For David Lavery, the fall of Afghanistan comes with a soundtrack of men yelling, women weeping and babies wailing — all coalescing into a din of despair that echoes in his mind.
That cacophony surrounded him in the days after the Taliban took the Afghan capital, as the former soldier walked the perimeter of the Kabul airport searching for the Canadians and Afghan allies he was tasked with evacuating.
A founding member of JTF2, the elite counter-terrorism unit of the Canadian Forces, Lavery now operates a private security company, Raven Rae Consultancy, in Kabul. As a soldier for more than two decades, Lavery was no stranger to the devastation of war zones. But the crush of humanity fleeing the Taliban stunned him.
“It’s horrible and hard to process. There was a constant hum, a 24/7 of noise, desperation and panic,” said Lavery, recounting the chaos of the rescue in a Zoom interview from a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, just days after he himself was airlifted to safety. “It was all about survival.”
After Kabul fell on Aug. 15, Lavery was the only Canadian on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Embassy staff had left on evacuation flights and it would be another four days before Canadian Forces arrived to help.
Lavery was given a list of more than 1,200 applicants seeking refuge in Canada. The names were collected by advocates and Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan war who had banded together to help Afghans escape the looming Taliban threat.
WATCH | David Lavery explains the complications of the rescue operation:
The mission for Lavery’s team was to guide refugees to the airport, then extract those with valid Canadian documentation from the sea of people who had gathered outside the security perimeter set up by U.S. and British forces — which included the airport and the Baron Hotel — and get them on transport planes out of the country.
The Afghans were told to wear red and look for a man named “Canadian Dave.”
“It will haunt me because I can see the desperation in people’s faces,” said Lavery. “I could hear people on the other side [of the gate] who knew me screaming, ‘David, don’t leave us!’ But I couldn’t open the door.”
Niagara central command
News that the Taliban had entered Kabul on Aug. 15 triggered a stretch of sleepless nights for Wendy Long, the founder of the Afghan Canadian Interpreters (ACI) group.
For the past five years, Long, who lives in Ontario’s Niagara region, had been pushing for a path to immigration for Afghan interpreters who assisted Canadian Forces during the war and were likely targets of Taliban retribution.
The government of Justin Trudeau finally agreed on July 23 and announced that Canada would fast-track immigration applications of Afghan allies.
By then, Long and her volunteers had collected the names of hundreds of Afghans and their families. They weren’t just interpreters, but also drivers, cooks and maintenance workers who worked with the Canadian military over the past 20 years.
But to get out of the country, they needed to obtain special immigration visas, which required providing biometric information such as fingerprints and filing paperwork at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.
Long’s team worked “in a frenzy,” she said, to confirm identities of the Afghans and their connections to Canadian soldiers. Volunteers were frustrated by immigration staff who wouldn’t accept family applications, only individual ones. The process bogged down approvals, but also forced some applicants to choose between escaping Afghanistan and staying behind with loved ones.
“It caused a lot of people to have to make a choice of whether to leave when they got their facilitation letters and go to their airport without their family,” said Long.
Earlier in the spring, as the Taliban began to take over swaths of the countryside, an ACI volunteer who was a veteran of the Afghanistan war reached out to David Lavery to ask for assistance.
As the situation grew more dire in July, Canada began airlifting its embassy staff out of the country. Most diplomats were already gone when Immigration Minister Mario Mendicino announced that Canada would accept 20,000 vulnerable Afghan refugees on Aug. 13.
But thousands of Afghan allies were stranded without proper documentation when Canada’s embassy in Kabul closed two days later, as the Taliban drove armoured vehicles abandoned by the Americans into the city.
Before the Afghan government collapsed, Lavery and his son Brant had been transporting Afghans to the Baron Hotel, near the airport. The hotel was “behind the wire,” meaning it was protected by both U.S. and British forces. But once the Taliban took over, it was too dangerous for the Laverys to venture outside the compound without military support. So from dawn to dusk in the days after Aug. 15, Lavery would circle the airport from the main entrance to Abbey Gate, which was near the irrigation canal, to the back gate of the Baron Hotel, in search of Canadians.
His feet were battered from walking the equivalent of a marathon a day. He had to ignore the pleas of people who stood in raw sewage for hours, some of them injured and elderly, and prioritize only those who had hard-to-forge documentation like passports and visas.
Lavery initiated WhatsApp video calls to Long’s team in Canada from his cell phone. He would show them exactly where at the airport he was, and then Long would use another messaging app to tell their contacts to wave something red and yell out to “Canadian Dave.”
Lavery tied a red bandana around his neck so he would be recognized.
“I would be in one chat room [with Afghans] and I would say, ‘Canadian Dave is looking for you,'” said Long. “Then I would go back to the other chat and I would see people waving red scarves and chanting ‘Canada’ and Dave walking toward them.”
The rescues were chaotic, especially at the back gate of the Baron Hotel. After identifying Canadians by their red clothing, Lavery would send a handful of his local staff out into the crowd to bring people closer to the doors of the hotel gate, while he negotiated with British paratroopers who controlled the entrance to open the door while holding back crowds.
WATCH | Wendy Long describes how the operation unfolded at her end:
“You would have hundreds of people trying to push their way in. And you would be grabbing people, grabbing their luggage, grabbing their babies and pushing people’s faces and shutting the doors [of the entrance],” said Lavery. “Peoples’ hands and feet were getting caught in the doors. There was so much screaming and crying.”
As traumatizing as those scenes were for Lavery, the results lifted the spirits of the Canadian volunteers at ACI, who were able to see some of the rescues in real time.
“Seeing those smiling faces on the other side of the gate was invaluable to us and it encouraged us to keep going,” said Long, who credits Lavery for helping save the lives of at least 100 Canadian passport and visa holders.
Once they were pulled to safety, Lavery’s wife, Junping Zhang-Lavery, would take the refugees into the Baron Hotel and ensure they had food and water. She would also help console their children and do what she could to keep them comfortable until they could be further screened by immigration officials.
Looming threat of suicide attacks
The first Canadian transport plane landed in Kabul on Aug. 19, four days after Lavery arrived at the Baron Hotel. That night, Canadian officials offered Lavery and his son a flight out of the country.
Lavery wanted to stay and help extract more Canadians, along with German banking clients he needed to assist. But Canada refused to take Zhang-Lavery, who had a Chinese passport, unless Lavery was also on the plane.
That’s when Lavery said goodbye to his son and brokered a deal with German officials for space on their transport plane.
His wife’s prolonged presence at his side was both a comfort and a burden. Zhang-Lavery bandaged his cuts and made sure he was eating and taking his medication. But Lavery also feared that he was putting her in harm’s way, especially since the threat of suicide attacks near Kabul airport was growing with each passing day.
On Aug. 26, Lavery and wife boarded the last German airlift. As they were walking up the ramp of the cargo plane, they could hear the sound of explosions and see a grey plume of smoke coming from the direction of Abbey Gate.
Fifteen minutes after the sirens started wailing, Lavery could see vehicles transporting injured people and bodies. Then the ramp of the C-17 Globemaster went up and began its taxi down the runway.
When their plane landed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, two hours later, the couple found out it had been a suicide attack.
Since landing in Germany last week, Lavery has been trying to decompress and catch up on sleep, but he knows his work isn’t done.
The Canadian government says it successfully rescued 3,700 people, but Wendy Long estimates that only 20 per cent of the people ACI secured visas for were actually able to escape Afghanistan.
Lavery says he will go back to help get the remaining interpreters if his safe passage can be negotiated with the Taliban. He’s also concerned about his staff and their families. Raven Rae employed approximately 50 local Afghans. The employees didn’t have the necessary documentation to leave, and now their lives are at risk.
On Labour Day, Lavery received a text saying that the Taliban had taken over his company’s office.