‘I saw 10 die in the stampede’: Refugee reveals extraordinary escape from Kabul

Masood and his family now face new certainty in Camden hotel

Thursday, 25th November 2021 — By Isabelle Stanley

Masood

We met Masood three times last week as he told of us how he was forced to choose between his children and his frail mother – and what it is like to arrive here with nothing

EXCLUSIVE

A REFUGEE fled Afghanistan only to be forced to uproot his family again without warning when he arrived in the UK.

Masood escaped on one of the last flights out of Kabul in August with his wife and three young children having seen people die falling from planes or crushed in stampedes.

Over three days last week, he told the New Journal the story of his escape from the Taliban – an account which illustrates with unflinching clarity the trauma Afghans have faced to reach safety. A contingent have been staying in hotels in Camden as they wait to be resettled.

“On our first attempt to reach the airport [in Kabul] we were trapped in the crush outside for 48 hours,” he said.

“I saw 10 people die in the queue, women and children, they were crushed in the stampede.”

He had walked to the airport with his two-year-old on his shoulders, and his six and eight-year-olds clinging on, wheeling his elderly mother in her chair. After two days of waiting and no movement, they were forced to retreat home.

Masood was entitled to evacuation as a British citizen having previously lived in the UK and worked with the US army. He said that, while some evacuees had special transport sent to pick them up, his family were left to fend for themselves.

After a night at home, Masood went out alone to look for another route: he found a back entrance to the hotel where they had been told to meet the British army and so went back to get his family.

He said: “On the second attempt we crossed the canal instead of the roundabout. We had to wade through sewage up to our chest but we made it into the Baron hotel. The army there told us everyone can go, including my mother.”

The queue to try and get out of Kabul

They queued through five different checkpoints over 16 hours while gunshots sounded outside. At the final checkpoint Masood presented his British passport while a Home Office official waved through his wife and three children and then turned to his mother.

“He said I couldn’t take my mum. He said we had to leave her behind or none of us could get on the flight,” he said.

Masood argued with the officer but said: “He told me I don’t do the talking, he does.” After a few minutes, he had to make the choice to save his children, and leave his mother behind.

“My kids were screaming, holding on to her legs – they thought they were taking her away to be killed,” said Masood.

“They wheeled her away into the crowd of thousands of people.

“We were all crying, there was no one there to take her home.”

After that, he lost touch with his mother for two weeks. Then, he said: “I got a call from a friend to say that he had her. He said she had been lost on the streets for two days because she left the airport and didn’t know where she was. She was just waiting, asking people to wheel her home.”

When his family finally entered the airport, he said: “It looked like a zombie place, everybody was running, everything was totally broken. Nowhere had lights, there was no water. Soldiers were the only people to help, they were like angels. The kids were crying all the time, everyone pee’d everywhere.”

Twenty hours into their journey, the children were exhausted. Masood said: “I made a bed in the airport for the kids with a dirty blanket and an abandoned suitcase.”

As they waited to board their flight, the crush on the runways worsened as people’s desperation increased.

Masood said: “I saw at least five people die from falling planes – everyone was desperate, it was terrifying. One man found his son a kilometre away from the airport – he had fallen from the plane. He fell on a roof. The man said when he held him, his body was like a bag of water, with all the bones gone.”

When Masood’s family arrived in the UK, they were taken to a quarantine hotel for two weeks. For that time they had only one set of clothes which they washed every night.

After that they were moved to a hotel in Camden where Masood said they have been treated like second-class citizens by the operators.

He said: “There is a double standard with us and the other guests, but they’re paid the same for us by the Home Office. The food is terrible, it’s uncooked, there is no hygiene. On one occasion, half a chicken drumstick was still covered in feathers. My neighbour had to go to hospital for two days with diarrhoea.

“For one month no one had any cash: people were desperate, begging the council for crisps, anything to give their kids.”

Camden Council publicly pledged to help refugees coming from Afghanistan.  One measure taken was the creation of an Amazon wishlist so residents could make quick donations to cover everything from toiletries to children’s clothes, as those arriving were forced to leave everything behind.

But in the two months they’ve been in the hotel, Masood said the refugees have been offered little support.

He said: “There is no psychological support, nothing like that. People are trapped in a cage, they’re mentally disturbed. The flashbacks are really bad. I can’t sleep, my wife’s the same.”

There are strict rules within the hotel, said Masood, adding: “The first English my six-year-old son learned was ‘go inside your room’.”

He added: “One older lady has memory problems, she can’t remember where her room is – sometimes she needs the toilet and she’ll be in the lift covered in her own pee. She’s so vulnerable and no one does anything. She waits outside the hotel and asks people when the bus will be coming to take her back to Afghanistan.”

For the past week, families have been receiving letters telling them they have to leave seemingly at random.

Refugee children made this carving to give to a Camden primary school that had welcomed them warmly – but they are being relocated already

On Thursday last week, Masood received his letter telling him his family was being moved to a hotel in Crawley with less than a week’s notice. The Home Office did not give an explanation other than to say: “The *** Hotel will no longer be available for the Home Office to use from December 3 and therefore we will move everyone into alternative hotels.”

The letter came just as his children were settling into a school in the borough and they had been set up with a GP.

Masood said: “The kids are upset and tired because they just got used to being here, and they got to know the teachers and the classes and they’re upset.”

They have been told that the children will not be resettled in school until January, at the earliest. When they found out they had to leave, the children made a special painting on a block of wood to give to their primary school which had welcomed them.

The inscription said: “You made our dreams come true in such a short time. From your Afghan children.” They signed it with their fingerprints.

None of the refugees in his hotel have been given any information of when they will be placed in permanent housing.

Now, Masood is desperate to get his mother out of Afghanistan.

He said: “There is no one there to look after her, she might not survive the winter – we need to get her out.”

After that, he said he wants to work: “I’ve always worked, always paid my tax. But who will employ me now? I’m homeless.”

He added: “I support Britain in everything, in sport, everything, I always support the UK, this is my country – even when they were fighting in my homeland I supported them. But the Home Office doesn’t treat you as a human, they have too much pressure on them.”

A government spokes­person said: “We expect high standards from all our accommodation providers and anyone who has any concerns can speak with Home Office liaison officers on the ground. All families who are moved from hotels are also spoken to by Home Office liaison officers, who work with the families regarding any concerns on an individual basis. There is a huge effort underway to move families into permanent homes so they can settle and rebuild their lives.”

Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said: “Camden has been supporting refugees who have arrived in the UK with real trauma, fear and uncertainty. We are providing healthcare, welfare and educational support to refugees directly in the bridging hotels since their arrival.

“But the Home Office, who manage the refugee programme, has failed to make clear plans for how families will be housed, leading to further uncertainty and the unacceptable situation of families being kept in hotels for months on end.

“We are demanding the Home Office provide a plan for long-term accommodation of refugees and meanwhile, we are working with other London boroughs to agree London’s housing offer, with the aim being to house as many refugees as possible.”

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