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Reporter’s Diary: The year the Taliban returned

After a tumultuous year, Afghans are living a new normal marked by quiet acts of defiance.

A member of the Taliban on a bridge in Kabul, on 6 August 2022. Ali Khara/REUTERS
A member of the Taliban on a bridge in Kabul, on 6 August 2022.

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When the Taliban first returned to power on 15 August 2021, it felt like a dark cloud was hanging over Afghanistan, blighting everything that fell under it.

Within hours, thousands of people rushed towards the airport and Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International descended into chaos as crowds fought to climb on board the final commercial flight to Istanbul.

As the days wound on, the throngs inside and outside the airport ballooned. On the tarmac, young men clung desperately to the wheels of an ascending US military plane. Outside, the roads leading to the commercial and military entrances of the airport turned into shanty towns as entire families camped out on the dirt and mud while Taliban and CIA-trained former Afghan intelligence forces shot into the air and beat people with pipes.

On the streets of the capital itself, the population was in a state of shock and disbelief.

Last week, as I was taking stock a year on, a government worker in his 20s described how he had suffered a panic attack as he learnt that President Ashraf Ghani and his cohorts had fled the country – most of them on foreign passports – and that the Taliban were about to walk into the streets of Kabul after 20 years of suicide bombings, IEDs, and a brutal war that had devastated tens of thousands of civilian families over two decades: “I felt this heat all over my body. All I could think is, ‘how could an entire government, a system, just collapse overnight?”

Though most of the population of Afghanistan was in their 20s and 30s, and had only known the Western-backed Republic, older residents quickly flashed back to the days of the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

“I kept telling my family, ‘what if it ends up like the Soviets and we wake up one day and the enemy is here’, and that’s what ended up happening,” Parwin, a grandmother in her 60s, said of those final days in August 2021.

But for those of us who had been visiting soldiers in the provinces near Kabul – Logar, Parwan, Nangarhar, and Maidan Wardak – the writing had been on the wall for months. We had spent hours at a time talking to Afghan Army soldiers who told us they were running out of ammunition and other basic supplies as the Taliban were taking district after district, and eventually province after province. We heard from young men who had devoted their lives to defending the nation against a violent insurgent group while going months without pay.

At the same time, we had to try and convince delusional politicians in Kabul that everything was not alright in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think the average person, the cart sellers and shopkeepers are afraid. They are resilient. They will survive,” a high-ranking female government official in the presidential palace told me as the Taliban closed in on the capital. Close confidants of President Ghani rushed to blame the people, not the government, when the Taliban took the key cities of Herat and Kandahar.

“Our own people are at fault; why didn’t anyone gather outside the palace to protest?” one female lawmaker asked me, blithely oblivious to the fact that protesters had become targets for so-called Islamic State; that they had reportedly been shot dead by police; and that government forces had stacked containers around the city to keep demonstrators from reaching the palace.

From ‘dying in suicide bombings to dying of hunger’

While some in Afghanistan did welcome an end to Western-backed rule and hoped for a more peaceful future, most in Kabul were left in a state of disbelief and dejection when the Taliban arrived and when – after 11 days of radio silence – the former government fled the country.

The few men – and even fewer women – who stepped out onto the streets of the capital in August and September 2021 did so with trepidation, unsure of how men they only knew as suicide bombers would treat them. Slowly, more people started to leave their houses out of necessity. Hundreds of men lined up outside banks (women were usually quickly let in), trying to take out as much money as they could, while the Taliban and bank guards shot into the air and beat people with electrical wires whenever they tried to cut in ahead of others.

Some tried to return to their government jobs, with little success.

A female judge in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif told me how she was turned away by Taliban guards when she tried to enter the courthouses where they had prosecuted men who had beaten or threatened their female relatives.

In response to hastily implemented sanctions and aid cutbacks by the United States and other world powers, money exchangers, barbers, and store owners said they feared the economic fallout. One worried they would go from “dying in suicide bombings to dying of hunger”.

Kabul – a city that had managed to thrive and evolve for decades despite the constant threat of explosions, rocket attacks, IEDs, and targeted killings – became a ghost town. I tried to explain this feeling to a Taliban official who was covering up the murals painted on the blast walls that snaked through the city for the duration of the war. 

“We accepted you – you are the government,” I said. “But now you have to accept us, that we’re not all heathens who lost our religion and culture during the occupation.” Ironically, it was like talking to a brick wall.

Some men (in Jalalabad and Khost) and some women (in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif) tried to protest for their rights, but they were quickly quelled. A group of female protesters had tear gas lobbed at them, and young men in Jalalabad were shot dead while trying to demonstrate in support of the black, red, and green flag that had represented their nation since the 1920s.

Journalists who covered the women’s protests were beaten and tortured. Most eventually fled the country in fear. That was the Kabul I was forced to leave, for the second time in my life, on 17 September 2021.

‘You can’t trap me, not again’

For months, I heard stories from afar about fear, hunger, joblessness – about a despondency overwhelming people.

In May 2022, I finally worked up the strength to return.

What I saw on the flight from Istanbul surprised me: families with children returning from Europe sat next to businessmen hoping to restart the sanctions-crippled economy. They spoke as if they were just on another trip back to Afghanistan. When I finally started to wander the city and head out into the provinces, it shocked me even more. Despite all the difficulties and threats of violence, Afghans were trying to return to some semblance of normal life. I saw a people who, in spite of very clear, imminent danger, refused to be locked up forever.

At first, I was confused: Who would dare step out in jeans and T-shirts or in brightly-coloured hijabs when the Taliban were trying to force women to cover their bodies and faces in black shrouds and reprimanding men for not having long enough beards? As the months wore on, I realised that in a cloistered society, even leaving your house and having a meal with your family was an act of resistance. It was a way of saying to the Taliban, “you can’t trap me, not again”.

In the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, Afghanistan has by no means become a bustling society, but thousands of people are showing that they are unwilling to be caged in like they were in the 1990s.

Shop-owners in Parwan province told me traffic had increased on the road to the central province of Bamiyan as the checkpoints that posed such a danger had been taken down now that the Taliban were back in power.

Noor, 16, has been kept from her studies due to the Taliban’s failure to re-open secondary schools for girls, but she has been able to travel to the provinces of Bamiyan and Badakhshan with her mother and father – both doctors – and two younger sisters.

“The last time we went to Bamiyan, we couldn’t find a single hotel room,” she said of people’s willingness to travel now that the fear of landmines, crossfire, and Taliban checks were gone. But still, despite the increased safety on the roads leading out of Kabul, she did not feel safe walking the streets of the city she grew up in. 

In the aftermath of deadly earthquakes in June in the provinces of Paktika and Khost, I also saw the small bits of freedom people now feel. I saw it in the convoy of male and female doctors who came to help through Logar province – the dangers posed by the war would have made such a journey too risky a proposition a year ago.

Detractors will say that pointing these things out is giving in to Taliban propaganda, but to the people willing to make such journeys amid a massive economic downturn, they are also acts of rebellion – even if most won’t admit it. What critics forget is that – even amid oppression and disorder – people have to find a way to express themselves.

Afghanistan today is not free, if it ever was. It is also not bustling. Nor is it truly safe. The so-called Islamic State still poses a potent danger to the people, as do reports of Taliban-orchestrated abuses that have been documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, to name a few.

However, in spite of it all, Afghans who can, are desperately trying to live the lives they can. As Albert Camus said, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Even if they don’t have guns, the Afghan people will find a way to stand against tyranny and abuse, by any means possible, even if that only means walking on the streets and showing your presence to a group that locked them up through violence, war, and intimidation.

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