Afghans aboard a convoy of buses that was given a Taliban escort to Kabul's airport spoke Sunday of the heartbreak of driving past huge crowds desperate to join them.
Tens of thousands of people are gathered around the airport north of the capital in the hope of getting a flight out of the country as an evacuation run by the US military continues in chaos.
People have been crushed to death in the melee, while images of a family handing a child over a wall to a soldier— and of young men clinging to the side of a military plane as it rolled down the runway for takeoff— have shocked the world.
A journalist aboard the convoy that left a downtown hotel early Sunday told AFP a huge crowd was camped at an intersection close to the airport— many sleeping in the open.
Families hoping for a miracle escape were crowded between the barbed-wire boundaries of an unofficial no man's land separating Taliban fighters from US troops and the remnants of an Afghan special forces brigade helping them.
"As soon as they saw our convoy they got up and ran towards the buses," he said.
"They were showing us their passports or other documents... One man came to my window with wife and child and waved his passport saying 'I have a British visa, but can't get in. Please let us on the bus'."
There have been reports of the Taliban stopping, harassing and even detaining Afghans trying to flee, but the reporter said his convoy passed largely without incident.
"The didn't care about us," he said.
'One day, you'll thank me'
The United States and other nations had plans to offer sanctuary this year to tens of thousands of Afghans following Washington's decision to withdraw all its troops from the country.
Those offered the chance of a new life abroad mostly included Afghans who had worked for foreign forces during the 20-year occupation that followed the ousting of the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
But those plans were thrown into disarray by the Taliban's devastating rout of Afghan forces, and their return to power last weekend.
"Everybody had a reason to leave," the journalist on the convoy told AFP.
"Some were journalists, others women university students... then there were those who worked with foreigners."
One girl was in tears at the hotel before the convoy set off.
"The day the Taliban came, I knew life was over for me in Afghanistan," she said.
"Living under their rule would mean burying all my ambitions in life."
Those on the convoy were now waiting for their turn to be evacuated to the West via a coronavirus isolation camp in Qatar.
"My children are crying because they are exhausted, but I am telling them hang on a bit more for the flight to come and then we are saved," said Haji Hamid, with his wife and four youngsters in tow.
"Death and oppression would be stalking us if we stayed," he said.
"I keep telling them 'one day, you'll thank me'."