‘I couldn’t let my dogs be shot’: Pen Farthing has split opinion over the rescue of his animals from Afghanistan but he reveals the truth about his battles with the MoD, his tears for the staff he’s left behind and the horrors he saw in Kabul
When former British marine Pen Farthing finally passed through the Taliban-controlled barbed wire gateway into Kabul airport with his 150 dogs and cats from his animal rescue charity four days ago, he received a sobering text.
‘It was from my mate Dave who ran a security company in Kabul. He got out literally two hours before me, but kept his compound and left his two pet dogs with the staff.
‘He texted, ‘The bastards just shot Brutus. They went round the compound, saw the dogs, dragged them into the open and shot them’.’
Pen, 52, said he sat for more than 24 hours in a hangar at Kabul airport waiting for the plane which would take him on the first leg of his journey to the UK with the terrible image of the dogs being slaughtered ‘playing on a loop all the time in my head’.
He recalls the anguish and uncertainty of leaving Kabul and is visibly pained when he talks about the fate of so many Afghans left behind.
Pen Farthing (pictured with wife Kaisa Markhus), who passed through the Taliban-controlled barbed wire gateway into Kabul airport with his 150 dogs and cats from his animal rescue charity four days ago, recalled the anguish and uncertainty of leaving the Afghan capital
‘At the airport the British troops are on the inner side of the barbed wire,’ he explained yesterday in his first full interview since leaving the UK for Norway to be reunited with his new wife, Kaisa, 30, who fled their home in Kabul two weeks ago.
‘You can talk to them but they can’t do anything as the Taliban check people at gunpoint.
‘The Afghan people were standing there with all their belongings in a line. There was one guy whose paperwork they didn’t like so they’re like, ‘Come on, out’, with an AK rifle in his back. I was just watching this guy trying to wave at his wife and kids as he was being dragged off at gunpoint…’
The despair is writ large across his face and his eyes are dulled by all he has seen.
‘Where they took him I do not know,’ he continues. ‘I think I’ve cried more in the last five or six days than I have since I was four years old. I’m just numb with it.
‘I think it’ll take a long time to ever get out of my head having to say goodbye to the two members of staff who drove the truck for me to get me into the airport along roads just lined with people. There were thousands and thousands of them in makeshift camps waiting for their turn to try to get into the airport – women, children…
‘And you should have seen the human misery in that hangar – the possessions people had left behind – photographs, hats, children’s toys.
‘I was sitting amongst all that when someone tweeted about my foul-mouthed rant [to Defence Minister Ben Wallace’s special advisor Peter Quentin].’
The furious answer machine message which was leaked to the media at the weekend has dominated news coverage as the astonishing, toxic battle between this extraordinary man and the Ministry of Defence has raged on as, quite literally, Kabul has burnt.
‘I don’t even remember making it,’ says Pen. ‘I totally forgot about it until somebody sent me a tweet that said, ‘Pen Farthing’s explosive rant…’ I thought, ‘What the hell are they going on about?’
Mr Farthing flew back to the UK last night with his menagerie of animals rescued by the Nowzad charity
The rescued dogs (left and right) have begun their quarantine at a sanctuary in Britain
‘It was a heat-of-the-moment thing. We needed paperwork for our staff and their families to be able to go to the airport.
‘Peter Quentin had told me six days before the staff had been approved to leave the country but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t give me the paperwork.
‘You can imagine as the window between where we were and when the Americans were pulling out got smaller and smaller I was getting pretty stressed.
‘Quentin was the only person I had a phone number for. I guess that’s why he got both barrels. As far as the person who decided to release that voicemail is concerned, if that’s their priority in life let them crack on.
‘I’ve apologised for the language I used but that’s it.
‘I’m not worried about what some politician is saying about me. That’s not on my radar. What’s on my radar is that this ill-thought out withdrawal has destroyed a country overnight and cost countless lives.’
Pen may well be apologetic for his language and loss of self-control but not for the efforts he made to save the staff who, to him, were like a family. As it was, it took six days for the paperwork to be completed.
They immediately crated up the cats and dogs, put wives and children on a bus and headed in a convoy to the airport. It was a mission that few thought he’d pull off in a city that was falling apart as the Taliban roamed the streets with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
But Pen, who left the Royal Marines in 2009, has the commando spirit writ through him –and a marine never gives up. Miraculously, he negotiated passage for two truckloads of crated animals and a busload of Afghans through two Taliban checkpoints to the commander at the South Gate – only to be barred from entering.
Hounds safe and sound
Animal worker cradles one of the dogs after it arrives in Wales
Cradling the tiny ball of fluff in his arms, an animal charity worker gazes tenderly at his new charge.
The animals that have arrived at Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary in Powys, are just some of the near-100 dogs and 70 cats rescued from Kabul by Pen Farthing that have begun quarantine at sanctuaries across the UK.
They will be looked after until they can go to adoptive families.
Lozzas Lurcher Rescue in Hertfordshire said their ‘precious cargo’ had been ‘well looked after’ by Mr Farthing.
US President Joe Biden had changed the rules just three hours earlier only allowing those through with passports and visas to control the growing numbers inside the airport.
‘We were inside, all of us inside with the right paperwork, but we were three hours too late. Biden had changed the rules.’
He shakes his head. Three bloody hours – if they’d pulled their finger out and got the paperwork to us just a day before my staff would have been out with me.’
I meet Pen with his wife on a gloriously sunny day in the grounds of a quarantine hotel in Oslo where he has to spend three days having been in a red list country. Kaisa has been in Oslo since she left Kabul on a Norwegian mercy flight 12 days ago.
As the spouse of a Norwegian, Pen is allowed to leave the hotel after three days if he tests negative for Covid. He can then finish his ten-day quarantine period with Kaisa in her family’s home. He is also allowed visitors but contact is not permitted.
You can see it’s taking every ounce of self-control not to give his wife of less than five months a jolly good hug. He came here after helping to offload the animals at Heathrow with staff from the airport’s Animal Reception Centre.
Five cats sadly died on the journey and one of the dogs was stabbed when, Pen believes, they drove through Taliban checkpoints to Kabul airport.
Otherwise the animals, albeit frightened, are healthy and will soon be released from quarantine, despite briefings from Whitehall sources that they are riddled with disease and may have to be put down.
Whoever’s saying that is talking a crock of crap,’ says Pen, once again not mincing his words. ‘One of the things we pride ourselves on at Nowzad [his animal shelter in Kabul] is every single animal is fully vaccinated for rabies, parvovirus, distemper, kennel cough, they’re treated for fleas and ticks and dewormed.
‘They’re all neutered and spayed and the blood samples are sent to DEFRA to prove they’ve got the relevant antibodies for rabies.’
‘My five dogs are ready for me to collect as soon as I’m out of here.’
Kaisa, listens to Pen talk. She is happy just to be able to sit with the man she feared she would never see again after that failed first attempt to make it to the airport. Pen’s happiness is fleeting.
He remains haunted by the staff he has been forced to leave behind, and will not rest until he has brought them to safety. ‘It was the staff who made the decision for me to make a second attempt on my own,’ he says.
‘They said, ‘Don’t stay. You’ve got to take the dogs out. The Taliban will just shoot them’.
‘I gave them three months wages – that’s put away securely – and a couple of hundred dollars extra. I said, ‘Put this in your pocket. Do not spend it. I want it back when I see you in England. That’s you’re emergency money’.Then I went round and hugged every single one of them, including the girls. Everybody was so emotional.’
Pen’s eyes are red. He says he slept for little more than four hours in the five days before he put his head on the pillow in his quarantine hotel last night. Kaisa had to call him 13 times to wake him up yesterday morning.
Mr Farthing confirmed he had landed in Heathrow this morning in a message on Twitter
‘I had no idea if we were going to get in to the airport. I’ve never been as nervous in my life going back to that airport.
‘People were telling me there was another bomb threat [a suicide bomber had killed at least 170 people when they made their first attempt] and a rocket threat. Pen waited for more than 24 hours for his plane to get diplomatic clearance to leave. As he sat in the hangar, an Army officer approached him to give him a piece of his mind about ‘wasting army resources’.
‘He had a right go,’ says Pen.
‘Once he’d finished I said, ‘Right let’s put some facts on the table here’. I explained to him ‘It’s a cargo plane. The dogs and cats are going in the hold where you can’t put people. I haven’t used any military resources. I didn’t put any of you guys in danger getting in because the soldiers were stood on the barbed wired where they’ve always stood.
‘They didn’t come forward to facilitate my entry into the airport. When I left where they were stood they were dealing with the next group of Afghans coming in via the Taliban’. So this Army guy is like, ‘Oh s**t, sorry mate’.’
‘In the end it wasn’t even the British who loaded the cargo. They’d gone. That’s how close to the wire my flight coming in was.’ When Pen’s plane finally took off on Saturday night, he saw the city lights laid out beneath him. ‘There was no joy just guilt,’ says Pen.
‘Guilt I couldn’t get [my staff] out. Guilt that for whatever reason I couldn’t persuade the powers-that-be to give me that paperwork a few days earlier. Guilt because I left them behind.
‘I had Ewok [his dog] on my lap. When I first came back to Afghanistan, I came because of my love of dogs but, in the years I spent there, it’s the people I grew to love.
‘Now we’ve put them back into the dark ages. My young female vets – one was the face of the new Afghanistan – were having to come to work in Burkas by the time I left.
‘People can say what they like about this mission, but they weren’t there. They weren’t on the ground when I lost two young marines in 2006 to make sure the Taliban weren’t in power. Now we’ve just given the whole country back. I’m not giving the people I regard as my family back with it.
‘All this s**t about putting animals before people – I have never said my dogs were a priority before people. I have never said I’m a priority.
‘Caring about animals doesn’t mean not caring about people, I don’t understand where all this is coming from. It’s the people that haunt me.
‘I can still see two of my young female vets sat there crying when we got back to Nowzad after the first failed attempt to the airport. That’s what will never stop playing like a loop in my mind until I get them out.’