KABUL, Afghanistan — She was a girl of just 5 when the Taliban took over Afghanistan the first time, and her parents did not hesitate: With the militants bent on imposing a puritanical form of Islam, the family packed their bags and fled.
But when the Taliban returned to power in the late summer of 2021, Nilaab, now a 30-year-old mother of two, did hesitate.
The new government was quick with assurances that this time would be different, that the Taliban of the 2020s was not the Taliban of the 1990s, and that there would be no brutal campaign of repression against the women of Afghanistan.
Maybe they were telling the truth, Nilaab thought. She hoped so. She had returned to her homeland as a teenager after a decade in exile, and she was not eager to repeat the experience.
But then the militants ended education for girls after the sixth grade. Nilaab’s 13-year-old daughter, Arveey, cried every morning as she watched her younger sister, Raheel, 11, get ready for school. So Nilaab took Raheel out of school, too, until, she said, she could “figure out a solution.”
One afternoon in early August, surrounded by family members, Nilaab stood in front of the mirror and slipped into an abaya. In a few hours, she and her daughters, three suitcases and two dolls in tow, would be boarding a plane and leaving Afghanistan — this time, she said, for good.
In the room next door, Nilaab’s mother fell to the ground and sobbed. Nilaab ran to console her. They would meet again one day, she promised.
As their departure drew closer, her daughters wandered from one room to another, like restless ghosts. Raheel kept hugging her grandmother and embracing her aunts. Arveey found a quiet corner where she could cry her heart out. Nilaab sat on the floor and tied her shoe lace, fighting back tears.
“I never knew I would become a refugee again,” she said, “but I don’t want my daughters to taste the same bitterness,” she said.
I have spent the past eight years living in Afghanistan. Born in Iran and raised in Canada, I have grown to look upon the country as home.
On Aug. 15, 2021, the day Kabul fell, I left my house at 4 a.m. and headed for the airport to photograph Afghans desperately trying to leave before the Taliban had the country firmly in their grip. But by early evening, Taliban fighters had taken over the presidential palace, and with a broken heart, and grappling with immense guilt, I boarded a military plane and left.
Six weeks later, I returned, and for the past year I have worked on documenting life under the Taliban. (For the safety of themselves and their families, most would talk only if I agreed not to fully identify them.)
Over the past year, I have struggled to make sense of what has been lost. It is not always obvious.
Some of the changes that have taken place are glaring, but others emerge only after close examination. And sometimes, a close look is rewarded with a glimpse into the ways some Afghans have managed to defy the strictures imposed by the militants.
On the surface of the city, life goes on.
Street markets are buzzing, though perhaps not as much as they did before because of the crumbling economy. Cafes that have managed to keep their doors open have regulars who come in for a cup of tea. But it is often a quiet cup of tea — the Taliban have pressured cafes to stop playing music, along with radio and TV stations, even at wedding halls.
Radio stations have replaced songs with readings from the Quran. Cafes have settled on silence. At wedding halls, it is more complicated.
One recent Thursday evening, I accompanied Maroof, 32, as he picked up a decorated rental car from Flower Street in Kabul and drove to the beauty salon a few blocks away to pick up his soon-to-be-wife.
Inside the salon, a hidden side of Afghanistan revealed itself: Women young and old were dressed in extravagant, colorful garb and wore elaborate makeup.
When we went to the wedding hall, the mood was different.
In the section for men, guests sat listlessly around tables with white table clothes. A videographer awkwardly filmed elder men exchanging a few words, while the younger ones stared at their phones. The silence was leaden.
Oddly enough, the life of the party was to be found in the women’s section. There, disco light pulsed in different colors, a DJ (female) played popular songs and the women were dancing. Many wedding halls have ignored the music ban in the female sections of their establishments, confident that the vice and virtue police cannot barge in without notice.
In the days after the Taliban took over, one wedding hall, Stars Palace, which is right across from the Kabul international airport, took on a new role. A white palace-like building with golden lights, it was used as a meeting point for groups of Afghans who were being evacuated by foreign troops, offering a safe haven before they made their desperate dash to an airport gate.
A year later, a woman who was forced to find shelter near there, Masooda, recalled the chaos.
An Afghan Canadian citizen, Masooda had moved back to Afghanistan a few years earlier with her children, who are Canadian citizens. “I wanted them to reconnect with their roots,” she said. But when Taliban fighters reached the gates of Kabul, Masooda told them to pack a bag: “We have to go. It’s not safe for us anymore.”
About 10 months later, Masooda left her children with her husband back in Canada and returned to Afghanistan on her Canadian passport. With her knowledge of both Afghan culture and international aid organizations, she wants to help the country get back on its feet, and she is one of the relatively few women who have dared defy the Taliban government.
One small group of protesters, who call themselves the Afghanistan Powerful Women’s Movement, are also taking a stand. Two days before the anniversary of the Taliban takeover, about two dozen of them marched through central Kabul. “Bread, work and freedom,” they chanted.
The protest was short-lived. Within minutes Taliban fighters opened fire into the air above the protesters, sending them fleeing.
The Taliban proved far more welcoming to other demonstrators.
After the government declared Aug. 15 the country’s new independence day, hundreds of Taliban fighters on foot, or on motorcycles and trucks, descended on the capital to celebrate. Some marched past the former U.S. Embassy, chanting “Long live Islam” and “Death to America.”
Even those covering the celebration were bound by the new rules.
Spotting a truck with a male Afghan journalist filming the rally from on top of the trunk, I hopped on. As we sped along, I got a glimpse of a young woman sitting in the back seat of the truck, dressed head to toe in black, her face covered by a surgical mask.
Her name, I learned, was Breshna Naderi. She was 19 years old and had joined Kabul News TV just four months before the government fell. Despite the increasing hardship for female journalists, she had stayed on.
“Even if that means I have to sit in the back of the car while my male colleague films the rally, I won’t give up,” she said.
The journalism department of Kabul University, which is led by a woman, is one of the rare university departments that is still dominated by female students. One Friday morning, Basira, 21, Karima, 21, and Zahra, 23, all third-year students, met in the family section of a fast-food restaurant to prepare for their final exam.
They share more than a passion for journalism. A bond of trauma also connects the three women. Basira had survived two suicide attacks in recent years and Karima and Zahra had each survived three.
I’ve covered the aftermath of many a suicide attack. The worst was at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada girls’ school last year, and it killed at least 90 people and injured another 240. The school was in a community dense with Hazaras, a Shiite minority, and the next day the bodies were brought up a steep hill at the foot of a mountain range.
“You can almost name every hill for a different attack on Hazaras,” said a 73-year-old tea seller who goes by the name of Karbalai.
One Hazara woman, Soudabeh, became an activist as a teenager, but her work in her home province of Daikundi, where she educated rural communities about menstrual cycles — a taboo subject in Afghan society, did not sit well with the Taliban, and she was forced into hiding with her husband and two young children. For the past year, the family has barely left the house. Now they have been looking for a way to leave Afghanistan altogether.
The country they are trying to leave has changed profoundly from the one the militants took over just a year ago.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is now the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music is now a Taliban base. The British Embassy has been turned into a madrasa, an Islamic theology school for young men pursuing Islamic studies.
People, too, have had to redefine themselves overnight, especially the members of the old armed forces and employees of the previous government. Those who once wore uniforms or suits and rode around the city in armored vehicles now find themselves wearing traditional Afghan clothes and driving a modest car, or even pushing a vegetable cart.
Kabul had never felt as lonely as it did for me on the evening of the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover.
In between deadlines, calls and assignments, I sat on our roof and stared into the city, searching for its ghosts. I hardly could remember how life was before the Taliban came back into power. It was as if they had never left.
The hardest part about covering the Taliban rally earlier that day was having to smile at the men who had occupied my favorite corners of the city, my favorite cafes and parks, and now would not even allow me to enter because I am a woman.
Since the fall of Kabul, my home has been raided, trashed and squatted in by militants, and twice they pressured me to leave the country. Each time I was left weeping. And still I was not ready to leave.
After my home was raided, a friend sent me an old essay by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. “Once the experience of evil has been endured, it is never forgotten,” Ginzburg wrote.
This month, my partner and I gave up our apartment and began slow dancing our way out of Kabul’s bustling streets with their inescapable ice cream cart tune.
We, too, have left Afghanistan, but at least it is on our own terms.