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Sunday, September 26, 2021

‘We Truly Have Lost Everything’: A Journey Out of Kabul the Day It Fell


ARLINGTON, Va.  — Nadima Sahar, a 36-year-old Kabul government official, initially resigned. She was determined to stay, no matter how bad things got. She saw hope in Afghanistan’s progress over the last two decades. Perhaps, she reasoned, she could advocate for a more inclusive government that included more women and ethnic minorities.

But, on the day the city was taken over by the Taliban, her friends and family flooded her phone with calls and text messages pleading with her to leave.

When one of her friends informed her that the presidential palace staff had already fled, and that President Ashraf Ghani was also missing, Ms. Sahar decided she needed to leave. She claimed that as a high-ranking government official in education, she was aware that the Taliban would most likely kill or imprison her.

“My heart just sank as soon as I heard that,” Ms. Sahar said. “If the president had left the country, it meant we were truly in a bad situation. We have truly lost everything.”

Ms. Sahar’s 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son had left Kabul three days before with her sister, Sadaf Sultani, who was visiting from the United Kingdom.

Ms. Sultani stated, “My sister was willing to fight until the end.” “However, I had to coerce her into allowing me to take her children.”

Ms. Sahar let them go, believing that it would only be a few weeks before things settled down in Kabul, even as the Taliban advanced toward the city after seizing province after province. The family would take refuge in the living room, which had few windows, on nights when the gunfire and explosions were especially loud.

For Ms. Sahar and thousands of others, fleeing Afghanistan meant leaving behind their only home. Although many were determined to flee in the final days before the US troop withdrawal, risking their lives to get to the airport, others were hesitant to leave, worried about relatives and clinging to the lives they had spent years building.

Ms. Sahar knew it was naive to believe that the situation in Kabul would not worsen. But the prospect of having to leave again terrified her. She’d been through this before: when she was about five years old, she fled to Pakistan during Afghanistan’s civil war.

“I think it was that crippling fear of becoming a refugee again, not knowing what the future holds for you and having to start your life over,” Ms. Sahar said, her hands wrapped around a cup of tea in a friend’s apartment in Virginia, where she has been staying since fleeing. “I guess I just didn’t want to deal with it.”

Only Ms. Sahar and a cousin remained in the four-bedroom apartment on Aug. 15, the day the government collapsed.

She grabbed a backpack around 2:30 p.m. and stuffed it with her documents, wallet, laptop, and scarf. She packed an extra set of clothes, including her favourite piece of clothing, a bright floral-print chapan. Her hands couldn’t stop shaking as she packed.

After hearing that the Taliban had invaded Kabul, the cousins fled on foot. They attempted to take a taxi, but the streets were already clogged, and every driver said it was impossible to drive through the chaos. People were crying and yelling over the phone, and some had begun to rob banks.

They arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport after running for more than an hour and a half, where hundreds of people were waiting. Families, government officials, and well-heeled business executives rushed to the tarmac, desperate for a seat on one of the few flights scheduled to depart that day.

One of Ms. Sahar’s friends reserved her a seat on the last plane to depart for Istanbul. As they attempted to make their way onto the tarmac, word spread that the Taliban had arrived at the gates outside. Ms. Sahar instructed her cousin to leave right away. Ms. Sahar stated that if they were discovered together, the Taliban might kill them both.

Tensions started to rise. One individual assaulted an airport employee who was turning people away at the gate. The workers informed the crowd that all of the flights were overbooked and that none of them would depart.

After trying to move forward for more than five hours, Ms. Sahar began to lose hope. However, Kabir, an airport employee, escorted her through an employee-only door and onto the tarmac. He stated that he did not know her but felt obligated to assist her.

“She was sobbing,” he explained. “She was alone, and no one came to her rescue.”

Kabir asked one of his friends to stay with Ms. Sahar while he looked for a way out. She attempted to board her flight to Istanbul, but flight crew members informed her that the plane was already full and that they were turning people away.

Kabir called about an hour later. He informed his friend and Ms. Sahar that they had five minutes to board a plane in another part of the tarmac. When they arrived, the lights were turned off, according to Ms. Sahar.

They climbed the stairs to the plane, and despite Ms. Sahar’s lack of a ticket, the flight crew let them both on. They were the last two people on the plane.

The flight took off about 20 minutes later. She stated that it was far from full, with every other seat empty. Later, a crew member informed Ms. Sahar that the plane lacked permission to fly and had been chartered to transport the airline owner’s family and friends. She saw no other plane take off that night.

Feelings of guilt, shock, and grief, she said, collided on the flight. But, for the most part, she was numb.

Ms. Sahar was unsure where they were going. After about an hour, she asked the person sitting next to her, who also didn’t know, but they soon discovered that they were on their way to Ukraine.

The passengers were detained for several hours after they arrived. Some of them possessed firearms, and many lacked passports and visas.

Ms. Sahar contacted a few friends and booked a flight to Northern Virginia after being released. She arrived at Dulles International Airport on August 17, just as thousands of Afghan evacuees were expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

She has been staying in a spare room in a friend’s apartment in nearby Arlington since then. Except for a few shirts and pairs of pants her friends bought her, the walls are mostly bare and the closet is nearly empty.

Security guards at her Kabul apartment building, where several government officials resided, informed her that the Taliban had visited four times. Recently, 21 members of the Red Unit, an elite force, arrived. The Taliban has also visited her office three times, leaving messages with her colleagues promising her amnesty if she returned and handed over power to a new head of the education authority she oversaw. However, given the increasing reports of detentions, disappearances, and executions at the hands of the Taliban, Ms. Sahar and many others have grown sceptical.

“I no longer believe in the power of your word,” Ms. Sahar stated.

Ms. Sahar, a permanent resident of the United States, hopes to find work in Virginia. She immigrated to the United States in 2002, after graduating from Roger Williams University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She spent a year in Washington before returning to Afghanistan in 2009.

She has no idea when she will be able to fly her children to America. For the time being, she is applying for jobs and calling her children every night to read them a bedtime storey.

Despite her fears of retaliation, she wishes to return to Afghanistan. She stated that staying in America permanently, despite its security, is not an option.

“It’s like giving up on everything you believe and saying, ‘You know what, do whatever you want with that country,’” Ms. Sahar explained. “I would like to go there to contribute in whatever way I can, even if it means being there as a dissenting voice.”

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