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Kabul airport: Spanish evacuation effort in Afghanistan: ‘We never thought so many lives would depend on us’ | International

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On the afternoon of August 18, Captain Javier Escorihuela received a WhatsApp message from his superiors. The 29-year-old military official from Seville was being “activated” along with his team in the Air Deployment Support Squadron (EADA) to fly to Kabul and assist the Spanish army with the evacuation effort in Afghanistan. At that point, Escorihuela could not imagine that the instant messaging service would help save “around 1,200 people” who were extracted from a crushing crowd of thousands of Afghans desperately attempting to flee Taliban rule.

The day after getting the message, he and 19 other service members took off from the military base in Zaragoza to take part in the most complicated mission of their lives, as Spain joined the international evacuation effort in Afghanistan. “I’d never done anything like this before. We are prepared to defend Spain and its allies by identifying the threat and neutralizing the bad guys, but in this case, it was about saving people, about removing them from hell.”

Escorihuela, who already had experience with missions in Africa’s Sahel region, quickly packed his duffel bag with “strictly essential” items such as weapons, ammunition and communication devices. He had received instructions to travel light as they might have to leave things behind in the event of a rushed exit.

Captain Javier Escorihuela at Kabul airport during the evacuation mission.
Captain Javier Escorihuela at Kabul airport during the evacuation mission.

As it turned out, once on the ground “radio communications failed depending on the distance,” and the Spanish captain ultimately relied on two cellphones to rescue hundreds of people – “mothers, fathers, children, entire families, journalists, movie directors, activists…” – from the hell of human despair surrounding Kabul’s international airport and the nearby NATO military base. “I think none of us had imagined that so many lives would depend on us.”

The team landed at 6am on August 19 and quickly realized that things were not going to be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nobody came out to greet us, there was nobody [from the armed forces] there. I thought: ‘They must be really busy.’ At the same time, I could see dozens of refugees going by, lots of tired-looking children. They were walking towards the planes, even climbing inside our own, there were so many people everywhere…”

Not long after that, Escorihuela’s subordinates returned from the airport’s access gates and briefed him on the situation. He quickly set up a team to go in search of Afghan nationals who had worked with Spanish authorities and armed forces during the nearly two decades that Western forces were present in the country. At that point, there were still three open access points and Spain was able to operate in two of them. But the next day, “with over 16,000 refugees inside the base extracted by different countries, and due to the impossibility of keeping control, the US army decided to leave only one entrance open,” he recalls. Abbey Gate became the only way out of Afghanistan by air.

The procedure for “extracting” people required many steps: “checking people’s identity, patdowns, explosive detection dogs…” The captain formed two 14-member groups and put them on six-hour shifts that worked 24/7. Meanwhile, there were four to six team members outside at all times searching for evacuees included on their list.

A Spanish doctor treating a child who was injured while entering the base.
A Spanish doctor treating a child who was injured while entering the base.

“We barely got any sleep,” says Escorihuela, whose loose uniform reflects the weight loss of those intense days. The calls came at all hours of the day or night. “We have to get X out now,” he would be told at 4am.

The rescue effort largely depended on the arrival times of the Spanish A400M planes and on access to the entrance gate, controlled by British soldiers. Escorihuela says they had to tell evacuees to first jump into a filthy sewage ditch running around the airport’s perimeter in order to reach the safe zone. In another area, the crowds were so large that he saw people crushed to death against a wall.

Much of the success of the rescue mission, besides luck, rested on the fact that evacuees managed to wait – “sometimes for days” – for the piece of cloth waving at the agreed site, following instructions sent via WhatsApp. “We had a list of 900 people, but sometimes the names did not match because they were written in a different way. We checked that they had received the email with the travel document from the Spanish embassy and we also looked at their ID, but some of them were showing up with nothing at all, ready to start over with just the clothes on their backs,” notes Escorihuela with amazement.

Some of the evacuees helped by acting as interpreters for the Spanish troops. Meanwhile, the captain’s phone was filled with requests for assistance. “Many colleagues who had been stationed in Kabul were writing to me with the names of individuals who had helped them in the past and who were now desperately trying to flee, but I had to stick to the list.” His team was in charge of the first screening, but successful candidates still had to undergo further questioning by police officers and diplomatic personnel.

A WhatsApp message exchange during the rescue of Afghan families.
A WhatsApp message exchange during the rescue of Afghan families.

The days blended into the nights, but there is one moment that stands out clearly: the minutes right before suicide bombings killed over 100 people. “A half-hour earlier I had my people there; I’d sent them over because there was a window of opportunity to collect a family who had been waiting outside for two days. We had retreated earlier because the gate was closed due to the threat of an attack. When it reopened, I sent six people out.”

A few minutes later, he received a new call warning about an imminent bomb threat. “The radio communications were no longer working, they were too far away. I got in the car and got as close as possible to the gate entrance until I was able to make contact. I said ‘you have to get out now!’” The explosion took place 30 minutes after that. The family they were meant to extract was never heard of again.

With each passing day, the team’s physical exhaustion increased and morale declined due to the realization that “we could not get them all out” despite their best efforts. Escorihuela continually reminded his troops about the hundreds of individuals they had already saved. He particularly remembers a family with a baby who are now living in Orense, in Spain’s northwest region of Galicia.

“They had to try twice. The first time we failed, and they went back home because the baby seemed to be dying of the heat and strain. But the second time they did it, they crossed the ditch, even the father with his crippled leg, and we pulled them out,” he recalls with a hint of satisfaction. “And there were also the journalists, with whom I’ve spoken this morning.”

The Spanish contingent – the military troops, around 20 police officers and diplomatic personnel, including the acting ambassador Gabriel Ferrán – flew out of Kabul on August 27, when the Spanish government officially concluded its airlift operation. “We hadn’t been able to follow the news and we were unaware of the repercussion. Nobody was expecting to be received by the prime minister,” he says. During the flight home, Escorihuela began seeing images of Afghan men, women and children in his mind again: “All the people who we left behind.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development

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At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.

The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.

“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.

“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.

Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.

“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.

Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.

“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.

When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”

Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.

The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.

The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.

In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.

Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.

In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.

“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”

The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s

The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”

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US official urges EU to speed up enlargement

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Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.

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Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’ | Global development

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Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.

The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.

Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.

Boys at lathes turning aluminium pots
Children working in an aluminium pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Up to 85 million children work in hazardous jobs around the world. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty

One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.

She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”

She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”

A woman from Bangladesh
A woman from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, who moved to Kolkata after a cyclone to support her family. Now she cannot return to home without her employer’s permission. Photograph: Somnath Hazra

In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.

Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”

The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.

The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.

Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”

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