This was not the story we set out to tell.
We had been investigating the killings of women in Afghanistan since the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020.
Such killings have been rising, with record numbers documented by the United Nations: 219 women killed in the first six months of this year, compared with 138 during the same period in 2020.
But it seemed very few people had been held accountable for these murders.
In July, we spent two weeks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, learning about the lives of those who had been killed, talking to women living in fear and trying to get answers from the authorities.
But as we were putting our story together, the country unravelled, the Afghan president fled, and the Taliban took over the presidential palace.
The messages from friends started coming in on the morning of Sunday, August 15.
“The Taliban have taken over our neighbourhood.”
“They are in our mosque, telling us to wear the hijab if we go out.”
“I am at home. I can hear gunfire. We just pray.”
Their desperation was palpable. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders were officially assuring the world that there would be a peaceful transition.
Women in charge of their destinies
I first came to know Afghanistan in 2006, embedding with the Canadian forces in Kandahar five years after the deployment of NATO troops there. I always wanted to know how the women were doing, since the war had been sold to us with the shiny promise of “liberating” them from the Taliban’s brutal rule.
Over the years, I witnessed tentative girls I met growing into assertive young women, and assertive young women maturing into confident professionals – women who knew they had control over their own destiny.
I visited schools and reported on the obstacles that were still in place for girls, and how they would overcome them. I watched female athletes play football in a stadium the Taliban once used to execute women for “moral crimes”.
I met incredible women who I am proud to now call my friends; politicians pushing for laws to better protect other women, police officers who doubled as community leaders, and journalists who never stopped holding their government to account.
For those who believe that 20 years and billions of dollars were wasted after the Taliban took back power last week, remember that a generation of women was educated and came of age believing they were free to pursue their dreams.
But then, they started being killed. More than 70 girls, bombed on their way home from school in Kabul in May 2021. Two judges shot in Kabul in January 2021. A journalist shot in Jalalabad on her way to work in December 2020. The list just kept growing. And there were few reports of investigations and arrests of those responsible.
This was the story we had set out to tell.
But not long after we finished filming and left Kabul last month, the Taliban swept across the country.
Provinces fell with little resistance. The Taliban took major cities: Herat, with its beautiful blue mosque; Kandahar, the birthplace of the group; and Mazar-i-Sharif, the one-time stronghold of the anti-Taliban military coalition, the Northern Alliance. And suddenly, they were at Kabul’s doorstep. They made it look shockingly easy.
The day the Taliban took Kabul, a photograph was widely shared of a man painting over pictures of women that adorned dress shops in the city – literally wiping them away. I remember driving past the pictures last month and smiling at the faces of beautiful Afghan women modelling wedding dresses. I thought the Taliban could never subdue women again.
In Afghanistan 🇦🇫 women are quite literally being erased from public spaces. pic.twitter.com/J6HpDLF3t4
— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 16, 2021
The image of those faces being painted over broke me; they were being erased again. Now I fear that the progress women have worked so hard to achieve over the last two decades could also be easily wiped away.
‘Pray for us’
The Taliban now says it will govern inclusively, inviting women to join its government, and pledging that it can continue to be part of the workforce as long as it is “in accordance with Sharia law”.
But many Afghan women are not convinced. They remember the Taliban which subjected women to public beatings, which forced them to wear burqas, and which refused to let them go to school.
So the messages keep coming.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”
“Pray for us.”
“I am very afraid.”
It is a special kind of fear when women speak to me about the Taliban. It is the fear of going back to a dark time of subjugation and imprisonment. The fear of losing control over one’s own destiny. The fear of no longer being able to dream.
Most of the women I know are in hiding, afraid that the Taliban will find them, asking whether I can help them leave the country. Some have already left, not knowing if they can ever return.
For those who remain, the sense of desperation is rising among strong women who now feel they are in grave danger.
A woman who once told me she would never leave Afghanistan sent me this email: “I’m so scared about what might happen. I don’t want my daughter to grow up here. The situation is getting worse.”
My heart is broken for all of them, for everything they stand to lose – their homes, their dreams, their future.
And my heart is broken for the country I have come to love. When I left Kabul last month, I feared I would not be able to return to the same place. Now I know it will never be the same.
This was the story I never wanted to tell.