Great Escape Afghanistan Pen Farthing | DogLife360
DogFest 2022
DogFest 2022

Great Escape from Afghanistan - Operation Ark Full Story Nowzad and Pen Farthing

Did you follow the minute-by-minute saga of the Nowzad Team's great escape from Kabul?  It's quite a ride following Pen Farthing, the former Royal Marine and Nowzad, the charity he founded to help animals in Afghanistan.   

Widely admired, Pen Farthing and Nowzad won the 2021 SuperDog Team Award!  

READ MORE: Who Won the 2021 Naturo SuperDog Awards?

After the fall of Kabul, Pen, his team and the animals they rescued needed to escape from the Taliban.  The mission was called Operation Ark, and it came very close to failure. 

There's been a lot of confusion about what really happened, so we've put together the story to help make sense of the events over the last couple of months and hopefully combat some misinformation. 

 Great Escape Afghanistan Pen Farthing - Pen and a healthy Nowzad stray
Hero Paul "Pen" Farthing in Afghanistan with one of the many dogs Nowzad saved

The plan was to bring the Nowzad animal charity back to the UK before the borders of Afghanistan closed.  This meant getting the team of 24 nationals and their families out of Afghanistan and also rescuing the dogs and cats in their care.  

Military evacuation in Kabul, Afghanistan
During the last days of the military evacuation in Kabul, Afghanistan

Any hope that Kabul would hold against the Taliban had quickly disintegrated, and the last days in the city descended into chaos as all the International troops evacuated Afghanistan.  The Afghan president and top local officials fled, and the local police and military changed into their plain clothes and went into hiding.  The Taliban had taken back their hold on Afghanistan after 20 years. 

Operation Ark Full Story Nowzad and Pen Farthing's Great Escape

Once the British and US troops withdrew, many Afghans like the Nowzad team would be in danger.  The Taliban has no tolerance for foreigners like Pen Farthing working in Afghanistan, and even less for those Afghans who worked alongside the US, British and allied forces.  Pen, the animals and the entire Nowzad team of Afghan nationals plus their immediate family members needed to leave the country. Fast.  To do this Pen needed help.  

Pen Farthing #OperationArc  Nowzad staff members arrive in UK Tweet 10 October 2021
10 October 2021, Six weeks after Pen and the animals evacuated leaving Nowzad staff in Kabul, team members arrive safely in the UK.

Pen Farthing - voice on the ground, Kabul

Pen was tweeting daily, openly expressing his anger at the Biden administration and British Government, devastated that all support for the Afghan people was over.

Early support for Pen Farthing on social media
It was shocking just how quickly Kabal fell to into the hands of the Taliban leaving the Nowzad team vulnerable.

When Kabul collapsed at lightning speed into the hands of the Taliban, Pen became the voice of what was really happening in Kabul.  There was an explosion of interest in Pen on social media as people all over the world followed his updates on the state of Afghanistan. 

Pen in Afghanistan with two rescues
Pen in Afghanistan with two of his charges

#OperationArk - growing online support from the public

The story quickly became about how to get Pen, his staff and his animals out of Kabul.  #OperationArc was underway.  Animal rights activist, Dominic Dyer, had met Pen the year before when fellow activist Peter Egan introduced them at a fundraiser.  Dom cleared his desk and pledged two weeks as the press liaison for Pen’s Operation Arc campaign.  

Marc the Vet tweets for public support for Nowzd
Marc the Vet consistent support for Nowzad

Dominic Dyer becomes press liaison #OperationArk

Dom reached out to influential people, The British Veterinary Association, Vets for Pets, The College of Veterinary Surgeons, and they all responded immediately using their voices to amplify the campaign.   Peter Egan and Ricky Gervais were instrumental in driving awareness for Operation Ark and support grew fast.  Political heavyweights also helped and DEFRA came on board to process the animals into the UK. 

Dominic Dyer press liasion for Operation Arc
Dominic Dyer of Off The Lease popcast

Influential public figures grow social media Nowzad support base

There was an outpouring of support from around the world and people gave generously to Nowzad to fund the evacuation.   Even Boris Johnson called for support to bring Pen and his team to the UK and all looked promising for #OperationArk.

Hero's of Operation Arc
Hero's of Operation Arc

A wealthy American businessman sponsored the private plane Pen needed to charter and all that was required was for the British Minister of Defence to authorise access for the plane to fly into Afghanistan.  The momentum gained through the campaign came to an abrupt halt, and, although time was of the essence, Operation Ark went into a holding pattern.   

Pen Farthing with two Nowzad rescues
Pen Farthing with two Nowzad rescues

No flight authorisation - Operation Arc stalls

Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was holidaying in Crete so Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace was dealing with the evacuation.  He offered Pen a ticket out for himself but Pen refused to leave without his team and the animals.  

Nowzad gathering of social support
OperationArc creates a social media storm

Then Wallace referred to Operation Ark as  “bollocks” to the press and his advisor, Peter Quentin claimed that Pen was putting ‘pets before people’.  Feeling powerless,  Pen left a heated message for Peter Quentin for which he later apologised.  At the time Boris Johnson was at the G7 meeting and MPs were unreachable. 

Pen twitter feed awaiting flight authorisation

Nowzad gets the green light

That night Dominic Dryer tweeted a video, tagging all the key players, imploring The PM and his Government to help and it was shared by hundreds of thousands of fans.  The next morning Wallace gave the flight authorisation but all the stalling had wasted valuable time.  

Boris Johnson gives the green light
Boris Johnson tweets that Operation Arc can go ahead

Nowzad's 36 hours of hell

Pen describes the ordeal that began on the 27th of August as 36 hours of hell as he and his team and the animals travelled in a convoy to reach the airport.  The Taliban checkpoints en route were harrowing, sometimes as many as 40 men surrounded them with their weapons pointing at them. 

en route with the animals to Kabul Airport
Cooling down the animals en route to the airport

At one point one of the Taliban accidentally discharged his weapon but thankfully no one was hurt. 

Pen with Nowzad staff transporting animals to Kabul airport
Pen and Nowzad staff, many long hours of waiting on their way to Kabul Airport

The chaos of the Afghanistan evacuation

Eventually, the Nowzad entourage made it to safety 300m inside the airport perimeter and there was a collective sigh of relief from supporters around the world.  Then Pen discovered that just two hours before they arrived, the US President, Joe Biden, had changed the policy for Afghan nationals leaving the country and the Taliban refused the Nowzad team’s British Government-approved paperwork.  

Again Pen had an AK47 shoved in his face with Taliban yelling at him to leave on his own. Pen refused.  And just as the team turned back, a suicide bomber detonated close by the airport and all hell broke loose.  

Tweeted - the chaos of Kabul
Nowzad twitter feed showing the chaos of Kabul

The Taliban started firing their AK47’s into the air.  One offloaded a full magazine right next to the window of the women and children in the bus.   Tear-gassed and terrified, the Nowzad team with spirits broken, drove away from the airport to their ambush shelter.  

READ MORE: Stray, the movie - a review

Once safe, Pen’s team urged him to consider flying out with the animals the following day. They felt that Pen’s presence was a target to the Taliban, they were worried all the animals would be killed.  

Pen Farthing and his animals forced to fly alone

The next day Pen left his team and returned to the airport with the rescued animals and got to work trying to fill the empty seats on his private plane.  So many people outside the airport were trying to flee Kabul. 

Pen and Nowzad team member en route to the airport
Nowzad team member drives Pen and the animals back to Kabul Airport the following day

But inside the airport British forces were in the final stages of their withdrawal and there were no troops left in the airport to evacuate.  In the end, Pen flew out alone with the animals in the hold. 

Pen Farthing shows the near empty Kabul airport
Pen Farthing shows the near empty Kabul airport

Press turn on Pen Farthing

It was while Pen was in the air, that a recording of that heated message he’d left for Wallace was leaked to the media and so began what many are calling a smear campaign.  Some of the press turned hostile, publishing stories framing Pen as selfish, claiming he had chosen “pets over people'' and, with absolutely no basis in truth, that the Nowzad animals were riddled with diseases and would need to be put down. 

Peter Egan tweets about fake news
Peter Egan tweets in response to misinformation in the media about Pen

Pen and his supporters were devastated at the attempts to defame his character and it was clear to those following closely that the misinformation campaign was nothing more than an attempt to distract the public from the real story, the mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Phil Lassman tweets his support for Pen
Phil Lassman tweets his support for Pen

Pen joins his wife, Kaisa, in Oslo

Pen joined his wife in Oslo where the couple quarantined. Kaisa had been working in Kabul for two years and her evacuation the week before had been traumatic. Like Pen, she worried for the safety of friends left behind and was shocked at the many empty seats on her flight to Norway which could have been filled with refugees. 

Empty plane leaving Kabul - Kaisa
When Kaisa left Afghanistan the week before her flight was empty too

Nowzad animals arrive safely in excellent condition

The 100 dogs and 70 cats arrived safely at Heathrow airport and animal rescue worker, Lorraine Edwards, was among those who helped to transport them to quarantine centres across England. She reported the Nowzad animals were in “amazing condition”  and it is expected that most will be adopted by former military staff.  

Lorraine Edwards - Animal person transported Nowzad
BBC article shows animal rescue worker Lorraine Edwards who helped to  transport Nowzad animals to quarantine

Twelve of the dogs and two cats have already been released from quarantine having been given a clean bill of health and the remainder will continue in quarantine until DEFRA gives them the green light to be placed in their forever homes. 

Public support for Pen Farthing grows despite smear campaign

Meanwhile, the slur campaign was unrelenting with nonsense claims from some press that Pen had taken British forces away from their emergency rescue work to help load the animals onto his plane.   In fact, it was US military personnel who volunteered to help the ‘dog man’ secure his rescues in the hold of the plane.  

Smear campaign frustrations
Sadly some news is just made up

Dominic worked tirelessly with back to back interviews on TV, Radio and online to set the record straight; and Nowzad friends and supporters spoke out on social media, pushing back and declaring their support and admiration for Pen’s compassion and commitment to ensuring both the animals AND people of Nowzad were safe. 

Animals AND people 

In Oslo, Pen did not rest and with the full support and cooperation of the Foreign Office, he put the plans in place needed to evacuate the Nowzad staff and their families from Kabul.

Nowzad first Afghan female veterinarians
Nowzad's first Afghan female veterinarians

Success for #OperationArc

On September 11th,  the anniversary of the terror attack on the World Trade Centre in New York that led to the twenty-year war in Afghanistan.  All 68 Nowzad staff members and their immediate families, including 25 children and one newborn baby, crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan and into the care of the British High Commission. 

Pen is ecstatic Operation Arc is a success
Operation Arc is a success

The Nowzad team, which includes some of the first Afghan women veterinarians, have all been offered residency in the UK and their professional skills and experience are widely recognised as an asset to Britain. 

Nowzad staff arrive in Islamabad, Pakistan
Nowzad staff arrive safely in Islamabad, Pakistan

Pen Farthing home in Devon

Pen and Kaisa are now home in Devon and delighted to be reunited with their beloved dogs Cora and Ragnar.  There are so many mixed emotions for the couple and Pen tweeted:

PEN TWEETS "My head is all over the place. Too much to comprehend and definitely too much needs sorting still. At times it feels completely overwhelming. But Kaisa Markhus is always there for me and makes sure I know I can talk about it all at any time. She is guiding me through the mixed emotions of guilt, sadness, fear, and self jubilation whilst I try to put together what has just happened and how our 67 staff and as many of the animals as we could take made it successfully out of Kabul. My wife is one in a million million. Love you K❤️. And now we are finally back home in Devon.  Everything is now just normal… not something I feel comfortable at all with. Weird. Guess it will take time. #OperationArk"


Pen and Kazia at home in Devon
Pen and Kaisa at home in Devon

Nowzad nominated for prestigious UK award

There certainly is a lot to process, and although Pen left Kabul with the animals on August 29th, regrettably some press continues to make false accusations over a month later.  Even in the first weekend of October, a political editor published a negative article citing unnamed government sources.

But for all the politics, support for Nowzad continues to grow and to animal lovers around the world, Pen Farthing is a hero. Pen and Team Nowzad are nominated for a SuperDog Award for their incredible teamwork, courage and compassion.

They've received thousands of votes from the public and we’re counting down to the announcement of the finalists in October. There are seven categories and winners will be presented their SuperDog Awards on November 9th at a gala event in London hosted by Stacey Dooley. 

Nowzad logo

How did Nowzad Charity begin? 

Royal Marine Pen with his rescue dog Nowzad
Royal Marine Pen Farthing with his rescue Nowzad

One dog's devotion was the start of Nowzad.  Pen served 22 years in the Royal Marines and one day he and his men were in a town called Now Zad in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan and they came upon an organised dog fight.  After they broke up the fight, one of the dogs attached himself to Pen and followed him everywhere.  Pen named him Nowzad, which means  ‘new beginning’. Six months later, when Pen completed his tour of duty and returned to England, he arranged to take his new furry best friend with him.   

Nowzad the dog that inspired a charity
Nowzad, the dog that inspired a charity

Having Nowzad with him made all the difference in the world to Pen’s adjustment being home.  It made him sad when he thought about all the servicemen who'd formed a bond with a stray, but weren’t able to take them home. And he worried about all the dogs and cats left behind pining for their human, without somebody to take care of them.  

Soldier with his stray
A soldier cuddles his pet stray

The soldiers have come from all over, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, all the European Countries. And these animals, the dogs and cats have befriended the soldiers and the soldiers befriended them, and helped them get through their tour of duty. Like me, they can't bear to leave the animal behind.” PEN FARTHING, Charity founder

Puppy in a helmet
Puppy in a warzone

So, Pen returned to Afghanistan and started the charity inspired by his dog and called it Nowzad.

READ MORE: Devoted to Dogs - Teams nominated for top UK award 

Nowzad has since successfully reunited thousands of servicemen with their pets. Being reunited plays a huge part in helping soldiers heal from the brutality of war, particularly those who suffer from PTSD.

Reuniting servicemen with their dogs
A serviceman reunited with his dog thanks to Nowzad

Pen set up the animal sanctuary and veterinary clinic in Kabul and the charity grew, gaining support from animal-loving celebrities like Ricky Gervaris and Peter Egan. 

Over time, the Nowzad team in Afghanistan also grew, and they rescued thousands of cats and dogs and found them loving homes around the world. 

Tweet about Nowzad's street vaccinations from earlier in the year
Nowzad charity pop-up clinic in Kabul earlier this year

They worked tirelessly to improve the lives of animals at risk and to educate the people to care for pets and help prevent rabies.  Regular pop up clinics in the city helped to roll out their ongoing vaccination and neutering programs for the large population of strays in Kabul.

Should you wish to support Pen and the organisation as they plan the way forward, please visit the Nowzad website.  

Leave a message of congratulations for Pen and Team Nowzad winners in the Team category for a 2021 SuperDog Award. 

READ MORE: 5 Things I Learned after Adopting a Rescue