmad], and he said, 'I'll update you as soon as I can.' I kept on doing that literally every few hours. I must have been a real pain to them, but I just wanted to do everything that I could.

"I couldn't identify where the blockage was and who was issuing it. Was it the Home Office? Was it the Foreign Office? Tariq is a very loyal government minister, but I could sense his frustration as well."

Back in Kabul, Ms Barakzai was running out of places to hide. On top of fears for her own safety, she worried she was putting her hosts in danger.

On Friday the 20th, she got another call from the Foreign Office, but was told to sit tight until she received official confirmation via email, calling her for her flight. Exhausted, frustrated and barely eating, she sent another voice note:

"I cannot tolerate all this pressure on my shoulder. It's killing me, you know, it's killing me. I cannot breathe."

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul, August 20, 2021
Chaos close to Kabul airport, 20 August 2021

In the end it was another Westminster MP who broke the deadlock. While following Shukria's story, I learned that Tom Tugendhat was also working behind the scenes. Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he'd served in Afghanistan, and was trying to get other people out.

I met him that week when he came to the BBC's studios for an interview with Newsnight. He said he was aware of Ms Barakzai's case, and he passed on a contact.

The contact was for a former British soldier, part of an informal network of soldiers coordinating rescue efforts on the ground. I messaged the number. The soldier responded:

"It is carnage at the gates - people being crushed to death. I can facilitate through r [sic] system - not protocol but will do this as a favour"

That was the afternoon of Friday 20 August. And from there things started to move. Tom Tugendhat's contact, who was in the UK, called Ms Barakzai to find out where she was. Within 24 hours, on Saturday night, Shukria had got another call, this time from an American soldier. He told her to take a picture of herself and send it to him. He took the details of her vehicle and told her to drive to a location close to the airport. Ignore the curfew, he told her. Come now.

Dressed in a black niqab and abaya she and her husband got into the car and set off.

"It was extremely scary, especially in the middle of the night," she remembers. "The Taliban checkpoint stopped us in three places. I was fully covered."

The meeting point was near the airport. For two hours they waited in the dark. Then their contact appeared. The operation involved British, US and Afghan soldiers. They escorted Ms Barakzai and her husband to the airport, and whisked them through the gates. The time was around midnight on Sunday morning.

After almost a week in hiding, they were safe.

It wasn't until after that, and Ms Abrahams and Tariq Ahmad pressed the Foreign Office again, that Ms Barakzai finally received the emailed confirmation of her eligibility to fly, the document that was supposed to guarantee her entry into the airport.

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office said it does not comment on individual cases. A spokesperson said: "The scale of the Kabul evacuation effort is huge and we have now helped more than 12,200 people leave Afghanistan since 14 August.

"We will continue to do all we can to deliver on our obligation to get British nationals and eligible Afghans out of the country while the security situation allows."

Waiting for her flight, Ms Barakzai recorded another voice note.

"Hi, Debbie. Finally, we are in the airport. Thank you so much. May God bless you and your family."

The BBC's chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet talked to Shukria Barakzai in 2018

Listen to Shukria Barakzai: Her Story Made History

Ms Abrahams received the news with mixed feelings - relief on the one hand, but also the realisation of how many others were still in danger.

"I don't think Shukria would have got out unless I'd used all the contacts that I had to help her escape," she says. "There will be thousands that are left. And I think we've let them down dreadfully. It should not be down to informal networks to enable people to escape persecution. And that's what it's come down to. If there was a plan in place, why did it fail so miserably?"

Ms Barakzai and her husband arrived in the UK in the early hours of Monday 23 August, on a military flight into RAF Brize Norton. They are now quarantining in a nearby hotel. The window for evacuations from Kabul is rapidly closing. Hard times lie ahead for those who remain. But exile is no easy prospect either.

"From one side, I feel I can breathe," she told me. "But on the other side I am thinking, 'what happened with my country, with my people?'"

"After 23 years of hard work, and lots of hope, we have to start everything from scratch. My heart is crying. Will I be able to see my country again?"

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