Charlotte Maxwell-Jones has been working for months to evacuate the many animals her charity, Kabul Small Animal Rescue, have saved in Afghanistan, but it’s the safety of her 40 workers that she’s most concerned about at the moment.
Though Taliban militants have asked her to leave without them, she’s waiting until her workers as well as the dogs and cats they rescue can come, too.
“I'm working on getting out with my staff, and so if it is all on one plane, I go with them,” she told NBC News via video call. “But I think I want to make sure that everybody's on the flight first.”
The Taliban are notoriously unfriendly to both those who work with foreigners or animals, which they view as unclean. In the past they disapproved as dogs as pets.
Maxwell-Jones says that Taliban fighters visited her clinic the day after they entered Kabul, the capital. Now, four Taliban guards are stationed on her lawn after she reached out to a Taliban elder for permission for the charity’s efforts to continue, she said.
Though the guards have so far been mostly polite, other Taliban fighters in the city have been more aggressive. During one recent animal rescue mission, militants took videos and threatened her staff.
“I think it's a lot of veiled stuff, like, 'Why are you working? Why are you working for a foreigner? Why are you working with dogs? Or, 'How are you such a bad Muslim? How are you such a bad Afghan?'” Maxwell-Jones said.
Since Aug. 14, more than 70,000 people, including American citizens, NATO personnel and Afghans at risk, have been evacuated from Kabul, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday. The U.S. has said it will evacuate any U.S. citizen who wants to leave and as many at-risk Afghans as possible.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that around 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan ahead of a rapidly approaching Tuesday deadline for the U.S. to withdraw troops from the country, he said.
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According to reports from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, there is good reason for at-risk Afghans to worry about their safety. The commission has received accounts of human rights abuses since the Taliban took over, including executions of Afghan national security forces, restrictions on the rights of women and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Paul "Pen" Farthing, who founded and runs the animal sanctuary Nowzad in Afghanistan, also worries about the safety of his 25 Afghan staff members, including three of Afghanistan's first female veterinarians.
Farthing, a former British Royal Marine, has said he’s not leaving Afghanistan without them.
"My staff don't deserve the fate that awaits them if they stay here in Afghanistan," he told Reuters in an interview from Kabul.
"I had an opportunity, the fact that I am a British citizen, I'm going to use that to full effect — so I've said I'm not going until my staff leave this country.”
U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has told Sky News that "he has to prioritize people over pets" and that he "genuinely believes" that Farthing's staff and animals will be able to travel to Britain after the evacuation of British citizens is complete.
As Maxwell-Jones works to secure safe passage to the airport for her animals and staff members, who she said are on the list for visas to leave, the charity has continued its animal rescue efforts around Kabul. She expected to have around 250 animals in the care of the charity by the end of Wednesday.
Those efforts are taking place under the watch of the Taliban. They accompany her when she leaves her compound to rescue other animals. The women on her team, who make up around a third of her staff, have been working on paperwork from their homes to ensure their safety since the Taliban takeover.
Although the Taliban promised to respect women’s rights as they took control of Afghanistan, many are skeptical. Under their previous rule, in the late 1990s, the Taliban barred women from working. They have shared scant details on how they plan to govern Afghanistan, instead issuing ambiguous statements that the country will be governed under Shariah law.
Despite requests from Taliban fighters to leave without her staff, Maxwell-Jones said she won’t go until they and the charity’s animals are all safe.
“Because this is an organization full of animals and staff that I've worked very hard to create, I am responsible for what happens to them,” she said.
“I love these animals. I love these people. I've known all of them for a very long time. So it would be like leaving my family and I am not prepared to do that.”
In the meantime, Maxwell-Jones is trying to stay optimistic. If however, the charity is unable to get the animals out, she said they will be euthanized rather than released on the streets.
“We've made the impossible happen before and we've got an amazing team. And I don't think anybody's going to give up,” she said. “Once the dust settles and it really hits home, it's going to be heartbreaking.”