Listen to episode #17 of NAVIGATE for one woman’s experience on how she got out of Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban
Evacuating Afghanistan to escape from the Taliban transcript:
0:00:04 – 0:01:11
|On the 15th of August 2021, we witnessed the return of the Taliban to Kabul. After 20 years of conflict, the mass evacuations and the sheer panic in the streets was evidence of the people who were fearing for their lives.|
Throughout this period, World Travel Protection supported our clients who required evacuation, and when evacuation was no longer possible, we assisted with a Shelter In Place plans. Part of that was receiving on the ground updated and reliable information. And people like Jill Kornetsky who Frank Harrison is going to talk to today’s episode.
Jill quickly became part of a series of networks providing updates, ensuring objective real-world perspective. In turn, Jill received a more comprehensive range of information that helped her decide when was the right time for her to leave. Frank was directly communicating with Jill and receiving passing information and following her journey as Jill went from wanting to remain to choosing to evacuate herself and her assistant.
Join Frank and Jill today as we look at Jill’s journey, how she and why she went to Afghanistan, and how she made a difference and her subsequent evacuation. But thank you for listening and enjoy a special episode of NAVIGATE.
0:01:13 – 0:01:41
|Hello, my name is Frank Harrison. I’m the regional security director in North America for World Travel Protection. Welcome to NAVIGATE, our podcast on lessons learned and about travel awareness and safety. Joining me today is Jill Suzanne Kornetsky. She has an amazing story of how she was in Afghanistan and how she left. What’s even more interesting is how Jill ended up in Afghanistan. Hello Jill and welcome to NAVIGATE.|
0:01:41 – 0:01:42
|Hey Frank, thanks for having me.|
0:01:43 – 0:01:45
|So, what brought you to Afghanistan?|
0:01:45 – 0:02:52
|Right. So, I spent about seven years, just under seven years in Afghanistan. I had colleagues in graduate school who are from Afghanistan, I was getting Master’s in sustainable international development, and coexistence and conflict. So, there’s a few places on Earth where development and conflict really interact with each other. And Afghanistan is one of them. I also had some personal ties to the region; I was adopted as a baby. And I know my birth father was Persian. So, I’ve always had a sort of fascination with the region and read a lot of travel books about these mysterious and dusty places that few people travel.|
So, when I was in graduate school, around 2010, it was sort of the peak of the Afghan war, it was the peak of activity there. There were a lot of news stories, it was pretty clear that there was a huge need for help for assistance on the development side, despite the conflict, that it was going to be a difficult job, and that it needed good people to come and do that job and role model and be an ally. So, I took a position with USAID for six months doing monitoring and evaluation. And after that, I stuck around to try to figure out how I could best make an impact there.
0:02:53 – 0:03:05
|So, you went with USAID, you set up a residence in Kabul? You stayed on so what was the next part of your journey like living in Afghanistan, just what was your day to day like and what the years turned into?|
0:03:05 – 0:04:07
|It’s definitely a strange place to live, an interesting place to live. Everybody goes and kind of thinks they know this thing they think they get it thinks they understand Afghanistan. And it takes about six months or a year to realize how thoroughly you did not get it. And how many of these quirks about culture, and the artificial culture that was contracting, how those all interacted on the ground.|
So, for me, I was mostly independent. I had apartments in different parts of the city. I tried working for different implementing partners, I worked for Azizi bank, I worked for, at one point, the anti-corruption commission. And throughout all of those things, I sort of discovered how much corruption there was, how few of the efforts were actually successful, or sustainable or even really sincere. So, I sort of started developing my own approach to how to help and how to approach programming differently, more localized, more, more sustainable, more self-sustaining. So, I’ve been pursuing that, and I’m intending to go back and pursue that in the near future.
0:04:07 – 0:04:22
|So, you are living in Kabul, you had a life, you were actively involved community, you have your trusted networks. When did it become apparent that the Taliban offensive was actually taking momentum? And what was the perception on the ground? And where did the two intersect?|
0:04:23 – 0:05:35
|Yeah, so early in August, there was a more – there was an increased cadence of the falling of districts and provinces. There’s – it was very common for districts to fall and be recaptured. And, you know, the 10 police officers would be overrun by 50 Talibs and the 50 Talibs would be overrun by 150 army. And then we’d repeat the cycle every few months or every six months, starting around maybe the 10th or 11th, they started falling in succession and not being recaptured. And that was a trend that was indicative of a larger problem then Herat fell, which had not really happened before.|
Only weeks previous they have fought off a huge offensive in Herat, we’re very proud of the ANDSF for their forcing the Taliban back out, Herat fell, some of the Northern districts fell in provinces and then Mazar fell. And that was a big deal. Mazar was always the stronghold of the resistance and the warlords had always managed to keep it. That’s where the early resistance fighters in 2001 fought back the Taliban and basically crushed them. So, for Mazar to fall, and for the warlords not to stay and fight for it was a turning point in the conflict.
0:05:36 – 0:05:51
|So that’s the warning. Mazar-i-Sharif falls. Now Kabul is the target, because effectively just about fell about the same time as Mazar-i-Sharif. So, you’re in Kabul? What are you seeing? What is happening around you? What are you noticing?|
0:05:51 – 0:07:49
|Leading up to the 15th, there was a lot of news stories, there was a lot of social media. I started calling it disaster porn, because it was so worst-case scenario, so apocalyptic, so ‘they’re coming for all of you and killing all of you’. And it caused sort of an increase in the panic. There was always a concern, you know, the Taliban was always a concern, security is always a concern. But the tone of social media and the tone of the news became quite desperate and quiet, you know, disproportionately so but desperate, and uncertainty led to speculations about what they were going to do. And those became concrete. And this is definitely happening.|
So up until the 15th, it was just a lot of crosstalk and a lot of static. And a lot of nobody really had the true story – was that district fought for was it handed over? We were starting only just starting to hear the rumors, which turned out to be true that many of the provincial leaders had been bribed in advance so that when the Taliban showed up at their door, they wouldn’t fight and they would just hand over the district or the province. So then around the 15th, they came. In the 15th, in the morning, we had heard rumors that Ghani had signed a secret deal, a secret agreement with them in the palace, in which he would resign, and they would take Kabul bloodlessly, it would be no fighting, that there would be a stand down order for the troops and police. And that was rumored in the morning and proven true, you know, by the evening, around maybe three o’clock in the afternoon, we got word from multiple messages that they’re here. They’re in the city, they’re coming.
There was a huge rush of cars and pedestrians in towards the center of town, which was also towards the airport. People definitely were scared. And anybody who hadn’t already started heading to the airport started heading to the airport. And it was – my assistant told me to go as well. And I said anytime 10,000 People go in one direction, you don’t go in that direction. Good things don’t happen along that line.
0:07:50 – 0:08:21
|So, you’re an American, you were there in an expat position. You had your organization; you had a lot of local nationals that were part of your circles. You had local Afghan who was your deputy? What happened then like this is now at the cusp where things are really starting to change. And in my space, we had a you had become part of a trusted network that I was involved in. And you were providing some real honest on the ground intelligence back out to us. But for you personally, what happened next?|
0:08:21 – 0:10:39
|For me personally, my concerns were more about my assistant. He had in the days preceding the fall been threatened at his farm, which is on the outskirts of Kabul. The night of the takeover late at night after the hubbub had died down, his brother was assassinated in the road outside of their home. And we weren’t entirely sure why if that was because he was ANSDF. If that was because they were affiliated with me, because he had been threatened for working with quote “the Americans”. The person reporting on him didn’t realize that I’m an independent entity. I’m not government, I’m not aid. I’m not any of those things. But that was enough for them.|
So, my concern turned to my assistant. We first started sort of sanitizing the house, getting anything in English, shredding it or burning it or throwing it out, getting any liquor bottles out of the house, getting any materials that people would find, or that the Taliban would find offensive out, packing up books, just getting rid of a whole DVD collection, anything that could have potentially upset the Taliban, we started sanitizing the house. And then we sort of we sat and waited; we listen to our networks. We were talking to everybody.
At the time I had a roommate who is an Afghan expat. And the day after Kabul fell, she was traveling to and from her family’s homes and my office and she was doing it in proper Islamic hijab, but she was doing it without being bothered. So even on the first day after the fall, it was clear that the 1998 Taliban wasn’t what we were dealing with. And that’s not to say their ideology has changed, because it hasn’t, but the way they approached things and the way they operate, for various reasons was quite different. Women were coming and going during the day without problems, and not with their faces covered. But with proper hijab. Men were coming and going right up until curfew and even after curfew that was being implemented.
So mostly, we just made preparations, kept in touch with our networks and waited and watched. You know, I was fortunate that our office is up quite a few stories on a main road. So, we were able to see quite a distance in every direction. And so, we were able to observe the Taliban doing patrols at night, and how are they behaving? How are they treating people on the road in general? So that was the next few days of our week.
0:10:39 – 0:10:56
|And if I recall, that was about the time that you had made an announcement in one of our networks that you were going to stay and prepare to go out on a commercial aircraft when the civilian airport reopened. At what point did you realize that wasn’t going to be an option. And what happened then?|
0:10:57 – 0:14:16
|Yeah, I had scheduled flights out later in August and into September. It became clear as those kept getting canceled and pushed out and canceled and pushed out that the predicted reopening of the airport was going to take longer than we thought and we thought it was possible they were going to run the military side of the airport, and also the commercial side of the airport. And the way it worked out when the US forces came to hold the airport and run the airport. That wasn’t going to happen. The commercial side was closed, commercial side had been overrun, and maybe was not operable as it should be. So, it was all going to be military flights, at least until the 31st.|
I had heard from some of my contacts in the US government, that they were definitely trying to get the airport open. And that it was possible we were going to extend beyond the 31st into September, which didn’t turn out to be the case. So, around the 19th or 20th, I started to step up my efforts to find alternative pathways out. I was content to wait until it was clear that the airport was not going to open for some time.
So I started contacting State Department, some contacts I had State and USAID and the DOD and just people along the way, who mostly LinkedIn friends who knew I was in country alone and wanted to offer just some information or some connections or call this person, try this number. And that’s when we started exploring alternatives to the airport, the airport was already a mess. It was the kind of mess that Daesh loves to blow up. They love a soft target. They love a high body count. Starting 16th – 17th we knew the airport was going to get hit by Daesh. So, going there for me was not an option. Also, because I knew they would separate me from my assistant and he wouldn’t get out, which was the whole point.
By around the 23rd I believe 22nd – 23rd, the US forces had started doing some limited convoys to the area, they were very hush hush at the time. We thought that that would keep going and I tried to get on those lists. But after a day or two, they were called off as being too risky or not exactly sure the logic. So, I was contacted by the American coordination cell, which is not a thing. It’s not a thing that exists. So, based on the choice of words and the questions I was asked, it was clear that those fellows were either special forces or intelligence.
So I was able to work with them to first try to get on a convoy and when that wasn’t possible to meet them at an alternative location outside of the airport, where we could be helicoptered into the airport from that location turned out to be Eagle base, former CIA black site and also known as the brick factory or the salt works. They had us come in there on our own steam, you had to find your own transport. My neighbor’s cook drove us in his Civic and drove us out past Pul-e-Charkhi prison, past the whole industrial area out to Deh Sabz, which is where like the gas tanks are. And we were taken into a very heavily fortified base there and asked mostly Afghans trickled in throughout the day, until we had a couple of 100 and then after dark, we were helicoptered over to the airport.
0:14:16 – 0:14:21
|So, you arrive at the airport and then were you put right onto a service aircraft out or how to transport?|
0:14:22 – 0:15:57
|No, we were not so there was the airport was some sort of organized chaos. There was holding areas sort of fenced off or caged off holding areas for groups of passengers. There was a constant stream of military aircraft coming and going. We saw Netherlands, US, Australia, Britain, just military cargo planes coming and going in a constant stream.|
We were funneled through one section of the airport to give our documentation and be manifested on a flight and then walked through a different part of the airport to have that confirmed. At that point, they wanted to separate me from my assistant because the citizens and the non-citizens were being treated a bit differently going to different locations. I refused, I stayed with my assistant.
We were eventually manifested on a flight and then taken to a holding area for, I don’t know, four to six hours just sitting, you know, 20 meters from the concrete from the tarmac, watching planes take off until it was our turn. Around, I don’t know, two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning, we were led over single file to a military transport.
We were loaded in a C-17. All sitting on the floor together, they close the tailgate and took off. And we didn’t know at that point, if we were going to Dubai or Qatar, we found out after we landed that we were in Qatar. And from there, we were taken through the processing system, through the wedding tents. And then once I was sure that my assistant was on a list and would not be left behind. I was separated and taken to the citizens area.
0:15:58 – 0:16:04
|Obviously, the tempo changed then. What was the next steps and how did you leave?|
0:16:04 – 0:16:41
|Once we got to the civilian area, it was all very orderly. It was obviously far less people. Most of the people were at the wedding tents area where my assistant was, we hung out from sunset until maybe midnight, there was an issue with the train the bus, there was something wrong with the bus that was supposed to take us to the plane and there was something wrong with the plane.|
So, what was supposed to be two days of half plane loads turned into one night of a full plane load. They weren’t sure when we could take off, they got us a couple of cots and chairs and blankets and told us to make ourselves comfortable. Around 3:30-4 in the morning, they woke us up and put us on a united commercial jetliner.
0:16:42 – 0:16:43
|Where did you go to from there?|
0:16:43 – 0:17:44
|We went to a base in Germany to just to switch the crews because the flight time was too long for a single crew. We had a turnover there. We went to Dulles from Germany. And then in Dulles started a long process of being taken through separate Customs and Border Patrol lines because not everybody who had gone on those planes had been completely vetted. So, they wanted to take us to a separate area than other passengers. And just very slowly take us through one by one, check paperwork, make sure they knew what was happening.|
I was on a plane of course with people who were American citizens, legal permanent residents, people with green cards, so it was a different process for my assistant. But we were processed through as quickly as you can process four arriving planes at the same time. And from there. We had the option of staying in a Marriott paid for by the National Public Health Service. I declined and went to a different hop hotel and then from there I went home.
0:17:44 – 0:17:45
|Where did your assistant end up?|
0:17:46 – 0:19:38
|My assistant had a much, much longer journey. My assistant was in Qatar for about a week, roughly a week. We entered his P2 paperwork pretty late in the process, so I knew it would take him time to be processed.|
One of the Marines was kind enough to give me a SIM card, he went to the base px for me and got me a SIM card so I can keep in touch with state and people making sure that my assistant was on lists. I handed that over to my assistant when I left, and I gave him some cash and he was in the tent city for about a week.
From there he transferred to Ramstein. They took biometrics once he was on a certain list of a manifest. They took biometrics in Qatar before they left and then they went to Ramstein. He was in Ramstein for approximately two months. It was a long haul in challenging circumstances.
They didn’t have showers up when they first arrived. They were just getting the internet running. You know a lot of men had to shave their beards and their hair because of sanitation problems, which was I think, traumatic for them.
After about two months, he was transferred to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. Because the Ramstein intra agency contract had expired for housing people. He was there for almost another month. And then he has just recently been flown to America. So now he’s on a base in the States. He is waiting placement, which is going to take another couple of months most likely, but he’s safe.
The conditions in the base in America are very friendly and kind. There’s food, there’s people making barbecues and welcoming meals, they’re distributing clothing, and there’s a much bigger area for them to be able to walk around, they can go to the store now. They weren’t allowed to go to the story before. So, it’s a very long process. And it’s not finished yet. But he’s on the road to at least safety. And we’ll see where we go from there.
0:19:39 – 0:20:15
|What an incredible story. You went to Afghanistan as a graduate with your graduate degrees to do good you ended up becoming part of the community you were effectively part of the Kabul fabric and then you had to escape as an American. If you look back on what has occurred over in the period just before you evacuated. Is there any advice or three points that you give to just any travelers so that when they’re traveling, how to be prepared? Because we’re not going to have an Afghanistan every day, but travelers do find themselves in harm’s way on a regular basis.|
0:20:16 – 0:22:18
|Yeah, sure. So, I would say, a big thing is to be as self-sufficient as possible. I think for somebody who’s traveling quickly from place to place, it’s a little bit different from somebody who’s staying in a place for a little while. But especially if you’re staying in a place for a little while, be prepared to shelter in place. You know, you should have more than two days of food and bottled water in the house, you should have enough propane to keep that water. You should have backup batteries. What if the power gets cut? What if you can’t get in touch? What if your internet fails? Do you have enough top up cards? Do you have enough backup batteries to keep that phone working?|
The second is to probably stay in touch with the relevant agencies and the STEP program and the embassies, but don’t count on them. I’ve been in several different countries where smaller, less consequential things happened. And I discovered that I couldn’t rely on the embassies the way you see in the movies. You know, they’re not – as much as there was military presence in this evacuation, that is extremely rare. And the movie notion that the embassy is going to roll out a squad of Marines to come and get you because you’re having a bad day is a fantasy. And people need to get over it, because it’s never going to happen. Even in Kabul, when people were at specific risk, they only ran convoys, like one or two nights. That was it. Because it was too risky. And it was too complicated. And they just couldn’t, let’s say, yeah.
And for third, I say build up your local networks, as much as people powerful or influential people on the outside can get in touch with people or can make things happen. The local people on the ground and not even the elites, not even the political class, just your average neighbors, the people that you hang out with. They have more local knowledge than anybody ever gives them credit for. They know the difference between a good guy and a bad guy on sight. They know their habits; they know what is safe and what’s not safe. They know, you know, when a rumor is just BS and when not to pay attention to it. And those are the people who can sort of help you vet your information and know whether you’re making smart decisions based on the context.
0:22:19 – 0:22:43
|That’s really good advice. So be prepared, travel with confidence, be risk-aware, adapt and leverage support. Jill, this has been an amazing conversation on our NAVIGATE podcast. I really appreciate your time. Your story’s amazing, and I hope others can enjoy it and learn from your experience. And I look forward to following your journey as you prepare for your next adventure.|
0:22:44 – 0:22:47
|Thank you, Frank. I really appreciate it being here.|
0:22:49 – 0:23:00
|You’ve been listening to the World Trade Protection NAVIGATE podcast. If you’d like to learn more about World Travel Protection, please visit our website at worldtravelprotection.com. Don’t forget to like and subscribe. And again, thank you for listening.|
When the Taliban returned to Kabul in August 2021, many people – citizens and foreigners alike – were forced with the decision to stay or go. If they decided to leave, it was a simple answer but a complex process. In this podcast episode, guest host Frank Harrison interviews one woman who went from wanting to remain in country to choosing to evacuate herself and her assistant. After seven years of living in Afghanistan, Jill Kornestsky made the complicated journey back to America as part of the US led evacuation effort.
We hear what it was like in Kabul when rumours and panic preceded the Taliban, and what happened in the aftermath. Listen to the end for Jill’s top tips for travelling and living in a high risk destination.
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