A striking new photograph shows 640 Afghans packed tightly into a U.S. plane leaving Kabul in a desperate bid to escape the Taliban.
The photo, from national security publication Defense One, captures the Air Force evacuation from Kabul to Qatar.
The Afghans were all evacuated safely, even though the crowd nearly topped the record for the most people ever flown in the Boeing aircraft, a military cargo plane which has been in service for nearly three decades.
The plane, C-17, belongs to the 436th Air Wing and is normally based in Delaware.
Its crew had not intended to take so many passengers but panicked Afghans had pulled themselves on the aircraft’s half-open ramp, according to one official.
The official said “the crew made the decision to go” rather than attempt to force off the excess passengers, and was only able to count the travelers when they all disembarked.
The Afghans sat on the floor of the plane’s hold, hanging onto cargo straps on the walls as makeshift seatbelts.
It was just one of several planes which took off with hundreds of passengers from Kabul – the anonymous official told Defense One that some may have carried a load even larger than 640 people.
Disturbing videos also circulated online on Monday showing people clinging to the outside of departing aircrafts in Kabul airport, with some still holding on even after takeoff and ultimately falling to their deaths. At least seven people died in the chaos.
Kabul airport is one of the few places in the country which is still controlled by U.S. troops meaning it has become a key escape route.
The Taliban have torn through Afghanistan in a matter of days, filling the power vacuum left by the U.S. troops who pulled out of the country after spending 20 years fighting the so-called “war on terror.”
The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, backed by Western powers, also handed the reins of power over to the Taliban without a fight and fled abroad on Sunday.
Now Afghan civilians are trying to leave the country too, aware of the Taliban’s reputation for oppressive, violent rule, media suppression and misogynistic attitudes.
The UN’s refugee agency have said at least 400,000 Afghans are now displaced within their own country.
Where are Afghans going?
Many developed countries are trying to evacuate both their own nationals and Afghans who have assisted Western powers in the fight against the Taliban over the years.
The UK has so far refused to confirm how many refugees it will be willing to take.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace broke down on LBC on Monday and admitted “some won’t get back” from Afghanistan.
Australia is sending 250 military personnel to take more than 130 Australians and their families out of the war-torn country – it will also try to evacuate hundreds of Afghans who worked for troops.
The nation’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison added: “Support won’t reach all that it should.”
The U.S. has already evacuated 1,200 Afghans who have Special Immigrant Visas, according to Reuters on Friday.
The White House hopes to bring back 3,500 civilians more in the coming weeks, while reportedly also looking for nations in central Asia and the Balkan to accept Afghan refugees.
The State Department added thousands more will be allowed to see asylum, especially as those who worked for the U.S. are at high risk of being Taliban targets.
Canada will welcome 20,000 refugees, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, have all agreed to pause deportations for refugees going back to Afghanistan, as have Finland, Sweden, Norway and France.
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