With my phone in hand, I walked up and down the fifth floor of New Broadcasting House, the BBC headquarters in London. It was mid-August and I was trying to get in touch with my sister in Afghanistan. The phone kept ringing but there was no answer – she never misses my calls, even when she’s working.
On the seventh attempt, I heard the noise of the rush hour in Kabul, followed by her: “Guly”, – or “Hi hon”, as we might say in England. “Where have you been?” I asked.
“Baheer and I went to take some more stuff to the pregnant woman in the park I told you about,” she said, apologetically.
Baheer is her colleague, and the pregnant woman in the park had been displaced from one of the northern provinces after the Taliban took control of her city.
“It’s late in the evening. Are you home now?” I asked.
“No, stuck in traffic.”
“Are you dressed appropriately? Have you got your mask on?” I asked her. By “appropriately” I meant conservatively, and my concern about a mask wasn’t for Covid reasons, but to avoid being recognised.
I had every right to be worried because her face is on the billboards across the city: a campaign for women’s rights here, a poster for coexistence and minority rights there, and a striking picture in which she doesn’t have a scarf on and is promoting Afghanistan’s artistic heritage.
“Please don’t go to your place, stay at Wadir’s for the night,” I said. Wadir is our brother.
Afghanistan has been transformed in the past 20 years, albeit in an uneven manner. My sisters, the youngest in particular, have been working in the arts industry since the age of 16 and have lived on their own in one of Kabul’s many newly built apartment blocks.
But 15 August was not the time to be living as a “strong independent woman”. On that day, my sister needed the protection of men because, two decades after they were driven out of power by US-led forces, the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, their forces had entered Kabul and the president had fled the country.
I said a hesitant goodbye to my sister and walked to the old part of Broadcasting House. For some reason, its wartime history made it feel like a welcoming place. I sat on the concrete stairs in the dark, in absolute silence. My heart was racing. I was weeping. The first 10 years of my life flickered in front of my eyes.
I was born in 1989, when the last of the Soviet soldiers had left and the western-backed mujahideen forces were besieging Kabul – desperation, food shortages and an uncertain future were all that Afghans knew. As part of President Najibullah’s security reshuffle my father, who had a public sector role, was transferred to the southern city of Kandahar when I was 18 months old.
At the time, Kabul was divided between Islamist factions – cities were full of armed militias, each loyal to their own leader. Homes were looted, including ours and my aunt’s and uncle’s, and summary executions were carried out. All of that happened away from the public eye and the media.
In fear of their lives, my parents fled Kandahar to take refuge in Helmand, in my aunt’s house. Somehow they escaped mujahideen atrocities. It was only after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul that they returned to Kandahar, starting over. They soon discovered that life under this new regime was unlike anything they had ever known.
I was seven years old and on my first day at school I was met by an old lady guarding the door. “Taliban say girls can’t come in,” she said.
My parents had to find me somewhere to get an education. They talked to family, friends and trusted contacts to try to find an “underground” fee-paying school. Eventually they found one: a husband and wife had converted their family home into classrooms to educate boys and girls like me.
It was short-lived. The Taliban found out, and arrested and imprisoned the couple; on their release they sold everything and left the country. My parents had to start the search again. In the five years that the Taliban were in power I went to three different underground schools, just to be able to read and write.
My mother, a midwife, became an unofficial counsellor in the neighbourhood. Child marriage had rocketed, domestic violence cases went through the roof; young women my mother knew burned themselves to death; and infant malnourishment became commonplace. As for the Taliban, they were busy hosting their mostly Arab and Chechen guests, stoning women for what they called “moral crimes” and terrorising the public about everything that brought joy to life.
Between underground schools, I was a prisoner in my home. I spent time with the few adults I knew. I didn’t have friends. This, and what was happening outside the walls of our family home, had taken a toll on my parents’ mental health and on their relationship. My mother started to withdraw.
As I write these words, there are tens of millions of Afghans living in a similar situation to the one my family found themselves in in the 1990s. On top of that, Afghanistan is facing an impending humanitarian catastrophe.
The international community must not repeat the mistakes of the past. It must engage with the Taliban not just to hold them accountable and pressure them to stand true to their promises, but also to help those already on the brink of destitution. Aid must get through to the poorest, for instance.
If the west and its allies choose to turn their backs on the people living under the Taliban of 2021, then it must be prepared for the refugees who will make their way to the borders and shores of Europe and beyond; the drugs that will flood the streets of European cities; and the possibility that the Taliban will offer safe haven to terror groups with designs on attacking the west.
As these words of my late mother ringing in my ears demonstrate, “if unchecked, extremism coupled with deep-seated misogyny can easily metamorphose into something you cannot control”. As for my sister, she has since managed to leave the country that was our home; she was evacuated at the 11th hour. Last time I spoke to her and asked her how she was feeling she said she was numb and couldn’t feel anything. I think she’s still in shock.