From the moment you step out of your home, the fear is palpable. On the crowded streets of Kabul people gather in huddles, just one question on their lips: ‘When will they get here?’
The answer could be all too soon: as I write, Taliban forces — the ‘they’ to which everyone refers — are just 50 miles from my home city, heading determinedly towards the capital they are resolved will be under their control within days.
And they are right to be confident. One Afghan region after another — including half of the country’s 34 provincial capitals — has fallen to this violent and bloody regime and its brutal ‘laws’ with terrifying speed.
An Afghan judge hits a woman with a whip in front of a crowd in Ghor province, Afghanistan August 31, 2015
Afghan member of parliament, Shukria Barakzai, lies in her hospital bed after having survived an attack by a suicide assassin in Kabul, Afghanistan, 22 November 2014
Every day we wake to yet more grim news. Yesterday morning we learned the Taliban had captured the strategically important trade hub of Kandahar 100 miles from Kabul; by the afternoon, they had taken Pol-e-Alam, a mere 50 miles from the capital.
By the time you read this who knows what else may have come to pass?
Hundreds of civilians have already been slaughtered, while stories of horror are legion — some so appalling as to barely be believed.
The gouging of a woman’s eyes in front of her terrified family; girls as young as 12 wrenched from the arms of their weeping mothers to become sex slaves for Taliban ‘warriors’; men punished or even killed for ‘offences’ as simple as listening to the ‘wrong’ music, or for daring to be ‘educated’.
Such incidents are not new, of course, but petrifyingly familiar in the history of my country, where the suffering of its people has long been burned into the scorched earth.
Now another bloody chapter is unfolding across this ancient and troubled land.
In Kabul, the city where I have spent so much of my life, the streets are heaving not only with anxious locals, but with tens of thousands of refugees who have poured in from the regions in a desperate attempt to save themselves from the Taliban’s advance.
Many have arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs and are now camped out in parks, in empty warehouses and on the outskirts of the city. They have no water, no food and no sanitation.
This is a city gripped by fear and uncertainty — as well as a bewilderment at the way history is repeating itself in the most devastating of ways.
In a matter of weeks, 20 years of hard-won rights following the Taliban’s defeat by Coalition Forces in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, has been wiped out.
It is almost unbearable for me, a reminder of the fragility of the improvements gained and reinstatement of our rights — those of women, in particular.
Back in the early 1990s, women were largely treated as equals in Afghan society. In the cities — which had been opened up to the modern world — women were educated, pursued careers as well as family life and we made our contribution to society.
As a young woman, I attended Kabul University to study physics and I had my sights set on a career as a writer. Back then, politics seemed to belong to others.
Mounting violence between the moderate Afghan government and the guerrilla warfare of the Mujahideen — the Islamic fighters who had resisted the Soviet occupation and triumphed in the decade-long war — put paid to both that notion and my studies.
Afghan women and men walk past female election candidate Shukria Barakzai’s campaign billboard in Kabul
Internally displaced Afghan women, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, gather to receive free food being distributed by Shiite men at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul on August 13, 2021
I watched with horror as the Taliban, whose founders were drawn from the Mujahideen, took over swathes of the country, bringing oppression and chaos in their wake with their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture.
Far worse was to come. In September 1996, the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan.
Everyone faced draconian restrictions, but it was women who paid the heaviest price: brutalised and marginalised, one by one our rights — to education, to a job, to a social presence — were all but eliminated.
We were not allowed to work outside the home, had to conceal ourselves in a burqa whenever we dared to leave the house and be accompanied by a male relative.
In many ways, we were little more than chattels.
Many of the educated middle-classes fled Afghanistan to pursue a life in exile, but I chose not to join them.
I stayed and was determined to do my bit, running secret schools and trying to promote hope for the future where only fear and sorrow lay. I had to fight in the only way I knew against the injustices all around me.
I was beaten in the streets and arrested three times, but I survived, placing my faith in the international community which, I felt sure, would support us.
It took five years but, in 2001, air strikes by joint U.S. and UK military forces swiftly followed by fierce fighting on the ground forced the Taliban into retreat.
What followed was two decades of tireless struggle and sacrifice to reclaim a significant portion of our rights — rights for which I fought first as MP for Kabul, helping to draft Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution, and by founding Aina-e-Zan, a weekly newspaper which championed the voices of women.
That struggle paid off. A new generation of Afghan women returned to schools, universities and the workplace, growing up in a culture of freedom and at liberty to dream and choose the life they wish.
Those dreams are evaporating. Today, schools and universities are closing one by one as the Taliban move their fight from rural to urban areas with dizzying pace, from Kandahar in the south to Faryab and Badakhshan in the north.
Right now, two thirds of Afghanistan is under Taliban control — a control that is even more merciless and violent than in the past, its insurgent ranks fuelled by a host of other international terrorist networks, from Isis extremists and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Chechen and Uighur guerrillas.
Armed with Humvees, rockets and a host of powerful machine guns, today’s fighters are better equipped than their predecessors and have better technology at their fingertips.
They feel the momentum is with them — a momentum that has been building with frightening rapidity since the dawn of this year — and it is easy to understand why.
Even before the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops was confirmed by President Joe Biden in April, the signs were ominous.
I felt chilled to the bone when, in mid-January, I woke to the news that two female judges working for the Afghan Supreme Court had been shot dead in Kabul, ambushed by unidentified gunmen as they walked to work on a Sunday morning.
Bombings followed, including a girls’ school, a horrifying sign of things to come, for since then the stories emerging from across the land are ever bloodier and more stomach-churning.
In the provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni, in southern Afghanistan, newly empowered Taliban recruits are taking the opportunity to enact revenge for ancient grievances.
In Malistan, Ghazni, one group cut out a woman’s eyes in front of her husband and children, before slaughtering her for a ‘crime’ that was never revealed.
In northern Afghanistan, Jihadist commanders are ordering imams to bring them lists of unmarried women and girls aged 12 to 45. They are viewed as qhanimat — spoils of war to be divided up among the victors.
In some villages, Taliban recruits are going door-to-door looking for young girls to marry against their will, forcing them into a life of sexual servitude. So determined are they that no virgin will escape their clutches that they check drawers, wardrobes and even suitcases in homes where desperate mothers deny they have young daughters to ensure they are telling the truth.
Women are not required to wear full face covering under the Afghani government, as they were under the Taliban, though many still do
It is the stuff of nightmares — and nor do men escape this pitiless inhumanity. In Urozgan province, the only man with a master’s degree, a gentle engineer, was shot simply because he was the most educated person in his city.
In Herat province, another man was assassinated by the Taliban in his car for the ‘crime’ of being a government employee — and therefore an ‘enemy’.
This week, a man was forced to walk barefoot in the baking sun until he lost consciousness, after he was caught listening to pop music rather than recitations of Islamic scripture.
Little wonder people have fled to Kabul, descending in ever larger numbers on the capital each day with their meagre clutch of possessions. Abandoning their cars on the outskirts of the city, entire multi-generational families have erected makeshift camps.
Many sleep on the streets or in local parks, seeking whatever shade they can from the unforgiving summer heat. Earlier this week, one woman gave birth outdoors with nothing more than her headscarf to protect her modesty.
Last night, I visited one camp, taking bags of clothes from my home, and wept as I heard their stories of displacement.
These people have nothing: no food, no water and no sanitation, so disease beckons.
The Afghan government is doing its best to marshal relief efforts, but the reality is Kabul is not equipped to deal with thousands of displaced civilians — even without the spectre of the Taliban forces almost visible on the horizon.
So a siege mentality pervades. While the U.S. and UK send in troops to help evacuate their citizens, the rest of us can only await our fate. There is nowhere for us to go.
We are all scared, and I have particular reason to be. As an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights, I know that I am a target who has featured near the top of the Taliban’s assassination wish list for many years.
There have been several attempts on my life in recent years, even during the ‘peace’ that followed the Coalition victory over the Taliban.
In 2003, when I was helping to draft the constitution, I narrowly missed being caught in a nitrate bomb explosion, timed to go off as I left our parliament.
I had changed my schedule at the last minute that day, so it exploded hours after I had left, but it was frightening proof of their deadly intent.
I have been on my guard ever since, varying my routine and keeping only a tiny trusted few abreast of my plans.
Stranded people cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021
But you cannot live life in a vacuum, and, on a beautiful sunny morning in November 2014, my car was the target of a suicide bomber as I made my way in convoy to parliament.
The last thing I remember is talking on my mobile with friends, making plans for dinner that night — and being aware of a red car approaching from the side.
I later learned that that car rammed into the side of the armoured vehicle I was in, before the driver detonated explosives which would reduce my car to a near-burnt-out shell.
But, at the time, when I opened my eyes, I didn’t even know whether I was dead or alive. The first thing I was conscious of was my driver weeping. It was a miracle that either of us survived, the car a mangled heap of metal.
I spent three months in hospital and suffered injuries all over my body, the effects of which linger to this day, affecting my balance. But I was lucky. Three civilians standing nearby when the bomb was detonated lost their lives that day, while many others were wounded.
I know I remain a target, an outspoken troublemaker whom the Taliban would love to make an example of. Fear runs through every single vein in my body. In truth, I don’t know how long I will survive when — and it feels like when not if — the Taliban get here.
But I also know I cannot leave. I am a single mother to five children — twin boys aged ten, and daughters aged 23, 19 and 17. I have a responsibility for the country they inherit. If people like me leave, then who will fight back?
Nor am I the only person at risk: every single Afghan who opposes the Taliban and their vile creed is endangered.
We are paying the price of Western hypocrisy and abandonment. Last year, countries rolled out the red carpet for the Taliban at the so-called ‘peace talks’ in the Qatari capital Doha.
In this picture taken on August 13, 2021, a Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city, after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege
But any hint of negotiation was a charade on their part, an empty PR gesture to pacify the West and create the conditions for the Coalition’s complete withdrawal — and it worked. On the ground, a lack of leadership and politicking has left Afghans facing the bleakest of circumstances.
I hope the world is watching, and I hope that it feels ashamed. Biden’s decision to pull out of the country was utterly irresponsible — not only for Afghans, but for the Western allies it will come back to haunt. Shame on them for playing with our lives and human rights
Even so, I refuse to let go of hope. It is the quality that my own mother always clung to in the desire for a better future for her daughter, and which I now share with my own children.
It means that even as the armoured cars roll towards Kabul, I am trying to place my faith in the resilience of this land and its brave and benighted people.
No matter how dark the clouds are, I am looking at the end of the night and sunrise beyond.
n Shukria Barakzai is a women’s rights activist and a former Kabul MP who has also served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Norway.