Informal U.S. refugee network turns to text messages, GoFundMe to rescue Afghans

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The desperate plea was sent via text message from one refugee advocate to another trying to aid frantic evacuations from Afghanistan: “Just got a call for a young mom with her two young kids,” it said, “She got through Taliban but being turned away by U.S. forces.”

The Afghan woman, a U.S. permanent resident who was in Afghanistan to visit family, and her U.S. citizen children were hoping to board a flight from Kabul to rejoin her husband in North Carolina on Thursday following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.

It was her second attempt to leave Afghanistan after she and her small children were trampled in a stampede triggered by gunfire near the airport on Wednesday, advocates and the woman’s husband said in interviews, requesting anonymity for her safety.

Thousands of miles away in the United States, Jenny Yang from the refugee resettlement agency World Relief had so far been unable to reach U.S. authorities.

Yang’s last resort was a text message to Chris Purdy, a U.S. military veteran and project manager with the advocacy organization Human Rights First, hoping he could use personal government contacts to get her out.

Then they lost contact with the woman and her children.

The frenzied text messages are just one tactic in a sprawling improvised effort by current and former officials, military veterans, congressional staff members and advocacy groups across the United States to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan, often without clear guidance from the U.S. government. Many are Afghans who worked with the U.S. military in the 20-year war and fear the Taliban will hunt them down.

Desperation on the ground has been exacerbated by a lack of coordination between U.S. military forces controlling the airport perimeter and the State Department, which is notifying U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans about departure flights.

A State Department spokesperson said they are processing Afghans entering the airport as fast as possible, but that “congestion levels are high.” The spokesperson said they could not confirm details of specific incidents.

After being injured in the first melee, the woman returned only to faint from a grueling seven-hour wait outside the airport gates. When she came to, she re-established contact with her husband and is now at home waiting for another opportunity to flee.

“Some of the most desperate people are going to be stuck, and will continue to be stuck, unless the State Department figures out a way to get this mess under control,” Yang said.

New York-based Human Rights First has collected tens of thousands of names of people in Afghanistan who may need to be evacuated. The group shares the list with the State Department.

While it remains unclear exactly how the U.S. government uses the information, some people on the list have boarded planes, Purdy said.

The network of people trying to aid the evacuation has shared tips to pass through Taliban checkpoints. Wear traditional clothing, keep eyes down and persist. “You have to try many, many times,” reads one tip sheet. “Be patient.”

One Afghan man disguised himself in a burka, a traditional female robe, to get through Taliban checkpoints as he traveled hundreds of miles to reach the airport in Kabul, Purdy said.

Democratic Representative Jason Crow, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, told Reuters that the Taliban have been using files from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency to round up Afghans who worked for the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the United States expected to evacuate between 50,000 and 65,000 people from Afghanistan. That is fewer than the number eligible for safe harbor, according to estimates by advocates.

The Pentagon said on Thursday that in August roughly 12,000 American citizens, U.S. Embassy personnel, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and others have been evacuated.


U.S. defense contractors are also working to get their current and former employees out of Afghanistan, with mixed results.

Abdul Noori, 29, arrived in the United States six years ago with SIV status because of his work as an interpreter for the U.S. military, he said. Last month, his older brother followed. But a third brother, who worked for a U.S. security contractor, had his visa interview scheduled for next week canceled as U.S. Embassy staff evacuated.

Stuck in Afghanistan, Noori’s brother sent screenshots of emails from his employer telling him to stay in a safe location. A senior manager wrote he was “doing everything in my absolute power” to get Afghan employees to the United States. The company confirmed the emails but asked not to be named due to security concerns.

Noori was not impressed with the effort. “If you want to help, get them papers, get them a visa,” he said.

No One Left Behind, a charitable organization that for years has helped relocate at-risk Afghans, has emerged as a central node in the growing informal network striving to evacuate people from Kabul. The group has raised more than $2.5 million for charter flights through a GoFundMe campaign, said James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind.

But Human Rights First said the U.S. government was not allowing charter flights out of Kabul.

Some in Congress are also working to get U.S. citizens and others out of Afghanistan, fielding requests from constituents and trying to coordinate with U.S. agencies to arrange flights.

“What’s abundantly clear is in the last week the evacuation has not gone the way that it should,” Crow, the U.S. lawmaker, said.

Crow, whose office fielded over 1,000 evacuation requests in the past four days, said people were emailing and texting passport photos and visa information to him. Informal chat groups shared details like which airport gates were open.

“We’re doing everything we can to help on the ground,” he said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Jonathan Landay in Washington, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)

Crush at Israeli religious festival kills 45

By Rami Amichay

MOUNT MERON, Israel (Reuters) -At least 45 people were crushed to death overnight on Friday at an overcrowded religious festival in Israel, with some asphyxiated or trampled victims going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

Witnesses said many of the dead were caught in a tightly packed passageway around 3 meters (yards) wide after crowds packed the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel in defiance of warnings to maintain social distancing against COVID-19.

Medics said there had been a stampede in the men’s section of the gender-segregated festival. Casualties included children.

Many of the dead had yet to be identified and police asked family members to provide pictures and personal information of those who attended the festival and were still missing to help with the process.

Videos posted on social media showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.

“There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers,” said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.

“We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz told Reuters.

An injured man lying on a hospital bed described to reporters how the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.


“A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes,” he said.

People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiraled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.

The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.

A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a COVID-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.

A pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while visiting the site, called it one of the “heaviest disasters” in Israel’s history and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not recur. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

The United States and European Union offered condolences.

Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.

With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them.

As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revelers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrim buses to move unhindered.

The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions. But lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination program that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

At least 50 killed in stampede at Iranian general’s funeral, Tehran weighs response to U.S. attack

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Ahmed Aboulenein

DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 50 people were killed in a stampede as mourners packed streets for the funeral of a slain Iranian military commander in his hometown on Tuesday, forcing his burial to be postponed, state media reported.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the southeastern city of Kerman to pay tribute to General Qassem Soleimani, whose killing in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Friday plunged the region into a new crisis and raised fears of a broader conflict.

A senior Iranian official said Tehran was considering several scenarios to avenge his killing. Other senior figures have said Iran will match the scale of Soleimani’s killing when it responds but that it will choose the time and place.

Tuesday’s stampede broke out amid the crush of mourners, killing 50 people, Iran’s ISNA news agency said, quoting the chief coroner for Kerman province, Abbas Amian. About 213 people were injured, an emergency services official told the semi-official Fars news agency.

The burial of Soleimani had been postponed, ISNA said, without adding long any delay would last.

“Today because of the heavy congestion of the crowd unfortunately a number of our fellow citizens who were mourning were injured and a number were killed,” emergency medical services chief Pirhossein Kolivand told state television.

The body of Soleimani, a national hero to many Iranians but viewed as a dangerous villain by Western governments opposed to the Islamic Republic, had been taken to Iraqi and Iranian cities before arriving in Kerman for burial.

In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting “Death to America” and weeping with emotion. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shed tears when leading prayers in Tehran.

Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force, was responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was a key figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Iran’s opponents say its proxies have fueled conflicts, killing and displacing people in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Tehran says any operations abroad are at the request of governments and that it offers “advisory support”.

The U.S. defense secretary denied reports the U.S. military was preparing to withdraw from Iraq, where Tehran has vied with Washington for influence since the 2003 U.S. invasion.


“We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge,” the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, told the crowds in Kerman before the stampede.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said 13 “revenge scenarios” were being considered, Fars news agency reported. Even the weakest option would prove “a historic nightmare for the Americans,” he said.

Iran, whose coastline runs along a Gulf oil shipping route that includes the narrow Strait of Hormuz, has allied forces across the Middle East through which it can act. Representatives from those groups, including the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, attended funeral events in Tehran.

Despite its strident rhetoric, analysts say Iran will want to avoid any conventional conflict with the United States and is likely to focus on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies.

Trump has promised to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliates.

Reuters and other media reported on Monday that the U.S. military had sent a letter to Iraqi officials informing them U.S. troops were preparing to leave. But U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied there had been any decision to pull out.

About 5,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq, where there has been a U.S. military presence since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.


Iraq’s parliament, dominated by lawmakers representing Muslim Shi’ite groups who have been united by the killing of Soleimani alongside an Iraqi militia leader, passed a resolution on Sunday calling for all foreign troops to leave.

Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad the resolution must be implemented.

Friction between Iran and the United States has risen since Washington withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

The United States has imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, slashing Iranian oil exports, and Tehran said on Sunday it was dropping limitations on uranium enrichment, in its latest step back from commitments to the deal.

Washington denied a visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to allow him to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Thursday, a U.S. official said.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order the killing of Soleimani and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year. His administration said Soleimani was planning new attacks on U.S. interests without giving evidence.

U.S. general Milley said the threat from Soleimani was imminent. “We would have been culpably negligent to the American people had we not made the decision we made,” he said.

Trump administration officials will provide a classified briefing for U.S. senators on Wednesday on events in Iraq after some lawmakers accused the White House of risking a broad conflict without a strategy.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

At least 31 die during stampede at Ashura rituals in Iraq’s Kerbala

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 31 people died and another 102 were wounded on Tuesday during the Shi’ite Muslim religious rituals of Ashura in Iraq’s southern holy city of Kerbala, in what officials at its Imam Hussein shrine described as a stampede.

The death toll released by the Iraqi Health Ministry was expected to rise, with at least nine people still in critical condition. Thirty people died on site and one more died in hospital, the Health Ministry spokesman said.

The ministry did not disclose how they had been killed but shrine officials told Reuters the stampede took place towards the end of the procession, when thousands of pilgrims rushed towards the shrine during what is known as the Tuwairij run.

“The pilgrims fell one on top of the other and we were unable to pull them out,” pilgrim Abdel Mahdi told Reuters.

Photographs circulated on social media showed dozens of people bloodied and lying across a walkway, while other pilgrims attempted to help.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expressed his condolences to those killed in the stampede, while the Health Minister visited the wounded in hospital.

The annual pilgrimage marking the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in battle in 680 draws hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims to Kerbala from around the world.

Hussein’s death in a battle at Kerbala over the leadership of the Islamic community is one of the defining events in the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The rituals commemorating the death of Hussein involve self-flagellation, with crowds of mourners striking themselves and some lacerating their heads with blades. Stampedes have occurred in the past.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; writing by Raya Jalabi,; Editing by Peter Graff and Ed Osmond)

Fifteen dead in food aid stampede in Morocco: ministry

People gather at the place where 15 people were killed when a stampede broke out in the southwestern Moroccan town of Sidi Boulaalam as food aid was being distributed in a market, in Sidi Boullaalam, Morocco November 20, 2017.

By Zakia Abdennebi

RABAT (Reuters) – Fifteen people were killed and five more injured when a stampede broke out in a southwestern Moroccan town on Sunday as food aid was being distributed in a market, the Interior Ministry said.

A hospital source put the death toll at 18, adding that most victims were women who had been scrambling for food handed out by a rich man in the small coastal town of Sidi Boulaalam.

A local journalist said the donor had organised similar handouts before, but this year some 1,000 people arrived, storming an iron barrier under which several women were crushed.

King Mohammed ordered that the victims’ families be given any assistance they needed and the wounded treated at his cost, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a criminal investigation had been opened.

Last month, the king dismissed the ministers of education, planning and housing and health after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan to fight poverty in the northern Rif region.

The Rif saw numerous protests after a fishmonger was accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016 after a confrontation with police, and he became a symbol of the effects of corruption and official abuse.

In July, the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and accused local officials of stoking public anger by being too slow to implement development projects.


(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Cynthia Osterman)


Some killed in blast at Ariana Grande concert in British arena

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – A blast on Monday night at a concert in the northern English city of Manchester where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing left an unknown number of people dead and injured, police said.

Police said they were responding to reports of an explosion and that there were a number of confirmed casualties and others injured.

“We were making our way out and when we were right by the door there was a massive explosion and everybody was screaming,” concert-goer Catherine Macfarlane told Reuters.

“It was a huge explosion — you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

Concert goers react after fleeing the Manchester Arena in northern England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing in Manchester, Britain,

Concert goers react after fleeing the Manchester Arena in northern England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Super

Manchester Arena, the largest indoor arena in Europe, opened in 1995 and has a capacity for 21,000 people, according to its website. It is a popular concert and sporting venue.

A spokesman for Ariana Grande’s record label said that the singer was “okay”. A video posted on Twitter showed fans screaming and running out of the venue.

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe” meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Protests hit Ethiopia after stampede deaths

A man mourns during the funeral of Tesfu Tadese Biru, 32, a construction engineer who died during a stampede after police fired warning shots at an anti-government protest in Bishoftu during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Denkaka Kebele

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Protests broke out in some areas of Ethiopia’s Oromiya region on Monday, a day after dozens of people were killed in a stampede at a religious festival sparked by a bid by police to quell demonstrations, witnesses said.

Opposition politicians and government officials gave contrasting tolls of casualties that took place during the annual Irreecha festival in the town of Bishoftu, some 40 km (25 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa, where police fired teargas and shots in the air to disperse protesters.

The manager of the town’s government-operated referral hospital said the death toll had risen to 55, with 100 injured, from 52 dead on Sunday. An opposition leader told Reuters the number of dead stood at around 150.

On Monday, witnesses said crowds took to the streets in Oromiya’s Ambo, Guder, Bule Hora and other towns in response to the deaths.

“Shots are still being fired. Everything remains shut – Ambo has been brought to a standstill,” said Mesfin, a university student who did not want to give his full name out of fear of reprisal.

Two other residents of the other towns said scuffles took place between demonstrators and police.

The region’s assistant police chief told journalists that “widespread disturbances” had taken place in several parts of the region.

“Roads have been blocked, while government offices and vehicles have been burnt down. Police are trying to put an end to all this,” said Sorri Dinka, deputy commissioner of the Oromiya Police Commission.

The Horn of Africa country has declared three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half mast throughout the country to pay tribute to the victims.

Sporadic protests have erupted in Oromiya over the last two years, initially triggered by a land row but increasingly turning more broadly against the government. Scores of protesters have been killed in clashes with police since late last year.

The developments highlight tensions in the country where the government has delivered high economic growth rates but faces criticism from opponents and rights groups that it has reduced political freedoms.

The government blames rebel groups and dissidents abroad for stirring up the protests and provoking violence. It dismisses charges that it clamps down on free speech or on its opponents.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, said Sunday’s death toll had climbed to 150 people and that some of the victims were shot dead by police, contrary to official claims.

“We are calling on the government to establish an independent inquiry,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by George Obulutsa and Richard Balmforth)

Over 700 People Killed in Stampede in Hajj Pilgrimage Near Mecca

According to Saudi Arabia officials, more than 700 people have been killed and more than 800 have been injured in a stampede as millions of Muslims made their pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca.

The stampede took place about two miles from Mecca in a tent city called Mina during the ritual known as “stoning the devil.” Pilgrims sleep in 160,000 tents in Mina during the hajj because it is located in a valley where the symbolic stone throwing ritual is held. During the “stoning of the devil,” pebbles are thrown at three stone pillars that represent the devil.

Saudi Arabia’s civil defense directorate reported that the stampede occurred when a large number of pilgrims surged at an intersection of two streets. Saudi Arabia’s health minister released a statement baling the tragedy on the pilgrims who didn’t follow directions, according to CNN.

Hours after the stampede, pilgrims continued their journey. One pilgrim, Ethar El-Katatney, was near the site of the stampede five hours after it happened. She watched as medical personnel and police officers pulled bodies out of the edges of the crowd.

“I saw the ambulances, I saw bodies. … At least 20, 30 ambulances passed me by,” she told CNN by phone as she tried to reach the pillars herself.

NBC reports that more than 220 rescue vehicles and 4,000 first responders were at the site.

Thursday’s stampede is the deadliest pilgrimage incident since 1990, when 1,426 people were killed in an overcrowded tunnel leading to Mecca’s holy site. Since then, crushes and stampedes leading to many deaths have taken place in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004, and 2006.