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Cape Town chef’s story after he had to flee Afghanistan following Taliban takeover

Nigel Kearns as he was leaving Afghanistan. Nigel was working in as a chef in the country. SUPPLIED

Nigel Kearns as he was leaving Afghanistan. Nigel was working in as a chef in the country. SUPPLIED

Published Aug 21, 2021


South African chef Nigel Kearns came face to face with death as the Taliban swept through Afghanistan.

Kearns, 35, could still see the dust settling after the home of the Minister of Defence, General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi of Afghanistan was left in ruins following a bomb attack. Mohammadi was not at home at the time of the bombing.

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“We drove past the residency of the Minister of Defence,” he detailed.

“It was in ruins, it was blown to pieces. We could see the windows which were blasted due to the explosion.

“While you're there, you become desensitised to the sounds of bombs and heavy shooting and the next day, you would hear the story of what had happened.”

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Kearns, a father from Table View, had been working as a chef at the Australian Embassy and later the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan, since 2019.

In an exclusive blow-by-blow account, Kearns shared his experience with the Weekend Argus after he landed in Cape Town on August 18, having fled Afghanistan.

On Sunday, just moments before the takeover in the capital, Kabul, Kearns was one of 100 passengers loaded onto a military cargo aircraft from Afghanistan’s base to Kuwait, where he stayed overnight until he made his four-day journey via Germany, then Turkey, back home.

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The US Army had secured the airport while Kearns was present.

The Taliban gained control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leading to panic and closure of the embassy’s where Kearns had worked, known as the Green Zone, home to international organisations.

Taliban fighters travel with weapons mounted on a vehicle in Kabul on August 19 after Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. WAKIL KOHSAR AFP

It was here where Kearns had been protected for his stint in Afghanistan, constantly being surrounded by military with AK47s and heavy artillery while he and his colleagues served international dignitaries.

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He said it was the Canadian government and Embassy which had managed to save his life, letting him bypass the airports in Germany and Turkey without a visa in his possession.

Kearns was married in June in South Africa and was on rotation shifts. He then made his journey back to Afghanistan a few weeks ago and had travelled via Turkey, entering Afghanistan just moments after the attack on the Minister of Defence home.

Kearns had grown accustomed to the sounds of bombs but never had been so close to where an attack had happened.

“When you are in the Green Zone, you are protected and used to seeing heavy artillery and foreign dignitaries. When you leave an area in the Green Zone, you need to sign in and out.

“You became used to security walking around with AK47s and if we needed supplies, we would ask our colleagues to get it.”

He said they were always conscious of a possible attack by any external force or group. “We always had that fear that anything could happen and that is what you signed up for when you went for your interview, you know the situation and the risk.”

Last week, Kearns received the news that the Taliban had been moving closer to Kabul and to the Green Zone.

He was advised to arrange a flight home which became a task as panic spread through the streets.

People carry the Afghanistan's national flag on the occasion of 102th Independence Day of the country in the Wazi Akbar khan area of Kabul on August 19, 2021 amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. HOSHANG HASHIMI AFP

Kearns had managed to make contact with his wife, informing her he had to get out of the country.

“There was a meeting and it was said how fast the Taliban was moving after the takeover, I was told I must get a flight by tomorrow,” he added.

The Embassy had shut down and supplies were moved to become surplus and supplies for the United Nations and others.

They knew they had to move fast; they could possibly be a target having a relationship with foreign dignitaries.

“We, as the Embassy staff, were moved to a safe location,” said Kearns.

“Everything was confidential, our exit was planned and there were no flights.”

Next, Kearns and his colleagues had to worry about an attack while being in convoy in a military vehicle.

“We were in convoy in an armed vehicle and just ten minutes after we left there, the Taliban took over Kabul,” said Kearns.

“Our flight which had been arranged, had been delayed by three hours after the airport control staff fled without notice.”

Kearns said it was a scramble for life, as desperate journalists just grabbed a bag called a “go-bag,” as a military aircraft had been arranged.

“A go-bag is what you keep in an event of an emergency; it has your personal documentation, visa, food supply and a change of clothes, these journalists from other countries just had to grab it and get onto bicycles to get to the airport, they just had 30 minutes to get to the airport.”

Kearns said he had breathed a sigh of relief when the aircraft left the ground in Afghanistan but that they were left anxious of an air attack.

Afghan people sit inside a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. SHAKIB RAHMANI AFP

Kearns shared the space with 99 other passengers as he began his long and nerve-wracking journey home.

“It was the biggest relief when we took off, we still had fear,” he said.

“We flew from Afghanistan military base and to Kuwait where we stayed overnight under the watch of the Canadian army and from there we went to Germany, that was on Monday, and from there we split away from the Embassy people and flew to Turkey and then home.

“While we were in the air, an aircraft had been shot out of the air, I was thinking I had no way of contacting my wife.

“I was so grateful to the Canadian army and Embassy, I had travelled via certain countries without a visa and they made it possible, they made it their mission that I was safe.”

Clayson Monyela, the head of the Public Diplomacy Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said they were appealing to South Africans in Afghanistan in need of assistance to contact the consular section of their department and that they were fully aware of the safety issues and called for humanity to be respected.

“The South African government has taken note of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and is particularly concerned by the plight of thousands of displaced Afghani’s seeking safety and security amid the deepening crisis in Afghanistan.

“‘The South African government calls on the authority in power to ensure that the rule of law, human rights and safety of all Afghans and foreign nationals alike are protected. We wish to appeal to all military and security groups to exercise the utmost restraint and protect the lives and property of the people.

“The South African Government furthermore encourages all Afghan parties involved in the internal conflict to ceaselessly search for a solution through dialogue, restoration of stability and an orderly transition to a new government.

“The Department of International Relations and Cooperation have established, via the South African High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan that they are in contact with a number of South African nationals based in Afghanistan, to ensure their safety and provide the necessary consular assistance.

“Any South African nationals currently in Afghanistan and in need of assistance, should kindly contact the Consular Section of the department at (+27) 012 351 1000, [email protected] or the South African High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan at (+92) 304 371 1869.”

Weekend Argus