Stuck in transit: Afghans at Italy's NAS Sigonella recall their perilous journey leaving Kabul

With the Allied Refugee Operation, the US Department evacuated US citizens, special immigration visa applicants and Afghan people in distress. NAS Sigonella, in Sicily [Getty Images]
5 min read
17 September, 2021

Abdul-Hadi hits nervously at his phone while waiting to board the plane bound to Philadelphia. When he landed a few days ago in Sigonella, he knew he was one step forward to a new life. However, he couldn't imagine the strain that leaving behind a pregnant wife would bring to him. “I had to choose between getting killed by the Taliban or hope to see her again one day. I choose the latter.”

Abdul-Hadi was an employee at the Minister of Justice and – as many other Afghans hosted in Sigonella – he moved to Kabul overnight as soon as the Taliban took control of the country.

In the military base, more than 4,000 Afghans wait patiently for their turn to be evacuated to the United States, while the US military continues its efforts to speed up the flights and reduce the stress on them.

The Italian-US joint airbase of Sigonella suddenly become a crucial transit station in Europe since the start of the operation to evacuate the civilians threatened by the Taliban. Every day, the staff process four flights and hundreds of people. The centre is complete with temporary accommodations, medical tents, recreational and religious spaces.

 "It was a nightmare staying in Kabul during the evacuation. There was gunfire, traffic jams, and people constantly screaming . Now all I want is a new life in the US, and hope to see my family again"

“I thought it was a good idea working for the government because it gives you many benefits and a better quality of life. But now that the Taliban are in charge, whoever worked for the Afghan government is on a death list. As a result, I am now displaced with no chance of getting back home anytime soon. I hope the US is able to bring my wife eventually. The only thing I said to her was goodbye,” Abdul Hadi said while a Marines in charge of the registration cut off the discussion. He had to rush and get his flight.

A similar story comes from Adnan, an employee at the US embassy in Kabul. “I had to move from the capital as soon as they closed the embassy. We all knew the Taliban were after the Afghans who worked with foreigners, particularly with Americans.

“The international community shouldn’t trust their proclaims and their calls for unity. The Taliban considers you a traitor either if you were a minister, an interpreter or a cleaner. In Afghanistan, this means death,” he said.

According to the United Nations, the swift Taliban military offensive has been characterised by “direct targeting of civilians, civil society and journalists, summary executions, the assassination of human rights defenders, arbitrary detention, mass executions of civilians, and unlawful restrictions on the human rights of women and girls.”

 NAS Sigonella, in Sicily, served as a transit site for Afghan refugees from Kabul to the United States of America.
NAS Sigonella, in Sicily, has served as a transit site for Afghan refugees from Kabul to the United States of America [Getty Images]

In this situation, women are particularly affected by the new rulers of Afghanistan. The Sharia, which is the ideological and political system the Taliban aims to, heavily restricts the rights and freedoms of women.

“When the Taliban arrived in Mazar Sharif, my parents took me to Kabul. They knew I wouldn’t survive because of my background and my work for women rights,” said Manishza while she waits to get the security clearance to board the flight.

In Afghanistan, she was a student in political science and should have graduated in September when the sudden advance of the Taliban bring back the country to another century. Unlike other women, she was lucky enough to pass through the checkpoints set by the militants all around the Karzai airport.

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“At the beginning, the Taliban denied access to the airport for the women. Then, they realised there were too many people and had to loosen controls to the gate. It was a nightmare staying in Kabul during the evacuation. There was gunfire, traffic jams, and people constantly screaming. Now all I want is a new life in the US, and hope to see my family again.”

Just a few metres behind, Fawzia holds the hand of her daughter. She was the only female air controller at Kabul's airport and recalls her struggles to escape the country. "I tried many times to enter the airport because the Taliban denied access to women and stopped as many people as they could. I succeeded because I tricked them," she said.

"The Taliban haven't changed, I believe they are far worse than they were twenty years ago. What the militants say is just a maquillage to be accepted by the international community. I fear for my sister and my mother now, they work as an attorney and a teacher. They can't work anymore because of the Taliban and they have lost all they achieved in twenty years."

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As thousands of Afghans and their families who closely worked with the Western troops remain stranded in the country, many questions arise about the US government’s agenda in providing extra support to bring them out.

US officials in Sigonella are avoiding comments about any political evaluation and bounce back questions to reporters who ask whether there will be any new operations to rescue vulnerable Afghans left behind is on the horizon.

“Strategies to bring additional people to safety are developed in Washington,” stated Captain Kevin Pickard, the Base Commander at Sigonella. “From our side, we will continue to carry as many people as possible who want to come to the United States with all our resources available.”

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East