As the US military moves from evacuating civilians from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to shifting out government personnel inside the facility ahead of Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline, those still stuck in the war-plagued country are grappling with a new reality — the window to flee from life under the Taliban has shuttered.
For many women – especially those who reside far from the capital – attempting to even get to the chaotic Kabul airport would have been a long and terrifying journey. Moreover, many did not have the resources and protection to embark on the journey, despite having the most to lose under the new hardline government.
“Since Afghanistan fell, I have not been able to leave my home,” says Saira Saleem, 24, from her dark basement in her family’s home in Jalalabad, capital of the eastern Nangarhar province. “I’m still trying to leave.”
The hiding is a far cry for the women’s and disability rights activist and journalist with the local Seema News Agency. Saleem lost the mobility in her leg when she was just six months old after contracting polio, making her especially easy for detection by Taliban forces.
“I’ve been working with women and girls in the community and was a journalist before the Taliban came,” she continues, highlighting that she attacked late last year when fellow Jalalabad reporter Malala Maiwand was shot dead. “After I recovered [from the attack], I was warned by the Taliban. And at this time, I am also being searched by the Taliban because I have always spoken out against their oppression.”
Saleem says that six Taliban members came to her home four nights ago, knocking gruffly on the door. As she hid beneath her bed, the fighters questioned her father on her whereabouts. He told them his daughter was not home.
“They stood in front of our house with the Taliban flag in the car and asked questions about whether I was in fear of losing my life,” explains the advocate, who is not yet married and thus must also contend with the woe of forcible marriage. “They [the Taliban] said we should see your daughter when she arrives … I am scared, and even if I get out of the house, the Taliban will recognize me.”
Indeed, Saleem, who is also her family’s breadwinner, knows she is now left to her own devices. But too afraid to try to flee further east to the Pakistan border, she is holding out for a last-minute miracle.
“How can I find some way to leave here? I have so many problems,” she reiterates softly. “If you know a reliable source or have a friend who can guide me, I would be grateful. Women have sacrificed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, we have faced many challenges. Now, women will face the same fate they did back then.”
But she refuses to concede that life as she knew it is gone.
“When my leg became disabled, I hoped to work for children. When I saw that most of the women in our society could not speak out and were afraid of men, I hoped I could [help],” Saleem said. “I just hope to be a good journalist and become a lawyer and serve the people. The only happiness I ever have is to help people.”
Only now, Saleem stresses that she has nowhere safe to go. Sadly, her searing fears are reminiscent of many stranded inside the embattled nation staring down the barrel of the unknown.
Sahil, another journalist who previously hosted political programs on local television, said desperately on Sunday that he cannot trust the Taliban’s declarations of amnesty for all.
“Our reporter’s language is closed,” he tearfully said, referring to losing his voice as a journalist. “Is there a way to get documents? Many journalists who fled had fake documents to go to the US or Qatar. Please, I need to get out.”
And Hashmat, who has a Special Immigrant Visa after years of work as both a political media personality and logistics work with a private contracting company aligned with the US Embassy, told me that for days he has been in a holding house awaiting a call that hasn’t come.
“I don’t know what to do now. I am so scared. There is no chance for me,” he whispers in halting English. “We are left here to die, now with ISIS too.”
A prominent Afghan comedian and television personality – on the brink of tears – said Sunday that he was in a secret location with his wife and two young children on the edge of Kabul, having tried for days to escape with his paperwork but unable to reach to elusive airport gates.
Since Thursday’s deadly suicide bombing near the gates, Afghans who supported the American war effort were propelled further from their chance of leaving. As a result, western leaders have been forced to acknowledge that – despite having managed to vacate several thousand – many more will likely be left behind ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline.
“It is getting worse now,” laments Zak, a 30-year-old former Afghan government employee. “My cousin went outside his house in jeans and got beaten badly. We are full of fears. It is hard even to find a place open for coffee now. The trauma is very serious – I have been talking to my friend, a psychologist, but even that is not helping me. I have lost my country.”
On Saturday night, Zak packed his bags and braved himself to make one final effort to reach the airport perimeter with his passport and paperwork – but his terrified mother broke down at the prospect of being left alone, underscoring the extra challenges many Afghan women harbor.
“I packed and was leaving, but my mom did not let me,” Zak stammered. “She was fearing the security threats and crying because of the explosions, and I could not leave her.”
In the last two days, I have received countless calls, messages, emails and voicemails from the very down and desperate – some I know and some who are strangers – sending resumes and documents and certificates of their work with the US. Many said they did not have a strong cell signal or internet connection to send extra layers of paperwork suddenly requested by the government, or to hustle for their names to be put on lists.
“The evacuation is a failure,” an Afghan interpreter wrote to me Sunday, as the daylight faded and any semblance of hope to escape the nation he once believed in, dispersed. “The US is leaving its good friends behind.”
The next step for those broken and abandoned is to try and configure smuggling routes and illegally enter a neighboring country – starting at $12,500 per person – which comes with its own inherent risk and a high price tag that the most vulnerable cannot even begin to fathom.
And still, that cost is only expected to rise in the coming days and weeks, evacuation specialists surmised.
“My own government abandoned me and I’m trying to go north on a bus with my kids,” one high-ranking former National Directorate of Security official. “That is the hard part. They only wanted to save themselves, and Americans left us too.”