The life I built as an Afghan woman went in the blink of an eye

A university lecturer reflects on how the Taliban takeover upended her life and asks: was the hard work all for nothing?

An illustration of an Afghan woman holding a book with a disintegrating corner
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

At 11am on August 15, I was at Rabia Balkhi University in Kabul where I was teaching economics.

That day, only a handful – maybe 10 – of my class of about 30 had shown up due to the deteriorating security situation. The Taliban was fast advancing on Kabul having already captured the cities of Ghazni, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif.

I was in the middle of my lecture when suddenly I heard shouts and running footsteps in the corridor. I ignored the commotion at first until it grew louder.

I opened the door and saw students, teachers, and university staff running – everyone was trying to get out of the building. I asked a staff member in the hallway what was going on and he told me that the Taliban was entering Kabul and everyone was rushing to their homes. I could see the terror and hopelessness on everyone’s faces; the girls, especially, were terrified.

I stopped my class and told my students to go home immediately and then I left the university. There were no buses or cars, so I had to walk home.

At the usually busy market in Kote Sangi neighbourhood in the city’s west, I saw people screaming and running in different directions. Shopkeepers were rushing to close their shops; women were running to their homes. The transport system had ground to a halt. The city was in absolute chaos. But by early afternoon, all shops, schools, universities, and banks had closed, and it seemed as if life had stopped in the city. It took me an hour and a half to get home. By 4pm, I saw some Taliban gunmen on the streets. The Taliban had taken Kabul.

Escaping Kabul

I knew immediately that I had to go into hiding as did my colleagues – university lecturers, human rights activists and journalists – at Jade-Abresham, a newsweekly where I also worked.

We had published numerous articles about the crimes the Taliban had committed. We also organised anti-Taliban campaigns on social media such as #Stand4ANDSF to support and boost the morale of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) during the Taliban’s advance but also to denounce the Taliban’s actions. I had also denounced the Taliban in articles I had written about women’s rights and ethnic and religious minority rights.

We were so frightened that we did not dare contact each other through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger as there were rumours that the Taliban monitored these channels.

But others helped us communicate and we decided to get out of the country. While planning my escape, I watched the news when I had time. Seeing the airport flooded with people who were struggling to leave and those who fell to their deaths from the US military plane made me feel devastated and frightened. I felt as if I was falling towards the centre of a storm.

On August 17, two days after the Taliban takeover, eight of us gathered at a colleague’s house.

Since we had not worked directly with the United States and other NATO member countries, we were not on their lists for emergency evacuation. Therefore, we had to leave the country on our own. All banks were closed, and with very little money in our pockets, we decided to escape to Pakistan where we knew people who could help us arrange smugglers to get us across the border.

I had always worn skirts and jeans and had no attire that the Taliban would approve of. So I hurriedly went to my neighbour’s house to find something to wear. They gave me a blue burqa that stretched to the ground, covering me from head to toe.

Under the cover of darkness, we left Kabul and travelled towards the border town of Spin-Boldak. The smuggler we hired drove through the night, and the next day, at around noon, we reached the border. We had not eaten for the past 24 hours, and all of us were exhausted and had headaches. We stopped briefly for lunch, all the while frightened we would be stopped. The smugglers that we hired distributed fake IDs, and took us towards the border checkpoints. With our hearts pounding, we approached the entrance gate to Pakistan.

Making it to Quetta

Near the gate, I saw many familiar faces – fellow journalists, feminists, social activists and former government officials – all desperate to cross the border. Among them was a feminist I knew well. She used to dress in a more Western style, but now she was wearing a long black garment that covered her face, leaving just her eyes showing. Seeing her made me feel hopeless and helpless. Tears began to roll down my cheeks and I started to sob.

The area was flooded with refugees from Afghanistan. We waited in the queue for about three hours until it was finally our turn to be checked. Some of us, including me, passed through the gate using our IDs, but they did not work for four members of our group whom the Pakistani border police stopped, and beat and kicked. They were not the only people whom the border police beat. I saw them hit others. I remember a woman, about 60 years, begging a policeman to be allowed in, but she got slapped in response.

Once I entered Pakistan, I rushed to the smugglers on this side of the border helping us and told them about our colleagues’ situation. The smugglers went back to the gate and four hours later returned with my colleagues. Finally, we had all crossed the border, leaving our lives behind.

Then, the smugglers took us to the city of Quetta. On our way, as we passed through Chaman town, where I saw the Taliban flag flying from cars and motorcycles. I was surprised to see it openly flown because I assumed that by being in a different country we would be further from the Taliban. I then realised that the city, also the stronghold for the Taliban’s Quetta council, was not safe for us either.

I moved to the outskirts of Quetta in Hazara Town, home primarily to the Hazara ethnic and religious minority. Rent has skyrocketed due to the influx of refugees from Afghanistan and I moved into a flat there with some of my colleagues to reduce my living costs. I applied for several school teaching jobs but because I am not a Pakistani citizen, no one would hire me.

A few days after my arrival, my neighbour came to me to tell me that there had been a meeting in the mosque about Afghan refugees. In the meeting, religious leaders and community elders gave the orders that women and girls particularly from Kabul must dress as women in Quetta do otherwise they will be beaten for dressing inappropriately. So I have started wearing a shalwar kameez with a big shawl.

In Quetta, I found myself jobless, without hope, and worst of all – struggling with emotional and mental distress. The question that I often ask myself is, where have 20 years of study and hard work gone? Was it all for nothing?

An illustration of schoolgirl in Afghanistan standing between a winter and spring landscape
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Three-hour walk to and from school

I am 28. I barely remember the Taliban government at the end of the 1990s and so the Taliban control of Kabul is unfathomable for me.

I was seven years old when I started going to school in 2002, the year schools reopened in Afghanistan after a decade of being closed. Even with schools open, going to school, finishing a master’s course and starting a career was not easy, especially if you were female.

When I think back, my primary school years were filled with difficulties and challenges. One of the biggest challenges was that our home was located in an isolated valley called Zard Sang, far from the rest of the village in Shahristan district in central Afghanistan.

The distance between my home and school was considerable. Every day, I had to walk three hours to and from school along a very rough path across mountains, hills, and valleys. Since we had no neighbours, I walked alone, even though I was just a child. I was the youngest of six siblings, and while my brothers had been allowed some education under the Taliban, my sisters never got the chance to study as children.

The first seven years of school were the most difficult for me. Every day, I would wake up anxious and fearful that I would face a potential danger on my way to school – being kidnapped, raped, or attacked by wild animals such as wolves. I was so frightened that whenever I saw a male passer-by from a distance, I would either run or hide behind a rock until he was gone. Every day was a battle. I would often hear stories of girls being raped across Afghanistan. Daily, I made the long, lonely journey under constant and extreme psychological pressure.

Despite all the difficulties, I studied hard and was always the top student in my class throughout primary and secondary school. I graduated from high school in my province of Daykundi with an average percentage of 99.6 and won a laptop as a prize.

Everything collapsed

I went on to pass the university entrance exam, and was accepted into Kabul University, the best public university in Afghanistan to study economics. But after a year and a half, because of my outstanding academic performance, I was granted an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship and in 2013, I went to India to study for a bachelor’s in economics, marketing and psychology at Bangalore University.

Language was a significant obstacle. I did not speak English yet, and I could not understand my teachers or find my way to the next lecture hall. I relied on my peers to take me from class to class. I was totally detached from my soundings.

I remember once crying in the class because English was too difficult for me. My classmates comforted me. I studied pages from textbooks by looking up all the words in the dictionary and writing the Persian meaning next to each word, and then I would reread the text, hoping to better understand it. It was the same slow and difficult process for every subject. I worked very hard and stayed awake all night only to see very little progress.

Sometimes, I considered returning home, but then I thought I would never get the chance to study again if I did that. I felt I had to fight to continue.

After a year, things got easier. As each semester passed, I improved, and everyone told me that I was learning quickly. I felt like I was finally winning the battle. I started to feel confident enough to connect with those around me. I made new friends from different countries. In my fifth semester, I was elected class representative. I graduated with a first-class distinction.

I received another scholarship, this time from USAID, to do my master’s in economics in India and started working with Jade-Abresham as a freelance translator and journalist.

After returning to Kabul in 2019, I began teaching economics at Rabia Balkhi, a private university. I loved what I was doing and was thrilled to teach the younger generation.

But suddenly, with the Taliban’s takeover, everything collapsed. Everything I had achieved in the past 20 years went in the blink of an eye.

Now it feels like all my hard work, struggles and dedication were for nothing. There are thousands of young girls and boys who feel the same way – that their hard work amounted to nothing. I have ended up unable to work or engage in social and political activities, and not even be able to dress the way I like. I studied for nothing, worked for nothing. Maybe my whole life was for nothing.

Every time I think about my country, I remember the day the Taliban entered Kabul. I remember women, men and children, running to get home and shut their doors to feel safe. I think of those who fell to their deaths from a US military plane. I think of all the soldiers who lost their lives fighting the Taliban.

Our future seems like an empty hole.

I spend 20 years of my precious life to achieve what I have achieved. Was it all for nothing?

Source: Al Jazeera