A British airman has reflected on his “emotional” experience evacuating Afghans from Kabul, describing how they had dressed their children in their best clothes for the start of their lives in a new country.
RAF loadmaster Sergeant Andy Livingstone, 31, of the 70 Squadron, said that helping rescue people after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan was the “most rewarding” thing he had done in 10 years.
He helped operate three evacuation flights of more than 350 Afghan nationals and 200 British troops.
His second trip as part of Operation Pitting – in which about 15,000 people were rescued before evacuations came to a stop last week – was to help pick up 153 passengers from Kabul on a C-17 transport aircraft and fly them to Dubai.
Images and footage of Afghan people determined to leave the country during chaos, stifling heat, unsanitary conditions, and Isis-K terror attacks at the Hamid Karzai International Airport have shocked the world.
Sgt Livingstone, a married father-of-two from Scotland, said that he was gripped by the sight of families doing their best for their children under such traumatic and desperate circumstances.
He said: “It is really easy to see numbers and refugees and use those labels but – as soon as you have everyone on [the flight] and you had a good look – there were just people.
“People had their little girls in their best party dresses and the little boys in their nicest clothes, their good shoes.
“All the parents tried to make it more exciting and less scary for the kids.
“And it was nans handing out sweets and chewing gum, and it was the dads doing the dad thing of making sure the kids were sitting down, and it was the mums trying their very, very best to look after the kids.
“All that was going through my mind, was, ‘if that was my family, what would they want?’ And what could I do to make that couple of hours a little less scary? Because these are people who have got one bag for a family – one backpack for five of them.”
Sgt Livingstone described how, on the flight, a two-week-old baby “rolled off” the lap of her mother who was “absolutely exhausted” and likely in a state of shock.
He took the baby and strapped her to her mother’s body using the seat belts on the aircraft but the woman, who was barely conscious, could not hold the baby. The baby rolled off her lap again “within minutes”.
Sgt Livingstone said: “So I went over and said ‘you really need to sleep – please let me take this baby off you for half an hour just so you can shut your eyes – anything that will make you feel better.’”
The woman could not speak English, but seemed to understand that the RAF man would look after her daughter. He put headphones over the baby’s ears to protect her from the aircraft noise while she slept.
He said: “Any one of the crew would have done exactly the same. Anyone who was in that position would have done the same just to give her a bit of respite, and to give this baby a bit of a break as well.
“I find it really hard to describe. I cannot say there was gratitude, she was a woman who had seen her family go through too much, looking at me as if to say ‘Is it okay? Can I go to sleep now? Is my baby going to be okay with you?’ I’ll never forget it.
“I won’t say it wasn’t emotional. You see yourself reflected in the fathers, your wife reflected in the mothers, and all these children, who, through all they have been through, have got smiles on their faces and just want to be children. You see your life reflected in their lives.
“Once you superimpose what they are going through on your own life, it really does break your heart.
“But when you do come home, there are no words to describe how humbling it is and how appreciative I am of the life that I lead.”
The passengers on the flight ranged from two-week-old babies, grandmothers, people in wheelchairs, and casualties on stretchers who had been injured in bomb blasts at the airport in Kabul.
Sgt Livingstone added: “There was exhaustion and relief. There wasn’t any chat. There wasn’t conversation. If people were talking to each other, it was the bare minimum.
“No one had anything else to say. No one had the energy to say anything else. Just a lot of people staring at the ground or sleeping ... I think about those flights quite a lot.”
Amid the thousands of people rescued under Operation Pitting, about 2,000 of them were children. The youngest was just a day old, and there have been a number of women who have given birth during evacuation flights.
About 1,000 Afghan people who are eligible to be evacuated by the UK, and about 100 British troops, still remain in Afghanistan, according to figures reported by the BBC on 27 August.
Last week, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that the exact number of people eligible for evacuation but who have not been rescued is unknown.
US military have evacuated more than 73,500 nationals of Afghanistan and “third countries”, and 6,000 Americans since 14 August, according to Kenneth F McKenzie Jr, commander of US Central Command.