By Tao Zeng
In the final days before the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan closed its doors, a small group of embassy employees who remained behind could often be found transporting classified files, embassy-branded office supplies, and other sensitive documents down “Pennsylvania Ave.”— the road bisecting the embassy compound—to a makeshift incinerator for secure disposal.
“By the time I left, I had lost count of how many trips I made to the large industrial dumpster fire to toss in boxes upon boxes of files the embassy had accumulated over the last twenty years. Looking back, those were still some of the calmer days of my time in Kabul,” said Tao Zeng, who served as a political-military affairs officer in Embassy Kabul’s Pol/Econ section.
Zeng was airlifted from the embassy by helicopter with the few remaining officers left in the Pol/Econ section, and the USAID Mission director, Aug. 15. The team landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) not long after taking off from the embassy soccer field.
“From the air we could see the streets of Kabul gridlocked with traffic and crowds of people trying to make their way to the airport. The air was dotted in all directions with helicopters in all parts of the city. None of us knew what would come next, but we all knew this was just the beginning.”
The next day, video of people running on the tarmac and clinging desperately to a moving C-17 military transport aircraft alerted the rest of the world to the desperate situation unfolding on the ground in Kabul. By that evening, Zeng and other Mission personnel had begun running shifts to assist wherever they could in what would become one of the largest humanitarian airlift operations in history. Zeng and two other colleagues were assigned to the HKIA’s North Gate and arrived shortly after midnight.
“I was selected for the night shift where I remained throughout the rest of my time in Afghanistan. Working the first night [at the North Gate] was by far the most difficult moment of my career, even compared to my remaining nights working in Kabul, including at Abbey Gate the morning before the horrific bombing.”
North Gate volunteers were tasked with vetting every person entering the airport to ensure that they were eligible to board one of the evacuation flights out of Afghanistan. Hundreds of U.S. Marines secured the gate with the help of a few Afghan translators and Afghan commandos. Near constant gunfire, exploding flashbangs, and smoke from the occasional tear gas grenade highlighted the deteriorating security situation outside the airport complex, and demonstrated that the North Gate’s function as a barrier between the chaos on the streets outside and the relative safety inside HKIA was tenuous at best.
“As the world saw in videos broadcast by all the major news networks, men, women, and children were pulled over the gate one by one, some being pulled down by others trying to grab hold and get over themselves. Directly on the other side, my colleagues and I were lined up interviewing each person as they came over.”
Until the end of their shift at dawn, Zeng and his colleagues were responsible for deciding whether the desperate, bloody, traumatized people standing in front of them were qualified to get on a flight or if they were sent back out into the chaos roiling the Kabul streets. Afghans who presented the necessary documentation were processed and sent through security screening before boarding one of the waiting evacuation flights.
That was the first night. Fourteen more grueling shifts awaited the embassy volunteers.
“No one spoke during our ride back to the operations center after our shift ended. We all knew what we had just witnessed wouldn’t be able to be bottled up and forgotten.”
Tao Zeng was a political officer at Embassy Kabul.