The World

“It’s a Beautiful Thing That Will Be Lost”

An American who runs an animal rescue clinic in Kabul scrambles to get her staff out of Afghanistan.

A massive crowd of people.
Afghans gather on a roadside near the airport in Kabul on Friday, hoping to flee. Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images

When Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, the American founder and president of Kabul Small Animal Rescue, woke up on Sunday, the Taliban were at the gates of the city, about five miles away from her clinic. She and the staff at her rescue organization, which she describes as the first women-founded clinic of its kind in Afghanistan, were trying to figure out what was going on the same way as everyone else.

“Most of the news you get on Twitter,” she said when we spoke on Friday. “Everyone’s sitting on their phones, scrolling through, being like, ‘Did Ghani leave? Is there—did somebody—who’s in the palace? Oh, the flag’s down. What country are we in?’” She and her team were busying themselves going through boxes of groceries, “half-crying, half-laughing.”

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“One of my vets, she said, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m crying, and I’m laughing, because my teeth are stressed,’” Maxwell-Jones said. “And I was like, actually, I think that makes sense.”

Eventually, an announcement was made that women needed to wear appropriate clothing. Maxwell-Jones had been wearing jeans and a t-shirt around for years and had to borrow full-covering clothes; the only headscarf she could find had skulls on it, which she didn’t think would go over well. She can’t go out alone anymore, only with a male escort, and when we spoke, there were two Taliban guards outside her apartment. (Since she is a single woman living alone, though, these men are not allowed to enter.) She doesn’t have a full face-covering, so when she’s gone out, Taliban members have asked her to stand behind a wall while addressing them. Some of the Taliban escorts she’s had have been cordial. Some have not. But they’re in control of the city, and there’s no way around working with them to do what she’s trying to do. And what she’s trying to do is get her staff, their families, and her rescue animals out of Afghanistan.

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Kabul Small Animal Rescue has roughly 35 staff members—about a third of whom are women, which Maxwell-Jones notes is quite a high percentage for Afghanistan. Add their families and the sum total Maxwell-Jones is trying to get out of the country is about 125 people, and as many of the 250 animals from her rescue organization and three others that she can take. (There’s nothing  “selfish or anti-humanitarian” about putting “a tiny bit of priority” on her animals, she told me. “I think they bring love and joy and meaning to people’s lives.”)

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Originally from Tennessee, Maxwell-Jones first arrived in Afghanistan in 2010 with a French archeological delegation, studying a “very large body of pottery” for her dissertation. After completing her Ph.D., she left academia and got into development work and consulting. Her day job is as the research director of the Heart of Asia Society, an Afghan think tank. The Kabul Small Animal Rescue, which she founded in 2018 with head veterinarian and vice president Tahera Rezaei, was started as a side project “that has grown a little bit oversized.”

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And now, the side project is all-consuming. Maxwell-Jones has been working on getting paperwork ready for a month to get everyone a visa that allows evacuees to be accepted by a third country and entered into the U.S. vetting process. They’ve all made it on the list, she said.

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“It means that you can get out of Afghanistan,” she said. “That’s the important thing right now.”

She is trying to get landing space permission for charter flights, which she’s trying to arrange. But one of the biggest logistical challenges, she said, will simply be getting to the airport. The process for getting out on military flights has created an almost impenetrable path.

The U.S. military is “sending these emails to people that are like, ‘you are receiving this email so that you can go to the airport. Go now, take a bag less than five kilos. Prepare to wait for hours to days,’” she said. “There’s nothing with your name on it. We have no idea how we’re supposed to prove anything. It’s a very, very disorganized process. I mean, maybe if you added cyanide and zombies, it could be worse, but frankly, I couldn’t design a worse system.”

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The “first-come, first-serve” nature of the alerts has “created these mobs,” she said. “And the mobs are there because people are desperately afraid of the Taliban. Whatever they act like in the street, and however calm they are, and however much the Taliban say that they are very kind, many people are very afraid of them.”

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Maxwell-Jones has barely slept. The morning call to prayer is around 4:15 a.m., she said, “and I think they’ve turned up the volume” since the Taliban took over. When we spoke, it was early evening, and she was making another cup of coffee and going through cigarettes.

“It’s like, this is fucking insane,” she said. “The whole thing is completely insane. You asked earlier what this feels like? It’s a combination of surreal and hyper-real. Absolutely every decision I make all day long matters. Every single decision. And lives are at stake in every one.”

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Maxwell-Jones says her mom, in Tennessee, has been saying she should just get out herself. But she’s not leaving until everyone else is out.

On the phone, she told me about how proud she is of her vets for the work they’ve done over the last three years, and have continued to do since the Taliban arrived. On Friday, some members of her staff went to a Taliban-controlled compound to rescue 46 dogs. Some Taliban members were throwing rocks at the dogs, she said.

“Nobody else is going out and trying to find these animals that have been abandoned, or getting people’s pets that are in very insecure areas, or in areas that are completely held by the Taliban,” she said. “My staff are doing it, and they’re scared, and they’re still doing it.”

Even if Maxwell-Jones can get everyone out—human and not—it’s clear she will still have to mourn for her tiny corner of Kabul.

“We created a wonderful animal rescue. We gave great veterinary care. Our staff lovingly cared for all of the animals” she said. “They educated the public. I think they made it a little better here.”

“It’s a beautiful thing that will be lost.”

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