Escape from Kabul Airport, review: the first-hand horror of a chaotic rescue mission

·2 min read
A woman carries a baby through an airfield guarded by soldiers in Afghanistan - Michael Markland/BBC
A woman carries a baby through an airfield guarded by soldiers in Afghanistan - Michael Markland/BBC

The day after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Joe Biden appeared on television to declare the mission “an extraordinary success”. Have words ever rung so hollow?

Escape from Kabul Airport (BBC Two) gave us the inside story. This intense film was told through the eyes of three sets of people: the US Marines charged with manning the operation, the Taliban fighters who seized control, and the ordinary Afghans who had tried to get out.

It was a hellish tale. Mobile phone and helmet-cam footage captured the humanitarian disaster on the ground, and the impossible task facing the Marines. You may have caught scenes on the news bulletins, but this film plunged us into the midst of it as thousands mobbed the airport in the hope of securing passage out. Desperate families thrusting babies and toddlers over the razor wire into the arms of soldiers; bewildered children whose parents were missing, perhaps dead. And a truly horrendous sight: a plane taking off with men attempting to cling to its fuselage, then the camera showing a body falling hundreds of feet to the tarmac.

Desperate Afghans are seen scrambling over an airport wall - Pajhwok Afghan News/BBC
Desperate Afghans are seen scrambling over an airport wall - Pajhwok Afghan News/BBC

Director Jamie Roberts specialises in going behind the headlines and speaking to people who were at the heart of a story, with his previous films including the Bafta-nominated Four Hours at the Capitol. He elicits clear and honest interviews from his subjects, such as the Marines on camera here. The most compelling was Lt Col Christopher Richardella, whose men were required to hold the airport. They had expected to conduct a relatively orderly evacuation; then Richardella learned that the government had collapsed and the Taliban had the airport surrounded. Soon, they were overrun.

The Marines defended their position aggressively. What choice did they have? At one point they received intelligence that a vehicle-borne IED was heading their way. We saw them in the footage, sitting ducks by the roadside.

The film’s focus was narrow - no mention of Britain scrambling to get people out, despite this being a BBC co-production with HBO - but the context was made plain: the Americans and the Taliban had been trying to kill each other for years and now here they were, standing uneasily a few metres apart.

A string of Taliban fighters appeared on camera. They spoke of their hatred for the Americans and crowed at the withdrawal, which to them represented victory. One Taliban commander said he was shocked by the state of the people massed outside the airport: “They suffered terribly. They were hungry, they were thirsty, and conditions were appalling.” At this point, you wanted the director to step in and say: they put themselves in that situation because they were desperate to get away from you.