Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Olympic refugee team: Farzad Mansouri on his Kabul-Britain journey

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Mansouri was in Tokyo, having lost in the last 16 in the +80kg category at the Olympics, when a brother, who lives in London, called him.

His sibling’s message was stark: “Don’t go back to Afghanistan. I know everything will go bad.”

A coalition of foreign forces, led by the USA and including the UK, had been withdrawing from Afghanistan after making a deal with the Taliban, two decades after removing the hardline Islamist group from power.

While Mansouri was competing in Tokyo, the Taliban made rapid territorial gains as US troops pulled out and reduced support for the Afghan army.

Despite what he was hearing, Mansouri told his brother he was going home: “I’m carrying my flag. I will live in Afghanistan until I’m safe.

“I have to go to Afghanistan because if I go to London, they would say, ‘oh, he was maybe carrying the flag just for show’. But it’s not like that.

“I went to back to Afghanistan and after two weeks the situation got very bad.”

The Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August 2021, with the capital descending into chaos. Fearing the return of their fundamentalist rule, Afghans and foreigners rushed to find room on flights out of the country.

Mansouri, who was 19 at the time, said he quickly realised he needed to join them.

“Embassies closed, everything closed,” he says. “I was thinking, how can I carry on my sport life? How can I go to another competition?

“So I discussed with my dad and my mum and I told them, ‘If you want to help me, you have to go outside the country’.”

With a father who worked with the Afghan army and a brother who worked with Americans, there was a pressing reason beyond sport for the family to want to leave – the risk of reprisals.

Mansouri packed two small bags, stuffing in whatever sporting kit he could. His mother, still recovering from a back operation, father, brother, sister and niece all decided to make the journey.

“The situation was very crazy,” Mansouri says. “Everyone was trying to get inside the airport and some of them didn’t have documents, nothing. We were outside the airport one or two days.

“Children were crying and, as maybe you saw in the news or on TV, the situation was very bad.”

Television footage showed frantic scenes as people ran on to the tarmac trying to get on to planes and gunshots were fired into the air.

Some people were reported to have died after falling from the underside of a plane they were clinging to, while others were killed in a crush outside the airport.

Mansouri and his family eventually got on a US evacuation flight, not knowing when they might next see the rest of their relatives.

The day after they landed in the United Arab Emirates, a suicide bomb attack on Kabul airport killed 170 civilians and 13 US soldiers.

Among those who lost their lives was Mansouri’s taekwondo team-mate Mohammed Jan Sultani.

Sultani, 25, had left his wife and two young children further back as he tried to get nearer to the gate and secure their passage out the of the country. Unwittingly, he was moving closer to the blast that would kill him.

“I lost my friend, I was really close with him,” says Mansouri. “I was really sad. He was also trying to leave the country. I was thinking, what’s going on?”

The US and its coalition partners evacuated more than 123,000 civilians in August 2021, with the UK airlifting around 15,000 Afghans and British nationals.

However, an inquiry by MPs in 2022 found the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan had been a “disaster” and that “mismanagement” of the evacuation “likely cost lives”.

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