For 61-year old accountant Joseph Glenn Gumpal, the 11 years he spent in war-torn Afghanistan were the pinnacle years of his career. The Caviteño’s last post, where he stayed the past nine years, was as finance director of Saladin Security Afghanistan Ltd, a British security agency. He also served as member of the company’s board of directors.
Life was good in Afghanistan for Gumpal—and he says that as someone who has had over three decades of experience as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW). He’s toiled 13 years in Saudi Arabia and four years in an oil and gas company in Dubai. He also had stints in Iraq, Nigeria and Qatar.
“Yung sweldo ko sa Saudi ng one year, sweldo ko sa Afghanistan ng one month,” Gumpal tells ANCX. “Compensation wise, malayo ang package namin kung ikukumpra sa [offer ng] Saudi, Dubai, Japan, America. The hazard pay added to our compensation is 30 percent of our salary.”
According to Gumpal, who is president of the Samahang Pinoy in Afghanistan, his kababayans in the landlocked country usually hold administrative positions, or work in finance, logistics, and hotel businesses. There are Filipino engineers, too. “Mostly white collar jobs. Walang household or construction worker,” he offers.
The tone of regret in Gumpal’s voice is undeniable when he talks of the careers they had to leave behind. After the recent Taliban takeover, he and the other Filipinos in Afghanistan decided that the best choice left for them to remain safe—and alive—was to repatriate. He and hundreds of other Filipinos had to leave their jobs.
Unlike Gumpal who had started to save up and prepare for retirement, and whose four children had finished school, many of the OFWs in Afghanistan, says the Filipino accountant, are still young. “Yung kasama kong Filipino doon mga bata pa—may pinag-aaral, may binabayarang bahay. Yun ang regret namin for what had happened. Yun ang masakit isipin.”
They saw it coming
The Filipino community in Afghanistan had been aware of the United States’ plan to withdraw the American troops in the country since the time of Obama. But Gumpal says they didn’t think it was cause for alarm, assuming it will still take time before a plan gets implemented. During the Trump administration, however, the number of US troops was reduced.
Fear began to set in around April this year, says Gumpal, when U.S. President Joe Biden announced the complete withdrawal of American forces by September 11, 2021. Shortly after, the member countries of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) started pulling out their troops.
In May, news reached Gumpal’s office in Darya Hotel in the city of Kabul that the biggest US military bases stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar had already withdrawn their forces. Some of the troops in Bagram Base “secretly” pulled out one evening in June. “Pinatay nila ang ilaw ng buong kampo. Lumipad ang eroplano dala ang mga Amerikano,” recounts the OFW.
The demobilization of US Forces resulted in the laying off of Filipinos who were deployed in NATO Military facilities. In July, 200 OFWs were stranded in Dubai unable to go home due to the travel restrictions implemented in the Philippines due to Covid. “Sila ang una kong inilapit sa Philippine embassy,” says Gumpal.
The wars started to erupt in Afghanistan sooner than the Pinoys expected. “District by district, day to day, may nakukubkob [ang mga Talibans]. Nag-domino effect na,” he says. Then, the Talibans eventually besieged Kunduz, where the airport is located, then Kandahar, and Jalalabad, which is already near the city capital of Kabul.
“Nung nasa Jalalabad pa lang [ang mga Talibans], nag-schedule na ang Philippine Embassy ng repatriation.” Gumpal and members of the embassy spent the next few weeks trying to contact the employing companies to coordinate the repatriation of their Filipino workers.
By morning of August 14, news reached Gumpal and his British coworkers that the Talibans had taken over the police station in District 7. This meant the Islamic forces had already entered Kabul. “We were so jumpy in those days,” Gumpal offers. “Iniisip namin baka magka-giyera. Ano kaya ang mangyayari? Baka magkaputukan.”
They would eventually hear news that the Talibans were having negotiations with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. “Kaya di ako naniniwala sa lumabas sa balita na tumakas sya eh. August 15, yun na ang handover to the Talibans, kinuha na nila ang Kabul. But not a single shot was fired. Walang encounter,” he says.
At around 5PM of that day, the words “Ashraf Ghani left 6 minutes ago” flashed on television, Gumpal tells ANCX. Upon reading the news, people started clapping their hands. It was an expected turnout. “Nagpo-protesta na kasi ang mga tao—na to avoid bloodshed, umalis na lang si Ashraf Ghani,” says the accountant.
There were two prevailing perceptions about the Afghanistan president’s act, however, says Gumpal. “Yung iba sinasabi duwag, yung iba sinasabi it’s heroic.”
As evening of the 15th fell, Gumpal and his companions started seeing Talibans manning checkpoints and police stations. They also started seeing the US troops at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. The men in uniform were said to assist in the pullout of the members of the US Embassy.
Civilians who wanted to flee the country also flocked to the airport, causing chaos. “Nagpapaputok ang mga sundalo to disperse the people. Umabot yung ganung sitwasyon ng tatlong araw. Hanggang nung umalis ako, tuluy-tuloy ang dagsa ng tao,” recalls Gumpal.
The Taliban forces, who are not allowed inside the airport, were also visible around the terminal perimeter. “Nagbantay na din sila doon to stop the people from coming in. Nag-umpisa na din silang magpaputok. May nababalitang nabaril na sibilyan, sa paa. Pero hindi encounter [with the US troops].”
Leaving the warzone
On the afternoon of August 15, Gumpal and his British colleagues received a call from the security manager of Kabul Serena Hotel. Apparently, the hotel, one of the establishments their security agency was serving, was already under the Taliban—which only meant Darya Hotel was next. “Nung mabalitaan namin yun, nag-empake kami agad, kung ano na lang madampot namin,” says Gumpal.
The Filipino accountant and his 9 British coworkers, former military men, immediately proceeded to the gate of Darya Village to escape but the Taliban commander and his armed men were already there and began shooting at the hotel employees about to flee. There was an exchange of gunfire but when Gumpal and company realized some of the former staff of Darya Village are already Talibans, they decided to retreat.
“Dumaan kami sa gilid ng clinic, umakyat kami sa bakod 12 feet ang taas, na maraming barbed wire. Tumakas kami papuntang Baron Hotel,” the OFW recalls. They stayed in the hotel for a couple of days. His British colleagues left him on August 17 as Gumpal didn’t have a British passport and therefore can’t join in the military flight.
“Naiwan na akong nag-iisa doon. Pero hindi naman ako natakot kasi may inaantay naman kaming repatriation schedule ng Philippine embassy,” he says. He remembers his phone was constantly ringing. Fellow Filipinos kept calling and messaging him about flight schedules. He was told PAL had difficulty getting a landing clearance.
“Hindi makalapag sa airport ang Philippine Airlines dahil puno ng tao pati ang runway. Ang daming tao sa tarmac, kaya hirap na hirap kaming mag schedule ng repatriation flight,” Gumpal says.
On August 18, the OFW got a call from the Philippine embassy that a repatriation flight was to leave in 45 minutes. Gumpal rushed to the airport while also informing other Filipinos about the opportunity. But everyone had difficulty going to the airport; the streets were already filled with Talibans. It was already evening when many of the Filipinos reached the airport, therefore missing the flight.
“Nakita ko pa ang mga Filipino na naghihintay, hindi sila makapasok ng airport. Ako lang ang nakapasok nung gabing yun. Nag-decide na din ako na once makarating ako ng airport, hindi na din ako lalabas,” Gumpal tells ANCX, noting the dangers of being outside the airport premises.
Eventually, the Filipino accountant came across a group of locals about to board a C130 British military plane. He was told to take a spot in queue and he did. With him were a backpack and a piece of luggage. But since only 10 kilos are allowed in the aircraft, he had to leave the luggage behind.
They were 200-plus passengers in the plane going to Dubai and Gumpal was the only Pinoy. They sat on the floor with nothing to lean on for the duration of three hours. "Nakaupo kami sa sahig, nakakapit sa lubid. Dikit-dikit walang face mask," he says. It was the same situation when they landed at the Dubai airport. “Binigyan kami ng kumot, ng pagkain. Natulog kami doon,” he says. They stayed overnight at the airport and boarded a chartered Spanish flight the next day going to Birmingham, United Kingdom. Gumpal arrived in the UK on August 19 and had to go on quarantine for a few days.
Eventually, the Philippine Embassy informed him of a scheduled flight to Manila. He coordinated with fellow Filipinos in the UK and together—all 22 of them—took a Philippine Airlines flight on the afternoon of August 24 and arrived in Manila morning of the next day.
Back in PH
When they finally landed in Manila, Gumpal says he still could not believe the ordeal they went thru. “Paano ako nakalabas ng buhay—yun ang unang pumasok sa isip ko,” he says his voice shaking. “I was abandoned by my British colleagues. Tapos nasa akin pa ang responsibilidad sa kapwa ko Pilipino. Parang pelikula. Sobrang pasasalamat ko sa Panginoon paano ako nakalabas ng buhay.”
Gumpal’s hope is that the remaining Filipinos left in Afghanistan (his last count was 15), those stranded and especially those who still don’t want to leave because of personal reasons, would be convinced to leave the warzone. “Kasi nakakatakot pag in-enforce na ng Talibans ang Sharia Law, na kinatatakutan nung 1996 to 2001,” he says. “Baka di kayanin ng mga babae doon. Bawal magtrabaho o mag-aral ang mga babae. Karamihan pa naman ng naiwan ay mga babae.” Gumpal says he’s in continuous communication with the Filipinos in Afghanistan.
Awaiting his quarantine period to finish, the father of four looks forward to starting a fresh chapter in his life in his home country, this time around as an entrepreneur. “Ang plan ko sana after three years, that’s it for me. I will retire already,” says Gumpal. He was already improving on his cake shop—but the crisis in Afghanistan broke. “Hindi ko alam paano ko papatapusin ngayon [ang construction] nun,” he says. “Pero naniniwala akong may magandang plano ang Panginoon para sa lahat.”