S. Korea secures lives of 391 Afghans in Operation Miracle

Posted on : 2021-08-26 17:41 KST Modified on : 2021-08-26 17:41 KST
The days before the airlift were filled with the cinematic suspense of warfare and harrowing escapes
Minister Counsellor Kim Il-eung of the South Korean Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, hugs an Afghan leaving the Kabul airport. (provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Minister Counsellor Kim Il-eung of the South Korean Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, hugs an Afghan leaving the Kabul airport. (provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Afghans who have worked with the South Korean government for as long as seven or eight years and their family members, 391 altogether, were safely loaded onto planes bound for Korea. But the days before the airlift were filled with the cinematic suspense of warfare and harrowing escapes.

At first, 427 Afghans had expressed their desire to be flown to South Korea. The Korean government started drawing up an evacuation plan for them in August, but the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated more rapidly than expected.

Korean officials were greatly dismayed by the news that only 26 people on the evacuation list made it out of Kabul on Monday. Despite growing fears that the operation would end in failure, a total of 391 people, including over a hundred children and three infants born this month, were safely flown out of Kabul on Wednesday.

The Ministry of National Defense had named the airlift “Operation Miracle,” and it indeed proved to be a miraculous escape from Kabul.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) told reporters on Wednesday that 365 people who needed the South Korean government’s assistance boarded six buses that drove them to the Kabul airport on Tuesday. The 26 people who’d arrived the day before had walked into the airport, making their way past Taliban checkpoints and through the crowds surrounding the airport.

As those numbers indicate, reaching Kabul airport on one’s own is a dicey proposition.

Fortunately, the Korean government was able to adopt the “bus model” that the US had proposed to its allies on Sunday. The next day, Seoul managed to hire buses capable of entering the airport.

Much credit goes to the quick action by employees at the South Korean embassy in Afghanistan, who returned to Kabul on Sunday to aid the airlift. They’d been evacuated to Qatar on Aug. 17, soon after the Taliban entered Kabul.

Korea’s pyramid style of top-down communication came in handy during the evacuation. That style of communication was familiar to the Afghans, given their years of experience working with Koreans.

Korean officials contacted Afghan representatives at each place of employment, including the embassy, the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), the Korean Hospital in Bagram, and other sites. Those representatives than quickly got in touch with the other workers and shared information about the meeting time and location, making it possible for the evacuees to assemble on time.

“Our communication network is extremely resilient and durable,” said a senior official from MOFA. “It functioned very efficiently, enabling nearly all the interested individuals to assemble and safely reach [the airport] early this morning.”

But even after boarding the buses, it took a considerable amount of time to reach the airport. The embassy staff were very worried that the infants might have health issues along the way.

Fortunately, the situation around the airport was more stable than when the embassy staff were evacuated on Aug. 15-17, when gunfire had been frequently heard.

Among the 427 Afghans who initially wanted to travel to Korea, 36 opted to be flown to other countries or to remain in Afghanistan for personal reasons.

That means that 391 evacuees will be arriving at Incheon Airport on Thursday, including workers for the South Korean embassy (81 people in 21 households), the hospital (199 people in 35 households), the vocational training center (74 people in 14 households), the provincial reconstruction team in Charikar (33 people in 5 households), and KOICA (4 people in 1 household).

The Afghan evacuees will be flown in a K-330 tanker aircraft and a C-130 transport aircraft capable of carrying over 300 people, with the two planes arriving in the morning and afternoon of Thursday, respectively.

An official from the Ministry of National Defense said that 60-70 military personnel had been assigned to the airlift.

MOFA said it will initially give all the evacuees short-term visas, good for three months, and later convert them into long-term residency visas. While concerns have been raised about the identity of the evacuees, officials said that they’d checked and confirmed their identity multiple times.

“The old Korean hospital and vocational training center at Bagram Air Base were recently blown up by the Taliban. If we leave people who used to work at the hospital and vocational training center under Taliban rule, it’s almost certain that they’ll be executed by the Taliban,” said Kong Deok-su, former director of the vocational center and colleague of many of the evacuees.

Kong said he hopes the Korean public will understand the need to take in these Afghans.

“Rescuing these people is not just a humanitarian thing to do. It’s also an important chance to once again show the international community that the Korean government and people are loyal and determined to never abandon our friends,” he said.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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