A month on from the dramatic fall of Kabul in Taliban hands, former Royal Marine and founder of the Nowzad charity Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing can finally breathe a sigh of relief: his charity’s staff and their families – including 25 children and a newborn baby – have made it out of Afghanistan and are safe in Islamabad, Pakistan, in the care of the British High Commission.
“This is absolutely mind-blowing,” Farthing said. “It has still not really sunk in.”
Efforts to evacuate the animal shelter’s staff started immediately as Kabul fell. Nowzad – which was set up to help reunite Afghan dogs with soldiers who befriended them – launched Operation Ark in order to get all of its staff, most of whom are Afghan nationals, safely out of the country.
You DID it…. #OperationArk was a complete success! The @nowzad staff are now safely in Islamabad and in the care of the British High Commission! 🙏🏼🙏🏼 I am so bloody happy right now! @PeterEgan6 @domdyer70 #nowzad pic.twitter.com/eU4HwZnMWk
— Pen Farthing (@PenFarthing) September 11, 2021
As donations poured in to charter a jet and take all the staff and their families as well as the animals they rescued out of Afghanistan, and supporters kept up pressure on MPs to grant all the Afghan nationals among the staff visas to come into the UK.
They hoped to get 68 people between charity staff and their families to the UK, along with their rescue animals in the hold; the charity offered to take on board more people on the evacuation list until the plane was full to capacity, thus saving as many human lives as possible along with the rescue animals.
The efforts were successful; with the jet chartered and visas issued, it seemed only one hurdle remained – getting inside the airport. It was no easy task: thousands of people had been gathering to try and get through, or at least get their children over the wall without even knowing if they’d see them again.
People with all their paperwork in order to be evacuated abroad were unable to even come close to the airport, let alone board a plane. But Farthing, who said he wouldn’t leave the country without his staff, knew they were going to have to try – until something went terribly wrong, and the flight did not go ahead.
Accusations were exchanged afterwards, with Farthing claiming the flight had been blocked by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who in turn denied having done so and hit out at pets “taking priority” over the evacuation of people – despite the fact the pets would have traveled in the hold, and the jet was to leave with the charity staff on board as well as anyone on the evacuation list who could fit on the plane.
The situation became even more desperate as the bomb attacks took place at the airport, killing dozens, and a change in required paperwork – as well as the Taliban’s unwillingness to let Afghan nationals get to the airport – made it impossible for most of the Nowzad staff to leave. In the end Farthing was forced to leave alone with the rescue animals, but has kept working to secure a way out for the staff left behind.
.@PenFarthing @Nowzad @rickygervais @domdyer70 @marcthevet A quickie to let you know the great news : the NowZad staff are now safe. #OperationArk was always about this. Such an amazing campaign heroic work from all. Never Pets before People! pic.twitter.com/6smiCQeEmA
— Peter Egan (@PeterEgan6) September 11, 2021
Now, a month after its launch, Operation Ark can be declared a success – although there have one last leg of the journey to make, from Pakistan to the UK.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab commented, “Pleased that Nowzad’s Afghan staff, who were called for evacuation, successfully crossed the border into Pakistan.”
“We look forward to welcoming them to the UK in the coming days.”