I have bundles of cash stuffed into my socks, and my passport strapped flat against my chest. The passport has a dangerous word in it: reporter. This is the reason I am in disguise, holding a bundle of clothes and sitting in a wheelbarrow in the middle of a huge crowd trying to cross through a Taliban checkpoint into Pakistan. Dozens of people are arriving at the border town of Spin Boldak each minute from across the country. The main focus of the Taliban and international forces is Kabul airport where a chaotic evacuation is under way. Spin Boldak is the only other way to get out of Afghanistan.
A Reuters reporter was killed by the Taliban in the same town in July. Taliban fighters with black turbans are beating people with pipes; they keep opening and closing their part of the border as people push each other to get out.
As I am pushed towards the border, I think about the dreams and memories I have left behind in Herat, the city in western Afghanistan I have called home for about 10 years. It is 20 August 2021 and Afghanistan has fallen, once more, to the Taliban. As I inch towards freedom, I don’t know when, if ever, I will be able to come back.
The fall happened very quickly. The Taliban took over most of the countryside in May, after Joe Biden said all US forces would withdraw by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On 5 August, I told my editors in London that the situation in the south-western province of Nimroz did not sound good. The following day, the first provincial capital fell to the Taliban, and the entire country was on the brink. Seven chaotic days followed as I reported the fall of province after province, updating stories through the night. I hear one sentence a lot: “Kabul did not send help.” Herat fell into Taliban hands on 12 August; Kabul three days later.
I was born in Iran, but grew up there as a refugee. My grandparents left Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet Union’s invasion. I spent my childhood in a refugee camp in a city south of Tehran, where some of my relatives still live today. Last year, the camp got a telecommunications tower, and now its residents can video call from their houses rather than having to drive somewhere 30 minutes away.
When I returned to Afghanistan a decade ago, to go to high school and study journalism at the government-funded university in Herat, I realised I liked to tell people’s stories. In the first week of my course, a friend and I launched a student magazine that, with the backing of university officials, we published weekly.
In August 2017, I began contributing reports on the war in Afghanistan for the Guardian from Herat. The war seemed to produce a different atrocity every day, but I liked the work, telling the world what was happening in Afghanistan – to make people think about it. I never thought I would be leaving in such circumstances – taking nothing with me, with no opportunity to say goodbye to many of my friends, who were themselves looking for ways to get out – just for telling the truth through my career.
Before my dash to the Pakistan border, Herat was besieged by the Taliban for more than a month, with fighters attacking security forces and trying to break through the frontlines almost every night. The actual frontline of war is only a 10-minute drive from downtown. We frequently check on our friends. My phone rings after each explosion. As the Taliban close in, many of my friends delete their social media accounts to remove any trace of anti-Taliban posts. After dark, we watch American B-52 bombers flying over the city, and one night hear huge explosions in the distance, probably airstrikes against the Taliban positions. If the Americans were hitting the Taliban, we later ask ourselves, how did they take over the city in a matter of hours?
I refuse to leave because the story is right here, and I want to tell the world what life looks like in a city besieged by extremists. The price of goods rises every day. Some government employees are being told to hide important documents. Reporting becomes even more challenging. To file stories to London I have to switch between several sim cards as the Taliban have destroyed most of the internet lines in Islam Qala, the border town with Iran where the internet infrastructure is located. I find myself spending hours on the roof of my flat, trying to get a better signal, to work out what is happening in a country that has become a battlefield. While talking with local officials around the country over the phone, I often hear heavy gunfire as they try to resist the Taliban; sometimes they tell me they will “defend” Afghanistan, but some switch sides and join them hours after talking to me. Herat has almost no power because the electricity lines have been damaged in the crossfire. I go to a cafe with a generator, hoping to charge my phone and laptop, but its doors are shut; they only allow in people they know. There is a 10pm government curfew to contend with. Nights are hot and dark, and often filled with the sound of explosions.
It’s the morning of Thursday 12 August and I’m reporting on the fall of Ghazni, a city 150km south of the capital. The Taliban are advancing towards Kabul; they have also taken some main government buildings in Helmand overnight, as well as Kandahar prison. I buy a spare phone. The Taliban have a record of checking mobile phones, so mine, a three-year-old Samsung Android that is full of foreign contacts, could be deadly. As I walk around, the city feels deserted. Shops are shut and the roads full of Afghan army Humvees. But I am used to seeing it like this; Herat has been completely militarised since early July. For more than a month, almost everyone has been walking around with a gun on their shoulder, as street clashes grip southern parts of the city.
I go back to my house and update the Guardian’s foreign desk about the situation in several other conflict-stricken provinces. I ring officials in Helmand; they are concerned, the Taliban are freely walking around Helmand’s police headquarters. Sitting by a window with my laptop on a pillow in front of me, I report on the fall of my country, with a view of the street and a soundtrack of trucks rumbling past.
By the afternoon, Taliban militants have closed in on Herat’s main government offices, and I can hear heavy gunfire nearby. Within a few hours, the shots get closer. The Taliban have broken through the frontline of the city, which Afghan security forces and local uprising forces have been trying to hold for more than a month.
Email to the Guardian foreign desk, 16.04, 12 August
Taliban are inside Herat city, Herat may fall soon. I’m moving to a safer place. I may need to destroy my laptop and phone.
I put my laptop into a backpack, and prepare to go out and find a rickshaw that will take me towards the provincial governor’s compound, and from there to a friend’s house in the city’s safer southern part, away from the provincial prison and intelligence headquarters, which are near my home.
But before leaving, I get a call from a journalist at another British newspaper. He is worried about the potential “flood of Afghan migrants to the west”, and asks me to help him draw a map showing smuggling routes. I tell him to listen to the gunfire, that the city is falling and I am trying to leave before the Taliban can get close to the jail and release their imprisoned fighters. “But I’ll pay you,” he says, calmly.
When I reach the governor’s office, the war has already arrived. People are driving on the wrong side of the road, and rushing away to avoid getting shot; gunfire can be heard in all directions. The hot summer wind is blowing sand and rubbish across the streets.
A Taliban fighter in one corner cradles a machine gun, while another holds a belt of bullets for him. They fire towards the compound as other fighters advance. In Afghanistan, whoever has control over the provincial governor’s office controls the entire province.
I’m frightened, and so is the rickshaw driver. We can see people running back as rounds of bullets throw a cloud of dust up into the sky. I realise I have no other option but to continue if I want to reach my friend’s house. The sound of gunfire is overwhelming: bullets rain down from all sides, and I feel in constant danger of being shot. Life suddenly feels very cheap.
The driver keeps going towards the compound. Then, just before we reach it, we change direction and head via a nearby park, where I had been for a relaxed gathering with friends only two days before.
Finally, I reach my friend’s home. Then the explosions start, followed by a mass retreat. More than a dozen government Humvees and 4x4s speed towards the city centre. Minutes later, the Taliban motorcycles arrive. The neighbourhood has fallen. I hear someone say: “Raise the flag.”
Email to the Guardian foreign desk, 19.17, 12 August
Huge: Taliban took over several key parts of the city. Police HQ fell, they are freely walking in it. Huge explosions inside the city. They are advancing towards the prison … The entire city is on fire.
That night, on the roof of my friend’s home, I watch the sky over the city light up as the Taliban fire celebratory rounds into the air. I think about what the provincial governor said that morning: that the city was secure and would not fall. He and his forces retreated after a few hours of fighting.
Email to the Guardian foreign desk, 20.38, 12 August
Subject: Herat falls to the Taliban
Only intelligence headquarters is resisting now. They broke into the prison, released thousands of inmates. They also captured governor compound. I can report that Herat city falls to the Taliban.
I’m also hearing reports about fall of Kandahar and Helmand.
I’ll be updating.
After this, two sources tell me “Helmand falls” and “Kandahar will fall in the coming hours.”
On Friday 13 August, I wake up after two hours’ sleep and walk through the downtown area of Herat, from Darwaza Malik Square to the governor’s compound. Taliban gunmen have flooded into the city, patrolling with captured US army Ranger vehicles and Humvees, laughing and congratulating each other. Their joy is in sharp contrast to the deep grief of the city’s people at the disappearance of 20 years of achievements and freedom. I can see the loss in their eyes.
For now, Kabul and about half of the country’s provincial capitals are still under government control. Taliban fighters are advancing in Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in the north. I find myself walking through a Taliban patrol, treading on pieces of glass from windows blown out by explosions. I am wearing a Kandahari hat and long shalwar kameez – traditional Afghan clothes – to avoid their attention. Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of government employees clamour to obtain the “public amnesty” forms that the new rulers are offering to members of the old guard, to buy trust. Many are sceptical, seeing it as a way to identify the former ruling class and then take revenge.
While walking among them, I wonder at how a modern army could be defeated by people on motorcycles wearing sandals and carrying broken and mostly old weapons. They entered the city as if they had been at the gates waiting for the call, with music playing from loudspeakers on their pickup trucks. Now, suddenly, there are men with beards and white Taliban flags everywhere.
I sit down in front of an ice-cream shop, in the downtown area of Herat, and watch them continue to flow into the city. This part of the city is usually crowded with men, women and children, but now, at 11am, I can see no ordinary people. The girls and women disappeared from the city streets in a matter of hours; half of society now effectively behind bars. Happiness has deserted Herat.
Two days later, I return to my house. It has been hit by several bullets. The windows are smashed, and there are pieces of glass on the pillow I’d been using to balance my laptop on. One of the bullets has hit the window I usually sit by. If I had been there, the bullet would have hit me in the back. I don’t know whether my home was the target or just caught in crossfire.
From then, my only contact with the Guardian in London is checking in daily at 8am and 8pm to let them know I am safe. Desperate efforts are underway by senior members of staff to secure safe passage out of Taliban territory for journalists and translators, including me. By 15 August, the entire country, except for Kabul airport and Panjshir valley, has fallen to the Taliban.
On 19 August, the decision is made that I should leave on the first available bus. The next evening I find myself on the road to Kandahar, the biggest city in the south of Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s traditional stronghold. I have been reading Jason Burke’s 2006 book On the Road to Kandahar, about reporting on conflict in the Islamic world. Following his lead, I stuff cash into my socks.
Texts to colleagues in London. After midnight, 20 August
I’m safe in Shindand.
I’m already in Helmand as I can see lights of camp Bastion.
I don’t tell them about the many checkpoints along the highway, to avoid worrying them. Neither do I tell them about the Taliban man telling me: “Kholi vo makh di na sara vaei” – that my Kandahari hat and my face don’t match.
I am speechless with fright. I thought I looked like one of them.
I tell the Taliban man in Pashto that I am going to a relative’s home in Kandahar and have owned this hat for as long as I can remember. He moves on and says something similar to someone a few seats away.
On the road to Kandahar, I think about what has happened, and how quickly. I had so many hopes for myself in Herat. Some of my friends and I were planning to open a cafe for university students: we had a business plan, and had even searched for premises just two months ago. I think about my memories of the city, the park over the hill, the afternoons spent there. I think about my years at the university. I have left my degree certificates behind.
I have memories from every inch of this city, and I am leaving it in the knowledge that I might never get back.
In Herat I felt free, something I’d never experienced in Iran. I know this city better than any other place in the world. It is part of me.
The rest of the journey is torture. The road has been battered by roadside bomb explosions from the war, and every 100 metres or so the bus bounces in and out of holes. I need to sleep, but keep getting woken by the shaking.
I arrive in Kandahar at about 4am. I go up to the roof of a bus station to try to rest and read my emails in a safe place. There is some good news: an email from the Chevening scholarship programme, telling me that I have been selected to study international journalism at the University of Kent. I had been to the British embassy in Kabul to be interviewed for the place in March. I had promised my friends in Herat a dinner in a luxury hotel if I won the scholarship. It dawns on me that this is now impossible.
After half an hour, I leave in a taxi for Spin Boldak. It is dawn and I can see Taliban flags everywhere in Kandahar. It strikes me that this is a modern place, at least in comparison with other Afghan cities. The Taliban left this city in ruins 20 years ago, and they have now returned to a metropolis, ready to be governed. At checkpoints, their fighters sit on chairs in the middle of empty roads. They glance at passengers’ faces, and then let the drivers go.
I finally arrive at the Pakistani border after two hours of driving through Kandahar and am confronted by a scene of complete chaos: thousands of desperate people running, rushing and pushing each other to try to cross into Pakistan. Children are screaming, the dust in the air is unbearable, and Taliban fighters are beating people with pipes.
I’m nearly 2 metres (6ft 5in) tall. I wonder how I can sneak through this chaos inconspicuously.
A man in his 30s with a short beard and a wheelbarrow comes up to me. “Do you want to cross?” he asks. I pretend I don’t hear him, but he keeps offering me a passage. Ten minutes later, I find myself sitting in his wheelbarrow being pushed through the crowd. His plan is to say I am a patient in dire need of care, in the hope of getting me into Pakistan without a visa. The man is a smuggler, who will sneak people into Pakistan for about £2.
As I am pushed through the crowds of desperate families, I can’t stop thinking about my family, my lovely sisters, although they are in a relatively safe country far from me. The air is hot and full of dust; I can feel it on my teeth and face. I know that my colleagues in London will be worried. Hours have passed since my last message to them.
After more than three hours, I cross to Pakistan. Sitting in the wheelbarrow, I notice Pakistani forces are banning Hazara people from entering the country. Hazaras are the most discriminated against minority in Afghanistan. They have always been attacked and murdered by the Taliban and Islamic State. Speaking Pashto, a language that few Hazaras speak well, is a privilege on the border. I see about 10 Hazara people, including women and children with masks on, a rare sight here, where everyone thinks only about getting into Pakistan and no one cares about Covid. Pakistani border forces push them back. A girl in a yellow shirt, about eight years old, screams. Others plead with the border forces to let them go. My wheelbarrow moves on, my driver telling me to pretend to be sick.
As soon as I cross to Pakistan, I buy a big bottle of water, I’m extremely thirsty and drink most of it.
Last message to London before going offline
Just crossed into Pakistan, but, wow.
I have never ever ever seen such a scene, even in movies. Main story is here, not at the Kabul airport.
Thousands of people, women, men, children, rushing, running, pushing each other. Children scream, Taliban beat with pipe. Air full of dust. I was lucky. Paid 500 rupees to a man, he put me into a carriage, pretending to be an emergency patient. Could cross after 3 hours.
The Guardian has arranged a car to move me from the border to the city of Quetta, but with my patchy internet connection (I have to log out of my email account after sending each message, for security reasons) I am unaware of this. Instead, I climb into a rickshaw and head to the centre of Chaman, the border town on the Pakistani side. From there, I take a taxi to Quetta. Even deep inside Pakistan, I can still see Taliban flags and convoys everywhere.
In Quetta I walk around, exhausted, for three of the worst hours of my life. I desperately search for a phone to call the Guardian and tell them that I have arrived. I haven’t eaten for more than 24 hours. Nobody will sell me a sim card, or rent me a hotel room, as I don’t have a visa in my passport. They won’t lend me their phones for any price. Eventually, a hotel owner relents and I use his phone to call a contact in Islamabad. His friends pick me up. I spend the afternoon with a friend of my contact, before he arrives in the evening. As soon as I am able to, I charge my phone and open my emails. I feel guilty for the worry I’ve caused.
To straighten out the paperwork, we drive back to Chaman the next morning. With a letter from the Guardian, I obtain my Pakistan visa, valid for 30 days. In the hotel in Quetta, I celebrate my safe journey with the team in London on a video call. The next day I fly to Islamabad. And it is here, on 6 September, exactly one month after I reported the fall of the first provincial capital, that I cover the fall of Panjshir, the very last hope for millions of Afghans.
Four weeks later, on 16 September, I am at Islamabad airport, ready to leave for London. But even here, nothing is straightforward. At passport control, everyone with an Afghan passport is being questioned and referred to management. Because I don’t have a visa, just an entry stamp on my passport, I am sent to a more senior officer. By this point I am nervous, staring at a big clock on a wall as it inches closer to the 3am departure time, and answering to a man in his 40s with a trimmed beard and a big thick moustache. I explain to him that I am a reporter for the Guardian, as is written on my entry stamp to Pakistan. He calls people and types on his computer before, finally – after seeing the Guardian’s letter to the Pakistani immigration office – he allows me to pass. I am the very last person to board. Ten hours later, the plane touches down in London.
In August, when I was running through bullets and explosions, seeing the fall of Herat and Afghanistan with my own eyes, all I was thinking about was whether a bullet or piece of shrapnel might have my name on it. I could never have imagined that three months later I’d be walking through the streets of London with my Guardian colleagues, enjoying the rain and good conversation.
People in Islamabad often talked to me about my “escape” from Afghanistan, but I can’t stand the word. I did not escape Herat. I wanted to stay and report. I will never “escape” my beloved city; my own memories, achievements, hopes, friends.
The war correspondent Anthony Loyd was right when he wrote in one of his books that “when an aircraft suddenly plucks you from a war situation and deposits you into the confusing slipstream of peace it leaves you very alone”. This feeling of loneliness is particularly oppressive when you have no one around to talk to.
Now, I still struggle to get my thoughts straight. Sometimes I hear a voice asking for help. Some nights, I am plagued by nightmares about being shot or stabbed, though I’m not scared of death, and find I cannot sleep for more than a few hours. Very small things make me happy, angry or sad. I have a constant headache. When I hear police or ambulance sirens, or even a knock on the door, I become nervous. My hair is falling out. I don’t feel comfortable being out, but when I stay in my room I don’t feel any better. A lot of the time, I don’t eat. My phone is always on silent – I find that any notification, even from other people’s phones, makes me nervous. I hope these feelings will pass.
When I read a few paragraphs of this story to a lovely American friend who lives near me, she cries, hugs me and says how horrible it must be to live in a war zone. As an American, she sometimes feels guilty for what has happened to Afghanistan, but I try to convince her that whatever decisions her politicians take have nothing to do with her.
As a journalist, I have spoken to parents who have lost their children, sought out witnesses to explosions and atrocities. I have written about newborn babies shot dead, and teenage girls and boys who have witnessed their parents’ murder. But reporting on conflict is still something I love to do. I spent years in a refugee camp that had no running water and electricity. Looking back, I can remember witnessing so many incidents that, had a reporter been around, would have ended up on the front pages of world newspapers. I became a journalist to try to tell the stories of people who are rarely heard.
I have made a career reporting on war, but what I always wanted to report on was peace. Peace is an emotional word for every Afghan; we have no sense of how it would actually look. It is in every Afghan’s destiny to witness war. A deadly guarantee to every generation.