“It was like a nightmare.”
That is how Tareq Qassemi, a 32-year-old bookseller from Kabul, describes the aftermath of the Taliban’s return to the Afghan capital on Aug. 15, 2021, as U.S. troops departed his country. The United States’ longest war was over, as the last of its soldiers left the country at the end of the month — so was the rule of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. Qassemi and millions of other Afghans found their lives — as he put it — “flipped upside down.”
Soon after, Qassemi started an underground book club for girls in Kabul; the Taliban came after him, and he was forced to flee the country. One year later, Qassemi lives a hand-to-mouth existence in Pakistan. “The nightmare isn’t over,” he told Grid.
To mark the anniversary of the fall of Kabul, Grid spoke to Qassemi and several of his compatriots — from a former public prosecutor now in hiding in Afghanistan to a prominent Afghan artist now living as a refugee in France — as their country struggles through an ever-worsening humanitarian storm.
What emerged is a portrait of a people who, after enduring decades of conflict, are fighting for scraps of dignity and basic goods — or navigating new lives in other countries.
In Afghanistan itself, more than 90 percent of the country’s nearly 40 million people don’t have enough to eat, according to the U.N. In one province — Ghor, in central Afghanistan — around 20,000 people faced famine-like conditions between March and May. A variety of triggers have led to this dire situation — in particular the abrupt withdrawal last year of some $8 billion in international aid and sanctions on the Taliban that, after the group took power, resulted in the country’s banking system being cut off from the outside world. Although the U.S. and others have since taken steps to ensure that restrictions on the Taliban don’t stifle the Afghan economy and hamper the flow of humanitarian assistance, the situation continues to deteriorate.
Over the next year, almost half of all Afghan children under 5, as well as a quarter of all pregnant and breastfeeding women, are at risk of not receiving the nutrition they need. Ayesha, a 31-year-old midwife at a clinic in Kabul, told Grid that one year after the U.S. troop withdrawal, finding food had become a focus for everyone. “My chief concern,” she said, “is starvation. I don’t want to starve to death.”
She is among the few women still able to work, as the Taliban drives an entire gender into the shadows; over the past 12 months, years of progress for women in the workforce and girls’ education have been reversed. Today, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school. The restrictions affect an estimated 1.1 million adolescent girls. Meanwhile, women are now required to cover their faces in public, largely restricted from working outside their homes and required to have a male chaperone on long journeys.
Every area of life has been affected — including a once vibrant media sector. Over the last year, more than 200 outlets have ceased operations, and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Many journalists have fled, among them 27-year-old Zahra Rahimi, a native of the country’s central Bamiyan province, who, like many others Grid spoke to, pointed the finger of blame clearly at Washington: “Americans lost the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we pay the price.”
Rahimi spoke to Grid from her new home in Canada. Others who remain in Afghanistan spoke on the condition of anonymity, and Grid has used pseudonyms amid concerns for the safety of those who dare speak out against the Taliban.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Name: Tareq Qassemi
Occupation until Aug. 15, 2021: bookseller in Kabul
Current location: Pakistan
I was in Kabul the day the Taliban entered the city last year. Our lives flipped upside down overnight. It was like a nightmare, and the nightmare isn’t over. We live in a nightmare. I’ve lost so much over the past one year: I’ve lost my job selling books at a shop in Kabul; I’ve lost friends who had to flee the country. I’ve even lost my identity, I feel.
I didn’t leave immediately, even though I knew that my job as a bookseller, and my previous work as a journalist, might put my life at risk after the Taliban took over. For some time, I tried to remain in Kabul. I even set up with some friends an underground book club for girls in the capital and went back to working as a journalist for a local radio station; I wanted to help push the Taliban to behave differently this time. But the Taliban came after me for helping start the book club. I received several death threats. Ultimately, I had no choice — I had to leave the country earlier this year. I don’t have a valid visa, so I have to keep a low profile in Pakistan; if the police catch me and my wife, who also fled with me, we will face a whole new set of problems. We live on whatever money we can gather from relatives and friends. We have to live day to day; we don’t have any choice in the matter. We have to accept that we are now refugees, all because someone, somewhere far away, made a decision about my country.
There is a lot of blame to go around, but as far as I am concerned, America betrayed us. It betrayed my generation, a generation that had grown up in Afghanistan where there was hope. But last year, the Americans erased all that hope when they sold us out to the Taliban.
Now, there is no hope — no hope for those in the country who are going hungry and for whom Afghanistan has become a prison, and there is no hope for the rest of us to return to our homeland. It is as if it no longer exists. Like I said, this is not a life, it is a nightmare.
Occupation: former part-time assistant at a construction company
Current location: Afghanistan
I was born in Iran, but my family disowned me when they discovered I was gay. I was just finishing high school, and I came to Kabul because I didn’t want to stay in Iran — I thought I would have a better life in Kabul. I had friends here, and I felt safer compared to Iran. That changed last year.
Everything changed. Over the past few years, I had managed to find a job as an assistant in the office of a local construction company. The money I earned from my job helped me pay my fees at a private university. I was hopeful about the future. But then last year, after the Americans left, the owner of the construction company closed his business and left the country. I lost my job, and I had to leave the university. I also had go into hiding because everyone said the Taliban would punish me for being gay.
Thankfully, I had saved a little bit of money, and I have been using that to move around the country. I have to keep changing my location because I don’t want to be arrested or tortured. I’ve heard of others who have been tortured by the Taliban. In Kabul, I no longer have a room of my own. I stay with friends, and when I can’t do that, I sleep on the streets or under a bridge that is frequented by opium addicts. I am not an addict, but I pretend to be one of them just so I can hide there. Most days, I eat only one meal; I need to be careful with my money because I don’t know how long I will have to live like this. Sometimes, I find an odd job, and that helps me earn a little bit more to keep going. Either the hunger will kill me, or if the Taliban find me, they will kill me. I am a dead person walking. To be frank, I don’t feel anything or get worried about anything anymore, things are so bad.
Occupation, until Aug. 15, 2021: public prosecutor in Kabul
Current location: Afghanistan
I was living in Kabul when the Taliban took over, and I remember the moment they entered the city: I was visiting a prison, to see some clients. Everyone rushed out of the building as the news broke — and that included the prisoners.
My home was on the outskirts of the city. As someone who worked for the American-backed government, I knew that my life was at risk, so I left with my family. We didn’t have the option of staying back in Kabul and seeing what might happen; it was clear what would happen to people like me. Over the years, I had prosecuted many people with links to the Taliban. They knew who I was. And now they were in charge. Other prisoners whom I had put in jail were now roaming the streets freely. How could I stay?
Initially, we tried to go to the airport. We wanted to leave the country. But it seemed as if the entire country had the same idea: Everyone was trying to reach the airport. We did actually make it there, but there were no flights for us to get on. We spent a night on the tarmac, and in the morning, after a quick visit home, we left Kabul.
Over the past year, we have lived in three different provinces. We have moved home 12 times. I heard from some friends and relatives that the Taliban came looking for me in Kabul; they even dropped a grenade near my parents’ home.
All we can do now is keep moving. I would like to leave the country, but I don’t know if that will ever be possible; the Taliban are still looking for me. My chief concern is that I don’t want my family to get killed because of me. Just thinking about that possibility drives me crazy. Sometimes I wish I was dead.
I really don’t know who can help me. The American President Joe Biden — he made a decision for his country. It wasn’t about us, or our country. Today, in any case, the world is tired of Afghanistan. They left, and they have forgotten about us.
Name: Rada Akbar
Occupation: artist and photographer
Current location: Paris
I was on my way to a friend’s office to drop off my camera when the Taliban took control of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021. My friend was supposed to leave Kabul for the U.S., and I wanted him to take some of my work out of the country; we didn’t know the Taliban would seize control that day, but it was clear that they were making advances. I wanted to get as much of my work out of the country as possible before they took over. So when I received a call from another friend saying the Taliban were already at the city gates, I couldn’t believe it. I verified the news by calling my brother, who said, yes, it was true. And then I rushed to my place in downtown Kabul and started calling friends to make sure they were OK. Everyone was crying.
I eventually left thanks to the help of the French Embassy. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of chaos, and it took three days, and we had a stopover in Abu Dhabi before we finally made it to Paris.
The transition since has been a difficult one, to start a new life, to begin everything from scratch. It has been hard to carry the pain of our collective loss: the loss of Afghanistan and the achievements that we had made, sacrificing thousands of lives along the way. All of a sudden it is as if the last several years, the gains we made in places like Kabul, never happened. Here in Paris, I have two different lives: the life of an artist and the life of a refugee.
I am extremely grateful to so many people who have helped me. Being a refugee is hard: I have to deal with a system that I don’t know in a country that isn’t mine. I remember when I sat down to do my paperwork to establish myself as a refugee here, I felt humiliated and disrespected. But that is my life now. It is one in which I don’t have all the rights that others take for granted. I can’t, for example, travel outside Europe, and because of that I have had to give up opportunities as an artist.
After everything that has happened, to me, Joe Biden is essentially a disqualified world leader. He has contributed to the misery of the Afghan people in general and Afghan women in particular. In my view, he is responsible for the situation in Afghanistan. He failed to fulfill the commitments made by the American government. They invaded Afghanistan for democratic values, women’s rights and human rights, which don’t exist anymore. History will remember Biden as the one who betrayed everyone, including the Americans who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Occupation, until Aug. 15, 2021: judge in Kabul
Current location: Afghanistan
I didn’t cry when my mother died, but I couldn’t help myself last year, when the Taliban took over. I was — and I remain — scared for the lives of all Afghans. For what we built over the past two decades. I am scared for my three children — my daughter and my two sons — and for the future they now face.
We did try to leave last year, but we couldn’t. The chaos was such that we had to remain. I know I am a target; I was a judge, and I traveled around the country helping build our judicial system, which, like the rest of the country, is now in ruins. Everything is in ruins.
I actually thought everything was over for me a few months after the Taliban took over. They came to my home in Kabul, handcuffed me like a common criminal and took me into custody — for no reason except that I was a judge under the previous regime. For more than a week, they beat me; it was torture. The only reason they didn’t kill me is that my father-in-law is a well known elder in our community. He appealed to the new authorities. It was because of him that I was only tortured, not killed.
Soon after, we felt that we had no choice but to escape — go anywhere, but get out of Kabul, as my life remained at risk. We did what a lot of people who couldn’t fly to Europe or America last year ended up doing: We went across the border to Pakistan. We were there for a few months, but we soon ran out of money; there is no work there for people like us. There are already so many Afghan refugees in what is also a poor country. So we had no choice: We had to return. We would be on the streets in Pakistan.
Here, at least we have our family, our relatives, our friends. My only wish now is for my kids to get out of the country. I will face whatever I have to face. But for my children — especially my daughter — it is important that they leave. It breaks my heart when I see my daughter sitting at home; she can’t go to school, and she has no future. No girl does.
Current location: Kabul
It was a few weeks after the fall of Kabul that a group of Taliban fighters came to our clinic; they said the women — the female doctors, nurses, midwives like myself — could no longer work unless they wore the hijab. That is still the rule.
Unlike so many other women, we are still allowed to work, but we have to cover up; we don’t have a choice. The Taliban, as you know, is everywhere, and they enforce their rules — they go house to house. Last year, they came to our home when my husband was away at work; he is a street vendor. I was resting when someone knocked at the door. It was group of Taliban fighters. They were heavily armed. Ten fighters. They checked everything. They went through our things as I sat outside; you can’t say anything to them. I still don’t know what they were looking for or why they came to our house. But it isn’t just us. Others I know have had the same experience over the past year; they do what they want. It is a way of showing us that they are in charge.
My husband barely makes any money now. We live on what I earn at the clinic. It isn’t much, the equivalent of $50 a month, but it is so much more than everyone else. No one here has work. No one has money. They don’t even have food.
It is not the main worry for everyone. I feel exhausted when I think about what’s happened, but I must continue working. My chief concern is starvation. I don’t want to starve to death.
Name: Zahra Rahimi
Current location: Canada
I left Afghanistan at the end of August last year. For 11 days after the fall of Kabul, I tried to continue working as a journalist in Kabul — but by the end of the month, it was already clear to me that things would only get harder and harder for female journalists. This is the Taliban. They haven’t changed. Soon after they took over, I went out to report on the situation in the city, and when I asked the Taliban commanders about what they had planned, they would turn their backs to me — the reporter — and speak instead to my male cameraman. I knew then that I couldn’t stay.
It took several days of waiting at the airport in Kabul before I could leave. I fled with some colleagues; I couldn’t bring my family. They are still there. Days after I left, the Taliban briefly arrested my father; they accused him of being a Western spy because he is a former military officer. They ultimately let him go, but we don’t know if they will return; we don’t know what they will do next time they come.
After leaving Afghanistan, I initially spent six months in Albania at a camp for refugees, waiting to move to Canada, where I now have a job working for Voice of America. In Albania, all I did during my day was keep track of what was happening back home: calling my family, calling friends to make sure they were safe. Whenever I called — and even now, whenever I speak to her — my sister would cry on the phone because she couldn’t go to school. Our home in Kabul has also been searched by the Taliban, although I can’t tell you why; they are doing whatever they want. There is no one there to stop them or challenge them.
This is the reality: Americans lost the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we pay the price.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.