Afghan evacuation mission far from over

Afghanistan, refugees, Kabul, Glenn Kolomeitz

Glenn Kolomeitz is finally back on Australian Eastern Standard Time. “I’ve come off Kabul time so I’m a bit more rested than I was the last couple of weeks,” the lawyer says. While his two young children were home schooling on the dining table at their home on the NSW South Coast, he was at his desk beside them, helping some 400 fleeing Afghans navigate the chaos and clear bureaucratic obstacles at Hamid Karzai International Airport. “Early on, when we got our very first family through the gates, a family of 17, and they were told by a DFAT lady to leave the terminal, I thought we were going to get nobody out. “Then I sent them an email, a lawyer letter, and I said, ‘Do not leave the terminal. Show that to the first American that you see’, which they did. They showed it to a US soldier and he got them on a US flight.” For months, Kolomeitz and his colleagues at GAP Veteran and Legal Services had been advocating for the evacuation of interpreters and other Afghans who had served Australia’s interests during the 20-year war. That effort came to a head on August 15, when the Taliban entered Kabul. He says the law firm managed to help extract 300 interpreters, guards and other Afghans who had been employed by Australia, as well as 100 other “miscellaneous” refugees, including orphans, people with family already in Australia and former Afghan National Army officers who had done their staff college training in Australia. GAP still has clients in Afghanistan it wants to get out but Kolomeitz is reluctant to talk about numbers and the roles these people played. Overall, however, he is pleased so many Afghans were evacuated. “Every time we hear of a family getting out and, more importantly, getting here to Australia, we do a little team hookup. It’s like every family or every individual is a win and I don’t know whether it’s exhaustion but we’re reduced to tears sometimes,” he says. The GAP team – “The most cohesive team I’ve ever worked with,” says former police officer and army veteran Kolomeitz – worked pro bono in shifts around the clock to help its clients through the airport and onto evacuation flights. There were moments of intense frustration, as clients trying to get into the airport met bureaucratic brick walls. “Groups of our clients approached the gates with a notice from the government saying they’d been given a visa and they were turned away because they didn’t have a paper visa in their passport or the ADF person on the gate said it wasn’t actually a visa, it was just a letter of offer,” says Kolomeitz. “This happened time and time again. One of our groups approached a gate three times, and were turned away three times for that reason.” He says this was not only traumatic for the people trying to board evacuation flights but also for their family members here in Australia. “The families were ringing day and night. They would say, ‘You got them a visa, helped get them through the gate, through the Taliban checkpoints and through the chaos and they got turned away.’ It was inexcusable.” Frustration turned to elation every time there was news another family had reached safety. The evacuation may have ended but the mission is far from over for Kolomeitz. Not only are there hundreds of Afghans with visas left in the country but those who have arrived in Australia, bewildered and traumatised, need ongoing help. “GAP is now sending little welcome baskets as our families arrive. We’ve sent baskets to our families who’ve got to Perth, Adelaide and now to Brisbane. A little welcome basket from us says we know where you are, we’re still acting for you and it’s good to see you here.” He says the law firm has been drowning in calls from veterans and other concerned people wanting to know how they can help. Migration certainty will be a key focus in coming months. “They’ve all come over on 449 temporary visas, which we’re grateful for, but they’re only valid for three months, there’s no permanency surrounding them and you can’t apply for another visa, from the 449. “So now we have to work with government, have people lobbying government to do something about that, to give these people some certainty and some comfort in their futures in this country.” To help those left behind, says Kolomeitz, lines of communication will have to be opened up between the Australian government and the Taliban. “We have to recognise that the Taliban is now the government of Afghanistan, at least some part of the Taliban is,” he says. There has to be an acceptance the Taliban is probably the lesser of two evils afoot in Afghanistan, demonstrated brutally with the ISIS-K bombing outside Kabul airport on August 26. “I’d like to think the West would appreciate that this new government, which will have to be recognised at some stage, formally or otherwise, has its own internal fight with another organisation which does actually export terrorism. The Taliban don’t export terrorism; they’re a domestic group and regardless of the way they conduct themselves and who they have harboured in Afghanistan previously they don’t export that risk. “ISIS-K certainly do.”

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Glenn Kolomeitz is finally back on Australian Eastern Standard Time. “I’ve come off Kabul time so I’m a bit more rested than I was the last couple of weeks,” the lawyer says.

While his two young children were home schooling on the dining table at their home on the NSW South Coast, he was at his desk beside them, helping some 400 fleeing Afghans navigate the chaos and clear bureaucratic obstacles at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“Early on, when we got our very first family through the gates, a family of 17, and they were told by a DFAT lady to leave the terminal, I thought we were going to get nobody out.

“Then I sent them an email, a lawyer letter, and I said, ‘Do not leave the terminal. Show that to the first American that you see’, which they did. They showed it to a US soldier and he got them on a US flight.”

Army veteran turned lawyer, Glenn Kolomeitz says the mission to get Afghans to safety is far from over. Picture: Anna Warr

He says the law firm managed to help extract 300 interpreters, guards and other Afghans who had been employed by Australia, as well as 100 other “miscellaneous” refugees, including orphans, people with family already in Australia and former Afghan National Army officers who had done their staff college training in Australia.

“Every time we hear of a family getting out and, more importantly, getting here to Australia, we do a little team hookup. It’s like every family or every individual is a win and I don’t know whether it’s exhaustion but we’re reduced to tears sometimes,” he says.

The GAP team – “The most cohesive team I’ve ever worked with,” says former police officer and army veteran Kolomeitz – worked pro bono in shifts around the clock to help its clients through the airport and onto evacuation flights.

There were moments of intense frustration, as clients trying to get into the airport met bureaucratic brick walls.

“Groups of our clients approached the gates with a notice from the government saying they’d been given a visa and they were turned away because they didn’t have a paper visa in their passport or the ADF person on the gate said it wasn’t actually a visa, it was just a letter of offer,” says Kolomeitz.

“This happened time and time again. One of our groups approached a gate three times, and were turned away three times for that reason.”

Glenn Kolomeitz was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.

He says this was not only traumatic for the people trying to board evacuation flights but also for their family members here in Australia.

“The families were ringing day and night. They would say, ‘You got them a visa, helped get them through the gate, through the Taliban checkpoints and through the chaos and they got turned away.’ It was inexcusable.”

Frustration turned to elation every time there was news another family had reached safety.

“GAP is now sending little welcome baskets as our families arrive. We’ve sent baskets to our families who’ve got to Perth, Adelaide and now to Brisbane. A little welcome basket from us says we know where you are, we’re still acting for you and it’s good to see you here.”

He says the law firm has been drowning in calls from veterans and other concerned people wanting to know how they can help. Migration certainty will be a key focus in coming months.

“They’ve all come over on 449 temporary visas, which we’re grateful for, but they’re only valid for three months, there’s no permanency surrounding them and you can’t apply for another visa, from the 449.

“So now we have to work with government, have people lobbying government to do something about that, to give these people some certainty and some comfort in their futures in this country.”

To help those left behind, says Kolomeitz, lines of communication will have to be opened up between the Australian government and the Taliban.

“We have to recognise that the Taliban is now the government of Afghanistan, at least some part of the Taliban is,” he says.

There has to be an acceptance the Taliban is probably the lesser of two evils afoot in Afghanistan, demonstrated brutally with the ISIS-K bombing outside Kabul airport on August 26.

“I’d like to think the West would appreciate that this new government, which will have to be recognised at some stage, formally or otherwise, has its own internal fight with another organisation which does actually export terrorism. The Taliban don’t export terrorism; they’re a domestic group and regardless of the way they conduct themselves and who they have harboured in Afghanistan previously they don’t export that risk.

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