A volunteer humanitarian effort to bring former interpreters to safe houses in Kabul while they wait for flights to Canada is collapsing as Taliban forces take over the Afghan capital.

A group of Canadian veterans and volunteers have been working for weeks to bring Afghans, who worked with the Canadian military in the past, into the relative safety of Kabul before being evacuated from the country. With the city now falling to the Taliban, the veterans say the situation is desperate and they’re appealing for help from Ottawa.

“We cannot let a thousand people, who have submitted all the paperwork that was demanded, who have been waiting for biometric tests, to languish,” retired major Paul Carroll, the operation’s co-ordinator, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday.

“The folks on the ground are hanging onto very slender threads of hope that the government of Canada is going to come through here.”

The safe houses, which provide security, food and basic needs for the interpreters and their families, cost US$500,000 to run per month. Without increased funding or government assistance, Mr. Carroll said, the facilities can only run for a few more days, and if people don’t get on a flight fast enough, they’ll be left vulnerable.

“We’ve got a small window of opportunity to do the right thing, and I don’t think our government has the risk appetite or the moral fortitude to do anything about that,” Mr. Carroll said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

The effort by Mr. Carroll’s group, funded by donors, filled a gap in the process of evacuating vulnerable Afghans, because people who were living in various parts of the country had to travel to Kabul to get on a plane.

The group has used helicopters at times to get people from remote regions to the capital, according to Mr. Carroll. But as the Taliban rapidly advanced across the country in recent days, 1,200 of those they were trying to evacuate are now stuck in Kandahar, and an additional 800 to 900 are waiting in safe houses in Kabul for evacuation by the Canadian government.

In late July, the government announced a special immigration program to bring Afghans who worked with Canadian troops and diplomatic staff in Afghanistan, as well as their families, to safety in Canada. Since the Taliban resurgence, their work with foreign forces now makes them a target.

Canada ended its military operation in 2011, and left Afghanistan in 2014.

“All of us who served in Afghanistan have an emotional connection to the mission,” said retired major-general David Fraser, who served in the country and is now also part of this effort to help Afghan interpreters. “Without these people, there would have been nothing.”

Mr. Fraser said they constantly hear from people who are trying to get out of the country. “Every day, the messages become more emotive and dire,” he said. “It’s unimaginable what they’re feeling right now in Kabul.”

He said it’s been “hugely frustrating” that the government hasn’t communicated with the volunteer group about when planes will arrive, which means they can’t relay any information to those waiting to be evacuated.

Three Afghan nationals who helped Canada and its military describe via audio recordings the situation in Kabul. One says they are in hiding as they hear gunfire in the city, while another says they made it to the airport but were unable to get inside to find a flight out. The Taliban took control of Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the government collapsed. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Retired major-general Denis Thompson, also part of this effort, said it’s “ridiculous” the government hasn’t communicated basic information to veterans working to get people out, not even the number of Afghans already brought to Canada.

The Immigration Department has declined to provide details on how many people have been evacuated, citing security reasons.

“There is no group that’s more cognizant of the requirement to have operational security than the veterans who are handling all of these people overseas,” Mr. Thompson said.

Even if the government doesn’t want to publicly share the information, he added, “share it with the people that are trying to organize them in Kabul.” To not do so is hampering their ability to keep people safe; they don’t know if they should wait for a plane or attempt to leave the country another way.

Much of the effort to bring those who worked with the Canadian military to safety is being done by veterans, which is also taking a toll on the well-being of the volunteers.

“A lot of the people on our team have some kind of varying degrees of PTSD after all of this,” said Wendy Long, the founder of Afghan-Canadian Interpreters (ACI), a group of veterans and other volunteers who help identify people to be resettled and assist with the application process.

She said they’ve been overwhelmed with thousands of e-mails from people desperate for help, and some times those messages contain “horrifying images” of what’s happening to people being targeted.

She also said it’s disappointing that they can’t get basic co-operation from Immigration. ACI helped identify many of the people for resettlement who are waiting in safe houses in Kabul for flights. However, without communication from the government, she said, they don’t know how many people have already gotten out, or how long others will have to wait.

“It’s almost guaranteed that some of them will not be with us within the next few weeks,” she said.

The Globe and Mail, August 15, 2021