Pen Farthing: ‘Animals in a cargo hold never got in the way of people getting on a flight’

From his home in Exeter, Paul “Pen” Farthing reruns the events of late summer through his mind. The former Royal Marine, who 15 years ago established the Nowzad charity in Kabul to care for animals suffering the fallout of war, still cannot believe that America “would just throw Afghanistan to the wolves”. When the retreat began in August, he realised “things were going south very, very quickly. We’d got young female staff who had trained as vets, who feared they would be married off to Taliban fighters. Their faces were just horrible to see…”At the time, the Nowzad animal refuge employed 24 Afghan staff. Since Farthing first adopted his own street dog in 2006 while stationed in Helmand, Nowzad had reunited 1,600 soldiers back home with animals they cared for on active service, while establishing a pioneering veterinarian practice and neutering programme. Farthing had been living at the compound since the beginning of the pandemic. Given the charity’s symbolic and practical mission, with Kabul about to fall, it was clear that he had to get both his team and the animals out of harm’s way.

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“If I got the staff out, there would be no one there to look after the animals,” he says. “The Taliban aren’t fans of dogs. And a lot of these animals were owned by people who were being evacuated. After all the work we’d done, do I just sentence them to death?”Nowzad launched Operation Ark , a fundraising operation, to charter a plane to transport its staff and their dogs and cats to the UK. “We could see the horrendous situation that was unfolding on the ground at the airport,” Farthing says. “The terrible images of people falling off planes. So for us, this was potentially a good news story.”

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He still cannot comprehend the chaos of the British withdrawal: the emails sent to passport holders to make their own way to the one-runway city airport rather than Bagram, which had inexplicably been abandoned two weeks earlier, having been defended for 20 years. “We knew that people were going to die. There was just this very narrow corridor airport road with very high concrete walls on either side.”The first time Farthing set off for the airport – with two buses of staff and their families, from one-year-old babies up to 80-year-old grandparents, along with two trucks piled with crates of cats and dogs – they were stopped four times at Taliban roadblocks on the five-mile journey. Each time, Farthing explained their mission to bemused fighters enjoying the power of their AK-47s. At the airport, they were told that the animals could go, but not the staff – not without visas. Farthing and the convoy returned to the Nowzad compound in the early hours and there was an emotional debate about what to do next. He recalls unanimity from his staff: “You have to at least get the animals out.”

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Pen Farthing at Nowzad in Kabul.Pen Farthing at Nowzad in Kabul, 2012. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters
The following day, he returned to the airport with the trucks and US servicemen helped to load the animal crates into the hold of the chartered plane. Up to the last minute, he imagined the plane’s 229 seats would be filled with some of the thousands of people desperately looking for safe passage. But then he found himself sitting alone, on his way back to London.It was only when Farthing landed that he realised the size of the media storm Operation Ark had created. A threatening voicemail he’d sent to a Ministry of Defence official demanding visa assistance had surfaced in the papers. The Tory MP Tom Tugendhat was relaying a story about how an Afghan man had asked him why Britain was prioritising dogs over children. Farthing claims he could not recall making the call to the MoD – “we had Taliban next door, I was calling everyone I could”. He still sees the briefing to the media about “pets over people” as a deliberate smokescreen for the scandalous ineptitude of Britain’s exit, made while the foreign secretary was holidaying in Greece .

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Farthing was able to start breathing more easily when he got news that his staff had escaped across the Afghan border to Pakistan in September. On the morning we spoke, the last of them were due to arrive at a hotel in Exeter; he has used some of the money raised to organise English lessons and help them get vocational training. “There’s a big shortage of vets here,” he says, “so work shouldn’t be a problem.” The dogs and cats, having passed through quarantine, are largely being reunited with their owners.

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He can’t see a prospect of returning to Kabul, but hopes Nowzad might have a life elsewhere in the world’s conflict zones. In recent months, he has never stopped hearing that people should come first. How does he reply?

“I completely agree,” he says. “But animals in a cargo hold never got in the way of people getting on a flight. We had an aircraft with 200 empty seats on it – but that wasn’t my choice.”