20 YEARS IN TWO WEEKS! The Fall of Kabul

M. Lee is a Melbournian of Chinese heritage who first came to Australia with her family, after fleeing Vietnam as a political refugee in the early 80’s. Like many of her fellow former refugees from Vietnam, the US’s sudden and bloody withdrawal of Afghanistan led to much condemnation from world leaders due to the way in which they left a war they felt they could not win. Triggered by the similarities between the fall of Saigon and the fall of Kabul, this article was her immediate response.

It was hard to watch and hard for me to describe the very depth of my anger when I saw, like the rest of the world, the shocking images of desperate Afghans, clinging onto the US military plane as it pulled away from Kabul Airport.

Civilians, who could not get onto that plane with the 600 diplomats who did, were holding onto outer sections of the plane as if their lives depended on it. The tragedy of it was, they were right. As the plane engines kicked in for take-off, images of Afghans losing limbs were reported as the machinery of the plane made the ascent. A few minutes later, bodies started to drop from the sky. When images of falling Afghans, later to be circled by the media for clarity, were screened, I had to look away. The sounds of the bodies when they hit the ground were horrifyingly loud, even though they were captured through the audio of third-world mobile phones.

In that moment of watching the news coverage, I experienced flashbacks of all too familiar images of people jumping, falling to their deaths from the burning World Trade Centre on that tragic day in New York 9/11.

The TV broadcast then panned quickly to the footage of a lone US helicopter departing the US Embassy in Kabul, and I felt at the pit of my stomach that sickening feeling of disappointment for the Afghan support staff left behind. It was a case of deja vu, for I experienced exactly that same gut-wrenching feeling after listening to my parents recount, for the first time, the heartbreaking scene of the last US helicopter that left Saigon on 30 April 1975.

1975 and 2021, two different times in history, but the narrative has not changed much. The common denominator in both times? America, land of the brave.

Immediately after the news, my phone started pinging. It was Minh, my university friend whom I first traveled from Melbourne to Vietnam with, marking the very first time I returned to my birth country since fleeing as a political refugee with my family on a fishing boat. Minh is now a doctor, married with three kids, and with a stake in some restaurants. In his spare time, he does charity work in support of a Vietnamese orphanage.

The Fall of Saigon juxtaposed with the Fall Of Kabul almost 50 years later (Image: Shireen Mazari / Twitter)

He was angry and upset at President Biden.

“The Americans abandoned Bagram Air Base last week in the dead of night and DID NOT leave any support for the Afghan National Army.” He typed in a furious, fast-paced cadence of caps and typos. “It was because Biden wanted to withdraw before the September 11 deadline, and for what…for what optics?”.

“NATO and other experts had warned him, but he didn’t listen. He’s the fourth US president to carry this war through and you’d think they learned from Vietnam how to withdraw but no, how f*#king irresponsible is that!”

It was all in caps.

“And where is America’s most popular president in all this, the one who caught Bin Laden. What does he think of this tragedy?”

Minh’s words hung heavily in the air. America, sneaking off from a war they entered armed with heavy artillery, smacked of Saigon repeating itself. Why does America always abandon the people it promised to protect?

Another Whatsapp message, this time from my brother, and he had shared a powerful photo of the near 600 Afghans packed tightly like sardines inside the metallic tin can of a military plane. An astonishing pause. Then came a torrent of messages from my parents, their pain and anger could be felt crackling through the phone despite the litany of their broken English phrases. As survivors of the Vietnam war and former residents of Saigon when the city fell in 1975, they have been triggered by the events unfolding in Kabul, and for the past few days, they were reliving the trauma of their escape from Vietnam.

“The number of people they managed to get on that last plane out of Kabul, 500-600, is the same number of people as what our boat owner crammed into our tiny boat,” Dad said.

“We wouldn’t have survived that escape if we were not rescued by an offshore oil rig,” Mum added. “Our boat only had capacity for 150 passengers, a few more days and we would have sunk with all that weight.”

Three more texts followed. One from a friend claiming that 250 Christian missionaries have been taken into custody to be executed overnight.

Another text from a former school friend, asking what all the sacrifice her boyfriend made was for, fighting in Afghanistan. What was the point when the country had collapsed so quickly? And what about the 41 Australian soldiers who died over there on active duty, and the 500 veterans who took their own lives back home due to PTSD.

The third text was sent by a former colleague. She attached an article that featured Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, who penned an open letter to the global arts community, pleading to the world to not turn our backs on the people of Afghanistan.

Australia, are you listening? We have so much land. Can we offer asylum to the Afghan women, to the young girls now tearing up their diplomas out of fear, and to the allies who supported us on the ground?

America, are you listening?

Back in 1975, the world was not distracted due to a pandemic, so pretty soon, after losing the war, the US took in 100,000 Vietnamese refugees who became law-abiding, contributing citizens of America. From 1979 -1981, thousands more fled Vietnam; my family was part of this cohort.

After surviving five days at sea in a mass of seasick and wretched humanity and just before we ran out of water, we were rescued by a group of Canadian offshore oil rig workers from the South China Sea. After a few days, we were taken by the Red Cross to an uninhabited island in Malaysia. After the last refugee stepped onto the oil rig, I remember watching our leaking boat started to sink. The clothes we had on at the time were all we had left as possessions. I had even lost my shoes at that point.

With makeshift shelters, tin food delivered by United Nations’ boats, and going to the toilet in the jungle, we lived on this tiny island as displaced people for nearly a year. Thanks to Australia’s humanitarian and nation-building policies, under the then prime minister Malcolm Fraser, we were interviewed by Australia who with Canada and Switzerland, took the first selection of refugees. My family was granted political asylum to be resettled in Melbourne, Australia. America guided in guilt perhaps, took in all the remaining refugees from our camp.

Members of Australia’s Vietnamese community pay thanks to former PM Malcolm Fraser (Image: ABC News, Clement Paligaru)

My friend Luke Hunt – who is a long-time war correspondent and who wrote a recent opinion piece soon after the Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan – said that while comparisons can be made about the fall of Saigon to the fall of Kabul, it is not the same.

For a start, the North Vietnamese soldiers feared President Nixon. When he went the way of Watergate, they were emboldened towards victory, but it took a relatively long time for the tanks to enter Saigon. What President Biden will have to live with for the rest of his life, and what will be his legacy is that under his watch, after pumping a staggering US$83 billion of military investments, a figure confirmed by the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction, his country’s work was undone in a matter of two short weeks. As soon as the US troops left Afghanistan this week, the country fell to the Taliban without much of a whimper.

20 years of work, gone in two weeks.

If history can teach us something, it’s that at the end of day, it is how you leave a war that counts.

I was surprised at President Biden when he said it was never about nation-building with Afghanistan. What was the 20 years of military occupation and US$83 billion for, if not that one of its goals is to build up the nation? The plight of the Afghanistan refugees will unfold in a mass exodus in days to come, that’s if they can circumvent the Taliban. You’d hope human trafficking will not factor in, but it will, for the desperation to leave is life or death, as shown on the Kabul Airport tarmac.

In the seven years following the fall of Saigon, Australia accepted about 60,000 Vietnamese, such is the proud legacy of Malcolm Fraser. When he died, thousands of Vietnamese across Australia mourned. In Melbourne where his state funeral was held, the Vietnamese community in Melbourne crowded the church and lined the streets, holding banners that called him their true champion of humanity.

Soon after the Fall of Kabul, former Australian Army officer Ray Martin asked over Twitter what will Scott Morrison’s legacy be after this turn of events in Afghanistan?

For a start, how about releasing the Afghans currently in detention in Australia today and give them a home in our country.

And the next step after that? Open our doors to them when they come.

For information on how you can help the Afghan people, contact: info@afghanistanassociation.org.au

This article was published with permission by the author from her original Medium blog.

About M. Lee 1 Article
M. Lee is a Melbournian of Chinese heritage who first came to Australia with her family, after fleeing Vietnam as a political refugee in the early 80's. She is a communications professional by day, writer by night, and always looking for truth in all the wrong places.

1 Comment

  1. This article is gut -wrenching. Reality needles my heart and eyes. I feel quite sick. Another sad realisation weighs upon me when I read the bold banner words:


    The champion who had a cruel streak and threatened me to my face when I was a teenager, before he rose to be PM, and who was behind the destruction of my life.

    Two sides to one penny and many sides to the elephant. Thanks for the eye-descaling article.

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