Hundreds of Afghan civilians managed to get on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane departing Afghanistan for Qatar on Sunday, some of them jumping onto the aircraft’s half-open ramp as they sought to flee a Taliban now in near-total control of the country.
An image of the estimated 640 souls aboard the C-17 aircraft showed them expressionless, numb, and fatigued.
They were among the thousands of Afghans who ran out to the tarmac of Kabul’s airport since Sunday, seeking a ride out of Afghanistan as Taliban militants solidified their control of the country’s capital. Amid the chaos, some died trying to catch flights.
The photograph reflects the desperation felt by thousands of locals who are concerned that the return of Taliban rule could mean a backlash against those who worked for the former government or with American officials. They also fear the Taliban could reintroduce harsh restrictions on women’s rights to be educated, hold jobs, or venture out of their homes without male relatives.
The C-17 craft, call number Reach 871 and based in Dover, Delaware, was among the several that carried hundreds of pre-cleared Afghans out of the country, Defense One reported on Monday.
The pilots initially thought 800 passengers were on board according to an apparent audio clip from the flight, in a plane that can carry up to 164,900 pounds. “How many people are on your jet,” an unidentified person asks the flight. “800 people on your jet? Holy cow.”
Two defense officials told The Washington Post late Monday that there were more than 600 people aboard the flight out of Afghanistan. “Instead of trying to force those refugees off the aircraft, ‘the crew made the decision to go,'” an unnamed defense official told Defense One.
The incident was reminiscent of the similarly tragic and rushed American retreat in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975, when U.S. troops made room for terrified civilians fleeing an incoming regime that the United States had fought.
Human remains were also found in the wheel well of a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane that departed Kabul airport on Monday, according to three people familiar with the issue.
The plane’s crew declared an emergency while leaving the capital’s airport after its landing gear wouldn’t go up and later found the remains in the wheel well. The discovery came after the plane diverted to another location and landed, two of the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It was not immediately clear whether the plane involved was the same one depicted in viral videos that appeared to show two people falling from a departing C-17 that was climbing from the airfield. A fourth official said on Monday that it is believed that “absolutely” people fell from that plane and that the video was real.
The U.S. military closed the airport on Monday after that incident and as it struggled to deal with thousands of Afghans who ran onto the runway seeking flights to flee the Taliban. At least seven people died in the chaos at the airport, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. troops reopened the runway just before midnight in Kabul, said Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, a senior official at the Pentagon.