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Meet the daring South African pilot who saved displaced Afghan people

A South African pilot, a multinational crew and a 41-year-old Boeing 727 saved the lives of more than 600 displaced Afghan people on Friday as they hot-footed it into and out of Kabul’s airport in a race against time and possible further bomb attacks.

“We received a desperate call from the US state department’s officials in Kabul after the suicide bombing attack on Thursday night [which killed 170 Afghans and 12 US soldiers] asking whether we would be willing to assist with mercy flights,” Captain Neil Steyl told the Mail & Guardian from Kulob in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan.

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Steyl, 60, from Cape Town, and his crew from Safe Air Company have been based at Kulob for a month, assisting the Americans with evacuating both people and equipment. Safe Air is usually based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The urgency became critical to evacuate a group of Afghan special forces and their families. They have been assisting the US forces in the country for many years. As such, they would certainly have been killed by the Taliban as they are seen as ‘traitors’,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

The group of almost 800 special forces have been kept in a secure warehouse at the airport while evacuation attempts and finding space on military aircraft were becoming more desperate by the minute.

The families of Afghan special forces making their way to the Nairobi-based aircraft.

Military aircraft from the US and its allies have been flying non-stop in and out of Kabul as the deadline for the withdrawal of Western allies by midnight on 31 August draws closer. The evacuations reached fever-pitch on Friday, after a suicide attack by Islamic State in Khorosan Province (Isis-K), when 19 000 people were airlifted within 24 hours.

International television presenters and Flightradar24, an aircraft tracking site, commented with incredulity as Steyl’s white Boeing, named “Irene” because of its IRE registration, jetted into Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

Dwarfed by the massive grey military aircraft, Steyl did not waste time on the ground, knowing that he and his crew had to make another flight to evacuate a second load of people. Forty minutes later, 308 passengers, including newborn babies and children, boarded the Boeing.

The tented camp at Kulob in Tajikistan where the Afghan refugees will be temporarily housed.

“Our aircraft is configured for cargo and has no [passenger] seats, but we agreed to airlift the people as there were just too many and too few aircraft to assist,” Steyl said. “We expected a haggard group but were pleasantly surprised by the well-spoken and neatly dressed group – despite them being holed up in a warehouse under trying conditions for a week. It was humbling to experience the sheer relief and appreciation from their side that we came in time to save them.”

Steyl and his crew are no strangers to flying into conflict areas such as Somalia and other conflict hotspots in Africa. On Friday, while other civilian aircraft were avoiding Afghan airspace, he flew undeterred to Kabul to make it back to Kulob airport in the shortest possible time.

The Afghan refugees will stay in a tented camp at the airport in Kulob until the Americans can take them to the United States later on. 

After refuelling and a quick turnaround, the Safe Air crew went back for its second load.

They were halfway to Kabul when air traffic controllers told them there was a “ramp freeze” at the airport for half an hour, during which no aircraft would be allowed to land or depart.

Families with children being evacuated by the crew of Safe Air Company.

This was because US military personnel were conducting a short send-off ceremony for 13 of their soldiers who were killed in the suicide attack and then had to load the bodies onto an aircraft. Only after they were done could Steyl jet in to collect his second load of 329 desperate people.

“We couldn’t load more [than 329] people at a time and apparently there were still about 150 of the same special forces and their families left after our second flight. We were told to stand by for more flights.”

Steyl says he is aware of more South Africans who had been working as contractors for various international companies and that are still stranded in various parts of Afghanistan.

“They were pleading for help to get out as their situation is becoming critical as the 31 August deadline approaches. They don’t dare drive into Kabul or to the airport out of fear of reprisal attacks by either renegades from the Taliban or Isis. I cannot help them as one would need a helicopter to get to some of the outlying areas.”

Isis-K, a splinter group of Isis active mainly in Afghanistan and which has attracted some Taliban commanders and fighters disaffected with the group’s rapprochement with the US — claimed responsibility for Thursday night’s attack. A suicide bomber detonated his vest packed with at least 12kg of explosives just as he was about to be searched and his papers screened by a group of US servicemen at the airport’s Abbey Gate.

Speaking to his passengers after they landed, Steyl said they did not know where they were. “All they knew is that they were safe and were some of the fortunate ones to make it out of Afghanistan. They couldn’t stop thanking us.”

On Saturday morning, the same mercy crew was on their way back to Kabul.

“We don’t know who or what our load will be – just that we are needed,” Steyl said.

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