MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — It was a domino effect that came at crushing speed.
One moment Mazar-i-Sharif, the voluptuous Afghanistan city, teemed with vitality. In the next moment, it had plunged into something akin to life under the draconian laws centuries ago. Less than a day later, the same fate had befallen Jalalabad in the south and then suddenly — Kabul fell.
That is just a microcosm of what has rippled across the entire country.
The case of Afghanistan over the past few days exemplifies just how fast the climate in conflict can change. On Thursday, it was business-as-usual in the ancient city of Mazar, home to the iconic Blue Mosque. Vendors filled the streets, and the city teemed with vigor hours after darkness fell.
On Friday, a strange sense of fear had set in. People still sipped tea on street corners, and the kebab cafes still bristled, but most cleared out at first sight of the sun sinking. Despite reassurances from scores of Afghan security officials that the city was not on the brink of collapse despite heavy fighting on the edges of the by Saturday, dozens waited in long lines to withdraw their life savings and businesses boarded up. Rumors ran rampant that frontlines were fast collapsing on the city’s edges.
As photographer, Jake Simkin, and I stepped out into the strangely dark and empty streets to pick up yogurt and kebabs that evening, we both sensed something was very wrong. I felt a very powerful, nagging sense of fear as we headed back to our guest home.
Within the hour, the city had formally fallen to the Taliban — evidenced by the stream of men on motorcycles storming through, occasional spurts of gunfire cracking the summer air and traditional nasheed vocals chorusing through the speakers.
By the following afternoon, Afghanistan’s central government had crumbled, and the white-and-black Taliban flag had soared through the skies of the Presidential Palace.
It was the end of an era. But not the start of something new.
So what does it mean when a city – or country – falls?
Initially, it is the Wild West as there are no hospitals, law enforcement, security or essential functions .
A few Taliban fighters appeared to behind the wheels abandoned police vehicles and ripped through the narrow streets with sirens blaring as gunshots crackled. They took over the homes of those who have fled and take their riches as their own.
As a first protocol, the Taliban’s white-and-black flag is erected high into the skies in the city’s center and government buildings.
Then, as the hours since the fall stretch on, the more the situation “normalizes.” More people start to move through the streets, and the shuttered shops quietly re-open. What is remarkable is the sudden soundlessness; even the men sit quietly outside their stores, staring into the sunlight and at their phones with a kind of emptiness.
There are no children on the streets, and women have been relegated to their homes. I have seen only one woman emerge, sheathed in a deep blue burka with a male by her side. Indeed, women here often donned sea blue burkas, even under government rule. But they did not have to. There was a choice; it was not law. So typically in the urban areas, most women and girls wore the plain hijab in whatever style and color they liked.
Just last week, I wandered down Kabul’s prized Chicken Street, marveling at the art on the street and selecting fabrics to make scarves to give as gifts to my Afghan hosts.
“They make even my small, small sister wear the full burka,” one woman screeched to me last week, having just fled the Taliban takeover in Kunduz. “Why must a tiny child cover?”
I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined that her words would impact the whole nation less than a week later.
After about twenty-four hours, law-and-order starts to re-shape, given that all police officers and military were forced to flee after the regime change. Announcements are made over the loudspeakers, welcoming all locals to the new Islamic government and encouraging shopkeepers and the like to report any issues to the new rulers.
However, an Afghan friend warned me that this had spurred “revenge” among rivals, with those taking their grievances out with the new leadership. The punishment for those convicted of stealing? The severing of a hand.
And as the days go on, the new normal will continue to take shape. The curriculums will change to include heavy religious teachings, hospitals will re-open with stringent regulations over who can be, and the once-bustling nightlife will give way to evenings of quiet prayer and solitude.
But there is no longer the violence and bloodletting that has stained the streets for four decades.
Still, I cannot process what I am seeing. The decades of progress and the illusion of freedom have been erased from existence.
The woman who could roam freely along Chicken Street selecting fashion items and colorful silks just a few days ago no longer has that option.