'Once the World Looks Away, We Are All Dead'
A man with a white scarf wrapped tightly around his face strides across a footbridge holding a pistol by his side. An Afghan journalist, sobbing on a friend’s shoulder, says, “They betrayed us.” Passers-by gather around the body of a motorcyclist lying by the side of the road; too much blood and brain for a road accident. A mother and daughter cross a busy road holding cones of soft serve ice cream. These were scenes that played out in Kabul on the afternoon of Sunday, August 15th — some mundane, others horrifying — as the Taliban pushed into the Afghan capital for the first time since they were deposed nearly 20 years ago.
I had flown into Kabul the afternoon before from an ill-timed wedding in France, canceling other engagements in Europe as the Taliban’s momentum became irreversible. I’ve lived in the Afghan capital since 2013, working as a photographer and journalist. My plan was to stay for the takeover, if possible, but to make arrangements to leave in the event that the risks became unbearable. It hadn’t come to that by the time I reached home last Saturday.
I had several reasons to return, beyond my work as a journalist. I felt an urge to remain in solidarity with friends and colleagues. The longtime manager of the house where I’d lived for more than five years feared for his life because of his link to foreigners and needed help getting out. My oldest housemate, a 13-year-old street dog named Mushu, whose nervous temperament would never endure rehousing outside Afghanistan, would have to be fed his last meal with a heavy dose of sedatives, followed by a shot of ketamine once he was asleep.
By 10 a.m. on Sunday, the fall of Kabul was imminent. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, announced the capture of Maidan Shahr, Wardak, the closest provincial capital to Kabul.
The primary exit plans my friends and I had made with commercial flights out of Kabul over the following week would be useless. Efforts to acquire visas for Afghan friends and colleagues to the U.S., to Canada, to anywhere, were redoubled. A working group was established by friends and former Kabul housemates outside the country. Editors in chief from media organizations were called upon to sponsor visa applications. When I had time between, I went out to try to document the city as it transformed
U.S. military helicopters transport American diplomats from the country’s embassy in Kabul to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
At 11:36 a.m. I was running last minute errands in Shahr-e Naw, a grid of streets built around a park of pine trees, volleyball courts, and concrete benches in downtown Kabul, when security guards at a bank fired warning shots to control the anxious crowd waiting to withdraw their savings. The gunfire sent people running through the streets. Drivers made U-turns and followed the flow of fleeing Kabulis. I looked at my phone. Twitter exclaimed the Taliban were in Shahr-e Naw.
I had left the house with Victor J. Blue, a photojournalist and friend, on the small motorcycle I’d used to navigate the traffic-choked city for years. We stopped outside the U.S. Embassy, at Massoud Circle, a traffic island with a spire like an elongated chess piece commemorating Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban commander assassinated by al Qaeda on September 9th, 2001. It was as close as we could get to document the emergency evacuation. Pedestrians making for home craned their necks to watch Chinook helicopters lift up from behind the embassy’s fortifications and rush across the sky toward the airport. The fading thump of rotor blades heightened the urge to flee, and smoke from burning documents filtered into the sky. A middle-aged woman waiting for a taxi shooed Victor and I off, as if out of her country. After eight years living in Kabul, it was one of the few times I’d sensed hatred.
Car wheels screeched around the circle. A pedestrian was hit and fell to the ground. Others chased the car as it sped away. The pedestrian got to his feet, spotted Victor and I, and retrieved a folding knife from his pocket, flashing the short blade at us. He started slashing at a cluster of cables on the motorcycle, threatening to cripple it if we didn’t carry him to the hospital. But he quickly backed down and we rode for home, brake and clutch cables still intact, past a small convoy of armored U.N. Land Cruisers evacuating staff from a compound on our street.
Once home, Mushu’s bark reminded me I’d made no preparations yet to put him to sleep, nor arrangements for getting our house manager out.
At 12:27 p.m., the Taliban release a statement:
“Praise be to God that with the help of God Almighty and the broad support of our people, all parts of the country have come under the control of the Islamic Emirate. However, since the capital Kabul is a large and densely populated city, the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate do not intend to enter the city by force or war, but rather to enter peacefully through Kabul. Negotiations are underway to ensure that the transition process is completed safely and securely, without compromising the lives, property and honor of anyone.”
Much of the territory taken during the Taliban advance on Kabul had been won through negotiation, not on the battlefield. Could the fall of Kabul be bloodless?
I walked out the front door, onto a terrace beneath a mulberry tree that shades a sitting area. The cacophony of car horns and panicked voices in the street behind the house had faded. I walked around the side of the house, out the front gate and onto the street which, because of the U.N. compound, is blocked to traffic. The street was still and silent. Then I noticed that several of the police who provide security for the U.N. had changed out of their uniforms and into civilian clothes. The government’s security forces were surrendering. The war was over.
With the Taliban paused at the city gates while a transfer of power was negotiated, personnel from the police, army and intelligence services were not only shedding their uniforms but leaving their posts. The streets were empty because no one was in control.
Agence France Presse Photographer Noorullah Shirzada carries his infant child inside Kabul’s green zone, waiting to be transported to the international airport for evacuation flights.
Victor and I headed out again.
Several security barricades on one heavily fortified street in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave, where foreign media organisations also have their bureaus, were wide open and the guards gone. Inside, a man pushed a washing machine on a trolley toward the gates.
Opposite Kabul’s old city, across a wide section of the Kabul River, former soldiers carrying belongings baled in cotton scarves abandoned the Ministry of Defense in ones and twos.
In the city’s west, we came upon a small crowd gathered around another duo on a motorcycle. The passenger held a Kalashnikov vertically, its butt resting in his groin. The driver wore plastic, wrap-around sunglasses. Armani. Passers-by stopped for selfies. The two Talibs happily obliged and then took off along the length of Kabul University. Vic and I followed. They were catching up to a larger group traveling in a small convoy. The setting sun illuminated a Taliban flag flying above an American-made Humvee. A dozen fighters were perched on top. Two Toyota Corollas were packed with fighters, six or seven in each, gun barrels poking out the windows like insect antennae.
The convoy slowed as it approached the Kot-e Sangi intersection. Crowds lined the road and cheered. “Long live Afghanistan!” “Death to America!” Once the convoy pierced through the traffic, it sped off and boys gave chase.
The collective outpouring wasn’t surprising. Public displays of affinity for conquering forces in Afghanistan are common, regardless of one’s private leanings. Nights before, cries from scores of spontaneous marches in support of the Afghan National Security Forces echoed around the city. Self preservation doesn’t always require a weapon.
Victor and I were unsure in what state we’d find the house upon our return at dusk. Reports of looting had started filtering through the various Kabul-based WhatsApp groups we follow. At 6.26 p.m. the Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement.
“The Islamic Emirate issued a statement in the morning stating that our forces are out of Kabul and we do not want to enter Kabul by military means. But now there are reports that constituencies in Kabul have been evacuated, police have left their job of providing security, ministries have been evacuated, and Kabul administration security personnel have fled.”
I sat outside, under the mulberry tree, in the dark, and drank the house’s last remaining bottle of beer.
By the next morning, Monday, August 16th, Taliban fighters were slouching in plastic chairs at the checkpoint at the entrance to my street. We introduced ourselves to their commander, the tall, unsmiling Mullah Haidari. I offered my hand and a bag of figs from the tree in our yard. Haidari, dressed in white with a black turban, carrying an American-made M16 on a shoulder strap, hesitated, then accepted coolly.
The immediate fear of violence the day before — and the instant relief when it was averted — had temporarily eclipsed the fears, and for some, hopes, that Kabulis had cultivated in anticipation of a Taliban takeover. But in the days that followed, Afghans in the capital grappled with their new reality. It isn’t just about those who have come — the Taliban fighters and officials who will institute a new order — but about those who are leaving, and the dissolution of entire communities.
Taliban fighters ride through central Kabul after taking control of security in the city. “Their new policy is to gain the trust of the people,” a former civil servant says. But “as soon as they form their government they’ll go after their enemies one by one.”
Abdul Ahmad, 60, who I spoke to at Pashtunistan Square in central Kabul, surrounded by a crowd of eavesdroppers, tells me that the night before “was the first time we’ve slept peacefully in 20 years.” But in private, few that I speak with are appreciative of the victors, nor of their presence in Kabul. Most watch their convoys with curiosity, then whisper their disgust once they’ve passed.
Those who haven’t fled the country are being forced to house and feed groups of a dozen or more Taliban fighters, an abuse of a vital cultural obligation in Afghan society. A former civil servant who I’ll call Yousef says, “They don’t have homes or food, so they take ours. We don’t know how long they will stay.” He shows me a photo from inside the hold of an American C-17 transport plane that departed Kabul with 640 passengers, packed in like livestock. “They’re the lucky ones,” he says, as tears pool in his eyes. Yousef’s younger brother, a student, interrupts: “Afghanistan is going backwards without a time-machine.”
Pockets of armed resistance in two staunchly anti-Taliban areas north of Kabul have vowed to fight. On August 19th, Afghanistan’s Independence Day, small but vocal demonstrations in support of the republic took place in Kabul without serious incident. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, three protesters were shot and killed by Taliban fighters. But the greatest indication of disapproval of the Taliban’s rise to power has been the thousands converging on the airport and risking their lives and those of their families to get out.
I asked a fighter from Chak who also serves as a communications officer for the Taliban how it made him feel to see the risks Afghans are taking to flee the country. “Those people are foolish,” he says. “I feel pity for them… Why don’t they trust us? We granted amnesty to those who didn’t resist.”
Almost everyone I’ve spoken with since the Taliban took control of Kabul is innately skeptical of the group’s promises of restraint and forgiveness toward those who worked for the government or internationals. “Their new policy is to gain the trust of the people,” says Yousef. But, he continues, “As soon as they form their government they’ll go after their enemies one by one.”
A former government adviser tells me he’s in hiding. “They want to kill me,” he says. “They have searched two places I have been to. Once the world looks away, we are all dead.”
It is this fear that began fueling a mass-exodus from the country, desperate scenes inside and outside Kabul’s international airport as Taliban fighters try to control the chaos, often with fatal results. The first time Victor and I tried to get to the airport, people were streaming away after the Taliban had fired into the crowd. We saw one victim surrounded by people on the curb. Our journalistic instincts to document the scene were overridden by those of self-preservation. We turned and retreated with the flow of human traffic.
Riding home from the airport another morning, a late-model Toyota Hilux accelerated from behind us, swerving on to the wrong side of the road and alongside us. The front passenger, leaning out the window, called for us to pull over. A young Talib wearing an ammunition vest over a clean, white perahan tunban was polite but stern, asking for ID. We ended up being taken inside a house adjacent to where we’d been stopped, where a senior Taliban figure had taken up residence.
We are “guests,” they tell us. We were served tea and, later, lunch. The commander was courteous but intimidating. We were told to introduce ourselves while a bodyguard filmed us. He wanted to know who we were and assured us that he was only keeping us for our own safety. “The city is not safe,” he says. We asked whether we could be escorted home by his men. We were allowed to keep our phones. Dozens of calls were made by interlocutors who were concerned about our welfare and the damage to the Taliban’s agenda that reports of detained journalists might provoke. Ten hours after we were brought in, another commander arrived. He apologized and escorted us to the Taliban’s inaugural press conference at a former government office. Victor and I led the convoy.
On Monday, I spent the afternoon mingling with curious locals among Taliban fighters from eastern Paktiya province as they tuned up the tactical vehicles they say they commandeered from a notorious CIA-backed paramilitary unit, in a barren field in western Kabul. The fighters were wary but few took issue with my presence. As I rode home, I stopped behind a convoy of Afghan National Police pick-up trucks teaming with Taliban. The sight of the unruly-looking fighters in government vehicles is still novel and their young, ginger-bearded commander allowed me to take some photographs before they sped off.
Across the road, strings of fluorescent lights illuminated the outdoor seating area of a restaurant serving shiryakh, an Afghan-style ice cream churned by hand on demand. Four young men sat eating their desserts from glass bowls. Noor, who is studying for a bachelors in business administration at a private university in Kabul, asked me to take their picture. Then he invited me to join them and ordered me a bowl of shiryakh.
Noor pointed his spoon toward one of his friends, sitting to my left with his back to the main road. “He cried three times today and is silent,” he says. “We took him out. We said ‘come out, it’ll make you happy.’” The friend laboured a quick grin. “He will leave Afghanistan, maybe soon,” says Noor. “We are all educated people,” he continues. “We had good jobs with the government and the Americans and now the opportunities are finished. Everyone wants to go somewhere, leave Afghanistan.” They had never seen Taliban before.
When I moved in my chair, Noor stood and walked to the cashier’s window. I gestured to convey that I should be paying. “You are our guest,” he says.
Despite the poor opinions held toward foreign military forces, rarely have I felt unwelcome in Afghanistan, even among Taliban fighters. My status as a foreigner, however, provides me with a level of protection not afforded to local journalists or those from other groups that, despite Taliban denials, it is widely assumed will suffer under a Taliban government.
For now, myself and a small group of foreign journalists who have declined offers of evacuation flights by their respective governments are determined to stay. Each day, I wake up to a physical sense of dread that slowly fades as I find purpose in documenting the tragedies and banalities taking place, in witnessing perseverance in people who are emotionally crushed, and in playing bit parts in Herculean efforts to help friends escape their country, until it dawns on me how absurd those words are. “One gets happy for those that want to leave and make it,” a friend writes to me, “and then one realizes what that means for life here.”
At 4 a.m. on Sunday, August 22nd, Wahid, our house manager, and his family were among a group of over 100 driven to the airport in a convoy of mini-buses. They were asked to be patient, their outbound flight may be several days away. We anxiously waited to hear from him. Late Tuesday evening, a news alert appeared on my phone: “Taliban says Afghans are no longer allowed to go to the Kabul airport to flee the country.” Moments later, I finally received word that Wahid and his family had arrived in Paris.
Family and friends outside Afghanistan have been texting me pleas to leave, even those who’ve worked here before, mistaking the ongoing tragedy in and around the airport as representative of the reality for the rest of Kabul and discounting the quasi immunity I have as a foreigner. At least for the first five days, there were enough anxious emails that my judgement became distorted and my decision to remain in doubt.
But for now, I remain. And Mushu still lives, though I have procured the ingredients to make any meal his last if security circumstances deteriorate or if critical reporting becomes impossible.
Rumors of what is happening in the provinces are not encouraging, stories of people who helped the U.S. being dragged from their homes and never seen again. Though it’s hard to know what’s real when there are no more journalists to be our eyes and ears there. Afghan friends, formerly in government jobs or with links to foreigners, share news that fighters have come looking for them, but, so far, Kabul has been spared any serious bloodletting. Yet, there is a sense of dread hanging over the city, that the Taliban’s brutality could resurface here as swiftly and suddenly as they took control of the country last week.
Some are willing to face the risk. Barely a month ago, one young woman told me of her determination to stay and continue her work in education even as her friends departed in droves. A week into the Taliban takeover, I asked her whether she was still in Kabul. “I am planning to stay here for some time, until I recover from my emotional breakdown,” she says. “I need a home to heal and my home is here.”
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