Bangladesh University Jubilant after Afghan Students Evacuated from Kabul

Shailaja Neelakantan and Jesmin Papri
Washington and Dhaka
2021-08-30
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Bangladesh University Jubilant after Afghan Students Evacuated from Kabul Afghans studying in Bangladesh who were evacuated from Kabul are seen on a bus, Aug. 28, 2021
[Courtesy Asian University for Women]

More than 150 young Afghan women enrolled at a university in Bangladesh were among those evacuated on a U.S. military plane in the final days of a chaotic airlift marred by suicide bombings at the Kabul airport, officials said Monday.

Kamal Ahmad, founder of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong in southeastern Bangladesh, described the evacuation as “a miracle” and said student leaders had helped make it happen.

“Our students and alumnae have been evacuated in U.S. military planes out of Kabul. They have now safely reached bases in the Middle East where they will be processed for their onward journeys,” Ahmad said in a jubilant note on the AUW website on Monday.

“This ordeal succeeded only after two grueling but failed attempts with our students huddled in a convoy of seven buses for forty straight hours,” Ahmad said.

The students were flown out Saturday, two days after suicide bombings that killed more than 180 people just outside Kabul's international airport, and two days before the United States wrapped up the massive airlift effort just before midnight on Monday.

"As of today, more than 122,000, including 5,400 Americans, have been evacuated from Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told a briefing in Washington, as the U.S. commander who oversees Middle East operations announced the final flights out of Kabul.

"I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans," Army Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told the briefing.

Five minutes away

The students got stuck in Afghanistan after the Taliban toppled a U.S-backed government on Aug. 15.

During one of two failed attempts to leave Kabul, they were waiting in vehicles outside Hamid Karzai International Airport when a suicide attack at one of the air field’s crowded airport gates killed about 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

The Afghan students and a handful of Bangladesh nationals had been trying to enter Kabul airport since last week.

On Aug. 25, the group waited for hours for the Taliban to let them enter the airport, but in the end they were not allowed in, Bangladeshi national Rajib bin Islam, who was part of the group, told BenarNews by phone.

Then on Thursday, when the students and the Bangladeshis tried again, from the north gate of the airport, the U.S. military ordered them to go to another gate, Rajib said.

They were five minutes away from that gate when the suicide bombers struck, Islam said. The Afghanistan branch of the terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

A senior AUW official, who was not authorized to talk to reporters, told BenarNews that the students left Afghanistan on Saturday.

“An extraordinary group of people helped us pull off this miracle,” Ahmad, the university founder, said Monday.

“Our Afghan student leader, Sepehra Azami, AUW Class of 2022 and six others who supported her in the overall coordination and communication, showed a measure of competence, tenacity, and what Ernest Hemingway described as grace under pressure that I have not seen before, even myself as a child of a civil war of our own in Bangladesh,” he said.

They reached Saudi Arabia by a U.S military flight, an official at the Bangladesh Embassy in Riyadh told BenarNews.

“As we know, the 160 Afghan students and five Bangladeshi nationals are now under the care of the U.S military in Saudi Arabia,” Mohammad Fakhrul Islam, a press secretary at the embassy, told BenarNews.

BD-AF-PIC2-cropped.jpeg

Around 160 Afghan women studying in Bangladesh are seen on a U.S. military plane that evacuated them from Kabul to Saudi Arabia, Aug. 28, 2021. [Courtesy Asian University for Women]

Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, said 12 Bangladeshi nationals also managed to leave Afghanistan on Saturday.

“Of them, five are now in Saudi Arabia and seven are in Qatar and Tajikistan,” Alam told BenarNews.

In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told BenarNews, “There is a policy decision to allow the Afghan students to come to Bangladesh.” The official requested anonymity because he or she is not permitted to talk to the media.

AUW is an independent, regional institution that offers an American-style liberal arts and sciences education. It currently enrolls more than 1,000 students from 18 Asian countries.

“We are very happy to know that our students have finally managed to leave Afghanistan. They [students] communicated with us after the situation in the country deteriorated,” the AUW official said.

“Of them, there are some newly admitted students.”

‘A dire existential challenge’

Two weeks after the hardline Islamic outfit took over Afghanistan, the Taliban's acting higher education minister said Afghan women would be allowed to study at university but classes of both genders would not be allowed, news agencies reported.

A former lecturer in Afghanistan, who worked at a city university during the last government, told Agence France-Presse news agency, there is “a gap between the Taliban's commitments and actions.”

Ahmad, AUW’s founder, said neither the university nor the Afghan students and alumnae had any illusions about “the convictions of and methods used by the Taliban.”

Anticipating the Taliban takeover, in June, Ahmad had said, “Perhaps no other group within our community faces as dire an existential challenge as our Afghan students and alumnae,” he said back then.

Still, he said on Monday that Afghanistan’s future cannot be relinquished.

“We pledge to continue to support that vision of another Afghanistan that has eluded us till now but inshallah will one day be realized,” Ahmad said.

 “It is because of these women, like Sepehra and the others whom AUW has helped educate over the years, that that day must come and shall come.”

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