NZDF on Afghanistan evacuation: 'We were assisting people ... over barbed wire fences'

8:17 pm on 31 August 2021

New Zealand soldiers say they had to drag people through sewerage ditches and over barbed wire to get them to safety in Kabul.

NZDF personnel at the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport.

NZDF personnel at the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Photo: NZ Defence Force

Details have come to light in new information about the operation released today by the Defence Force, as people tried to flee the Afghan capital as the Taliban returned.

Members of New Zealand Army were on the ground at the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul earlier this month, to help evacuate New Zealand nationals, their families and visa holders.

They were deployed as part of the New Zealand Defence Force's Operation Kōkako.

Sometimes they had to use a canal to reach those that had been sent for help, guiding them through the large crowds.

The bank of the canal was controlled by coalition forces so the soldiers were able to use the banks as a tactical thoroughfare, often jumping into the water to aide evacuees.

In one rescue, a woman in a wheelchair and her son were helped down the banks in order to reach safety.

Evacuees were given code words so they could be identified.

NZDF personnel in the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

Photo: NZ Defence Force

Quoted in a media release, senior national officer for the operation Group Captain Nick Olney said the scenes were confronting.

"We were looking for needles in haystacks. And there were a lot of haystacks out there to start with and we had no idea what the needle we were looking for looked like," he said.

"We were assisting people through sewerage ditches, over barbed wire fences, I can't describe enough the bravery on both sides. With the evacuees, the desperation, they would do anything to get into the airport. And on our side, our team pushed themselves to every physical and psychological limit to get these people out and inside the wire and make them safe.

"Once identified we would begin the work of extracting them, often during a lull where it was tactically acceptable. We were very deliberate in this approach lest we started a riot or caused a breach."

He said the team were tormented by reflecting on situations where they could physically reach out and touch people who they wanted to help, but they could not get through.

"I can't stress enough how difficult it was to bring those people through the wire. It was best endeavours to make miracles happen in the timeframe we had available."

Around 80 Defence staff involved in the mission are due back in New Zealand in early September. They will go through managed isolation on their return.

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