Reporting on the Taliban Takeover

As the first anniversary of the Islamists’ victory approaches, our Afghanistan correspondent recalls what it was like to live and work in Kabul on that day

Reporting on the Taliban Takeover
On August 15, 2021, a soldier of the Afghan National Army guards his post for one last night on Wazir Akbar Khan Hill in Kabul / Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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It is now almost exactly a year since the Taliban retook Kabul, but I can remember the events of Aug. 15, 2021, like they took place yesterday. That morning I took a shared taxi and headed out into town to interview refugees who had recently arrived from the north of the country, where districts and provinces had fallen like dust from the government’s hands. I knew where to find them because I had visited them before. They were sheltering in the neighborhood of Saray-e Shomali, sleeping in a park, on the footpaths and even in a graveyard. Some of them had tents donated by local charities, but others had nothing except the clothes on their backs and the few belongings they had brought with them. There were men, women and children, all of them desperate, all of them afraid that the unrest from which they had just fled was now about to arrive in the capital. The north had collapsed without too much bloodshed, but it was the idea of the Taliban and memories of past civil wars that people were scared of more than the reality of events on the ground. If you grow up in Afghanistan, you live with fear inside you. That’s just the way life is here.

It was sunny that day and the traffic was even worse than usual, the sounds of the car horns sounding like a sad melody beneath the blue skies. I got out of the taxi early and decided to walk the rest of the way, but after a while I could only stop and look at the scene around me: trucks full of people, piled high with household items, crawling into a city that was already buckling under the strain of the last 20 years. As a journalist, I thought about taking a few photos or shooting some video with my phone, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to treat all of this as just another story. This was my country and my city. These were my people. I had seen this kind of suffering before, and it was too much to bear again. My past was being replayed to me as an adult, like an old home movie that had lost all its romance.

I remembered how as a child, during the 1992-1996 civil war, I used to run through the corridors of my old school. It had been closed down and turned into a makeshift shelter for refugees, but to me at that time it felt like a giant playground. I used to dart past the classrooms, weaving between the tents in the yard, laughing and shouting without a care in the world. As a kid, I hadn’t shared in the pain of the adults around me. What did I know about exhaustion and grief at that age? All I knew was the love of my parents and the laughter of my siblings. Now, though, I could see Afghanistan going through the same trauma again and I understood what I hadn’t fathomed as a child. Unable to work, I began to cry.  

It was a few minutes before I managed to compose myself and dry my tears. I decided I still needed to do my job and walk on to meet the refugees. At around 11 a.m. I had just started my interviews when I saw some Afghan army convoys heading back into the city, retreating from what was meant to be the frontline. By noon I had heard that the Shomali Plain, just north of Kabul, had collapsed and was in the hands of the Taliban. At about the same time, I suddenly noticed that the police who had been keeping watch over the refugees had vanished. I decided to return home. After phoning my family to make sure that they were safe, I got in another shared taxi and started the journey back across town. I reached Bagh-e-Bala, near the Intercontinental Hotel, and saw a police truck abandoned in the middle of the road. Then I received a phone call saying that the Taliban had broken through Kabul’s outskirts and were now in the west of the city, in a neighborhood just a few minutes away. As we drove on I still couldn’t see them.

When I reached home, all my family were crowded around the TV, watching a program on one of our national stations, TOLOnews, and checking their phones for updates. I could see they were OK, so I decided to borrow the silver, second-hand bicycle of one of my nephews and go looking for the Taliban. As I pedaled toward the local bazaar, a message alerted me on my phone via a WhatsApp group. It was a Taliban statement announcing that they would not enter the city by force. I pedaled on, not sure what to expect next. At around 2 p.m. news spread that the president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled from the palace. Then the Taliban released another statement saying they would now enter Kabul to maintain order and prevent anarchy. After 20 years of war and tens of thousands of lives lost, it was a stunning moment. The insurgents were now the peacekeepers.

The streets were packed with people curious to see what was going on. Shops were closed, but the fear that hung over the city in the morning had already started to lift. I first saw some Taliban fighters at around 4pm: two men riding together on a motorbike, long hair spilling out from under their turbans, the guy in front with a Kalashnikov dangling around his neck, the guy behind him with a PKM machine gun cradled across his lap. It was Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, and Ashura was just days away. Armed members of the Shiite community had been out in parts of town, as they usually were at this time of year, standing guard near roadside stalls decorated with green flags and black banners. Now these militiamen were gone, their weapons hidden away as more and more Talibs filtered into the city.

For years we Afghans had speculated among ourselves about what might happen if we ever reached this point. I was not surprised that the Taliban had won the war, but I was surprised that Kabul collapsed so quickly, without any significant bloodshed. I had expected the fighting to end with some kind of political agreement on power sharing, or for a new conflict to break out like when the communist regime collapsed in 1992 and the mujahedeen turned on each other. But the Taliban had won and Kabul had fallen peacefully. People began to shout “Allahu Akbar” at passing Talibs. Inevitably, they even posed for selfies with them.

My memories of August 15 last year are now mostly positive. The events of that day showed, perhaps, that we can learn from our mistakes, that we can value the lives of those we disagree with. I will not forget the fear and desperation I saw in the refugees in the morning, nor will I forget my own sadness as I wondered what sort of future awaited us all. But I will continue to try to hold onto the hope I felt in the haze of that afternoon. The last year has, of course, been incredibly difficult for many Afghans. Our sisters and daughters have been stopped from studying and teaching at schools; businesses have closed; families have been torn apart; people have been pushed to the brink of starvation. There is no doubt that responsibility for some of this lies with the Taliban, but the West too should accept blame for the damage it has left behind. The war affected every aspect of our life — our culture, our economy, our politics — and the wounds may never truly heal. As journalists, we need to write about these issues with compassion, nuance and care in the months and years ahead. That is the least Afghans deserve.

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