Interpreters and other Afghans who risked their lives to escape following the march of the Taliban landed in Britain yesterday aboard a historic RAF rescue flight.
Following the fall of their homeland in August, many of those left stranded when Western evacuation flights ended made the decision to leave, embarking on journeys fraught with danger.
Displaying courage and cunning, they defied jihadists desperate to intercept them en route to neighbouring countries.
From one such location, which cannot be disclosed for security reasons, the first group was flown to a military airbase in the Middle East and then on to Britain where they landed yesterday to start their new lives.
They were joined on the final leg of their journey by the Daily Mail which has advocated tirelessly for many years on behalf of translators through our award-winning Betrayal of the Brave campaign.
Touchdown: Interpreters and other Afghans who risked their lives to escape following the march of the Taliban walk off plane at RAF base in Oxfordshire yesterday
Our son was executed by the jihadis
Starting afresh: Ismail and his wife Malika
Ismail, 52 and his wife Malika, 42, have suffered revenge attacks at the hands of the Taliban for working with the British.
As they arrived in the UK, Malika said: ‘We were prepared to risk our lives to leave Afghanistan because the Taliban is killing our family members and would have killed us had we stayed there.
‘They executed a son of ours as punishment because Ismail worked for the British and so did another of our sons who is now living in the UK. So the journey to the neighbouring country was dangerous but really, as we are from Helmand Province where the fighting was so bloody for so long, we only know danger and bloodshed and loss.’
The couple had to pay a £200 bribe to a border official who refused to let two more of their children, travelling with them, from entering the neighbouring country.
Malika said: ‘We have nothing left to lose so we will start new lives.’
In all, 31 Afghans, including wives and children, arrived at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, exhausted but relieved after their ordeal.
They had intended to leave Afghanistan in August but were unable to access any of the Operation Pitting mercy flights from Kabul airport which rescued more than 15,000 Afghans, UK citizens and foreign nationals.
This week’s rescue mission is shrouded in secrecy due to political complications across the region.
As we can report today for the first time, it took measures to protect their real identities and supporting paperwork, disguises and cover stories to convince Taliban gunmen to let them through checkpoints and border crossings.
Also for security reasons, none of the specific tactics they used can be disclosed – as in the coming weeks more refugees may attempt to make similar journeys.
Several more RAF flights rescuing refugees from the region are expected to reach Britain in the coming weeks.
Among those arriving in Britain for the first time yesterday was former interpreter Zubair, 40, a married father of three who travelled here with his family.
He described the chilling moments when Taliban gunmen questioned his account as he fled.
Zubair said: ‘It was terrifying, they were poking a gun at me and asking me where I was going and why. The last thing I could say was the truth – because the Taliban will use any excuse to kill people, killing is just like a video game to them, it’s nothing.
‘We had to stick to the story and hope they believed it. I could never go through it again. We did not dress the same, or say what we really did. I had practised saying what I did in my pretend job but it was very scary, so much pressure.’
After a long journey from the Middle East, the RAF Voyager A330 taxied to a standstill in Oxfordshire, allowing the families, including small children clutching cuddly toys, to be finally able to relax.
From the tarmac they were driven to a repatriation centre where they were processed by Border Force officials before last night being taken to a hotel where they must quarantine for at least ten days.
We’re here! Children on the tarmac. After a long journey from the Middle East, the RAF Voyager A330 taxied to a standstill in Oxfordshire, allowing the families, including small children clutching cuddly toys, to be finally able to relax
So many friends have been killed
In danger: Mohib missed the airlift
Mohib, 34, was a former interpreter for the Black Watch, a Scottish infantry regiment.
He was a key figure in the reconstruction of Helmand Province after British forces brought some stability to its major population centres. A road network was laid down and Mohib was one of the logistics coordinators. This was a high-profile role and attracted attention from the Taliban.
He said: ‘I thought I was going to die in Afghanistan once the Western troops left and I missed the airlift. I went to Kabul airport every day… and simply couldn’t get through the crowds. So I went into hiding afterwards, because a few people knew that I had previously worked for the British and they might give me up.’
Mohib added: ‘I am very lucky to be here because so many of my friends have been killed. I feel sorry for their families.
‘My area was especially dangerous. There was no hotel I could stay at because the Taliban check the lists. I had to keep on the move and just head for the border. When I got there, I had to leave everything behind. I hope now to start a new life.’
Eventually they will move into permanent accommodation provided by local authorities across the country.
The cross-UK government initiative Operation Warm Welcome is intended to ensure they receive the support required to build new lives having left everything they own in their homeland.
They have been granted indefinite leave to remain in Britain and funding for schooling and healthcare.
But many have travelled to Britain with heavy hearts, wary about what the future holds for them and concerned for those they have left behind in their homeland.
Husband and wife Ismail, 52, and Malika, 42, arrived in the UK mourning the loss of one of their sons recently murdered by the Taliban and anxious for the safety of a son who was beaten badly.
Tearful Malika, from Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, said: ‘We paid a very high price for helping the British and they the soldiers left and the Taliban came back. Our safety was compromised by a neighbour who gave us up to save themselves.
‘So we had to leave, firstly to Kabul to try to get on the airlift, then again last week to make it to another country.’
The party of 31 Afghans included at least four interpreters who qualified under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and six individuals under the recently introduced Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, for persons who previously served in the Afghan military.
Last night Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stressed more flights from third countries will be arriving in the UK soon.
Mr Wallace said: ‘In August we successfully airlifted more than 15,000 people, including vulnerable Afghans and British nationals from Kabul to safety.
‘But our commitment to the Afghan people did not end there. At the time I talked of our determination to do right by those who have looked after us for so many years.
‘This flight marks the beginning of what will be our long-standing effort to relocate those who need our help, as they make their way to safety and a new life in Britain.’
From the tarmac they were driven to a repatriation centre where they were processed by Border Force officials before last night being taken to a hotel where they must quarantine for at least ten days
We missed suicide bomb by a whisker
Zubair, 40, his wife Wahida, 45, and their three children arrived in Britain yesterday after they narrowly avoided being blown up in the terror strike on Kabul airport in August.
The family, including youngsters aged eight, five and three, were in a minibus being driven to the Baron Hotel when a suicide bomber detonated his device amid crowds of desperate refugees.
Zubair said: ‘We closed the windows of the shuttle bus and kept our heads down.
Lucky: Zubair was near blast in August
‘All around there was gunfire and my children saw everything, all the chaos and the aftermath of the explosions.
‘Taliban guys were firing into the air over the heads of people in the crowd, firing like crazy.’
He said: ‘It has been a very long wait, we have no money and we couldn’t go home to retrieve our possessions because the Taliban were looking for us. I worked for the British directly from 2003 to 2006 and later for the Americans and the Canadians.’
Zubair added: ‘But it was a journey worth taking – staying in Afghanistan under Taliban rule would have been like dying slowly.
‘And I must think of my family, in particular my daughters, they would not be able to receive an education in the country.’
Nobody is safe there any more
Flight: Idris lived in UK for 15 years
UK passport holder Idris, 40, was forced to leave Kabul when the Taliban began a purge of Afghans with Western documentation.
He lived in the UK for around 15 years before returning to Afghanistan around 2010.
Idris said: ‘This may be an unpopular opinion in Britain but the UK Government should recognise the Taliban government and allow the aid money into the country – because until they do that nobody with any Western connections is going to be safe in Kabul.’
He added: ‘I had a big business in the city which I worked to build up for 20 years and now I have to leave and come to Britain with nothing, because of the threats to me and my family – all because we have British connections.
‘You cannot hold the Taliban to ransom. They will make people like me suffer until there is a political resolution.’