Inside the Operations Room during Kabul Evacuation Efforts
On Sunday the 15th of August, amid the Taliban takeover of Kabul, part of Dyami's team started working to support people evacuating the city. With a conference speaker always on and surrounded by whiteboards, multiple screens, and a myriad of papers, the team worked tirelessly day and night to make sure people weren’t left alone in a city that went from hospitable to hostile overnight.
Crisis management has been the keyword. Who to call, where to stay, what to look out for, and what security measures to keep in mind. The responsible team made an effort to keep in contact with both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the people on the ground in Kabul, who had been anxiously waiting for instructions for days, sharing easy security tips with them, maintaining the information flow, and offering mental support in an indubitably stressful situation.
When confronted with a crisis, it is important to identify what exactly needs to be done to bring structure to chaos. A very important first step is to define and understand the crisis in detail. Gathering information and critically assessing how the crisis could evolve is essential to be ready as the situation unfolds. The team that would later work on the evacuation started to gather information on the 14th of August when Kabul had not fallen yet. No one had been notified or approached for help, but the team was already monitoring the situation so that when the crisis escalated, in less than 24 hours, they were ready to respond to the initial requests.
Once the information is gathered and everyone involved has a clear overview of the situation, the team can start defining who are the stakeholders. Who is in need of help? Who can assist us in delivering help? Who’s in control? And more specifically to this case, who is responsible for the airport and airlifts? Which parts of the city are already controlled by the Taliban? Where are the checkpoints? Etc. The team went through their contact list, got in contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and understood what was needed to leave Kabul. In the meanwhile, Dyami’s management got asked to join and support a family in a WhatsApp group that was created, and in just a few days, that group grew exponentially with people in need of assistance.
Lastly, practical steps. Identify the actions that need to be taken to reach the goal and understand how they can be fulfilled. In this case, what was revealed to be essential in the evacuation procedure was to get Dutch citizens in Afghanistan on the Foreign Affairs list of people to evacuate. Dyami got all the contacts and information to put on such a list, and people started to receive official communication from the Ministry.
Unfortunately, receiving official communication is often not enough. On the weekend, the take over of the city had been relatively calm, and the eyes of the world were on Kabul and the Taliban. However, on Wednesday the 18th of August, the situation became tense, and the Taliban started to increase their use of violence. By then, Foreign Affairs had all the information of the evacuees but did not communicate effectively with them. Normally, the Ministry only sends emails with essential information, such as where to go and when but not how to reach the indicated location, or what to look out for on the way there. In a situation of panic, in which emotions are heightened and where people’s lives are at stake, that is often not enough. Dyami made an effort to keep in close contact with whoever reached out, asking how they were coping and listening to their needs.
Mental navigation was essentially ‘filling the gap’ between the people and Foreign Affairs; listening to people’s stories and worries and helping them to handle the situation as calmly as possible. Mental navigation is also giving security tips, such as erasing WhatsApp conversations, writing their own phone numbers on the children’s arm, and making sure to be easily reachable while on route to the airport. Dyami guided people through Kabul, through Taliban checkpoints, and in the surroundings of the airport. Lastly, the team helped to get the paperwork in order before leaving the safehouses. Bringing the correct documentation is essential, and in the chaos, one can easily forget.
Intelligence and information collection
The last essential step is gathering information and intelligence. That is an effort that brings together different sources, from human intelligence to open source information, and that needs to be verified and cross-referenced. Once a piece of information is corroborated, one should connect it to other pieces and get ‘intelligence,’ or interpreted information.
Since the team was in contact with many people in the city, cross-referencing information was fairly simple, which gave Dyami a solid information position on Kabul - from an office in Leidsche Rijn. Because of this vantage point, the team was able to identify more suitable places to access the airport, thanks to on-the-ground sources who often checked the situation at Hamid Karzai Airport.
In similar circumstances, keeping close contact with local people helps to understand the context and the cultural and social habits of the region in which one is operating, which in turn facilitates risk mitigation. When possible, the information received was promptly verified through open-source research.
Kabul a month after the Taliban takeover
A month has just passed since the fall of Kabul, and to date, Dyami has helped 121 people to evacuate the city. However, much is yet to be done. NOS reports that the people who remained behind after August 31 received little or no help from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the situation has worsened. People are running out of medication and general supplies, there is little or no money circulating and banks imposed a withdrawal limit to preserve their liquidity. Those who are hiding are about to finish the small amounts of cash they were able to put together, but they need the money to pay those who are helping them hide. The World Food Programme has also warned their supplies may run out by the end of the month. In the chaos, many have started to distrust each other, as they desperately try to find a way to leave the country.
Approximately, there are still 150 people linked to the Netherlands who are still waiting for support to evacuate the country, but it is unclear when or how the situation may develop.
Written by Alessia Cappelletti