Out of her home in the coastal Israeli town of Zichron Yaakov, Charmaine Hedding is working feverishly to help extract thousands of people desperate to leave Afghanistan.
Hedding is an emergency response specialist and president of the Shai Fund, a humanitarian organization based in Israel and registered in the U.S.
She says her organization is heading up logistics, in coordination with the U.S. military, on a pending series of private flights that are set to swoop in and out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, in order to evacuate high-risk human rights defenders and other activists, including some high-profile personnel, who are direct targets of the Taliban, the Islamist group that has rapidly retaken control of the country upon the withdrawal of US and international forces, two decades after being overthrown.
“We formed a coalition because, of course, this is a huge operation. We have private charter flights. So, this is a civil society, grassroots initiative, run by NGOs (non-government organizations) like mine. We have raised the funds to get the flights in. So we have our first flight arriving. And these flights can take up to 300 people,” Hedding said.
The first flight was set to arrive on Sunday night.
“We’ve got 10 flights, back-to-back potentially, but there’s no point if we land in Kabul airport and they can’t get through the gates because the Taliban are controlling the gates to the airport. And so, we have to break that open and negotiate where we come in, and we establish this humanitarian corridor so that we can evacuate our people out,” said Hedding.
The Shai Fund has been piecing together passenger manifests in preparation for the flights it is organizing – an operation that could have deadly consequences in and of itself. The organization has been operating out of Afghanistan for years, and its contacts in the region and partners on the ground are now springing into action.
“I’ve been in this business for about 20 years and, I have to say, I have not seen anything as bad as what we’re seeing here today. It’s just unbelievably shocking, this humanitarian calamity,” Hedding said.
“And we got involved almost immediately because we work in the Middle East and Africa and across the globe on issues, protecting people, women’s rights groups, children, religious and ethnic minorities. We are working with local communities with people who are at very high risk and the Taliban are hunting these people down, wanting to capture them. And we’ve had cases where people have actually been killed that are on our lists,” she said.
Hedding says she and her colleagues have been working through trusted networks of people on the ground in Afghanistan, but getting Afghans who want out to trust them is a difficult sell.
“This is one of the most complicated factors and for all the people on the ground, you have high risk, so you need people that you can trust. When they’re reaching out and they say, ‘Hey, can you help me? I am at risk?’ I’m a Christian convert or an LGBTQ individual, or I’m a woman’s activist. It’s a huge leap of faith. So, we work through trusted networks, and we approach the people carefully and make sure that we protect them throughout the process, but I think the problem is on the ground,” said Hedding.
“The problem is not with us foreigners trying to help them. The problem is that we’ve let in a terrorist organization with links to Al Qaida. I have people in safe houses that have had to move five to six times because the Taliban knows where they are. They’ve been able to get hold of geolocators to find out where these people are. For example, those registered on the national identity lists. They’ve got hold of that main list of the government. And they’re now able to see where people live. And so, we’ve had a number of Christian converts who were on a list, and they contacted them on the 12th of August and said, ‘We know who you are. We know what you’re doing.’ And these people are all in safe houses in hiding for fear of their lives,” said Hedding, noting instructions over the weekend by the US government warning its citizens not to travel to Kabul’s airport due to a security threat.
One might intuitively surmise that an organization with a Hebrew name like the Shai Fund (Shai means gift in Hebrew), operating out of Israel, might automatically sound alarm bells even to those desperate to get out of Kabul. But, a rapidly-changing Middle East has blown that assumption out of the water.
“It does complicate matters, but I think the world that we lived in changed with the Islamic State and the radical fundamentalism that came with them. A lot of countries have seen what that means and how that works out for the religious minorities, for people who are sexually and gender non-conforming, etc. And they don’t want that. And so, like we’ve seen with the Abraham Accords and the agreements that we’ve made within Israel, things are changing. And so we’ve been able to take advantage of that,” said Hedding.
The Shai Fund reports that no Israelis are among its activists on the ground in Afghanistan right now.
Hedding says the private flight evacuations she is organizing will be led by ex-Marines, with the full authority of the US armed forces.
The Pentagon announced on Sunday that it activated the rarely-used Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to aid in the movement of people arriving at US bases in the Middle East.
Several major airlines will transport evacuees from those bases to European countries and, for many, on to the US. But that only applies to those already airlifted out of Kabul. As is well-documented, it will be getting people through the gates of the Kabul airport and on to the runway that will be the biggest challenge.
“They are totally lost and abandoned at this point in time, in Kabul. There are checkpoints everywhere. I have people that have come to the checkpoints and the Taliban are taking them out of cars, beating them up and saying, ‘If you come back, we will kill you.’ And we’ve had people that have tried again and were shot just yesterday. And so, this is the type of situation people are in. But they know that they’re going to be stoned, that they’re going to be beheaded and they’re desperate to get into the airport. So, we’re calling on the international community to create a humanitarian corridor. Give us security. We need to extract these people. We have the flights. We have the manifests. We know who they are. We can get them out. Just give us a secure humanitarian corridor to help get them out because otherwise they’re going to be abandoned,” she said.
The Shai Fund says it is still trying to secure landing spots for its flights, including a request directed to the Israeli government.
The United Arab Emirates has agreed to temporarily host 5,000 Afghan refugees at the request of the US. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Turkey have been among other regional countries that have agreed to accept evacuees. Israel, though a signatory to a US State Department statement demanding safety for Afghans and others wanting to leave the country, has yet to accept any refugees.
“This issue isn’t relevant at this time,” an Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in response to a query from The Media Line as to whether the ministry had established a position on the refugee issue.
When asked whether that meant that the US had not requested Israel’s assistance or that the government was not prepared yet to make a decision, the spokesperson said he could not add anything to the original response.
There has been little noticeable public pressure thus far on the Israeli government to take action, with the exception of left-wing parliament member Gaby Lasky.
“We have stepped up before in times of crisis, notably when Israel allowed 360 Vietnamese fleeing the 1975 communist takeover to seek protection in Israel. It is time to step up again,” Ophelie Namiech said. She is the managing director at Mindset-PCS, which offers solutions to international organizations and companies seeking to enhance their social impact in international development, humanitarian and peace-building settings, and is working with the Shai Fund on its efforts in Afghanistan.
“People can call on the Israeli government to take action by coordinating with the international community to support the evacuation of those most at risk of persecution by the Taliban government, and prioritizing temporary and longer-term solutions for women and girls and minorities, until they can safely return home, and by offering temporary safe passage and transit for some Afghan refugees en route to other countries, or providing temporary residence visas, or even humanitarian visas, to vulnerable families and helping them return to their homes in Afghanistan when conditions allow,” Namiech added.
Article written by Mike Wagenheim
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line