A letter to … a child born the day the Taliban retook Afghanistan

A Hazara mother writes to the son she gave birth to in Kabul on August 15, 2021, reflecting on how the country changed that day, and on her fears, hopes and worries for the future.

Illustration of a mother holding her child as the Taliban takes over Kabul in the background
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

In May 2021, the Taliban launched an offensive following the announcement that US and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years. Town by town, city by city, the Taliban made rapid advancements, retaking areas they had not controlled since the late 1990s. On the morning of August 15, the republic government collapsed and the Taliban advanced onto the capital. At the same time, a Hazara mother – part of a minority that was persecuted and massacred during the last Taliban reign – lay in a Kabul hospital giving birth. A year later, she writes to the son born as their old life shattered around them.

My baby,

You were born in Kabul on the morning of August 15, 2021 – the day the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the day our country as we knew it collapsed.

Early that morning, at about 5am, your father and I left home for the hospital. The city was quiet, but there was something different about the stillness. It was like the calm before the storm.

As we travelled to the hospital, I looked out of the car window at people with furrowed brows who walked quickly through the streets. I might have imagined it, but the morning silence didn’t feel the same. I knew from the news, and from your father, that the Taliban had taken control of a large part of the country. I never suspected that Kabul would fall on the day you were born.

On our way, your father received an urgent call. He had recently started a new position with the republic government in Kabul, and with the Taliban advancing on the city, he was needed on the front lines. He said he would return to us as quickly as possible. I was scared, but I knew he had to go, so he dropped me off at the hospital alone.

Seeing the Taliban advance elsewhere across the country for weeks leading up to your birth, I asked myself, How will we stay alive? Will you and your brother and sister be about to experience your worst days?

I worried for us Hazaras. I feared we no longer had a place to live in this country and nowhere to flee. As Hazaras, we have always been discriminated against, from the time of the old Pashtun kings to now. Under the republic, despite establishing growing businesses, pushing for education and women’s rights, there was discrimination against us everywhere – in the government and by society. Our communities have been most frequently targeted for attacks – explosions, massacres – by terrorist groups. Under the Taliban’s last rule, thousands of Hazaras were massacred.

During my last few weeks of pregnancy, I felt anxious every day. July and the first week of August flew by, and I can barely remember what happened any more. It’s almost like I don’t want to remember because it was so painful. I cry just thinking about how agonising it was to bring you into a society where I knew you would be discriminated against, where your sister might not be able to access education or opportunities as a woman, where she is told how to dress and where she can and cannot go, and where, at times, I would worry about your safety.

I sat at home counting down the seconds, minutes and hours, hoping the news would change – that the Taliban weren’t gaining power, that you would be born into a safe world, with a hopeful future.

At times, I forgot that I was about to become your mother. I didn’t forget that you existed, but I let go of all the minor details of preparing for your arrival or discovering how you were still growing inside me. I forgot what it was like to cherish the idea of new motherhood. I forgot how secure it felt when I gave birth to your brother and sister in 2015 and 2018. Back then, I never had to worry about our lives. I always had a sense of security.

Your brother and sister were born in the best hospital in Kabul – a hospital for mothers and children, as were you. We had all the facilities during the republic; all the care we needed, physically and mentally. During those times, I remember it being easy to go from appointment to appointment freely as a woman, watching and feeling your brother and sister grow inside me, and the happiness I felt knowing they were safe and healthy.

I never worried about anything going wrong, but with you, it was different. I feared that the world around us would collapse at any moment. I worried about what kind of horrors I was bringing you into. All I could think about was how to leave this country and save ourselves, especially since everything your father and I have done in our lives – our careers in politics, journalism and social activism, and even who we are as people – would put us in danger.

I argued a lot with your father in the month leading up to your birth. Every day, I told him we should leave. But he believed Afghanistan wouldn’t fall so easily and quickly. He kept thinking this until it was too late.

I argued with him until I couldn’t any more. Then I spoke with our doctor, asking many questions to make sure that when you arrived we would be safe. We always wanted you to be born naturally, but as things in Afghanistan became more uncertain each day, we knew we could not leave the timing up to chance. So we arranged for a caesarean section. We planned the exact time I would have to leave home for the hospital and the time that you would come into this world. I prepared for the worst.

The day you were born, the hospital felt unnerving. Everyone around me – nurses, doctors, other patients – was afraid. I heard different conversations – panicked voices, hushed whispers about a potential collapse of Kabul and the Taliban inching closer. I heard discussions about the hospital shutting down later that day – most of the staff were planning to flee.

As I got changed and went with the doctors and nurses, my mind swirled with racing thoughts. Will I be able to have you safely? What if the Taliban enter the hospital and start firing? How can I escape? I felt like I was in a nightmare.

Then, I remember your doctor saying, “It’s getting late. Let’s go to the birth room.”

I thought about your father and whether he was safe, what would happen to us and how we would leave the hospital safely. I thought about your seven-year-old brother and four-year-old sister back at home with your grandparents. I thought about the life we could all live together. For an instant, I thought about happiness – for you and our family.

But that moment quickly disappeared. As soon as you were born at around 7.45am, I wondered again how long we would stay alive. If the Taliban enter the hospital, where will I hide you? If I hide in the cupboard and you start crying, what will I do? I felt pain in my lower half, and it hurt to walk. There was no way I could run away with you. I couldn’t protect you.

Despite my worries, the hospital did not shut down. Although some staff left, others remained. We stayed until 3pm the following day. By then, the Taliban had taken over Kabul and some of the doctors were crying, worrying about how they would get home.

Your aunt came to the hospital to be with me and to figure out the safest, most secure way home. She knew I was feeling tense, so we barely spoke. I was worried about your father. I had no idea where he was. I followed the news. Every second, I questioned whether your father was still alive. Your aunt assured me he was OK.

I finally communicated with your father; he was fine. Throughout the following days, your father, uncle, aunt and grandparents tried to support us as much as possible. They encouraged me not to look at the news or talk about the Taliban. But I was already psychologically destroyed. I didn’t know how to be your mother. I couldn’t even breastfeed you. I felt detached from everything and everyone I knew. I used to love playing with and combing your sister’s hair after a bath. This joy disappeared, and now your father helps with this.

After the collapse of the republic, we barely had time to stay still – no time for you to feel safe in your crib, get to know your home, and feel our love and nurturing as you should have. We left our home in Kabul so that the Taliban could not trace our movements. I feared they would find us, and execute us like they did other Hazara families associated with the West and the previous government. I felt scared every time someone knocked on a door, even if I knew it was your grandmother coming by. I’ve had so many nightmares.

I witnessed everyone around us fleeing – our neighbours, friends, relatives, sisters, and brothers. Even when we were forced to return to Kabul, because we could not get visas to leave the country, we stayed in different homes, moving often out of fear that we would be hunted because of your father’s position within the old government.

Our family never felt secure, we didn’t have the same comforts we had before – our own beds, access to everything we owned, our home – and we had to adapt to what others provided us. I believed I would be unable to keep you safe in the long term, and that destroyed me.

Your father and I grew up as migrants who left Afghanistan for Iran when the Taliban took over the first time, because back then any Hazara who was seen as suspicious was killed in the streets by Taliban patrols. At the time, we didn’t know each other, but our families had made a similar decision to seek out safety in the face of extremism. When that situation normalised, we returned. There was hope – we studied, worked, and tried with our communities to build a society. But to experience this again is heartbreaking.

I think about the tragedies we have experienced as Hazaras. I’ve mourned the losses of other mothers, who watched their children grow up, sent them to school to be a doctor or teacher, only to be killed in a university examination preparation class just because of their ethnicity. I’ve watched explosions targeted specifically at our communities – our schools, our hospitals, our maternity wards, and the streets and homes where we just try to live.

One year later, we are still in Afghanistan. The Taliban is still here, and the future for us is still bleak. We still think every day about leaving, and are making plans to do so. We want to ensure that you and your siblings have every opportunity in this world – to be educated, to work and to live the life you want to live.

After you were born, for six months, I felt weak psychologically. But now I’ve learned to feel stronger. I look at you and your siblings, and I find strength in my children and what you have overcome so far. I can only keep you secure and help you to leave this country if I am resilient – and I will find any way possible for you to leave.

All I want is to keep you, your brother and your sister safe.

As told to Robyn Huang

Source: Al Jazeera