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Home / News / ‘I pleaded for help. No one wrote back’: the pain of watching my country fall to the Taliban

‘I pleaded for help. No one wrote back’: the pain of watching my country fall to the Taliban

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

I n the weeks before Kabul fell, my mind was strangely calm. There is a moment just before the world falls apart, when human beings almost believe they can reverse the sequence of events that has brought them to this point – a flash of magical thinking in which they can will a different reality into existence.

On 2 July, when the Americans left Bagram airbase, I woke up in London with a horrible headache. My phone was inundated with messages of disbelief. “I am so sorry about it,” a few friends wrote, but they couldn’t name “it”. I couldn’t name it either.

I’d never been to the Bagram airbase, but I knew it as the sprawling capital of American power in Afghanistan, an impenetrable fortress about 30 miles north of Kabul that had accommodated tens of thousands of troops for almost two decades, along with the latest military technology, a jail where detainees had been tortured, a spa where soldiers could get a manicure, and fast-food vendors selling hamburgers. How did the Americans leave this carefully crafted citadel without telling anyone?

“Gone in the darkness of the night, like thieves,” my father said, at our home in London, barely concealing his shock as he glanced up from his tablet. He had been glued to the news for days. We have family and friends in Afghanistan, and we worried about what would happen to them if the situation deteriorated.

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I was born in Afghanistan, and spent most of my childhood there. When I was 11, my family fled Kabul, driven out by the war. For four years we lived like nomads, waiting to get back to our home. In the 1990s, while different factions jockeyed for power, we still believed we would go home. But when the Taliban took over in 1996, that hope became untenable, and we ended up in London seeking asylum.

At the time that my family became exiles, Afghans were reeling from the long proxy war that the US and Russia fought in the country for most of the 80s. In the midst of the cold war, the US had helped arm and train Afghan militia groups to fight against the Soviet-backed communist government. Both sides committed terrible atrocities, and ordinary Afghans were caught in the middle. Throughout this brutal clash of empires, the US promised Afghans prosperity once the Russians were defeated.

Afghanistan was at the forefront of US foreign policy in this period. In 1982, Ronald Reagan proclaimed 21 March as Afghanistan Day, “to commemorate the valor of the Afghan people and to condemn the continuing Soviet invasion of their country”. The following year, he invited the mujahideen to the White House as defenders of human rights. But none of this brought safety or security to the Afghan people. No matter how Afghans have tried to make good on this alliance, the principal feature of the relationship between the US and Afghanistan has always been force.

When I was little, I read a Russian fairytale in which a cruel king set the man whose wife he coveted a series of gruelling tasks, in the hope that the man would disappear and never come back. When the man completed all the tasks, the king sent him on an impossible mission: Go there, I don’t know where; get that, I don’t know what.

In their rage after 9/11, the Americans, supported by 42 countries including the UK, invaded Afghanistan. Their aim was to take out al-Qaida and the Taliban. When enough bombs had been dropped on a country already so devastated by war that it could barely support life, the US set the Afghans a series of impossible tasks to rebuild Afghanistan in its image.

The Afghans tried. After 20 years, during which there emerged a fragile democracy, universities, a commission for human rights, Afghan Idol, Sesame Street, Valentine-themed cafes in Kabul, a tiny trade in pomegranates and grapes (the best grapes and pomegranates in the world) and a whole generation of young Afghans hungry for a better life, the story turned much darker. For Afghans watching the US sign a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, there was an unnerving feeling that we could see what was coming, that there was nothing we could do to prevent the impending disaster.

E ighteen months later, on Sunday 15 August, Kabul fell to the Taliban. I was taking a few days off from my work running an NGO in Greece that helps refugees deal with violence and displacement. I was in a village in Gloucestershire. As the news came in, it jarred with the perfect English countryside around me. That morning, I had been walking in the woods trying to clear my head of the grim news I had been following hour by hour.

They are outside the gates, I heard, first in messages from friends in Kabul, and then on the news. Outside the gates – it sounded medieval. Like Constantinople, Kabul was under siege. The messages kept coming in: they are outside the gates, but they don’t want to fight. They want a deal with the government. They are on the outskirts of the city. They want to take the city without firing a shot. They are inside the city. A friend sent a video he had made, walking around his neighbourhood in Kabul. The normally bustling streets were deserted. You could hear the tension and fear in his voice as he quietly described the scene.

People were flooding to the airport, and a friend who was supposed to fly out that day panicked when her flight was cancelled. All commercial flights have been stopped, she texted me. Pictures of hundreds or maybe thousands of people waiting outside the airport flashed up on the news. I was in constant correspondence with family and friends who were still inside Afghanistan, most of whom were desperate to get out. I got several texts asking me if there would be any help for people who had served in the army or the police. “What will become of me?” one asked. “I was a policeman.”

For months, people had been afraid about what was coming. Groups of civilians and aid workers had started circulating lists of journalists, judges, NGO workers, artists and women in Afghanistan who had actively stood up for human rights, democracy and the state. These were people who had spent decades building the country’s institutions, and now they needed to get out. In my work with refugees, I’ve dealt with hundreds of Afghans whose families had been killed or whose lives were threatened because they had worked with the US army. Just a few weeks of work was enough to get your name on a Taliban blacklist.

In 2018, I received an Obama Fellowship and joined a two-year programme that brought together civic leaders who work on some of the world’s most pressing issues. In the gatherings I attended in the US, I met several officials who had held prominent roles in the Obama administration. Through the night of Sunday 15 August and into Monday morning, I wrote to them, hoping that they could tell me what to expect, and what the US evacuation plan was – but the answers came back vague and unclear. I emailed a few officials, now in high-profile government positions, asking for help. Don’t leave the people in darkness, I pleaded. No one wrote back. As Monday came to a close and the scenes at the airport became more and more desperate, it became apparent that there was no plan for evacuation, and a huge number of people would be left behind.

The scene at Hamid Karzai airport in August. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

Aid workers, journalists, former military personnel – people with any connection to Afghanistan – started calling anybody that could help with evacuations. The most valuable contacts were those with connections to the military – generals, special forces, people who understood how to operate in hostile environments and who could pressure the US government into getting people out. Civilians who had never dealt with emergency evacuations of people in war zones were suddenly coordinating with special forces on WhatsApp groups. “I have a couple of military people helping me, and we have got several families to the airport and out,” a journalist in New York told me. One woman in the group was heavily pregnant and the journalist had worried that the stress might send her into early labour, but she had made it.

Confusion about what qualified people for evacuations made an already chaotic situation worse. I was helping to gather documents for people to present for their evacuation, but every time I managed to get what I thought were the right papers, a different set of instructions came from the US embassy in Kabul. The constant rule-changes made it all but impossible for people who were at risk to get out. Many of those on the evacuation lists had destroyed their documents in fear of being targeted by the Taliban.

Sitting at my desk looking at the names of the people that wanted to leave, I felt a sadness I couldn’t put into words. Each name represented a whole life. People who had spent years trying to make a difference were now forced to leave their work, their families and their homes, and go into exile. Afghanistan would be a darker place for their absence.

I felt dizzy. Just a couple of weeks before, I had been working to stop the deportation of an Afghan colleague from Greece. Many European countries had been deporting Afghans right up until the day Kabul fell, arguing that Afghanistan was a safe country.

W hen the Taliban had entered the city on the Sunday, there was speculation among the people I was in contact with, inside and outside Afghanistan, about the fate of the Afghan government and the president, Ashraf Ghani. Within a few hours, Ghani was imprisoned in his own palace, his fate uncertain. He had vowed to stay and steward the people through the crisis, but by the end of the day he’d left the country along with his closest advisers. When I spoke to a friend who had worked on Ghani’s election campaign, he seemed as shocked as I was. “I didn’t think Ghani would leave,” he said.

Ghani’s departure destroyed any remaining morale. My phone pinged with messages from Kabul. A friend who was at the airport waiting to be evacuated texted. It’s over, she said. All speculation that there might be any kind of power sharing had ended with the president’s departure. How could ordinary people be expected to put up resistance?

Catastrophe is a felt experience. Once I heard that Ghani had left the country, my stomach dropped, and instead of my body, all I could feel was a dull ache. I couldn’t imagine what would happen next. As Kabul unravelled, I hardly slept, and when I did, my dreams were full of magic. In one dream, I was split into several characters – a maimed man, a woman with a sword, a blue girl that could fly. I’d wake up and immediately pick up my phone. The morning after the Taliban took over Kabul, I woke up to a suicide note that a woman in Kabul had sent to a WhatsApp group I was in. I am trying to be strong, she wrote, but I can’t.

Another morning, I woke up to photos of a friend, bloodied and bruised. He had tried to get to the airport after receiving an email from the US embassy telling him he could get on to a plane, but the Taliban beat him as he tried to get through a checkpoint. He never made it out of Kabul.

W ithin 48 hours of taking over Kabul, the Taliban had set up checkpoints all over the city, making it nearly impossible to get to the airport, where foreign soldiers were loading people on to cargo planes and transporting them to countries around the world, including Albania, Kosovo, Rwanda, the US and UK.

The negotiations about which countries would take in these refugees were shaped by hostile and racist refugee policies in Europe and elsewhere. A former colleague who was leading some of the negotiations told me that several countries were willing to take vulnerable people as long as it didn’t become public knowledge. In one meeting she was told: you can send them here, but don’t expect any official welcome from the government. Sometimes Afghans would take off not knowing where they would land. Their destination would be negotiated while they were up in the air, and they would eventually land in an unknown country that they’d never intended to go to.

The US military was guarding the airport, but they didn’t want to assist people trying to get there, so extracting people from the city became a largely civilian effort. Recognising their opportunity, mercenaries swept in and started to offer a taxi service to the airport. One private military contractor, run by the founder of Blackwater, advertised its services in Afghanistan online. For $6,500 a pop, or sometimes more, they transported people to the airport and on to a plane. All you had to do was prove you were good for the money. NGOs and well-funded civilian groups started using the service to get their people out.

Some people were forced to make several attempts to get to the airport, risking their lives each time. A female judge who had been an anti-corruption champion made seven attempts to get to the airport. Instructions came in from those running the convoys to meet at the Serena hotel in Kabul, but each time she got there she was told a different reason why the convoy was not leaving. When she did make it to the airport, it proved impossible to get past the hundreds of people who were waiting to get through the gates.

Afghans escaping to Pakistan in August. Photograph: Akhter Gulfam/EPA

For those coordinating evacuations, not knowing how anything would turn out, the stress was taking its toll. People were breaking down on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably. They had to make impossible choices. Who was vulnerable enough to be on a list? Who constituted a dependent? Where could they go?

Evacuees wondered what to take with them. Imagine that in a space of a few hours you had to leave everything behind. What would you take? Your pillow? Your photographs? Maybe a little rug your father gave you? Your notebooks? A friend of mine who was waiting to be evacuated sent me several pictures of suitcases, wondering what constituted appropriate luggage on a military plane. I had no idea. Do you take warm clothes in case you end up in Albania, or something different in case you land in Uganda?

Some who did get the chance to leave were forced to choose between staying with their families and staying alive. Every Afghan I was in contact with for those few weeks, those inside the country and those of us who left years ago, was experiencing trauma and exhaustion. Every time a plane took off from Kabul airport, it shattered a life and broke up a family.

Another friend who had spent all his life in Kabul and worked as a journalist, often openly criticising the Taliban, was anxious to leave. The Taliban were going door to door, taking names and making threats. He was moving from one relative’s house to another, hiding. We were talking daily and I was trying to find a place on a convoy to the airport and a seat on a plane for him and his family. Finally, it came. I was asleep when I got a call at 5am from someone who was assisting the evacuations in the US. There were places on a convoy leaving later that day, and it seemed safe enough to suggest it to my friend. I sent the names over and then called my friend. Pack your bags, I said. Someone will call and let you know where you should meet them. I hung up and waited to hear back.

Hours went by. I had so much to do, but I kept checking my phone every couple of minutes. No new messages. My friend rang me several times and all I could say was that the people running the convoy would soon be in touch, but nothing came. And then it happened. Tweets began to trickle in, pictures of an explosion at the airport. A suicide bomber had driven a car bomb into the crowds waiting to be let into airport, blowing up 169 people who were trying to save themselves and their families.

I texted the person who was organising the rendezvous in Kabul, asking for an update. The convoy hadn’t left, they replied. That night I sat on the stairs that led up to my bedroom, unable to move. If the convoy had left, there was a good chance my friend would have been killed. But because it hadn’t gone, this one chance to get away from danger had disappeared. What terrible luck to be born in Afghanistan, I thought.

W itnessing the catastrophe in the ambiguous position of an Afghan outside Afghanistan brought back all the feelings of fear and pain that I had felt as a child when my family feared for our lives. Meanwhile, I was working, along with many others in different countries, on an impossible task: to do something – anything – about what was happening to people in danger. Go there, I don’t know where; bring that, I don’t know what.

On 18 August, when Led by Donkeys, a UK-based activist group, got in touch with me suggesting that I record a message to Priti Patel, who continues to detain and deport Afghan asylum seekers under the guise of “illegal immigration”, I didn’t hesitate. At 6am, a van with a giant screen parked outside the Home Office, to stream a video message I recorded on my phone, asking Patel to stand with Afghan refugees. A video of the message playing to the windows of the Home Office was shared on Twitter, where it has had more than half a million views.

Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul, overlooked by a poster of former Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

Because Afghanistan was in the news, my inbox flooded with invitations for media interviews. It was a moment when people suddenly wanted to hear from Afghan women. What did we think was going to happen? How did we feel? What should be done? Some questioners were better prepared than others. One journalist began an interview by asking me whether I’d always felt inferior growing up in Afghan culture. Another asked me what I would do to secure the airport – I gently reminded him that I was not a military strategist.

It felt strange to be asked to speak when, for months, Afghan women like me had tried to warn about the looming catastrophe. Most of my pitches for pieces from Afghan women had been either ignored or politely rejected, which felt bewildering after the New York Times had, in February, published an article by Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban and a proscribed terrorist responsible for the death of countless civilians in Afghanistan.

As dark as it got, there were moments of hope. When some members of the Afghan girl’s robotics team, a celebrated group of young scientists, got out, I felt myself able to relax for a brief moment. The beloved Afghan pop star, Aryana Sayeed, posted a selfie from a military plane, prompting me to play her songs and dance around in my kitchen. When I contacted the leaders of the Jewish community in London, they responded with heartfelt solidarity and sponsorship of Afghan families in the UK. Many recognised their own family’s experiences in the images of parents handing their children over the airport fence to foreign soldiers. But every night, when I lay in bed to try to sleep, all I could feel was intense worry about what would happen next. I wondered about all the terrible things that were now in store for people in Afghanistan.

A couple of weeks after the evacuation deadline had passed, I left London for Greece. My focus was on supporting the newly arrived Afghan refugees who were now stranded all around the world. In Greece, where I work, the government has turned refugee camps into detention centres, and the displaced are largely Afghan.

In Kabul, education and health systems have mostly collapsed, and nine out of 10 people are experiencing food shortages. According to the UN, 14 million Afghans are at risk of starvation as winter approaches. More refugees will doubtless try to escape this fate in the coming months, displacing more Afghans who could be rebuilding the country.

The Taliban are courting the international community for recognition and legitimacy, and for aid to be continued. The humanitarian sector is under pressure to provide emergency support in areas ravaged by war, the climate crisis and a collapsing economy. There are dark days ahead for ordinary Afghans, who are once again caught up between powerful forces vying for regional power.

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No one had wanted the US to stay in Afghanistan for ever. US forces have perpetrated countless acts of violence in the country. What Afghans wanted was a planned withdrawal that didn’t collapse the Afghan state and hand power to an extremist group that is now subjugating women and minorities. But the Afghans who warned about this outcome were ignored.

I am still in contact with people in Kabul, and many still hope to get out. Among them are people who had never imagined leaving their homes. One family has stayed throughout the changes of regime for 40 years, hoping that better days would come. Now, with the Taliban in power, their hopes for their daughters, who were in school and in university, are gone, and they want to leave. “I just want to finish medical school,” their daughter texted me a few days ago. “I have worked so hard for it.”

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