It was a bright summer morning at 10.30 am and my father and I were on the way home from Sidarat Square, Kabul. There were already rumors that the Taliban would enter the city soon but still, we were in shock. Still hoping for a miracle. It was the explosion of gunshots that first alerted us to the end of democracy. Folks were panicking and were running around, not knowing what was happening. Soon it was clear that the Muslim extremists had come into the city.
Chaos reigned. Men, women, and children were petrified and heading to unknown destinations, struggling to believe that this was really happening, like something out of a horror movie.
Just 19 years old, I was terrified, and my heart was pounding. My father tried to reassure me with words of hope, but I could see the worry in his eyes. He tried to hide his fear from me, but I saw it. We walked from the city to our home, the longest hour of my life. We were afraid of our own shadow and felt that the Taliban was following us. I had never seen Kabul this way before.
We made it home safely. On the way, my father shared his memories of past Taliban attacks. He told me of the many nights our family had spent hiding in the mountains when the Taliban entered our province the last time, four years before I was born.
When we got home, my mother and grandmother were so relieved to see us. They were afraid that the Taliban would attack everyone they passed on their way in. We all were anxious and had no idea what to do. My grandmother was praying as she is used to doing when there is any difficulty. My younger brothers heard about the Taliban’s appearance and were too nervous to leave their bedroom. My mother was crying and asking why we had not left Afghanistan before. Indeed, that morning my father and I had gone to talk to a travel agent about getting visas to a neighboring country. We paid half the money and agreed to pay the other half when we got the visas. Our deal lasted all of ten minutes because as we left the travel agency, the proponents of Sharia law were already on their way to the capital.
I had heard stories about their brutality and ruthlessness from my parents over the years and hoped never to see their faces. But now they were all around me.
On August 19, I was on my bike to get some groceries when one of them stopped me. It was the first time in my life I saw a Talib in the flesh. He looked around 35 years old with long hair and an unkempt beard. His expression was fierce and not friendly at all. I was afraid when he ordered me off my bike so he could search in my pockets and on my bicycle.
The first weeks of the Taliban occupation were so unnerving and unpredictable that we had no idea if it was day or night. We just were thinking about how to survive and what might happen to us, both as an ethnic and religious minority. We knew how much they hated us.
Joining swarms of others, we headed to Kabul airport, desperately hoping that some foreign country would evacuate us given our elevated risk as a religious and ethnic minority. We sent emails to different embassies in Kabul but never heard back. Once, late at night, I found a link on Twitter about the evacuation process from Afghanistan. I filled in my information and the following day got email instructions and some type of visa to be presented at the airport. However, it quickly transpired that this was only for US citizens and those with a US residency permit. My uncle and aunt laughed at me. ‘Our boy has a US visa!’. I was astonished but filled with hope and excitement. There didn’t seem to be any checks about my nationality. I did try to go to the airport and see if I could get any help. No success, but I tried at least.
Before the Taliban, life was not so bad in the capital. Sure, there were security challenges, but people were free to work, and girls and women could continue their education and jobs outside the home.
I recall my time at school with my friends and classmates, playing football, taking selfies, having fun. There was joy, and we were all hopeful about our future. My mates and I went to cafes together and talked for hours about all the things we’d do after we graduated. As a graduate myself, I was looking forward to starting university this year. My plan was to study computer science or journalism and work hard to make my dreams a reality. But things changed the morning the Taliban took over. There is no hope of continuing my education in Afghanistan unless I want to join the extremist movements as the Taliban’s chancellor for the Kabul University is promoting. Though the schools for boys are reopened, because of this hopeless situation, most of the young people are so depressed and despairing to attend their schools.
The night of September 3rd, the Taliban celebrated their victory with unrelenting gunfire. One of their bullets even landed on our property. Luckily, we were huddled inside and remained unhurt so far. But living with fear and uncertainty is now a part of daily life.
I play both football and video games at a professional level, and at the same time, I love art and literature. But now, none of this is possible. We must hide our identity and daren’t express who we are. We have no freedom even to read a book.
For the last five years, my Friday mornings started with football practice from 6:00 to 8:00 am. My teammates and I used to exercise at the gym. We were a group of 10-15 friends out on our bikes enjoying fresh air and sport in the early morning. But after August 15, most of my teammates left Kabul, and some left the country. I stay at home with my little brothers now.
We also had a small family library: novels, memoirs, literature, religious texts, and transcripts in several languages. Sadly, on the first day of the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, we had to burn them all. The Taliban don’t permit ownership of secular books. My grandma and my mother cried all that night. Grandma told us how the family had built up and protected the library for generations. The last time the Taliban was in power, my grandparents managed to hide some of our collection in the mountains. This time they could not survive.
My message to young people worldwide, especially those who are my age and starting university, is to learn ways to make this world a better, more peaceful, and tolerant place. Keep in mind that millions of young people like me do not have the opportunity to continue into higher education. It is even worse for girls.
Ali M. is a 19-year-old high school graduate from Kabul.