The images that I cannot shake from this week are of a group of men clinging to the side of a US C-17 plane as it roars down the runway at Kabul airport and lifts into the sky. And then those of the tiny dots caught in one shot – it’s two of them plummeting back to earth. These pictures were eerily also a visual echo of where this story started and of another series of grim pictures that were seared into our minds 20 years ago. Those photographs were of people falling from the Twin Towers after the September 11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, an event that led to an invasion and now what can only be regarded as a capitulation.
A few weeks ago, as the final withdrawal of US troops approached and the Taliban mobilised, we decided to commission a story about how the media in the country were reporting on the events and we found a writer in Kabul to take it on. By last week we knew that the piece would need to become something very different. We also knew that the writer, Charlie Faulkner, would now be present at the fall of Kabul.
As the narrative swiftly changed last Friday we put in place a plan to make sure that we would have all our coverage lined up for the weekend and that The Monocle Minute would have the latest news when it arrived in inboxes on Monday morning. The same conversations were happening at every news outlet. What feels strange is that many in the political classes seemed so blasé, so unable to sense the imminent chaos. Here in the UK we have a foreign secretary who decided to stay on a family holiday in Crete until last Monday and even now sees no shame in that decision.
The instinct that a journalist needs to cover events like this on the ground is something that’s hard to explain. It’s a special mix of calmness, being able to read the nuances of a situation and knowing how to keep yourself safe, as well as knowing when to take a chance. Faulkner is still in Kabul and has told her editor at Monocle that she has no plans to leave at the moment. And, of course, nor will – or can – many Afghan writers.
On Thursday I read the emerging reports about one of the young men who jumped onto the plane and who then became entangled in its landing gear. His battered remains were extracted when the jet landed in Qatar. Images of another, Zaki Anwari (pictured), show a handsome young man. A man born after the fall of the Taliban who had been educated at a French-American School in Kabul and was a good footballer. Somehow seeing his face makes it even harder to imagine what he was thinking. Did he believe that his plan would actually work? Was it just despair and a mad, split-second decision? The same combustible mix of instincts that causes a person to jump from a tower or climb with their child into a dinghy for a perilous crossing?
On Thursday night I went to see the revival of Nick Payne’s play Constellations. It’s a two-hander and the cast changes regularly to give a different twist to this story of a beekeeper and a cosmologist and of how small decisions can shape our fates. As you watch the play you come to realise that we get through life by trusting that there are invisible crash barriers in place that will ensure things mostly trundle along in an OK way. But sometimes fate steps in to play a darker hand. In Constellations the characters are soon faced with life or death decisions. The guard rails are gone; all could unravel in seconds.
Take some time and have a look at the photographs of Zaki Anwari. He’s not that different from any of us. He’s certainly no fool – just a man who saw all his hopes vanishing with that taxiing plane and, yes, decided that clinging on was his best option. His guard rails gone. A split-second to decide.
Our illustrator, Mathieu de Muizon, is back next week.