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Operation Ark by Pen Farthing

Part 1: Introduction

Without fail I would rush home from school every afternoon to eagerly watch BBC news during 1982. Max Hastings was reporting on the harrowing events as British Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade “yomped” across the Falkland Islands in harsh winter conditions to fight through well dug-in Argentine positions, reclaiming them from the invading Argentine forces.

Right there and then, thirteen-year-old me knew that when I grew up, I too was going to be a Royal Marine Commando. There was no doubt. Overcoming the toughest infantry training in the world became my driving force.

The careers office promotional material of a troop sergeant leading his men in combat during the Falklands just inspired me. The respect and responsibility he had for those thirty young Marines triggered something in me. I never looked back, even when my application to join up as an officer was turned down. I didn’t give up. I applied to join as a non-commissioned rank and work my way up from the bottom. Nobody and nothing was going to stop me from becoming a Royal Marine Commando.

I passed out with 550 Troop on the 30th of September 1988 as a fully-fledged Royal Marine Commando and was awarded the King’s Badge, the best all-round recruit in training.

Some twelve years later, 9/11 happened.

The coalition of Western countries led by the United States invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and hunt down those responsible for the atrocities that had befallen America.

And in 2006 I was deployed as the troop sergeant for 5 Troop, Kilo Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, surrounded by Taliban in the remote desert outpost of “Now Zad”, deep in  elmand province. The young Marines on their first tour of duty were my responsibility. To this day I can recall that photo of the troop sergeant with his Marines that had inspired me all those years prior in the careers office in Chelmsford. That tour of duty shattered any romantic notion

of what real responsibility meant. It meant tough choices and sucking up any personal concerns.

It was war. Not all of my young lads came home. It was brutal and dark. Handing a grieving mother the Union Jack flag that had been draped over her son’s coffin will live with me forever.

Bizarrely, that tour of duty in Afghanistan set the scene for where we are now.

It was there when I realised my path lay not in a military solution but amongst the Afghan people, working with them. A dog I rescued from the chaos of that tour of duty, whom I named Nowzad, paved the way for the charity to be born. I just followed.

Nowzad is Dari for “newborn”. Nowzad, the charity, had been operating in Afghanistan since 2007. We built our charity from the ground up during the worst years of the conflict with no military protection. We lived outside the wire, in a residential area of Kabul. We had no protection except for the four dry mud walls that formed the outer perimeter of our clinic and house.

We were not the only Westerners. Brave and dedicated soldiers from the coalition of countries, determined to see positive change in Afghanistan, gave everything over a twenty-year period to be the difference for future generations of young Afghans. And those Afghans seized the opportunities offered. Universities across the country, particular in Herat and Kabul, were oversubscribed. According to UNESCO, over 100,000 girls were in some form of education across the country at the start of 2021, compared to just 5,000 when the coalition removed the Taliban from power in 2001.

The Taliban movement had come to power in the mid-90s, bringing a severe and unforgiving form of Islam rarely seen anywhere else in the world. Most people believe that Afghanistan has always been a strict Islamic country. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Marnie, once a good friend until charity politics intervened, went to university in Kabul as a young American girl. She showed me a photo once of her riding her bike to university during the mid-seventies. The striking feature of the grainy black and white photo is that Marnie is wearing a miniskirt. No women were wearing any form of headscarf in the other photos she showed me.

Nowzad had immediately looked to employ the first-ever female Afghan veterinarians. We worked extremely hard to promote young women’s rights by ensuring our staff was over 25% female. They seamlessly joined our determined team promoting animal welfare in a country slowly rebuilding itself.

I was proud to be just a small part of that. I was happy.

And then August 2021 happened: the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan. I found myself needing to evacuate my Afghan staff and the animals we cared for.

This book describes those events as they occurred and is fact. I was there. I lived it. Breathed it. Escaped it.

Everything you are about to read happened exactly as I have described it. I am extremely keen not to be sued. That’s quite the incentive to be accurate.

Everything in this book comes from the memory of myself and other eyewitnesses, backed up by the photographs I took as things happened, which are clearly dated and timestamped with the location. More details come from the various WhatsApp groups that we used to plan and eventually implement Operation Ark.

I am not going to focus too much on the political happenings at the time, so if you are hoping on some revealing gossip about Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, Ben Wallace, or even Peter Quentin, well, there is none. I never had any to begin with.

I am also not going to focus on dogs either. They were part of the plan but never the plan.

Members of parliament, journalists, social media commentators, and even a civil servant from a select committee hearing had no idea what was really happening or had happened to me on the ground during those two weeks of August 2021. Yet they made statements of “fact”. Why they did it, I don’t know. I just know that no one took two minutes to ponder what their “fact” would do to me.

That “fact” would then become the new “truth”. But it was a lie of offensive and damaging proportions. Let’s put it straight: It was never ever “pets over people”.

That tagline was just awful. Yet that was the stick they used to beat me with – and the ethos of Operation Ark.

Pets over people. Even the choice of the word “pets” was designed entirely to belittle and discredit the fifteen years of tireless work that we had put into building Nowzad as an animal welfare charity in Afghanistan. Fifteen years of saving human lives through our rabies-prevention work for which we have won awards.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. Of course I do. Often you will find me in my local pub sporting my favourite T-shirt, an eye-wincing bright-yellow affair with a screen print that reads: “I love dogs and beer and maybe 3 people.”

And guess what? My T-shirt is not lying! Especially the “3 people” part.

I would say in my defence that those people I do care for, I am wholly and completely committed to. In fact, I risked my life for them.

In August of 2021, during the chaos of the sudden evacuation of Westerners and their Afghan allies from Kabul, I had the opportunity to make a difference for the people I was responsible for and cared for.

Or I could have just abandoned them.

I could have made a solo run for the airport at any time and just not bothered looking back. Arrived home safely to my adorable wife. For us, the world would have kept turning. No questions asked. No media scrum. No tarnishing of my name. But I chose to stay, even beyond the potential point of no return. I was, in a way, behind enemy lines because I stayed after the Taliban took over Kabul. I stayed because I am cut from a very different cloth. As a former Royal Marine Commando, I was taught early on that we never abandon the people we serve alongside on the ground. Just because I was no longer a serving Royal Marine and my team were civilians did not mean I had given up the ethos of being a Marine.

It was always people and animals. Because I could do both.

The aeroplane had a passenger cabin and a cargo hold.

People in the passenger cabin.

Animals in the cargo hold.

It was not rocket science.

But it didn’t happen that way. In this book I’ll lay out exactly what did happen. And had to  happen. And the price I paid for it.

If we had failed then that would have meant committing our Afghan staff and their families to a life of solitude and isolation, forced to live under a dictatorship that denies every fundamental human and democratic right, especially and above all to women.

Yet in saving them, the life I had wished for and dreamed of ended abruptly because of the success of Operation Ark.

I have no choice now but to suck it up and acknowledge that their freedom came at a price I must accept. Freedom always comes at a price and my loss was insignificant to what some willingly sacrifice. I truly believed in what I was doing to help our people at that moment in time.

So – as I am constantly asked – would I do it all again?

I think about it briefly but always answer yes. When you have an opportunity to make a positive difference, you need to grab it with both hands. You can pay the ferryman later. The young Afghan girls now able to go to school here in England are testimony to whether or not we did the right thing.

The Operation Ark “escape committee” consisted of fourteen dedicated people, some already associated with our charity, others not. I am only describing the actions of a few as most do not want to be mentioned by name. They managed to stay out of the spotlight and have no wish to be thrust into it now. Some have requested their names be changed or nicknamed.

All of them were crucial to the success of Operation Ark. I am truly so grateful and proud of their commitment to evacuate people who most of them had never met. Every day all  of them took part in probably three or four Zoom calls at all hours. David, Jen, Ann, Sam, Dora the Explorer, Ian, Tom, Dan, Nina, Kaisa, Trudy Harrison MP, Pat, Tony, and Peter Egan. Two of the names have been changed as per their request. A thank you is just not enough for what they achieved.

I do not need to introduce them, let’s just say they are folks with a heart of gold.

There are more aspects to Operation Ark than I have been able to convey in this book. For example, we planned to take the whole shooting match to India: staff, dogs, cats, the lot!

Planning was well advanced. I even secured an Indian visa at the height of the withdrawal just before the Indian embassy itself evacuated. But we did not go to India and sadly I just don’t have the word count for that story. I could describe the almost comical conversations about attempting to blow a hole in the airport security fence to get in. Yes, we actually were having those conversations with a US security contractor on the inside but sadly that is for another day.

So, this is the story of Operation Ark as I lived it, as our team staggered from one problem to the next, making splitsecond decisions that were literally life or death to rescue Nowzad’s Afghan staff and its animals, and bring them all to a place of safety and peace.

Operation Ark is out now and available in paperback and ebook. The audiobook will be released on 19th July 2024, and is available for pre-order now.

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