• 2021.09.21
  • The Captain Goes Down with the Ship
Until Japan's former Mariners Law was revised in 1970, Chapter 2, Article 12 stipulated, "In case of imminent danger to the ship, the captain shall take all necessary measures to save life, ship, and cargo, and shall not leave any ship under his command unless all passengers, mariners, and other persons on board have been removed.”

When the Afghan capital Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 15, it must have seemed as though the foreign embassies there were just like ships that had begun to sink. I think the ambassadors, diplomatic staff, as well as local staff and collaborators, would have been looking for ways to secure their safety by getting out of the country as soon as possible. And I hear that amid the evacuations, there were some cases in which the ambassador (captain), the chief representative of the country, had left his or her post and was already outside of the country.
At the Spanish Embassy, however, the situation was a little different. At the time, there was in theory no Spanish ambassador in Afghanistan. The ambassador was Gabriel Ferrán. He had sensed the danger of the Taliban's return to power early on and had strongly advised Spanish citizens living in Afghanistan to leave the country, but he had been dismissed at a cabinet meeting on August 3, just before Spain’s ministers began their summer vacation. He could have started to pack up his luggage and return to Spain immediately, but there was the threat of the Taliban forces, which had advanced into the capital without waiting for the US’s August 31 deadline for withdrawal and his successor could not take over because of a delay in his arrival, so he remained at his post in an acting capacity.
The reason is that a large number of Afghans had been rendering their services as Spanish collaborators in the Spanish military, embassy, and the AECID (Agency for International Development Cooperation), which had been stationed in Afghanistan since January 26, 2002. These Afghan collaborators included local staff, interpreters, security guards, drivers, and their families. But they were facing the real risk of being executed as traitors for having defected to a foreign force. Although the “ship” had started to sink, and he was in an acting capacity, former Ambassador Ferrán (the captain) could not abandon it while there were still crew on board, and together with his diplomat colleague Paula Sánchez (the first officer), decided to stay onboard until they could rescue all the collaborators.

Figure 1

Then, the evacuation operation to save the Afghans who had cooperated with Spain began in earnest. The transit point for the operation was Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. First, Spanish A400M Atlas aircraft, medium-sized combat transport aircraft, flew shuttle flights between Kabul Airport in Afghanistan and Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai. Then, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner chartered from the commercial airline Air Europa was used for transport from Dubai to Torrejón Air Base in Madrid, Spain.
Two A400Ms were initially allocated to the Kabul-Dubai route, but another A400M fitted out for medical transportation was later added in anticipation of the need to accommodate pregnant women, the sick, and the injured. In the end, the A400Ms had flown a total of 17 round-trips with one flying directly from Kabul to Madrid. The operation was completed with the commercial aircraft flying 10 round trips between Dubai and Madrid. Figure 1 shows the flight plan for the evacuation. It adds up to a distance of 7,370km. By the way, it’s about 6,300 km from Tokyo to Kabul.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 1 shows the Airbus military transport aircraft, the same as the type used in this operation. At the same time as Airbus was putting huge effort into its A380 wide-body double-decker passenger aircraft, final assembly of the A400M took place at the Seville factory of Airbus Military, which was set up in Andalusia, southwest Spain. Photo 2 shows the model of the commercial aircraft chartered for transport from the airport in Dubai to Spain. Photo 3 shows the aircraft waiting on the parking apron at Al Minhad Air Base, the transit point in Dubai. At the front is the commercial aircraft that flew between Dubai and Madrid, and at the rear are the two military aircraft that flew between Kabul and Dubai.
Spain initially anticipated it would give protection to around 500 to 600 Afghans, but from the first flight with 53 Afghans aboard on August 18 up to August 24, when the Taliban issued a ban on Afghans leaving the country, Spain had already rescued a total of 1,143 Afghans. While there were subsequent difficulties along the way, including a suicide bombing by the Islamic State, by the last flight on August 27, a total of 2,206 people had been evacuated, including 1,671 Afghans and family members who had cooperated with Spain, 333 people for the EU, 131 for the US, 50 for NATO, and 21 for Portugal. Only two Spanish Embassy staff stayed behind at Kabul Airport, which was under the control of the US military, and continued the operation to rescue Afghan collaborators until boarding the very last flight: Acting Ambassador Ferrán and the diplomat Paula Sánchez. Quite unexpectedly, this reminded me of the story of Visas for Life.
Embassy staff should provide "public help” and protect the safety of their own citizens and collaborators, however, it emerged that the embassy staff of some countries were among the first to leave Afghanistan and left the fate of the people remaining behind to their own "self-help." Nevertheless, Gabriel Ferrán and Paula Sánchez decided it was the duty of a diplomat to rescue foreigners who have risked their lives to help the diplomat’s country, so, I felt that by staying with the ship until the end, their actions lived up to the spirit, if not exactly the original meaning, of noblesse oblige (“nobility obliges”), chivalry, or bushido ("the way of the warrior"). I understand that the British Ambassador returned home on that country’s last flight on August 29 and that the US Ambassador stayed until just before the deadline for withdrawal of US troops on August 31 after first making every arrangement possible then returning to the US safely.

Photo 4

Photo 5

Photo 4 shows the two diplomats after arriving at Torrejón Air Base in Madrid on August 27 on the last flight of the rescue operation. They probably appear here much the same as they did during their heroic efforts at Kabul Airport. Surrounding them are a transportation unit from the Spanish Air Force with members of the UIP (Police Intervention Unit) and the GEO (Special Operations Unit), elite units from the Spanish National Police Corps sent to ensure the security of this operation. It is certainly reassuring to know that we, as foreigners, would be protected by people like this in the event an emergency suddenly occurring in Spain.
Photo 5 shows Paula Sánchez loosely wearing an oversized bulletproof vest as she works on the rescue operation along with members of the GEO unit on guard. In Spain, the requirement to wear a mask outdoors has been removed, but it’s not clear what the situation was in Afghanistan.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the government's official announcement dated August 4, which records the ambassador's dismissal. As of September 6, the Spanish Foreign Ministry's website for the Spanish Embassy in Afghanistan still lists the Ambassador as Mr. Gabriel Ferrán (http://www.exteriores.gob.es/Embajadas/KABUL/es/Embajada/Paginas/inicio.aspx).


  • Susumu Yamada
  • JobSpanish and Japanese Translation

It’s been almost 37 years since I received a residence permit and work permit from the Spanish government and paid my first tax and social insurance premiums. Now that I’m at that age where I will soon go and register at the senior human resources center, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to introduce you all to this country that has taken care of me these many years.

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