The Sparrows of Kabul
Puncher & Wattmann, $32.95 pb, 253 pp
Diplomat and musician Fred Smith’s memoir of his time with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at Kabul airport, and later in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), processing Afghan evacuees fleeing the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, opens with a richly symbolic vignette. On his first visit to the North Gate, one of only three public entry points to Kabul airport, Smith is confronted by a nightmare vision of the country’s collapse. Amid a cacophony of screaming and gunfire, thousands of Afghans jostle, push, and kick one another, waving passports, holding babies aloft, as they fight their way towards a narrow gap in the razor wire entrance to the gate, guarded by a human wall of US Marines. Every thirty seconds or so somebody squeezes through the scrum to safety, emerging discomposed, bloodied, and bewildered.
As Smith looks on, a small girl of seven or eight emerges from between the legs of one of the Marines, clutching an orange plastic bag and crying for her mother (‘Mudhuhr!’). Smith steps forward, gives her a bottle of water, and leads her to a shady corner near the gate where she might be able to spot other members of her family if they make it through the mêlée. Moments later, somebody releases a CS gas canister and Smith, along with the Marines, turns and runs from the gate, before he stops and goes back to find the girl, bringing her to the safety of the Australian desk at the airport. Here, a Pashto speaker ascertains the girl’s name, Raminah, and takes her details, including her father’s telephone number. After contacting her family, who are still on the far side of the gate, an Australian soldier leads her to the exit point, where those found to have no right to board the departing aircraft are sent back to their fate. Raminah is handed back to her father, safe and sound, but no closer to freedom – and to what future?