As the Taliban encircled Kabul on Aug. 15, Fada Mohammad told his family about what he’d seen on Facebook: Canada and the United States were airlifting anyone who wanted to leave out of the Kabul airport.
But if Fada wanted to go himself, recalled his father, Payanda Mohammad, he didn’t mention it.
The young dentist never reached either country. The next day, he didn’t make it beyond a rooftop four miles from the Kabul airport, where his body was found after he plunged from a U.S. military plane as it took off — one of the most tragic and indelible images in the final chapter of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.
In the 10 days since then, many details of the chaotic events at Hamid Karzai International Airport remain unknown. Fragments of videos taken by bystanders, which quickly went viral on social media, showed glimpses of an extraordinary scene as hundreds of Afghan civilians swarmed the Air Force cargo transport on the tarmac in a desperate attempt to get on board.
In one video, at least a dozen people were on top of landing gear hatches as the aircraft accelerated down the runway. In another, two bodies fell from the plane as it climbed skyward.
Yet another smartphone clip showed the aftermath: at least four motionless bodies on the airport tarmac, randomly spaced along the length of the runway. A promising teenage soccer player was among those who died. So was Fada.
The Air Force said a C-17 crew decided to “depart the airfield as quickly as possible” that day because of the deteriorating security situation. U.S. officials later found crushed human remains inside the wheel well. The Air Force has pledged a thorough investigation to “prevent a situation like this from happening again.”
In Kabul, residents are grappling with questions of their own.
Wali Salek, who has lived 20 years in Kabul’s Panjsad Family neighborhood, wonders how misfortune could strike from the sky, sending two bodies, including Fada’s, crashing onto his cracked roof like “an explosion” going off.
In the city’s outskirts, Fada’s father wonders why his eldest son went to the airport that morning without telling him. He asks why the pilot lacked “humanity” and decided to take off even as people hung on.
“If somebody is clinging onto the plane, does the pilot have the right to fly? Is this lawful?” Payanda said Tuesday. “It was like killing a mosquito that you do not even consider human.”
Fada was born in 1996 or 1997 — Payanda Mohammad doesn’t remember exactly when — as the Taliban seized Kabul for the first time.
The eldest of 10 children, the boy grew up surrounded by nature in the hill town of Paghman, west of Kabul. The family’s four-bedroom home had a yard filled with dark-red cherry trees.
Mohammad sold clothes with his relatives for a living and struggled to provide for his children. But in post-Taliban Afghanistan, he saw in Fada the possibility of upward mobility.
The family scraped together enough money to send him to the private Shifa University in Kabul to study dentistry. After graduating, Fada opened a clinic with a friend near Kabul’s Shaheed Square, earning about $200 a month, according to his father. Last year, he sold much of the family’s land and went heavily into debt, borrowing about $5,000 so Fada could get married.
Mohammad said his son considered more study and maybe an advanced degree. Mohamad Basir, Fada’s cousin and best friend, said they yearned to leave the country — though it was mostly a dream.
“We thought a lot that one day, we could go abroad, but didn’t discuss it too much,” Basir said. “You have to pay so much money, and his family were not good economically.”
With the Taliban advancing in early August, the usually cheerful Fada became anxious, unsure of what would happen in a destabilized environment to someone who was educated and on the rise, Mohammad said.
In Kabul, countless others feared the same and streamed toward the airport, seeking a way out. On Aug. 16, Fada left home at 8:30 a.m. without a word — headed to the clinic, his family assumed.
At the airport that morning, Air Force officials have since explained, the cargo plane in question was landing. It was surrounded almost as soon as it touched down by civilians who had breached the airport zone’s perimeter, and the crew decided almost immediately to take off again without unloading its supplies for the evacuation effort.
Andrew Inman, a former British Royal Air Force pilot who has conducted evacuation operations in Africa and has flown into the Kabul airport on numerous occasions, said the crew would have been able to see people in front of them on the runway but were unlikely to have seen or heard people suddenly clinging to the undercarriage.
“I think at that point the confusion was such that, actually if [the plane] had stopped, there would have been more injuries and problems,” Inman said.
Videos from the scene show two Apache helicopters hovering barely above the ground in front of the C-17 and trying to sweep the runway clear of people. As the four huge engines began to throttle up for takeoff, many of the men hanging on dropped away and ran alongside the aircraft.
Others held on.
‘The worst moment of my life’
Salek, a security guard at Kabul’s Mandawi market, was dozing at home around noon when he thought he heard an explosion above him.
When he reached his roof, he found Fada’s body in a water tank. Nearby was another body, later identified as that of an 18-year old from east Kabul.
A video shot by Salek’s son shows neighbors gathering on the roof around both bodies, now laid on stained blankets. The group carried them to a nearby mosque, where someone checked the men’s pockets and found their national identity cards and phones.
Fada’s father, mother and sisters were called to the mosque, the women collapsing on his body in grief. “It was like the end of the world,” Mohammad said. “The worst moment of my life.”
That evening, 500 friends and relatives gathered in Paghman as men lowered Fada into a grave surrounded by a white and gold fence.
Sajjan Gohel, the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based think tank, expects more chaos to play out in Kabul ahead of the U.S. military’s withdrawal on Tuesday, a date President Biden says will hold. On Thursday, explosions outside the airport killed more than a dozen U.S. Marines and civilians.
The final days “may create more panic, uncertainty and more tragic images at Kabul airport,” said Gohel, who compared the airport videos to the photos of people falling to their deaths after jumping from the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001 — the terrorist attacks that triggered the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Each of the people touched by Fada’s death remains deeply shaken.
Salek says he understood anxieties were running high in Kabul. Many shops in Mandawi market were closed. Women had largely disappeared from the streets.
“Of course people need to flee,” he said. “But as a doctor, someone educated, [Fada] should have some logic, to know better than cling onto a plane.”
Mohammad has a different view. His son must have known the danger, he says, but believed the aircraft would never take off in that situation and that he would then have had a chance to negotiate a passage to the United States.
“We all have a sense of humanity, so [the pilots] knew better than to take off,” he said angrily. Instead, they “created an image that dehumanized the Afghan people.”
Fada’s cousin is still struggling to explain his loss.
“His time was over,” Basir has decided. “It was written in his destiny.”