As the Taliban swiftly approached Kabul, many foreign journalists and photographers were already on their way out of the country. By the time all commercial flights were suspended on 15 August, British journalist Charlie Faulkner had decided to stay on the ground to report. Here she documents the fall of Afghanistan’s capital and the aftermath.
The farewells have started. Departure plans have become the main topic of frantic and emotional conversation at any social gathering in Kabul, followed by strained analysis of when the Taliban are expected to enter the city – a reality many of us foreign journalists presumed would be some while away yet. But the prospect is creeping closer by the day and most of the local and foreign journalists, ngo workers and contractors who can get out are already in the process of doing so.
Afghan friends receive visas and flights to new countries – welcome news that is also laden with heartache and despair. Even though a visa is a ticket out of a life controlled by the much-feared Taliban, people are also forced to leave their homes, their families, their hard-won careers and aspirations to embark on a completely unknown future.
Last night an Afghan friend with dual nationality – it would compromise her safety to name the other country – who is preparing to leave fought back tears as she told me that she was unlikely ever to see her Afghan partner again. She works for the government and the situation is increasingly becoming too dangerous for her to remain in the country.
A male friend who runs his own IT business tells me, with watery eyes, that to leave the country is to lose everything. “I have worked hard for everything I have,” he says. “To become a refugee is to completely lose my identity.”
Just days ago, US intelligence officials had revised their estimate of when the Taliban could take over Kabul from six months to three months. Reports are now coming in that the Taliban have surrounded the capital and will enter within days. For those of us journalists who have decided to remain in the country, it has been a fraught few days, going over our decision again and again.
The streets have been chaotic all week as families fleeing Taliban onslaughts in other provinces have made their way to Kabul in the hope of finding safety. But part of the congestion today is down to the city’s residents making preparations as the militants close in. People are stocking up on food, cash and phone credit.
At midnight my housemate and I have the contents of our medical kits spread out across the living room floor while we go over some basic first aid. We have already stockpiled food and arranged a route to a safer place to stay should full-on warfare embroil the city when the Taliban enter. Two flak jackets and helmets sit propped against the hallway wall.
It is my birthday today – one I’ll never forget but also one that passes with little acknowledgement. Word has come that Taliban fighters are in the city. The streets have descended into chaos as people flee their houses to hunker down with relatives and queues form at atms, as people desperately try to access their life savings.
I fight my way through traffic to buy more Sim cards in case the networks go down. Amid the panic, the birthday messages I start receiving on my phone seem frivolous. My taxi driver – a man I see on a near daily basis, who helped me when I needed to buy a new oven, translated for me with a tailor when I wanted sofa cushions made and always asks after me if he hasn’t seen me for a few days – breaks down and cries. His boss has fled the country this morning, the company could close within days and he is still owed his paycheque. “I’m so worried about my family,” he says. “The only way I can earn money to take care of my family is to join the Taliban. What should I do?”
And then it happens: the Taliban march in. Reports say that the president, Ashraf Ghani, has fled the country. An eerie quiet falls over Kabul by afternoon as residents sit at home, waiting for news. Colleagues traverse the city and report the sight of a dead body of a suspected Talib in the road next to an abandoned police vehicle.
The tense quiet in the city remains. Shops are still closed and the streets are virtually empty. I venture out and meet a family standing at the side of the road with suitcases, waiting for a taxi home. They stayed with relatives the previous evening having anticipated violence erupting on the streets when the Taliban arrived. One of the daughters carries a plastic bag containing burqas. “Just in case,” says her mother.
Jubilant Taliban fighters move through the city; a deserted police checkpoint is decorated with a Taliban flag. The entrances to the Green Zone are now patrolled by bearded Talibs with rifles slung over their shoulders.
There have been reports of pandemonium at Kabul’s airport since Sunday evening as thousands of people try to get onto evacuation flights. A film-maker colleague and I head to the airport, hoping to get into the terminal. The area is bedlam, flooded with people and vehicles, horns beeping. Automatic weapons are being fired indiscriminately by Taliban fighters in an attempt to control the crowds, while whips and plastic pipes are being used to beat back anyone who tries to push their way to the entrance. “Please take us with you; please, we beg you,” says one woman. We explain gently that we are journalists at work, we aren’t catching a flight.
We are granted permission to enter through the main gate after our Afghan government-issued press cards are scrutinised and our bags and cameras checked. We spend the next two hours waiting on the internal airport road, having been instructed to take a seat in a dilapidated wheelchair and an abandoned office chair.
It is initially nerve-wracking getting inside; this is our first exchange with Taliban fighters since they took control of the city. Our interactions with the men who pass us are different every time: some Talibs are intrigued; some want to help; others tell us “foreigners” to go back to our own country. One fighter tells me to cover my face despite the fact I am wearing a hijab and abaya (a loose, long-sleeved robe). Another asks my colleague if he is a Muslim – he isn’t – before requesting that he recite the Qur’an; he dictates sentences which my friend then has to repeat.
That evening the Taliban holds its first press conference in Kabul and the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, reveals his face publicly for the first time. Assurances are given that women will be guaranteed their rights – within the framework of Sharia law.
Friends have now spent days at the airport or stuck in various embassies. The situation at the airport continues to deteriorate. My phone is a constant buzz of activity: messages from Afghans pleading for help and group chats trying to share information on how to get people out. Walking towards the airport, wearing a bright blue backpack, is 14-year-old Arfan, who tells me that his family has already left the country. “My younger brother and I were staying with my aunt in Parwan but my parents and siblings were in Kabul,” he says. “When the Taliban came to the city they closed the road so I couldn’t get to them.” He holds up his phone to show me a photograph of his brothers inside the airport that was sent earlier in the week. Arfan says that he hasn’t heard from them since.
The atmosphere in the city shifted a little after the press conference. The fighters who had previously been wary of the press are now a lot more open to speaking to me and I spend a couple of days interviewing them. But having heard stories from colleagues about receiving beatings while out in the field, every approach is made with bated breath.
“The only way I can earn money to take care of my family is to join the Taliban. What should I do?”
Some interactions are mundane. One fighter wearing orange leather sandals tells me about the small stick-like object in his breast pocket. “This is a meswak,” he says. “There was a Western man who had a big problem with his teeth. Muslim people had been using the meswak stick for a long time so they told him he should use it to clean his teeth. He followed their advice and the problem went away. After this, the man converted to Islam.”
Another fighter tells me that it’s no problem for foreigners to be in the country so long as they dress conservatively. He then tells me to pull my headscarf lower over my face.
There have been whispers of a resistance effort stirring: three districts in Baghlan have been removed from Taliban control by anti-Taliban fighters. Resistance efforts have long been found in the breathtaking Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul, home to Ahmad Shah Massoud who was a leader of the Northern Alliance, which is now the heartland of the National Resistance Front led by his son against the Taliban. I head there to interview fighters.
I meet a group on the last outpost before the valley ends and becomes Taliban territory. It’s after dark and the only indications of life are torch lights on the hillside; rushing river water and chirping crickets are the only sounds keeping the men company.
They invite me to share dinner with them inside a police guard hut. We sit together on the floor and use our hands to eat rice and tomatoes with a little bit of chopped chilli. They speak with passion about how they are prepared to fight until their last breath to save their freedoms and their country; the older men tell tales about their war wounds from previous fights.
Back in Kabul, entry into the airport remains almost impossible. Seven people were reportedly crushed trying to enter the airport at the weekend and thousands are camped at the two military entrance gates. People have waded into the filthy sewage water around the perimeter in a bid to get in.
A routine has emerged for many: every day hours are spent collating information, organising documents, contacting organisations who are failing to help their Afghan staff, contacting embassies and being on the other end of the phone for people at the airport. It’s relentless and heartbreaking.
Yesterday a journalist friend got a call from the UK authorities to say he had a spot on a flight. But he doesn’t live in Kabul, so he and his family – his wife and four young children – raced through the night to reach the capital. They’ve spent all day at the gate and it doesn’t look like they will be entering any time soon. He is frantic. They have UK visas. I contact the British Embassy spokesman but after a couple of messages to clarify which gate they were at he just stopped replying. “It’s really terrible here,” my friend tells me. “There are so many people and I’m terrified that I’ll lose my children.”
I visit a bus station on the west of the city. People waiting for buses tell me that they plan to travel to Iran: it’s their last hope of escaping Taliban rule and a dire economic situation. Many have ambitions of reaching Turkey. All are paying smugglers to get them across the border, ranging from 20,000 to 35,000 afghani (€195 to €340). Twenty-year-old Abdul Fazel is travelling with nine friends, all about the same age. They hope to find work in Iran. If they can’t, they will head to Turkey. “I’m worried that the Taliban being in control will lead to more conflict and violence,” he says. “Everybody is trying to leave the country because of the economic crisis. There will be nobody left.”
Dreams lie in tatters today. The city was rocked by a huge suicide attack outside a main gate at the airport last night, killing 170 and wounding 200 more. I spent the night at hospitals speaking with patients and their families. In one intensive care unit, a man in his thirties suffering from a severe head trauma writhes in pain; bloodstains cover his clothes. The doctor says that he is unlikely to survive.
In the morning, I visit a cemetery where funerals of the victims are already taking place. At Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital morgue, a man angrily bellows that US soldiers killed his relative, who is now lying dead in the coffin they are carrying to a car. “The American soldiers did this!” he says. “They shot him dead. They’ve done this and they’ve shot many others.”
Medical staff at the morgue say they have 146 bodies, many of which have been shot by M4 rifle bullets. But given that Americans have not been the only ones using M4s in Afghanistan in recent weeks, it is difficult to verify exactly who shot the victims.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen a dead body. The man in the coffin is wrapped in a white cloth with only his face showing. Another body is pulled from the refrigerator unit; the skull has been blown off. It is the strong smell – like that of disinfectant – that rattles me the most. It sticks to my clothes for the rest of the day and every new waft of the scent is a reminder of what I’ve seen.
Friends outside the country keep asking how I’m doing. There isn’t really time to process the monumental changes, to think about the fact that almost everyone I knew here – Afghan and international – is now gone or to mull over the pain witnessed. There’s no time to consider whether or not I feel scared. There is barely enough time to sleep. I can’t remember the last time I ate a proper vegetable. Tinned olives on the top of a pizza the other night are as close as I’ve come.
But today I experience a jolting moment that pierces through the numbness. A friend has been the person on the ground responsible for getting 200 people to the airport and onto an evacuation flight made possible by the German organisation Luftbrücke Kabul. The group, spread across five coaches, has been trying to get into the airport for nearly three days and this evening is their last chance. I head to the meeting point to offer moral support for my friend, who has barely slept or eaten the entire time.
By this point, those on the list know the drill and although it would be hard to describe the situation as calm, it is significantly less chaotic than previous evenings. My friend has shown me videos of hundreds of people trying to force their way onto the coaches. People still plead to be let on, carrying the few possessions they hope to take with them from the home they now fear so deeply. But the desperate and violent scenes from two days ago are not the case this evening.
Another friend of mine is on the bus – an inspirational woman who has lost everything due to the Taliban takeover. To see her in this situation is very difficult. But it is the sight of a taxi driver that delivers a shattering jolt. He is another driver that I’ve come to trust absolutely, which is extremely important here given the high crime rate and other dangers we’ve needed to take into consideration, such as kidnapping. To see him among this crowd of people trying to leave knocks the wind out of me. Caught up in the bizarreness of the moment, we move to hug before stopping, realising that it would be inappropriate; in truth we barely know each other.
Every single part of the country’s society is fleeing. There has been a lot of talk of intellectuals, journalists and members of civil society leaving but here in front of me stands a taxi driver, who is so void of hope for what was going to happen to his beloved country that even he is getting out. It is at this moment when I realise that the Afghanistan I knew is gone.
There were reports of a rocket attack in Kabul last night. A house near the airport was targeted. We’ve since learned that it was a US drone strike and that the target was, allegedly, an Isis suicide bomber. I visit the house and as soon as I step out of the car I am met by the sight of a distraught man hobbling down the road, his feet in bandages. His name is Romal Ahmadi and, weeping, he tells me that he has lost all three of his young children. The drone strike hit a car in his family’s garden; 10 family members were killed, seven of whom were children.
“I was inside the house with my wife when it happened,” says Ahmadi. “My brother had returned home from work so some of the children jumped into the car – it’s just a silly thing we do, they like to drive the car in the garden. My brother had got out of the driver’s seat and my 10-year-old nephew Farzad was driving.”
The gate to the premises has been blown off. Inside, the garden is teeming with friends and relatives who have come to pay their respects. One man sits within the blackened wreckage of the car. Wearing a pink rubber glove, he searches for body parts. He holds up the end of a child’s finger, adding it to the plastic bag of other human remains.
A man sobs from inside the house. The blown-out glass windows offer little privacy. A neighbour, retired police officer Abdul Khalil, says that he had run to the roof of his house after hearing the explosion. “They were good people,” he says. “There are no terrorists here. What do you think – that these children are terrorists?”
Before I arrived at the desolate scene, I had received a tough phonecall. A charity had been attempting to fly 130 dogs – former service animals, rescues being rehomed and dearly loved pets – out of Afghanistan. My dog was among them. The caller told me that the animals and the woman on the ground facilitating the relocation had been stuck at the airport for several days and that the flight never happened. Instead, US soldiers had released the animals that hadn’t been former service dogs onto the airfield and the woman who was with them had been forced to vacate the premises.
My incredibly handsome dog, Nebo, is named after a mountain in Jordan. I chose the name because that was the country where we found one another. He is a rescue and totally crazy but also completely hilarious and unbelievably loving. After the phonecall, I cry in the back of the car. The airport is huge and dangerous, and access will be impossible. I’m acutely aware of the privileged position I was in to have had the chance to get him out of Afghanistan when so many human beings fearing for their lives haven’t been able to; but it was an opportunity I was offered and I just wanted to ensure that he was safe. He has been my best friend for the past two-and-a-half years. The thought of losing him is devastating.
The skies were busy yesterday amid reports that the US military would hand over Kabul Airport to the Taliban. They did and the final flight took off one minute before midnight. Celebratory gunfire erupted across the city.
Along with other members of the press, I go to inspect the facility and see the remnants of people’s desperate escape to flee: fake documentation; a bent metal staircase that hundreds had climbed in their attempt to get on a plane; belongings spilling out of abandoned suitcases.
The remaining aircraft have been disabled, rubbish litters every corner and the terminals are ransacked. Vehicles in the carpark have had their tyres slashed; in some cases they have been turned onto their sides. An aggressive Talib asks my colleague and I where we are from, furiously accusing the Americans of the extensive damage of the facility. Although it is likely that the soldiers had a hand in the destruction, there were reports of looting in the first couple of days, when staff fled the airport and security collapsed.
Taliban fighters whizz around the airfield in US-made military vehicles. In one of the hangars, some of the men start hitting and throwing wooden stands that were used to hold protective gear, with some resemblance to the shape of a cross; they believe that the stands are related to Christianity. I search for Nebo while I am there but the airport is huge. I find the hangar where the dogs had been let go and call out his name – but there is no sign of him.
Last night I was sitting in my friend’s apartment just before 22.00 when gunfire erupted across the city: red tracer bullets were flying through the air all over Kabul. Every so often a red flare was launched. It was celebratory but no one knows what was being celebrated. There are rumours that the Taliban have taken some areas of the Panjshir Valley but there is no official confirmation. Other reports suggest that it is in response to Taliban leaders entering the capital. The cacophony lasts for about 30 minutes. At least two were killed and several others were wounded in the gunfire.
Journalists gather; there are a surprising number of us. Some tell of their escapades getting into the country via road, while others talk of colleagues stuck on the border trying to get out. There are sombre conversations about the future of Panjshir and the fate of the leaders there, Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh. We talk about whether we can continue our work in the coming weeks, especially the women. None of us who’ve stayed know what our plan is. Like everyone else, it feels as though we’re all just waiting to see what Afghanistan will be like with a Taliban government.
About the writer: British journalist and photographer Faulkner has been based in Kabul since 2020. She was previously centred in Amman and Istanbul, and has reported from Iraq, Hong Kong, Greece, Palestine and Israel.
Images: Getty Images