Elite New Zealand special forces soldiers conducted a daring rescue operation of a grandmother in a wheelchair outside Kabul's airport perimeter, it has emerged.
Four soldiers in New Zealand uniforms, understood to be members of the crack New Zealand Special Air Service regiment, carried out the incredible mission outside the wire of the only functioning international airport in Afghanistan.
The specialist unit rescued the elderly woman along with her son after they had found their way past tens of thousands of people trying to make one of the few remaining flights leaving the country.
Separating Rashid* and his mother from a freedom flight on their newly issued New Zealand visas was a sewage-filled canal near Abbey Gate, an area where suicide bombers and a gunman would attack days later, killing more than 170 civilians and 13 US military troops.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this morning that New Zealand had two more evacuation flights planned from Afghanistan, which were unable to go ahead following the bombings. "We did not get everyone out."
The latest figures she had were they had been able to get 390 people out.
There appeared to be no other way to save Rashid and his mother than for the soldiers to go to their aid.
And so, out of the darkness, four New Zealand troops emerged outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) fence.
One of them jumped into the filthy concrete canal, with 2m-high sides, and came to their rescue.
The burly soldier put Rashid's mother over his shoulder and carried her to the other side. The wheelchair was abandoned.
Rashid was told to follow them.
"I was very scared," he told the Herald, but he plunged into the canal's waist-deep dirty water.
The soldiers grabbed their bags and ushered them inside the safety of the airport.
Shaking and crying, they were driven to an evacuation centre inside the airport to be processed.
"I started crying, my mum too, and the New Zealand soldiers were hugging us and telling us, 'Don't worry, you are safe now'," Rashid says.
"We were so happy that the New Zealand soldiers saved us."
Last night, while the NZDF refused to say whether NZSAS was involved, they did confirm that "our Army personnel" were involved in the rescue.
"This involved them moving beyond the airfield perimeter but staying within the wider HKIA security area," an NZDF spokeswoman said.
"As the number of evacuees grew around gates and other access points, troops had to move deeper into the security area, in this case further down the canal to reach those we had been sent to help.
"The bank of the canal was controlled by coalition forces. This event was typical of what was required. Such evacuations were carried out when it was tactically acceptable to do so. At no time did any NZDF personnel leave the perimeter and go into the wider Kabul area."
Rashid spoke about his dramatic rescue during an exclusive interview with the Herald yesterday, speaking from managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) at an Auckland hotel under Covid-19 safety protocols.
With his clean-shaven face, designer jeans and love of Kendrick Lamar and Indian pop singers, 27-year-old Rashid had never seen a Taliban militant before.
When the hard-line Islamic Taliban last rode into Kabul in 1996, he was just a child.
His family fled to Pakistan but after 16 years had moved back to a relatively calm Afghanistan capital a decade ago.
Jobs for young people like 27-year-old Rashid were hard to come by. One of his brothers moved to New Zealand in 2014 and he dreamed of following him.
And when he got engaged two months ago, he pursued visa applications for him and his mother with a renewed vigour.
Meanwhile, as the US forces and other Nato allies started withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict sparked by the 9/11 terror attacks, Rashid watched in horror as the Taliban re-emerged.
The speed at which they took over provinces and key border towns stunned him.
"I thought the Afghan military would be doing their best to send the Taliban back to where they came from," he says.
But by the morning of August 15, they were on the outskirts of Kabul once again. Within hours, President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, and Taliban soldiers were being photographed inside the Presidential Palace.
That week, everything changed for Rashid and his fellow countrymen. There were heart-breaking scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport where thousands of desperate Afghans were trying to flee, clambering over departing planes, clutching wings and wheels, some falling to their deaths.
Rashid and his mother were terrified. Bearded armed men were said to be roaming the streets, wielding AK-47s and RPGs, driving huge US military Humvees.
Their neighbours started wearing traditional clothes, trying to fit in with the new regime.
Rashid, who couldn't even grow a beard, went outside to look for himself. Who were these people?
"The first time I saw, in my entire life, the Taliban people ... I was very terrified," he says.
"When I saw their faces, it was so scary. I thought they would come and ask why I did not have a beard, why I was wearing these kinds of clothes. I was very terrified, especially when night comes and they are going past my home and playing this kind of music. I don't know what kind of music it was."
Word went around that the Taliban would, in a few days, start going door to door, checking households, upholding their strict Sharia law, and looking for anyone who collaborated with foreign forces.
Western music was outlawed. Rashid's favourite TV shows, including Turkish melodramas, were axed. Satellite dishes were banned.
"Everything changed, in a very short time," Rashid says. "Life totally changed. I still cannot believe this situation could be allowed to happen in my country."
A week after Kabul fell, their visas finally came through. Now, they just had to somehow get to the airport.
They knew thousands had descended on the airport, some 5kms from the middle of town. There had been deaths, stampedes, and Taliban-controlled access down all of the streets.
"But when I got my visa, I had no choice," Rashid says. "I accepted that I had to try and get out of the country."
Gathering their most personal possessions, and fitting them all inside tiny bags no heavier than 10kgs, Rashid and his mother left home, knowing it could be for the last time.
They navigated the streets of Taliban-controlled Kabul and headed for the airport's main entrance early in the morning of Monday, August 23 [Kabul time].
Progress was slow, with his mother having difficulty walking and needing a wheelchair.
When they arrived at about 8am, they joined other New Zealand visa holders who were part of the same evacuation group.
But they couldn't get near the front gates. A huge crowd surged towards American soldiers behind the wire, waving papers both legitimate and fake, holding babies above their heads, pleading to be let through.
Taliban militants were firing warning shots above the crowd, hitting Afghans with sticks, metal bars and rifle butts.
In contact with his brother in Auckland, as well as a WhatsApp group chat with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials and the members of the NZDF evacuation team inside the airport, they got messages to move.
Go to the Abbey Gate, the group was told.
Another desperate scramble. Holding up "NZ" signs, printed on white paper and slipped inside laminate protectors, they tried to get the attention of Kiwi soldiers.
They waited hours under the baking sun. Temperatures soared into the mid-30s.
More messages, photographs and satellite images were sent back and forth, trying to identify them in the crowds, and get them to the right location.
The coded sign was changed from "NZ" to "TAUPO" in the hope of recognising them.
Cellphone networks were being jammed and internet coverage had dropped out completely. Communication was difficult.
But by 6pm, things were getting desperate. Rashid and his mother had been separated from others in the evacuation group. There was news that some had made it through.
"I lost my hope," Rashid says. "Everyone had left and it was just me and my mum who had been left behind."
Darkness fell. And sweeps of the fenceline by Kiwi soldiers failed to identify the pair.
Rashid's brother finally got through to a NZDF contact on the ground who told them to stay put. Someone would come and get them. But they only had one hour. If they couldn't reach them by 8.30pm, they would have to stick it out for the night.
"I was literally begging them," Rashid's brother says.
If the Kiwi soldiers didn't cross the canal and get them, Rashid doubts they would have got through.
After they were plucked to safety, the rescued pair were given water and biscuits. A spot on a military plane out of Afghanistan was just an hour away.
Rashid thought they were being flown straight to New Zealand.
But once they got on board a grey military plane – it was too dark to see what country it belonged to but it was probably Australian – they were told they would first go to Dubai.
"At that time, I was very happy and I never asked why Dubai. I was telling myself, it's okay, as long as my life and my mum's life were safe," Rashid says.
They spent two sleepless days at a Dubai military base. He was still shaking, haunted by the harrowing experiences back in Kabul.
"I will never be able to forget that scene ... everybody was rushing, so scared, the Taliban was firing, and my mum in a wheelchair so terrified," he says.
As they came to grips with what they had been through and their paperwork was processed, Rashid says they were well treated.
"The Australian and New Zealand staff welcomed us in very nice ways. They were like family members, they were so nice to us."
After travelling via Sydney on an Etihad commercial flight, where he learned of the suicide bomb attacks at the exact spot he and his mother had negotiated just days earlier, they landed at Auckland and were taken straight into managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) under Covid-19 safety protocols.
When they arrived in New Zealand, Rashid asked his mother to pinch him.
"It felt like I was dreaming," he says. "I could not believe I made it. I was very, very happy."
Now he's looking forward to starting a new life in New Zealand with his fianceé in Hamilton, along with his brother and mother.
He hopes to study mobile engineering.
But one eye will always be back on his homeland. He still has three brothers back there and fears for their safety. He hopes they will one day join them.
And although his heart will always be in Afghanistan, he doubts he will ever go back.
"My life would be in danger, I don't want to go home. This is home now."
• The Herald has chosen not to publish Rashid's actual name over fears for the safety of his family still in Afghanistan.