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Taliban forces in Kabul

It was on the morning of 15 August 2021, the day the Taliban seized control of Kabul, that I last saw my rescue dog, Nebo. The Afghan capital’s streets were choked with people desperately trying to access money, stock up on supplies and flee. Nebo lay quietly on my weeping housemate’s floor while packed her bags. I didn’t think it was safe to stay there alone, so I arranged to move into an apartment with a friend. Nebo went to an animal shelter. The idea was to let things settle and then the pair of us would return to the house. There are four animal charities that operate in Kabul and I would often send him to one when I was travelling for work.

A few days after handing him over, the woman running the shelter called and suggested that I put Nebo on an animal evacuation flight she was organising. When the Taliban were last in power, they had strongly disapproved of dogs as pets and I feared what would happen to him. Would I still be able to live in my house and have a garden for Nebo? What if the animal organisations left? How would I find help if he ever got sick?

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Inside Kabul Airport’s domestic terminal

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Taliban fighter on patrol at Kabul Airport

Nebo, named after a mountain in Jordan, found his way into my life at six months old, in Amman. I was only ever meant to be a foster owner but we quickly became inseparable. When I moved to Afghanistan at the end of 2020, there was no question that he would be coming with me. The three-bedroom house I found in Kabul was over budget and far too big but the garden – for Nebo – was the best I’d seen. While I worked on renovating the space, Nebo tried out different snoozing spots. At the time, tension was building across the country. In July last year, I visited government forces in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat as they fought to hold back the Taliban. Then, at the beginning of August, a huge Taliban attack rocked Kabul. Even then, however, no one expected that they would be back in the capital so soon. 

Sending Nebo to my friend at the shelter would mean knowing for sure that he was safe. I thought that I’d be able to make a final decision about what to do when the flight was confirmed. But it turned out that the animals were already at the airport. Then I got the call: he was lost. Sat in the back of my driver’s car, already overwhelmed by the heartbreak and despair I had witnessed over the past few days, I wept. Nebo was just one of 130 dogs that were supposed to have been evacuated on a chartered flight. But the plane never arrived and the US soldiers stationed at the airport got fed up. The woman leading the evacuation was forced to return to her house in Kabul and the soldiers let the dogs loose. 

Access to the airport was impossible while foreign troops were still stationed there and, even if I could have got inside, the tragedy I was en route to report on had to take precedence over Nebo. Ten members from the same family had been killed in a US drone strike that had mistaken its target for an Islamic State car bomber. Among the dead were seven children. At the scene, a child’s finger was held up by a young man searching for body parts in the car’s scorched skeleton. A lost dog paled in comparison. That evening, just before midnight, the last US troops departed Afghanistan. The following morning, press were allowed into the airport. I went with a colleague; while he was working, I ran around the tarmac frantically trying to find Nebo. The place was a mess – huge posters of the deposed president, Ashraf Ghani, had been torn down, wrecked vehicles lay abandoned and the terminals had been gutted. Though Kabul Airport only has one runway, it’s 3.5km long and 50 metres wide, and houses more than a dozen aircraft parking spaces. I found a hangar with empty animal crates and dog-food bags. But the only dogs were three dead ones rotting on the tarmac. 

Over the following months I traversed the perimeter of the airport with friends, spoke to Taliban officials and contacted people working there. I was never allowed back onto the runway. In October, six weeks after Nebo had gone missing, a dog handler at the airport said he’d seen him. His attempts to catch him had been unsuccessful and he said that the dog looked in very bad shape. He wasn’t convinced he would still be alive by now. My heart dropped.

“I had accepted he was gone but I missed Nebo so much; many of my friends have left since the Taliban takeover and it has become a lonely existence”

From time to time, people sent me photographs of similar-looking dogs but they were never Nebo. I had accepted he was gone but missed him so much; many of my friends have left the city since the Taliban takeover and it has become a lonely existence. This August, nearly a year to the day since I had last seen him, a vet called a friend to say that he had found a dog that could be Nebo. Wary of getting my hopes up, he sent her the photos. But she was unsure; only I would truly know. I was sat on my bed when I received the pictures. “Oh my God,” I said. “I think it might be him.” It felt surreal. Half of me was filled with total joy at the thought that he could come home, the other half felt as though I’d let him down for not having found him sooner. 

Our reunion was nothing like the movies. Was this really Nebo? He looked terrible: his fur was dry and dull, he had half an ear and teeth missing, and a broken tail. He didn’t seem so sure of me either. In the car, I kept staring at him; he looked so different and seemed a little wild. But when we got home, I began to see the old Nebo as he smothered me in kisses. Nebo still has a way to go before he’s back to full health and he has developed some new fears during his time living on the streets of Kabul but he’s on a better diet than me, so he’ll get there. Despite my apprehension, the animal charities remain in operation and the neutering programme in Kabul is still going, with the Taliban’s blessing.

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Reunited: Charlie Faulkner and Nebo

It was tricky to walk Nebo on the street even before the Taliban took control; it raises your profile as a foreigner, as few people in this city have dogs as pets. Kidnapping is still a big risk here – it used to be the Taliban but now it could be Islamic State or criminal gangs – so it’s best to keep a low profile. So my guard walks him at dawn, when the streets are empty, and I take him to international organisations’ compounds where he’s free to run around in much bigger spaces with other dogs. 

Afghanistan is a bleak place now. Women’s rights have been severely curtailed, girls are banned from secondary education and the economy is in tatters, with many millions facing starvation. Journalists are under constant surveillance and some foreign correspondents have faced difficulty renewing their visas. Mine runs out in November and I’m worried. So I wait. In a few weeks’ time, Nebo and I will either be looking at another year in Afghanistan or we’ll be planning the next adventure. 

Charlie Faulkner is a reporter for ‘The Times’, based in Afghanistan and a writer for Monocle.

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