Daughter of War: My escape from Kabul to Islamabad

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“Never come back here to Afghanistan,” my mother keeps telling me.

The story below is a true account of a young Afghan journalist/social activist who made her way to Pakistan after the fall of Kabul. A few key details, including her name, have been omitted or changed to protect her identity and ensure her privacy/security.

Trigger warning: The narrative contains descriptions of graphic violence, physical and emotional trauma as well as suicidal ideation.

August 15, 2021

day Kabul fell is the day I tried to kill myself.

It wasn’t a carefully thought out plan, nor a particularly serious attempt. As the panic, chaos and terror of what was happening around me amplified, I felt it was the only option to keep my family safe.

We were all in one small, rented room deep inside the city — me (age 23), my mother and father, my three brothers (19, 15 and 11), my sister (17) and my grandmother. It was a small room without the most elementary necessities. We didn’t even have enough pillows for each of us. This was the best my father could manage though, given the circumstances. We’d already fled from our home in Ghazni. And now we were trapped, and I was a target, putting my family in harm’s way.

Since arriving in Kabul, I had been campaigning and organising protests to support the national army of Afghanistan. My last programme was on the 13th of August. It was a really big crowd; there were hundreds of people there along with lots of media. Our army was there too, wearing their beautiful uniforms. I took to the stage and addressed them on behalf of civil society, saying we support you.

I read one of my poems out to the crowd, and my spirits were high. Yes, we were hearing about fighting in other provinces from our neighbours in Kabul, but we were all so sure the capital could not be taken. It was inconceivable. Afghanistan is developed now, a part of the UN. We can’t be abandoned by the rest of the world. Help will come. Our army will hold.

But the 15th of August came. And it happened.

Even early that morning, I felt ill at ease. My brother asked me to cook him his favourite dish, but we were low on vegetables. I told him I wasn’t feeling well, but he was very insistent. At 11:30am, he forced me to go and get the vegetables.

I exited our home and immediately ran into crowds of people running helter skelter.

I asked what was wrong, why are you running?

Kabul is falling, everyone will be killed. If you are on the streets, you will be shot. Go back home, I was told.

I felt real fear. I was telling myself it can’t be true. I started to call my friends and scoured the news.

It was true. Kabul had fallen. The takeover was peaceful; it was not a war, but my phone was crowded with news of people being arrested or killed or going missing. Houses were being searched for government officials, members of the media and political activists.

The stores were closed so I went back home with no vegetables. Breakfast didn’t matter though. All of us started crying, because we didn’t know what to do and our parents were not around. My grandmother said that other people have a house, but we don’t have a house, what should we do? We don’t have anyone here in the city. What should we do, where should we go? We just cried and prayed together.

Night came and I was terrified.

I was hearing all sorts of rumours about search operations being led to capture people. I wasn’t actually scared of dying — I was more afraid of what took place 20 years ago. The stories of what happened to young women who were taken. I was also thinking about my family and my siblings. They were all really scared, especially my grandmother because she had actually seen what had taken place back then.

Thankfully, my parents came to us that same night, having finally abandoned our home in Ghazni. The place had become a battleground; unlivable due to a nearby police station and the immense crossfire that took place over days.

I’m not sure how they entered Kabul and I didn’t know they were coming. My mother just knocked on the door and I opened it, overjoyed. I noticed she was not wearing any shoes, such was their rushed journey to reach us. But we were all together at last and for a moment, we were happy. If an accident happened to us now, at least it would happen to all of us together.

My condition was worsening though. I was imagining and reimagining a knock on the door, followed by an attack on our house. Many people went to Kabul Airport that evening and were evacuated to foreign countries — we did not, and as the minutes ticked by, I was filled with dread.

At this moment, one of my friends, Jake, who is an American journalist, called me on my phone.

“Hey, what’s going on over there? I want to interview you and share it on my platform.”

He was asking me about how the situation “made me feel”, and the absurdity of it all made me really sad, so I asked him: “What do you want to ask me?”.

“I wanna share your voice with the world”.

“What do you want to share? We are dying. Do you want to show the world how we are dying? I am going to die soon, so share it with the world, I’m going to kill myself because there is no other option for me”. I said this and cut the call, then turned off my phone.

That’s when I started looking for pills. I figured if there was no ‘me’, then there was no errant female journalist to arrest. I found 20 assorted medicines, popped them all and curled up in the hallway outside, away from the rest.

I dreamed of the past and the future I feared I had lost.

The first scar