TORONTO — With the Canadian military wrapping up its mission at the Kabul airport and the last Canadian flight expected to leave on Thursday, the lifeline for thousands of Afghans with Canadian connections is slipping away.
On Wednesday, thousands of Afghans pleaded for one of the few seats left aboard flights out of Afghanistan.
The Taliban now have a tight and brutal grip on the airport perimeter. Still, those with Canadian VISAs have continued to try to fight through, while some other countries bussed people through to the gates.
Canada has flown more than 2,700 people out of Afghanistan, including some 1,500 in the past three days, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said on Wednesday.
“Canada has airlifted over 2,700 people out of Kabul,” Mendicino said during a press briefing, noting the figure includes Canadian nationals, refugees, and other foreign nationals.
According to Mendicino, there were 436 people evacuated on August 22, 506 on August 23 and 535, the largest number of evacuees on any Canadian flight, yesterday.
“Though the situation is challenging, we remain dedicated to evacuating as many people as we can in the limited time we have left,” said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
From his home office, Rob McCue organized his own rescue operation.
“My grandpa was a soldier, those are his service medals behind me,” McCue said.
McCue is a former soldier himself. He served in Afghanistan, and lost friends on that battlefield.
Through British contacts, he helped get his former interpreter on a flight to Dubai.
“I am so proud of myself that I was able to take my family to safe base, a better world of course, and a better future,” the former interpreter told CTV News.
But so many others will never board planes out of Afghanistan this week.
Somewhere in the crowd outside of the Kabul airport, there is another Canadian Forces interpreter. He’s been trying desperately to escape the country with his three children and his wife, who is nine months pregnant.
They have the Canadian paperwork they need, but they can’t get close enough to the gates to get through.
“They have been sitting outside the gate in Kabul for almost four days now,” said McCue.
Another former interpreter told CTV News that trying to get to the airport gates with his five children has been near impossible due to Taliban checkpoints and vicious sun beating down, questioning why buses or other transportation have not been provided for Canadian allies trapped in Afghanistan.
And cellphone videos on social media appear to show Afghans receiving no help from nearby Canadian soldiers.
In one video, the man filming said they had been waiting for three hours.
“We are showing our documents, we are asking them to at least support us […] and they are completely ignoring our yelling and shouting,” he said. “We have our VISAs, approved VISAs.”
Sajjan addressed clips like these on Wednesday, calling them “heart wrenching,” but adding that it was important to look at context, and that different Canadian soldiers have different jobs at the airport.
“We have Canadian troops that have to provide security,” he said, adding that others go to search out those with papers for a flight to Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted Wednesday that grounding planes won’t end Canada’s mission.
“Once this evacuation phase is done, we’re not stopping our work,” he said. “We’re going to continue with the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure that people can leave the country.”
But how, and when, is the question.
Sajjan said in a press briefing that the U.S. is providing security and leading the evacuation efforts, and so their forces will be the last to leave the region, hence the need for all Canadian flights to have departed in advance.
Canada is one of 13 countries taking part in the airlift out of the country.
Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, appealed directly to the Taliban during the press briefing, making an impassioned plea for them to allow Afghans to flee the country and respect the rights of others who remain after the evacuation.
“We call on you to ensure the safe and secure passage of any individual in Afghanistan out of the country,” she said. “We call on you to immediately stop the violence, the genocide, the femicide, the destruction of infrastructure, including heritage buildings.”
Monsef is herself a refugee who was born in Iran to Afghan parents during the height of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“Rest assured, I continue to believe deeply that the Taliban are a terrorist organization,” she said.
Whether her plea will be heeded or not is uncertain.
But the threat to collaborators of coalition forces was spelled out in black and white on night letters the Taliban sent out.
These letters ask all people of the region to help find U.S. and Canadian soldiers, as well as “their family and relatives in order to punish the spies for their actions.”
Making it clear that there will be little safety for those left behind when Canadian flights end.
With files from the Canadian Press