KABUL, Afghanistan — She was just 5 years old when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, and her parents didn’t hesitate: With the militants hell-bent on imposing a puritanical form of Islam, the family packed up and fled.
But when the Taliban returned to power in late summer 2021, Nilaab, now 30 and a mother of two, hesitated.
The new government was quick to assure that this time it would be different, that the Taliban of the 2020s would not be the Taliban of the 1990s, and that there would not be a brutal campaign of repression against the women of Afghanistan.
Perhaps they were telling the truth, Nilaab thought. She hoped so. She had returned to her homeland as a teenager after a decade in exile, and she was not eager to repeat her experience.
But then the militants ended girls’ education after the sixth grade. Nilaab’s 13-year-old daughter, Arveey, cried every morning as she watched her younger sister, Raheel, 11, get ready for school. So Nilaab took Raheel out of school too until she, she said, she was able to “find a solution”.
One afternoon in early August, surrounded by family, Nilaab stood in front of the mirror and put on an abaya. In a few hours, she and her daughters, three suitcases and two dolls in tow, would board a plane and leave Afghanistan, this time, she said, forever.
In the next room, Nilaab’s mother fell to the floor and sobbed. Nilaab ran to comfort her. They would meet again one day, she promised her.
As her departure drew near, her daughters wandered from room to room like restless ghosts. Raheel kept hugging his grandmother and hugging her aunts. Arveey found a quiet corner where she could cry her heart out. Nilaab sat on the ground and tied her shoelaces, fighting back tears.
“I never knew I would be a refugee again,” she said, “but I don’t want my daughters to experience the same bitterness,” she said.
I have spent the last eight years living in Afghanistan. Born in Iran and raised in Canada, I have come to call the country home.
On August 15, 2021, the day Kabul fell, I left my house at 4am and headed to the airport to photograph Afghans desperately trying to leave before the Taliban had the country firmly in hand. But earlier in the evening, Taliban fighters had taken over the presidential palace, and heartbroken and dealing with immense guilt, I boarded a military plane and left.
Reporting from Afghanistan
Six weeks later I returned and for the past year I have worked to document life under the Taliban. (For their safety and that of their families, most would only speak out if you agreed not to fully identify them.)
For the past year, I have struggled to make sense of what has been lost. It is not always obvious.
Some of the changes that have taken place are obvious, but others emerge only after close examination. And sometimes a close look is rewarded with a look at the ways some Afghans have managed to defy the restrictions imposed by militants.
On the surface of the city, life goes on.
Street markets are packed, though perhaps not as much as they used to be due to the crumbling economy. The cafes that have managed to keep their doors open have regular customers who come for a cup of tea. But it’s often a quiet cup of tea: the Taliban have pressured cafes to stop playing music, along with radio and TV stations, even in wedding halls.
Radio stations have replaced songs with readings from the Koran. The cafes have settled into silence. In wedding halls, it is more complicated.
On a recent Thursday night, I accompanied Maroof, 32, as he picked up a decorated rental car on Flower Street in Kabul and headed to the beauty salon a few blocks away to pick up his bride-to-be.
Inside the hall, a hidden side of Afghanistan was revealed: young and old women dressed in extravagant, colorful outfits and wore elaborate makeup.
When we went to the wedding hall, the mood was different.
In the men’s section, guests sat listlessly around white-clothed tables. A cameraman awkwardly filmed older men exchanging a few words, while the younger ones looked at their phones. The silence was leaden.
Interestingly, the life of the party was in the women’s section. There, the disco light pulsed in different colors, a (female) DJ played popular songs, and women danced. Many wedding halls have ignored the ban on music in the women’s sections of their establishments, confident that the police of vice and virtue cannot spring in unannounced.
In the days after the Taliban’s takeover, a wedding venue, Stars Palace, which is right across from Kabul’s international airport, took on a new role. A white palace-like building with golden lights was used as a meeting point for groups of Afghans being evacuated by foreign troops, offering a safe haven before they desperately rushed to the airport gate.
A year later, a woman who was forced to seek shelter nearby, Masooda, recalled the chaos.
Masooda, an Afghan Canadian citizen, had returned to Afghanistan a few years earlier with her children, who are Canadian citizens. “I wanted them to reconnect with their roots,” she said. But when the Taliban fighters arrived at the gates of Kabul, Masooda told them to pack their bags: “We have to go. It’s not safe for us anymore.”
About 10 months later, Masooda left her children with her husband in Canada and returned to Afghanistan on her Canadian passport. With her knowledge of both Afghan culture and international aid organizations, she wants to help the country recover, and she is one of the relatively few women who have dared to challenge the Taliban government.
A small group of protesters, calling themselves the Afghanistan Powerful Women’s Movement, are also taking a stand. Two days before the anniversary of the Taliban’s seizure of power, some two dozen of them marched through central Kabul. “Bread, work and freedom”, they chanted.
The protest did not last long. Within minutes, Taliban fighters opened fire in the air above the protesters, forcing them to flee.
The Taliban proved much more welcoming to other protesters.
After the government declared August 15 as the country’s new independence day, hundreds of Taliban fighters on foot, on motorcycles and in trucks descended on the capital to celebrate. Some marched in front of the former US embassy, chanting “Long live Islam” and “Death to America.”
Even those covering the celebration were subject to the new rules.
Seeing a truck with an Afghan journalist filming the rally from the top of the trunk, I got in. As we accelerated, I saw a young woman sitting in the back seat of the truck, dressed in black from head to toe, her face covered by a surgical mask.
I learned that her name was Breshna Naderi. She was 19 years old and had joined Kabul News TV just four months before the fall of the government. Despite the growing difficulties for women journalists, she stayed.
“Even if it means I have to sit in the back of the car while my colleague films the rally, I won’t give up,” he said.
Kabul University’s journalism department, which is headed by a woman, is one of the few university departments still dominated by female students. One Friday morning, Basira, 21, Karima, 21, and Zahra, 23, all third-year students, gathered in the family section of a fast food restaurant to prepare for their final exam.
They share more than a passion for journalism. A bond of trauma also connects the three women. Basira had survived two suicide attacks in recent years and Karima and Zahra had each survived three.
I have covered the aftermath of many suicide attacks. The worst was at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada girls’ school last year, killing at least 90 people and injuring 240 others. The school was in a densely populated community of Hazaras, a Shiite minority, and the next day bodies. a steep hill at the foot of a mountain range.
“You can almost name each hill for a different attack on the Hazaras,” said a 73-year-old tea vendor who goes by Karbalai.
A Hazara woman, Soudabeh, became an activist as a teenager, but her work in her home province of Daikundi, where she educated rural communities about menstrual cycles, a taboo subject in Afghan society, did not sit well with the Taliban. , and she was forced to go into hiding with her husband and two young children. For the past year, the family has hardly left home. Now they have been looking for a way out of Afghanistan altogether.
The country they are trying to leave has changed profoundly since the one the militants took over just a year ago.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is now the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Afghanistan’s National Music Institute is now a Taliban base. The British embassy has been turned into a madrasa, an Islamic theology school for young people pursuing Islamic studies.
People have also had to redefine themselves overnight, especially members of the old military and employees of the previous government. Those who once wore uniforms or suits and criss-crossed the city in armored vehicles now find themselves wearing traditional Afghan clothing and driving a modest car, or even pushing a vegetable cart.
I had never felt so alone in Kabul as I did on the night of the anniversary of the Taliban’s seizure of power.
Between deadlines, calls, and assignments, I sat on our roof and surveyed the city, searching for its ghosts. He could barely remember what life was like before the Taliban returned to power. It was as if they had never left.
The hardest part of covering the Taliban rally that same day was having to smile at the men who had taken over my favorite corners of the city, my favorite cafes and parks, and now wouldn’t even let me in because I’m a woman.
Since the fall of Kabul, my home has been raided, vandalized and occupied by militants, and twice I was pressured to leave the country. Every time I was left crying. And I wasn’t ready to go yet.
After my house was raided, a friend sent me an old essay by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. “Once the experience of evil has been endured, it is never forgotten,” Ginzburg wrote.
This month, my partner and I gave up our apartment and slow danced our way out of the bustling streets of Kabul to its inescapable ice cream cart tune.
We too have left Afghanistan, but at least it is in our own terms.