Only two weeks ago, she and her friend Sara were drinking and laughing at a party in Kabul. The Taliban were approaching — but a return to their repressive rule still seemed far away.
In the days since the Taliban retook Kabul on August 15, plunging Afghanistan’s capital into chaos, thousands of women like Zahra and Sara have faced the harrowing decision — to stay or to go.
CNN is using aliases for the friends for their own safety, and that of their families, who are in Kabul and vulnerable to reprisals from Taliban fighters after the US decision to withdraw its troops.
Although the Taliban have pledged a more moderate and “inclusive” government, many fear the same brutal regime of two decades ago, when women were forced to stay at home, banned from school and work.
Millions of Afghans face an uncertain future, but for women the risks are extreme. Staying could mean a life of veiled subservience. Attempting to flee could end in death on Kabul’s volatile streets — or freedom with the risk of never seeing their families again.
“Things happened so unexpectedly”
Zahra and Sara were children when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan in the 90s. After the US and its allies invaded in 2001, both left the country to study abroad, returning years later with ambitions of making their homeland a better place for girls and women.
When they saw each other at the party two weeks ago, Taliban fighters had started conquering provincial cities, but they still seemed a long way from the capital. The pair and their friends wanted to enjoy their freedom while they could.
“Some of them were like, ‘We know this is the last party, so let’s do this,'” said Zahra, remembering the rooftop soirée where they listened to live music late into the night.
Within days, life would change.
On Sunday, the women were stuck in separate traffic jams as thousands of Kabul residents rushed home amid reports Taliban fighters were on the outskirts of the city. Zahra queued for hours to withdraw cash before the city shut down.
“All the ATM machines have run out of money… people are panicking,” Zahra told CNN on Sunday.
That night, the Taliban occupied the Presidential Palace, taking photos of themselves crowding around the wooden desk of departed President Ashraf Ghani. Monday brought more confusion, as the Taliban reinstalled themselves as the country’s leaders for the first time in 20 years and promised to be an “inclusive government.”
Few believed their assurances.
By Tuesday, Sara and her husband had packed up their apartment, taking what they could carry in two backpacks and leaving the rest of their possessions with relatives.
As they drove to the airport, they spotted a few Afghan flags representing the former US-backed government, giving them some comfort that not all was lost.
Outside the airport, a Taliban fighter fumbled with a road sign in an attempt to direct traffic.
“We laughed, and the Taliban saw us,” she said. “They got angry. They were saying, ‘Why are you thinking that he cannot guide traffic here? Why are you laughing?'”
“We were like, ‘No, no, he’s doing a really good job, we are not laughing at him,'” she said.
The young fighter had given the impression he had never seen a busy city before, Sara said.
For years, the Taliban had hidden in remote mountain ranges as the US, Afghan and allied armies repelled them with air strikes and ground forces. Now in the center of Kabul, some seemed out of place — wild-eyed teenagers, wearing flip flops and carrying Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. The older fighters were calmer, Sara said, more in control.
But at Kabul’s airport, the militants’ anger flared as thousands of people massed outside the external gate, desperate to get inside the airport and then out of the country, Sara said.
Commercial flights out of the airport have been halted since Monday, although some diplomatic flights are still leaving.
A number of countries have promised to take Afghan refugees, but that still requires getting out of Afghanistan — and for most, that means passing armed Taliban guards at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sara estimates about 3,000 people were jostling to get closer to the terminal, clutching whatever documents — legitimate or otherwise — they thought might convince the Taliban to let them through the gate.
Many were told they wouldn’t be saved and should go home, but they didn’t listen and made a run for it.
“When you run to the gate, the military have to react,” Sara said.
The Taliban started firing in the air, and when people disobeyed their order sit on the ground, they started lashing people with whips. “A French guy sitting beside me was kicked on the ground by a Talib, twice,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a US passport, if (you) are a diplomat. It doesn’t matter if you’re a military guy — that doesn’t matter, you still have to go that route,” Sara said. “There is no comfortable route that you can use to get to the airport.”
For 11 hours through the night, Sara and her husband pushed alongside others in the crowd. They refused orders to leave and tried to avoid being lashed or beaten by scurrying out of the way of angry guards.
“We didn’t want to be removed by force, because a lot of people were removed by force,” she said. “You see war movies, and people are just running in the corners to stay alive, that’s how it was.”
“I am a Muslim too, but maybe a very moderate one”
Zahra stayed awake all Tuesday night, at home in her Kabul apartment, waiting for a message from Sara to confirm she was on a plane. By 4 a.m., she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer.
She hadn’t left her apartment in three days, but had been communicating with friends in a WhatsApp group in which they shared photos of Taliban fighters outside their windows, debating when it might be safe to go outside.
“It’s so calm that people are afraid,” she said, before referring to a saying in Farsi that translates to “the silence ahead of the storm.”
She’d seen the fighters confiscating cars, but that was before the Taliban’s deputy leader Maulvi Mohammad Yaqub issued orders not to take cars or enter homes. But she still heard reports of the Taliban searching houses, looking for government workers, activists, journalists and people with foreign links, despite assurances of an amnesty for those who supported US and allied forces.
No one has come to Zahra’s door yet. She watches the news, but like much of the world, she doesn’t know how the Taliban intend to rule Afghanistan. The Taliban have insisted women will still have rights this time — within the framework of Islamic law.
“Their interpretation of Islamic rules and regulations are very different than we have. I am a Muslim too, but maybe a very moderate one,” Zahra said.
Already, it’s clear life will be different from the decades spent under the US-backed government. Roads are closed and guarded by the Taliban, who say they’ll be guided by Sharia law, but haven’t specified crimes and punishments. When they were last in power, those included stonings, lashings and public executions.
In the past week, reports suggest women have been turned away from work and school, and beaten for not covering up or venturing out without a male guardian.
Until the Taliban takeover, Zahra worked in education. Now, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to continue her work, or even how long they’ll have to stay inside. “The fear is there, so no one gets out of their houses,” she said.
“The gate is the point when people die”
On Thursday, Zahra’s phone pinged with a message. Sara was in Poland.
She and her husband had been hustled into a group with a few dozen others by a Polish journalist who liaised with the Taliban to get them through the gate at Kabul airport.
Sara has a US passport, but she has contacts in Poland, so they were able to get a seat on a Polish military plane to took them first to Uzbekistan, before they boarded a flight to a refugee center outside the Polish capital Warsaw.
In Poland, they were shuttled into dormitories to go into Covid-19 quarantine. Afghanistan has reported more than 150,000 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, and although Sara has been vaccinated against Covid-19, she lost the vaccination card to prove it.
Sara and her husband didn’t have time to withdraw their money from the bank before they fled — they have $100 between them and the few possessions they could carry, she said.
But she worries more about her mother still in Kabul, who was too ill to consider running the gauntlet of the Taliban guards at the airport gate.
“Getting into the gate was extremely hard. That is the point where people are actually getting killed or die, especially vulnerable people, especially kids,” Sara said. As of Thursday, at least 12 people had been killed in and around Kabul airport, Reuters reported, citing NATO sources and Taliban officials.
Two days after her friend fled, Zahra decided it was time to leave, too.
Her mother had been urging her to go, telling her she would “kill her with worry.” Her teenage sister had already fled with her mother’s blessing. So Zahra — who has an Afghan passport — packed her belonging and headed to the airport, hoping to get on one of the rare flights leaving the country.
But when she arrived, she found she couldn’t get anywhere near the airport gate. The crowds were too thick, so she reluctantly returned home
On Friday, she tried again.
The last message on her progress came from Sara as the clock ticked over to Saturday, Kabul time: “She is in the airport. I heard that she may leave soon.”