Kabul, Afghanistan – The crowds outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport continue to grow with each passing day of Taliban rule.
What was initially a few hundred families outside the roundabout leading to the main entrance in the days since the Taliban first took over the city on August 15 has now ballooned to thousands of desperate men, women and children squatting around a rundown filling station, dirt fields, small patches of grass and nearly any other expanse of land near the gates leading to the non-civilian areas of the airport.
Control of the road leading to the north gate of the airport is divided between the Taliban, which mainly patrols the roads, the last remaining members of CIA-backed Afghan intelligence forces, and foreign troops that are guarding the mammoth gate.
The dusty road is congested with cars and rickshaws trying to get as close to the actual gate as possible, and people. Endless streams of civilians desperately trying to appeal to the US-supported forces that were known for their brutal night-time raids on people’s homes, the Taliban and foreign troops who sit high atop giant concrete walls.
Most questions to the Afghan forces or Taliban are not met with answers, but blunt force.
The Taliban has reportedly blocked people from reaching the airport and has fired in the air and used batons to force people to form queues outside the airport.
The men and women that approach the Afghan forces in camouflaged uniforms are also violently pushed back. Some raise their guns into the air and begin to fire round after round of aerial shots to disperse the crowds. These forces are said to be still under the thumb of the United States.
Others, including one overly-eager young man with a red bandana across his forehead, brandish yellow plastic pipes that they use to hit people who get too close or stick around for too long.
When a group of men approach and ask where to go, they are brusquely told: “Keep going to the gate.”
“We did, they told us to come back here,” they replied, echoing the confusion and disorganisation that has plagued countless people in this area of the capital.
All of the people Al Jazeera spoke to said they had been constantly shuffled from one location to another, only to be met with physical violence and aerial gunfire as they go back and forth in the summer sun.
The crowds have grown so big that several square kilometres of the area between the Ministry of Interior and the airport’s entrance gates have started to resemble refugee camps.
The masses of people have also attracted their own economy, as carts, vans and ice cream trucks sell everything from cold water and sodas to 50 Afghani ($0.58) palow, a rice dish, and 10 Afghani ($0.12) bolani – vegan flatbread stuffed with leeks and potatoes.
Sherzai is one such seller. Over the last five days, the middle-aged man has turned his van into a mobile store catering to the hungry, tired crowds of people. But he says as the numbers of people increase, so do the intrepid sellers.
“Before it was only a few of us, now it’s become a mini Mandawi,” he says referring to the capital’s largest open-air market.
But with the profits come dangers.
Sherzai and several other sellers told Al Jazeera there was heavy gunfire early on Sunday afternoon. Though they could not be sure of what started the firefight, they all said it appeared as if the bullets were fired between foreign and Afghan forces.
At least seven people died in a stampede that day. In total, at least 19 people have been killed at the airport since August 15.
There were reports of gunfire and the killing of at least one Afghan soldier early on Monday morning also, but because the incident occurred near dawn, there were few witnesses. Sources told Al Jazeera they had heard shooting, but had few details of exactly what transpired.
These incidents are yet more examples of the dangers awaiting the families, including women and small children, who are hoping to somehow flee the country.
One elderly man, who was in a panic and did not give his name, said his wife and children have been left near the north gate of the airport for three days looking for his daughter, whom they said made it inside the airport.
“She’s still inside, waiting for us, but where do we go? Who do we tell that she’s inside and we got separated,” he said while foreign soldiers stand atop the gates overlooking the throng of thousands, including some waving documents into the air.
Another man waved a printed copy of a scanned document, saying: “Look, I have a visa, why won’t they let me in?”
The Taliban, which is in charge of the first layer of security at the airport, says the Afghan people are being fooled by the very Westerners they helped defeat.
One Taliban source told Al Jazeera: “They’re going because they were told tales that they can go to the US and Europe with no papers, no visas, no passports. They’re being lied to and degrading themselves for that fiction.”
‘Hard and painful’
On Sunday, US President Joe Biden called the efforts to evacuate people from Kabul “an incredible operation”, citing the threat of possible ISIL (ISIS) attack near the facility.
Most of his statements referred to US citizens, but Biden did say Washington was also trying to assist vulnerable people in escaping a potential Taliban threat.
In response to the criticisms of the Western handling of the evacuation, Biden said the process “is going to be hard and painful … There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss.”
Since August 14, the US-led airlifts have evacuated 28,000 people, Biden said. He did not rule out extending evacuations beyond the August 31 deadline, although the Taliban has warned of “consequences” if he does so.
Despite the Taliban’s claims of Western deception, Afghans still cling to the hope that it can escape life in the Islamic Emirate and a quickly deteriorating economy.
Over the last week, pedestrians in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, where many embassies are located, were being asked for directions to the UK, French and Canadian embassies.
Shirzai, the seller, disagrees with the Taliban’s assessment. He says the thousands of people lining up are the most destitute, trying anything to escape a country they see no future in.
“Those who could afford it, those with connections have already left,” he says as yet another C-17 carrying hundreds of passengers, flies overhead.
Since then-President Ashraf Ghani fled last week, many Afghans have expressed their anger that his cabinet, which included many dual-passport holders, had fled in the days before Ghani absconded to the United Arab Emirates.
Unlike those people, Shirzai says the crowds who sit under makeshift tents created by children holding pieces of fabric over the heads of dozens of people, have no option other than to stand out in the heat and dust.
“In this country, it’s always the poor that pay,” he said.