Journeying through minefields | Sunday Observer

Journeying through minefields

5 September, 2021
Taliban fighters patrol along a street in Kabul after US troops' withdrew from Afghanistan, (AFP)
Taliban fighters patrol along a street in Kabul after US troops' withdrew from Afghanistan, (AFP)

The fighting was getting intense outside the Afghan capital where Rohitha Welihindage lived, but he took solace in US intelligence reports that the Taliban would not enter Kabul until September.

Welihindage, a 59-year-old father of two sons, had been in Afghanistan since 2017, working for an international Non-Governmental Organisation, partnering with the UN. He was based in Kabul but had to take up field visits to rural areas from time to time, which was dangerous, not only because of Taliban fighters armed to the teeth but also due to various other violent groups who tend to kidnap foreigners for ransom.

Taken by surprise

However, the new situation was not something they had foreseen. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan as a part of a peace deal was supposed to be a peaceful transition as opposed to what was witnessed on that day. It was not supposed to take place until September.

However, on August 12, Welihindage heard that provincial capitals Kandahar and Herat have been surrounded by the advancing Taliban fighters. Yet, earlier in July, he recalled, US intelligence reports assured that the fighters would take at least 70 to 90 more days to enter Kabul.

However, by August 15, things began to change lightning speed. Even the Taliban leaders later confessed that it was a surprise to them too that fighters entered the city without any resistance from government forces. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier vacated the Presidential Palace and fled to Qatar to avoid bloodshed.  

Tightened security

“I usually stock up rations for a month. We are used to that,” Welihindage, who had been preparing for the uncertain future, told the Sunday Observer. Living in a battle-scarred country, they had to abide by certain security and insurance protocols. He and his teammates could patronize only three supermarkets designated as secure for expatriate workers. He could never go out as he wished, without clearance from the security manager. Some workers had to abide by a company-imposed night curfew and the occasional field visits too had to be sanctioned by a top security officer.

Although life was tough in Afghanistan, he was paid well and he could visit his family every two months for 10 days, which made it an attractive deal.

NGO encounter

Welihindage had a B.Sc in Agriculture from the Peradeniya University and later obtained a degree in Aqua-culture. His life with NGOs began after 2004 Boxing Day after the tsunami. He got the opportunity to work for Action Aid and later a friend introduced him to an international manpower company that recruits employees for INGOs working in conflict zones. At that time, he was working for a German company. Welihindage had also worked in Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Two years ago, Welihindage had a close shave with death. He was deputed to attend a UNICEF meeting at one of the Afghan Ministries. The 10am meeting was later postponed to the afternoon and a local from his office was assigned to cover for him. In the evening, a powerful car bomb rocked the vehicle park where his car would have been parked had he attended the meeting. The meeting attendees departed around the same time of the explosion. The bombers targeted the meeting. The local who took part had a narrow escape as he left 10 minutes before the meeting ended.  

“More than the Taliban, we fear the lone armed groups who kidnap people for ransom. They are present everywhere and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill for the slightest reason,” he recalled.

The UN compound had also come under attack in the past. There was rivalry between the Taliban, ISIS and the armed groups. In Afghanistan, death was not a remote possibility but rather anticipated all the time, even before the Taliban takeover, which is why Afghanistan is the most dangerous place to be.

“You could be shot by any group and blame it on another group,” he said. The situation was so uncertain if protocols are breached. 


In the mid of the chaos, Welihindage and his teammates were protected at the UNHCR compound, as they were international aid workers. On August 18, three days after the Taliban announced victory he tried to go to the airport with his two colleagues from Kenya and Ethiopia.

Safe passage

“The Taliban agreed to let us get through. We were escorted to the airport in UN vehicles,” he said. The Taliban men gave them security during one of the most dangerous drives, although it was just a few kilometres from the UN compound to the airport. Yet, they had to return to the UN compound after three hours, unable to enter the airport due to the mad rush by those trying to flee the country. It was not safe to be anywhere close to the airport for long due to threats by the ISIS.

On Saturday, August 22, he and his teammates were fortunate enough to enter the airport. “The Taliban had cleared a gate for us and I managed to get into a US military flight. If I remember correct, it was a Boeing 767 with 280 passenger capacity.”

Among the lucky ones


He returned to Sri Lanka the previous Saturday. Welihindage was among those who were lucky to get out of Afghanistan alive. Many, who flocked to the Hamid Karzai airport in the recent past seeking for safe passage out of Kabul, had been killed in either, a stampede, shootout, or by falling off US military flights. A week ago, a powerful suicide bomb carried out by the ISIS killed over180, including 13 US soldiers at the airport.

“Afghanistan is a highly volatile place with no law and order. The Taliban is making efforts to gain international legitimacy. They have taken over police stations and trying to restore normalcy but with many armed groups and ISIS terrorists around, it is a dangerous place at the moment,” a Sri Lankan officer contracted to work for the UN told the Sunday Observer, speaking from Kabul on Thursday.

He said there were 20 Sri Lankans working for private companies contracted with the UN but half of them were willing to return to Sri Lanka.

“We don’t want to leave our jobs but being alive is our first priority at this moment,” he said, adding that they have been sheltered inside the UN compound with assurance from the Taliban of their protection.

The group has also given the green light to UN humanitarian projects undertaken by UNESCO, FAO, and WFP in addition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, due to armed groups operating across the country, including the ISIS, the Taliban is not in complete control of the situation.

Seven Sri Lankans had a narrow escape on the day of the suicide attack at the airport.

They are former aid workers who decided to return home due to the situation. They were to join a group of Indians, being evacuated by the Indian government.

It was arranged by the Sri Lankan mission in Kabul. But their journey to the airport took longer than expected. They missed the flight as a result and they had to find temporary shelter in a hotel and return to the UN compound later. It was on that they that the explosion occurred.

“Due to some miracle, the group was not harmed in the suicide attack,” the Sri Lankan officer said, adding that the men were traumatized by the experience.

The Sri Lankan Ambassador to Afghanistan Admiral (Retd) Piyal de Silva said fortunately, no Sri Lankan was injured in Afghanistan and the Foreign Ministry was making arrangements to bring down the seven workers - the last batch stranded in Kabul, with the help of Indian government.

The Foreign Ministry issuing a press release on August 30 said, “Sri Lanka continues to monitor the developments in Afghanistan and remains concerned about the situation, including its humanitarian aspect. 

“Sri Lanka has been facilitating, with the assistance of its international partners, evacuation of its citizens from Afghanistan. As of August 30, 66 Sri Lankans have been evacuated and seven remain to be evacuated while 21 have opted to remain in Afghanistan for the time being.”