When Zaki Anwari scaled the fence of Kabul airport, he was determined to escape. The 17-year-old footballer with the Afghan national youth team had taken a break from studying maths for his exams to accompany his brother as he tried to catch a flight. Zaki had always told his family he was not interested in going abroad, unless he could return to Afghanistan.
But the Taliban takeover had changed things. Zaki did not have a passport but, as night fell on Kabul after the Taliban took control of the city, he told his brother Zakir that he wanted to leave. Zakir did his best to talk him out of it, but he would not let go of the idea.
Zaki was one of at least a dozen men who clambered onboard the outside of a US air force C-17 Globemaster transport plane as it taxied on the runway the following day. None of them made it to the plane’s destination, the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar.
The plane had landed a short while earlier to deliver equipment to US forces. The night before, another aircraft had evacuated 823 people fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and Zaki joined the new arrivals on the airport runway, hoping for a similar escape.
Monday 16 August was clear and bright, and the young athlete was supposed to be guarding the family’s car with Zakir while their older brother, Naser, jostled among people outside the airport clutching documents to leave.
Just before 11am, Zaki called Ahmad, the only brother still at home, to tell him he had jumped over the perimeter wall around the airport. “I’m close to the airplane now, they’ll register our names after they put us in the plane, and then I’ll lose [the] phone signal. I’m going to throw my phone away,” he said.
Ahmad shouted at him to come home until Zaki hung up. Twenty minutes later, Zaki called his mother to speak to his sister, telling her that he felt he had a chance to board the plane, and asking her to pray for him. His mother put him on speaker to scream at him to come home, chiding him that he had no passport or travel documents.
Seeing the crowds rushing towards the plane, the crew decided that they had to take off. The hulking grey aircraft began taxiing as throngs of people ran alongside it. Amid the chaos, a small number climbed on to a wide fairing above the wheels and a smooth broad area above the wheel well.
Video shared by Asvaka, an Afghan news agency, shows the men smiling nervously and waving to others gathered next to the tarmac, with at least 12 onboard. Some waved excitedly, the wind whipping their hair as the plane picked up speed. Two jumped off and made a dash back into the crowd before the plane took off.
Shocked bystanders looked up at the sky, some filming on their phones, as at least two bodies fell from the plane as it flew south over Kabul. Afghans commenting online drew comparisons to the “Falling Man”, photographed falling from the twin towers on 11 September 2001, a grim bookend to the US presence in Afghanistan. The men who fell were barely children, some not even born, when the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan 20 years earlier.
Fada Mohammad, 24 , was born into a world of civil war and Taliban rule four years before the US invasion in 2001. The young dentist had long dreamed of leaving, but lacked a plan or the financial means. His father, Payenda Mohammad, said Fada had been looking for ways to find money since getting married last year.
“Fada had talked about wanting to travel, but financially things were bad here. Anyone looking at the situation in this country would want to be elsewhere, and Fada was no different,” Payenda said. Fada was the family’s breadwinner, supporting 13 others.
Fada left as usual for work on the morning of 16 August. His wife and family had no idea he was heading to the airport. “He said goodbye to us just like any normal day, when he left for work at 8.30am,” said Payenda. “He didn’t say anything about the airport, or travel.”
Even in his grief, Ahmad tried to understand why Zaki clung to the plane. “He saw the panic, he saw the Taliban – anyone would be scared,” he said.
What happened next is the subject of an investigation by the US air force. Its spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said the plane was surrounded by civilians who had breached the airport walls before it could offload its cargo. “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible,” she said. American helicopters flew in front of the plane to clear space on the runway to take off.
The official account and videos indicate that the pilot was either unable to see the men clinging to the plane after takeoff, or was unwilling to stop the plane. The flap the men had used to climb on to the wheel well folds under the aircraft as the landing gear are retracted. Those who did not fall were probably crushed to death.
“In addition to videos seen online and in press reports, human remains were discovered in the wheel well of the C-17 after it landed at Al Udeid air base, Qatar. The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status,” said Stefanek.
Authorities in Kabul maintain that the US crew could have acted differently. “Those men thought the pilot would stop and transfer them to the inside of the plane,” said an Afghan health ministry official, who tried to identify some of the men after they fell to their deaths. The official has not been named for his own safety.
One of the men fell inside the airport perimeter, while two more hit rooftops in a neighbourhood close to the airport. A resident who heard a body land on a roof described it as sounding “like a bomb”.
The Anwaris said that, not long after the plane had taken off, someone called Zaki’s sister from his phone to tell her they had found his body. The family believe Zaki was crushed under the wheels of the plane as it departed, or possibly in the landing gear as it retracted into the wheel well.
Fada’s wife grew concerned after her husband did not call as usual at 10am to say he’d arrived at work. “Then at 2pm, we got a call from a stranger asking if we know Fada Mohammad,” said Payenda. The stranger said they had found Fada’s body, and that he had been thrown from the aircraft. Payenda rushed to collect his son’s body.
The brother of another victim, 15-year-old Mateen, told the Pajhwok news agency that the family had been unable to find him after spotting Mateen in a video showing the group sitting on a tyre on the plane. “There were 21 men sitting on the plane, two jumped before it flew, yet we only saw 12 bodies in the hospital,” he said. “We didn’t hear from [Mateen], we couldn’t find his body – we went everywhere. The bodies fell in so many areas.”
The official, whose time at the health ministry predates the Taliban, said knowing precisely how many men died falling from the aircraft, and identifying them, became almost impossible in the aftermath of the fall of the government.
“Their bodies were so badly damaged by the fall, it was hard to identify them. There was no government to investigate the incident,” he said. “If you knew the Taliban, then you’d understand why the men did this.”
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That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”
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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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