Just like the movies: Filipino expat worker describes flight from tumult in Afghanistan

Just like the movies: Filipino expat worker describes flight from tumult in Afghanistan
It has been uncontrolled chaos at Kabul airport since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan a week ago with locals and foreign nationals alike scrambling to leave the country. (AFP)
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Updated 23 August 2021

Just like the movies: Filipino expat worker describes flight from tumult in Afghanistan

Just like the movies: Filipino expat worker describes flight from tumult in Afghanistan
  • Filipino expat did not see his stay in Afghanistan would abruptly end in the most surreal way – aboard a military aircraft taking off from Kabul

DUBAI: Horrible. It was straight from the movie, what happened to me.

Those words were the quick description of how overseas Filipino worker Joseph Glenn Gumpal managed to flee the chaos in Afghanistan, days after the Taliban overran Kabul in an offensive blitz that surprised the world.

“I never imagined how I was able to travel out [of Kabul], that I managed to do that,” Gumpal, president of Samahang Pilipino sa Afghanistan – the Filipino expatriate community in Afghanistan – told Arab News.

A veteran of Afghanistan, having logged about 11 years of work there, the Filipino expatriate worker did not foresee his employment for a British security company would abruptly end in the most surreal way – being evacuated aboard a military aircraft taking off from Kabul.

“What happened was the Philippine embassy [in Pakistan] sent a message to me saying that the repatriation flight for Filipinos has already arrived at the [Kabul] airport and we have to be there within 45 minutes and will fly without us if we did not arrive on time,” Gumpal said.

Members of the British and US military engage in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Ministry of Defense via AP)

The Philippine government mobilized a mandatory evacuation and repatriation of Filipinos in Afghanistan after declaring an Alert Level 4 in the country due to the worsening security situation here.

Evacuation flights have been planned but had to be moved forward as the Afghan government quickly fell and the Taliban swept into power. The Philippine embassy in Islamabad, which has jurisdiction over Afghanistan, has already evacuated 158 Filipino nationals while an estimated 49 Filipinos are still stranded there.

“So I gathered my carry on and hurried to go to the airport, but was stopped by the British troops [guarding the hotel] and was not allowed to go out even though I begged that I have to catch my flight,” Gumpal recounted to Arab News.

“I was warned I could be shot [by the Taliban] if I insisted going on my own because there were lots of them along the way to the airport.”

The British troops might have taken notice of Gumpal missing his flight, so they offered the Filipino worker to join their evacuation procedures instead.

“They told me to join their transfer to the [Kabul] airport complex where a British military base was also located, as they were processing Afghan evacuees,” he said, and that the tension was palpable when they arrived at the airport since Taliban fighters and western troops securing the facility’s perimeter were at a shooting distance.

“The Taliban were at the outside perimeter. The second row of the guard line were British forces and then finally the Turkish contingent,” Gumpal said.

Gumpal added that while on their way to the British military base he saw Filipino compatriots who were not being allowed to enter the airport, but could do nothing to help them.

Thousands of Afghans crushed up against wire fences and concrete blast walls outside the Kabul airport’s terminal building in a desperate attempt to reach rescue aircraft. (AFP)

“When we arrived at the base, I just followed the flow of the crowd of mostly Afghan nationals. Our passports were taken [by British personnel] so that our personal information could be encoded. I had no idea where we the flight was headed, so I asked one of the evacuees beside me,” he said.

It would be an evacuation flight to the UK, via Dubai, aboard a military cargo aircraft with more than 100 passengers – Afghan nationals previously employed as interpreters by British forces who were flying with their families.

“We were slumped on floor of the aircraft during the flight and just holding on to ropes. There were a few seats in the aircraft, but were allotted only for women,” Gumpal said.

“I thought then that when the flight landed in Dubai I could get off and buy a ticket to Manila. But then the aircraft did not land on the main Dubai airport but at Al-Maktoum [International Airport] instead, which I think was slotted for Britain’s evacuation flights,” he added.

But Gumpal was not allowed to leave the airport, and instead was transferred with other passengers to a waiting chartered Wamo Air passenger plane destined for Manchester in the UK.

Despite his ordeal, Gumpal is thankful that Philippine government representatives have been looking after his welfare, with embassy staff in the UK coordinating with him since he arrived on August 20.

“I am pleading with the embassy staff to facilitate my return to the Philippines,” he said, by making representations to shorten his 10-day quarantine so he could catch the commercial flight to Manila on August 24.

“Right now, I just want to be with my family.”

Although now safe from the chaos in Afghanistan, Gumpal however remains concerned with the remaining Filipinos stranded there especially those that were far from the Philippine government’s staging point for evacuation flights.

“I have raised a concern with the embassy in Pakistan regarding four Filipinos in Mazar-I-Sharif and two more in Jalalabad which are far from Kabul. I am hoping that all Filipinos in Afghanistan would be safely evacuated, we do not know what is the next actions of the Taliban,” he said.