Another long, hot afternoon in Kabul was drawing to a close, thousands of foreigners and Afghans – many in family groups with young children – still hoping to flee the capital, thronged the heavily guarded gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, desperate to board one of the last planes out.
The atmosphere was febrile: hours earlier, shots were fired to disperse an angry crowd as an Italian military transport plane carrying nearly 100 Afghan civilians took off, one of hundreds of foreign and private evacuation flights over the past 12 days.
For the past 24 hours, officials have been saying intelligence suggested suicide bombers tied to the Afghan arm of the Islamic State group were threatening to attack the airport before the 31 August deadline to end the evacuation.
The warnings were specific. “Those at the Abbey gate, east gate or north gate now should leave immediately,” the US state department had said, advising people to approach only “if you receive individual instructions … to do so”.
On Thursday morning, the UK armed forces minister said the threat was “imminent”. For some, the tension became too much: one former British soldier helping a mother and her five-year-old and three-year-old children evacuate told them to leave.
“The crowds were very volatile and the Taliban very twitchy,” he said. A London minicab driver who had waited all night also decided to abandon the area near the Baron hotel, where British and US soldiers were processing evacuation documents, at about 3pm.
“I was there with my wife and children, but I decided to come home,” said the 42-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, adding that there were still “thousands of people” by the Abbey airport gate, about 200 yards away, when he left.
“Some were going, but most stayed,” the man said by phone from Kabul. There were other British passport holders in the queue, he said, “as well as people who had worked for Nato or for British forces, sitting on the roadside, helpless like me”.
Another British passport holder, who has lived in London for 20 years, said he did not even go to the airport. “It felt very dangerous there yesterday,” he said. “I received an email from the British embassy, saying don’t go to the airport today.”
The man said he was still hoping British officials would send a bus to collect him and his family, including his four children. “I hope they will provide transport for us. It’s too dangerous to try again,” he said.
For hundreds of others, however, still waiting in the dust and squalor of the airport periphery, Thursday afternoon ended in terror and, for some, injury or death.
Photos and videos posted on social media showed people, who moments earlier had been hoping to get passed the guards and onto the airfield, carrying dozens of wounded to ambulances in a daze, some in wheelbarrows, their clothes darkened with blood.
At about 6pm local time, two explosions – reportedly a car bomb and a suicide vest – detonated within minutes of each other, yards from the Abbey gate and the Baron hotel. Barat, who traveled to the airport with his cousin to show documents to foreign soldiers, was about 30 feet away from one of the blasts.
“The crowd was packed and people were pushing,” he. “I tripped, and that’s when the explosion happened. I think four or five soldiers were hit. We fell to the ground, the foreign soldiers started shooting. There were bodies everywhere, people were running.”
An Afghan interpreterthe first explosion was “really bad. A lot of people died”. He said he saw “a baby girl, and I looked at her, and I picked her up … I took her to the hospital, but she died in my hands. What’s going on right now is heartbreaking. This whole country is falling apart”.
Another eyewitness, Fahim, said Taliban and US personnel began firing in the air to disperse the crowds. Milad, also at the scene, told Agence-France Presses of “bodies, flesh and people” being flung into an open sewage ditch nearby and of “total panic”.
Another witness said that in the confusion he said he dropped the documents he hoped would help him board a flight with his wife and three children. “I never ever want to go [to the airport] again. Death to America, its evacuation and visas.”
One of the bombers had struck people standing knee-deep in a wastewater canal under the sweltering sun, throwing the bodies of those waiting in the already appalling conditions into the fetid water.
Other eyewitnesses reported sustained gunfire as Taliban soldiers fired in the air to disperse the crowds, “an endless wailing of sirens”, and loudspeaker cries ordering terrified crowds to return home. Dozens of bodies floated in the ditch, with clothes and suitcases scattered on the road.
A former Royal Marine who runs an animal shelter insays he and his staff were caught up in the aftermath. “All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted. Had our driver not turned around, he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47,” Paul “Pen” Farthing told the Press Association.
Waiting increasingly desperately for a flight out was a former interpreter with the UK military, who was nearby with his wife, three-month-old baby girl and three-year-old son. His family was unscathed, he said, but he added: “It was like doomsday, injured people everywhere.”