I arrived in Afghanistan as the Taliban was advancing on the capital at an incredible pace.
A hired driver named Massoud picked me up at the Kabul airport on Aug. 14. We dropped my bags at a guesthouse and headed out to parks to interview Afghans who had fled fighting between government forces and the Taliban in the provinces. Men and women tugged at my shirt, grabbed my arm, held my hands. They wanted somebody to help them. As night fell over a makeshift camp, scared voices whispered over sleeping children.
Although I had landed only hours earlier, I realized I would be telling the story of a nation’s swift fall. It seems predictable in retrospect — the Taliban was tougher and more resolute than the American-backed Afghan forces. It controlled swaths of the country; it capitalized on fear. But it was still a startling reversal of fortune. The wisdom in early August was that it would take months for the Taliban to win. It took days. These are moments I witnessed from the inside as America’s longest war came to an end.
Confusion swept Kabul. Massoud quit on me. He was frightened and needed to stay with his family. Town after town had already succumbed. And now the Taliban was entering the capital. I paired up with British journalist Suddaf Chaudry. We climbed into a taxi to navigate the day’s turmoil. Traffic and agitated nerves, people arguing, pointing fingers. Chaos. Afghan government soldiers — trained and funded by the U.S. — were in retreat.
A woman named Shakila Sarwari told me: “Today will be the end of our life.” I rushed to the Pakistani Embassy to secure a visa for an emergency exit. I, too, was trapped, and I had become one with the uncertainty around me. Reporters working for other Western news organizations were evacuating. One of them told me I should leave. I decided to stay. I wanted to know what would happen.
Cell towers were down. My company-issued phone stopped working. Stores shuttered in panic. I couldn’t purchase a local SIM card. I relied on strangers to let me use their Wi-Fi hotspot to send short messages to colleagues. As I was photographing the traffic and the madness, soldiers with guns drawn accosted me and tried to drag me across the street. They were terrified, but once they saw I was a foreign journalist they let me go and chased me away.
I headed to the top of Wazir Akbar Khan hill, where a large Afghanistan flag waved. I came upon Afghan soldiers at a guard post. One of them looked over the lights sparkling across Kabul. The American Embassy — its staff gone — sat empty in the distance. He sensed what was coming: “This is like a quick death,” he said. He had been a soldier for 10 years, but in the morning he would strip off his uniform and flee to his village in Badakhshan province.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had escaped the capital. Government soldiers melted away. The Taliban was hours into its new rule. Its fighters flew black-and-white flags. They swarmed every intersection. Their eyes were bloodshot. Some sat in chairs, wielding various weapons. One of the fighters balanced a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his two fingers as he passed time guarding an empty street. Another had a large, heavy machine gun with fewer than a dozen bullets. Others piled into the backs of pickups, making victory laps around the city.
Sun scorched the roads. The Taliban replaced the guards at the United Nations mission. Taliban fighters roamed outside the gates of our guesthouse. I was worried about our safety if they came knocking. Stores were still shuttered from the day before. No one knew what to do. No women were in sight that morning. They understood. Many of them remembered two decades earlier when the Taliban first ruled with brutality and an extremist interpretation of Islam. It was happening again.
Images of unveiled women wearing extended eyelashes and mascara were removed from beauty salons in one neighborhood. I asked a Taliban commander — he carried a large gold watch — if I could photograph him and his men. “There is no permission for photos.” He smiled. “Have a nice day.”
Our taxi zigzagged past cars toward the airport. Gunfire rattled. People started running away from the airport. My journalist companion and I didn’t have our body armor with us. We decided not to take a risk. We turned around, and later that evening I went to a Taliban-staged event on the outskirts of Kabul. Taliban fighters were showing off the military hardware they had captured, preparing a convoy, as if an unimaginable parade, to the center of the city. The fighters had never spoken to a journalist before. They didn’t know about Los Angeles or California. One of them asked: “Is that America?”
I found a new driver. Zabi was tall and calm. We traveled toward the airport, where thousands of Afghans were amassing, hoping to be evacuated by U.S. military transport planes. Big and lumbering, the planes landed and lifted for hours on end, ferrying the dispossessed to uncertain lives in other lands. It was a scene of hope and failure. The Taliban had won. I needed to get there and tell the story.
Families waited outside the blast walls and barbed wire surrounding the airport. The Taliban fighters beat back the crowd with sticks, rubber hoses, knotted ropes and rifle butts. They fired into the sky, and sometimes pointed toward the crowd. I tried to take a picture of a Taliban fighter aiming a gun at a civilian. I felt the sting of a whip on my leg. The sound of gunfire kept popping. It came closer.
A mother and child lay covered in blood on the street. A few men in the crowd pulled them to safety. I ran toward them. An elderly man in a bloodstained sport jacket carried a limp child whose eyes had rolled back. Another child shrieked. People sobbed. Men loaded the wounded mother and the children into a yellow Toyota Corolla taxi that sped away.
I sat alone that night at my computer reviewing those images. Moments that move fast and slow and find a place inside you. I had been told by my photojournalism mentors that the most painful pictures stay stamped in memory. A strange scrapbook, perhaps. I went to search for the wounded mother and her child. No luck. I wonder now if they survived, if they ever escaped, found passage on a big, gray plane bound for far away.
I would return to the airport road for days with Zabi and Times correspondent Nabih Bulos. Thousands of Afghans — some wearing their best clothes and shoes — were desperate to get out. They traversed sewer-flooded streets and carried all they owned. They endured constant gunfire and countless humiliations, futilely waving documents in the air, but somehow not letting go of their dignity.
A suicide bomber from the terrorist group ISIS-K struck Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate entrance. The blast ripped through crowds of Afghans and foreign nationals. At least 170 civilians were killed in addition to 13 U.S. service personnel, and at least 200 people were wounded. Nabih and I had stood at that gate just 24 hours before. When we arrived after the bombing, two boys, illuminated in the darkness by the headlamps of passing cars, embraced each other and sobbed in a parking lot as scores of dead and wounded were carried to Wazir Akbar Khan hospital.
The dangers weren’t just from the Taliban. Afghanistan’s fall had opened opportunities for other terrorist groups and opportunists. I tweeted that night: “The cacophony of Kabul after tonight’s horrific bombings: The roar of jet engines. Whirling rotor blades. Sporadic gun fire at different volumes. Hum of the generator. The buzz of the mosquitoes. And the silence of the darkness.”
A U.S. drone strike west of the Kabul airport killed 10 members of Emal Ahmadi’s family, including seven children. The attack was in retaliation for the ISIS-K bombing, but it mistakenly took innocents. Emal’s brother Zemari was killed. Emal looked at me with tears in his eyes. I grabbed his hand and apologized. It was a useless gesture, but I didn’t know what else to do, and it had come after so many days of death.
I looked around at the wreckage. The family car battered and blackened. I asked for a shovel. I dug and recovered an orange object later identified as the pneumatic accumulator, part of a U.S. Hellfire missile. We were the first ones to find it. I saw firsthand what gets explained away in news conferences, where official stories often reshape reality.
The funeral for the Ahmadis came quickly. The Afghan custom is for burials to take place within 24 hours. No women are allowed.
More than 200 men and boys attended. They stood in rows, faced Kabul’s airport and folded their arms to pray. I knelt near a coffin. I wanted to keep small, to not interfere with the mourning, but to tell the story. Jet fighters circled overhead, and at once, as if on cue, the mourners looked up. The sky was clear and blue, but the sounds of jet engines drowned out the wails and sobs until the men around the freshly dug graves finished their work and returned to their homes for another night of worry.
The U.S. would call the drone strike a “tragic mistake.” But the Pentagon decided no American troops would be punished. Emal Ahmadi would wonder how it could be that a family could die and no one be held accountable. I would visit Emal weeks later. The charred remains of the car were still in the family compound. The house was quiet.
Overnight, the last American C-17 took off from the Kabul airport, ending the United States’ two decades in Afghanistan. A Taliban fighter lifted his smartphone to the sky to take a picture. The Americans were gone, and Nabih and I followed Taliban fighters into the airport. They claimed weapons, supplies, aircraft — all the equipment the U.S. had supplied to the Afghan government.
Gunfire and chants echoed through the darkness. To say it was surreal is an understatement. Many Taliban fighters hailed from the provinces. They had little if any education. They wore sneakers. They forbade music and art. Yet here they were celebrating the departure of their enemy, the most powerful, technologically advanced military in the world.
The Taliban was in control. The Afghan economy was reeling. Western aid was evaporating. Protests were rising. Taliban members — for a time — attempted to convince the world they had changed in the 20 years since they last ruled the country. They would not rule with the same harsh hand. Their holy men spoke from the mosques, their fighters took over the presidential palace.
The group installed an all-male government, and its instincts were stronger than its public relations skills. Women and other demonstrators held a rally for civil rights. We went to cover it at the border between the Kart-e-Seh and Kart-e-Char neighborhoods. The militants did not want any media coverage. One of them raised his hand to hit me — I had been roughed up two weeks earlier by other Taliban fighters who beat me to the ground — but another fighter stopped him once he realized I was a foreigner.
That doesn’t compare to the brutality Afghan journalists endure. Reporters for the Etilaatroz newspaper, Nemat Naqdi, 28, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, were tortured in Taliban custody. They were kicked, whipped, struck with rifle butts. I met with them that evening. They removed their clothes and showed me their injuries. Their backs red and blue, still raw, as if angry maps had been painted upon them. They understood why I was there; they knew, no matter how dangerous to them, what this moment meant.
I took their pictures and sent them into the world.
It was the people who were left behind — the women especially — I thought about most. What would happen to them? Would the freedoms they enjoyed under American occupation be replaced with burqas and classrooms from which they would be barred? Would they be silenced? Many went into hiding. I met women who would lead me to others, and soon I entered a closed network, moving from house to house, careful not to catch the eye of Taliban fighters.
I met Sakina, a 21-year-old entrepreneur. I surreptitiously met Lida, a 27-year-old former policewoman, badly burned by a roadside bomb years earlier. She broke her SIM cards to avoid detection. It was like a scene out of a movie, but she was there in front of me, real. She wanted to keep being a cop. The Taliban wouldn’t let her. She and the others knew that the lives they had led were ending. Sakina pulled me aside one day and told me how she could get out of the country. A man she did not love wanted to marry her. That was his price. She didn’t seem surprised. It was the way of things. She did not take him up on his offer.
I interviewed dozens of women. I put what they told me in a story. But it’s hard to understand such a thing, to see exactly how it is, not only the fear and pain, but the occasional joy and humor that comes with sharing the same fate as another. Afghanistan taught me that. My first trip here was four years ago. I didn’t know what would unfold, although it often appeared the Taliban was stronger, harder, more defiant than the will of all the American-backed Afghan leaders.
It was the strangers — as it so often is — who taught me what I needed to know. They let me into their lives. They showed me the deeper things; they pointed the way. It was their stories I carried with me when in October I boarded a humanitarian evacuation flight from Kabul to Doha, Qatar. Students — mostly girls — from the renowned Afghanistan National Institute of Music were on the plane. The musicians knew that as long as the Taliban was in power, their violins, oboes, flutes and voices would stay silent.
They were exiled. Their instruments were left behind. But they believed that if they could get new instruments, and find a new home, they would one day play again. As the flight taxied on the runway that late afternoon, news came of a bombing at a local mosque. I wondered if I should ask the pilot to let me off so I could go back to work.