Essays

The fall of Kabul

Last flight out of Afghanistan

Shadi Khan
17-May-2022
Afghanistan players in action against Bangladesh at Chattogram  •  AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan players in action against Bangladesh at Chattogram  •  AFP/Getty Images

If you have ever seen a glass object shatter, that is how it felt on August 15 for the long-cherished dreams of so many Afghans. I was among them. Writing these words a few weeks later in a spookily quiet hostel in Islamabad, the capital city of neighbouring Pakistan, I was anxiously awaiting a safe migration onwards to the UK, the European Union or Australia. But my heart and soul remained in Kabul, at the moment everything fell apart.
My dangerous exit from our nation's fallen capital seemed like a never-ending nightmare, as I failed to make sense of all the questions surrounding Afghanistan's collapse - and the return of the Taliban regime, after two decades of international engagement which had witnessed the transformation of the country.
The first clear sign of the impending storm came around noon: loud and terrifying sounds of gunshot fired by guards at a private bank to disperse thousands of panicked customers in downtown Kabul. My local office set off an alarm, and asked all the staff to rush to their homes. The word was that the Taliban were marching on the city. From that moment, it felt as if we were living in a ghost town, in which everyone feared each other, even each other's shadows.
The Taliban had promised not to enter Kabul following the withdrawal of Western troops. But, as I headed home, I passed through many of their checkpoints, and held my breath. I was grappling with many thoughts, about my family, their security and aspirations, my own career as a journalist, and my belief in equal rights, which I knew would be upended by the new regime.
Out of desperation and fear, I had to leave my family behind, since they had no travel documents. They were upset, but they understood. Though I knew little about the mayhem at the airport, I headed there next morning, hoping to take the first available flight out. When I arrived, I saw terrified people climbing walls and scattering to escape beatings by the Taliban. I was convinced there would be much worse to come. It seemed as if men, women and children from across the country wanted to flee such an apocalyptic moment. Holding each other's hands, they were carrying small bags on their back, and broken dreams in their heart.
For me, an immediate escape was not possible. Thanks to the Thomson Reuters Foundation - an organisation I had been associated with for more than two years - and other friends and news outlets, an evacuation plan was formed for a group of journalists. I rushed to nearby accommodation to evade imminent threats to my life and my family. There, I fearfully hid for a week, and made multiple life-threatening attempts to reach the airport, both by day and night, as Taliban fighters pushed us back, firing shots in the air and near our feet.
Finally, on August 22, I received a tip-off that I should be ready to enter the airport at 10am. After a sleepless night, I reached close by, and waited for almost 12 hours. Eventually, the Taliban allowed us access. We were disguised in stained clothes, our faces covered by the traditional scarf. No one realised we were journalists. It felt like an escape from hell. But the moment the plane left the devastated airport, a yearning for my homeland overwhelmed me in tears of hopelessness.
Shadi Khan has written for Wisden on Afghanistan, and had been a journalist there for nearly 15 years.