A Scottish diplomat has told how the evacuation of UK and Afghan citizens from Kabul has been the most “fraught” crisis he has ever handled at the Foreign Office.
Gerry McGurk has been working in the UK Government’s crisis centre since August 14, helping to co-ordinate efforts to rescue people from the country following the Taliban takeover.
During the race against time as military planes airlifted people from Kabul’s airport, he said some people were beaten up at Taliban checkpoints outside.
While the military airlifts have ended, McGurk said people are still coming forward asking for help, though he adds there is “very little we can do” at this point.
McGurk, from Stirling, is a silver consular lead at the Afghanistan crisis centre in the Foreign Office in London.
Previously, he had been based at the British embassy in Madrid.
The UK’s Operation Pitting rescued more than 15,000 people by the time the last plane left the airport.
McGurk told the PA news agency: “I’ve been working with colleagues who have lived and spent a lot of their career in Afghanistan.
“They’ve found the last couple of weeks and months quite difficult to see, given the investment they’ve been trying to make in the country.”
He said the Kabul crisis was very different from the Foreign Office’s previous repatriation operations in response to natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
The crisis centre in London has been working 24 hours a day since the evacuation operation began, with a Foreign Office team in Dubai arranging onward travel for those who have left Afghanistan.
McGurk, 50, said: “This one feels more emotional, because there’s so many more people who have friends in Kabul and they rightly worry for their friends’ safety.”
He was previously involved in the repatriations following the collapse of the Thomas Cook and Monarch airlines, situations he said were “benign” compared with the crisis in August.
He added: “I cannot recall something as acute and as time-sensitive and as fraught for security as this particular crisis.”
As thousands attempted to reach the airport gates following the fall of Kabul, reports began to emerge of people being beaten at Taliban checkpoints.
McGurk said: “It seemed random. Some people were able to make it through, some people were able to make through but badly beaten.
“And some were just outright refused to get beyond Taliban checkpoints.”
He said the Government was able to rescue the majority of those who made it to their hub at the Baron Hotel next to Kabul airport.
Following the deadly terrorist attack outside the airport, the Foreign Office tried to identify if there were any British casualties.
McGurk said: “People have been working very professionally, but it’s been tiring for many people.
“Many who’ve been working in Kabul have been quite saddened by what they’ve seen.
“My consular colleagues have been talking to people in dreadful situations.”
He said the Foreign Office was still developing an accurate picture of where British nationals were in Afghanistan.
Some were still coming forward to ask for help in recent days, he said.
He said: “We’re still trying to help Brits, we’re trying to find solutions to problems.
“You’re listening to people saying, ‘you need to help me, you need to help my family’.
“And there’s very little we can do, we can’t advise them to travel around Afghanistan because of the security situation.”
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