We left in the middle of the night for the Pakistani border. Right now, that's the best time to go. The Taliban doesn't have the resources yet to fully man its checkpoints, and I was told that their fingerprint readers only work in daylight. There's no traffic or crowds.
Actually, the road was so quiet it was spooky. When the driver stopped to pray in one town, the only noise was some dogs barking in the distance.
I asked if we could play some music on the journey, but our driver said it was too risky with the Taliban around. He just told me to stay calm. The route was dangerous during the insurgency because the Taliban sometimes shot at cars from the mountains, especially government vehicles. Occasionally, there were also robbers waiting on the roads in the night. But now that the Taliban is in charge, it's a different situation and the biggest fear is Islamic State militants.
We passed several checkpoints on the way. There's no warning or signage. You just see a man on the road with a gun signaling you to stop. In some places, there was just one member of the Taliban on duty. I guess the rest were sleeping. I saw their motorcycles covered with a blanket to keep the engines warm. At other times, the militants were standing wrapped in blankets themselves. Some of them were playing Islamic songs or a recitation of the Koran on their mobile phones.
The driver had made the trip a few times, so he knew some tricks to get through the checkpoints. He told us to act sleepy, even though we were nervous and wide awake, while the Taliban peered through the windows and shined lights in our faces.
One Photo From My Old Life
I worked for Radio Azadi (as RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan is known locally) and became a well-known journalist, but after my colleague Mohammad Ilyas Dayee was murdered in a car bombing in November 2020, my father insisted I resign. I took an office job with a World Bank project. It was getting too dangerous to be reporting from the field.
Now, in Kabul, the Taliban is looking for people like me who worked with the Americans. Some journalists are already in prison; others put on traditional Afghan clothes each day and try to survive by selling fruit on the street.
Kabul fell so quickly on August 15 that I left for work in the morning and by the afternoon my colleagues and I were shredding documents and fleeing our office. While I was trying to get home that day with some female colleagues, we realized we had to buy scarves so they could cover themselves. It was surreal. I saw armored vehicles standing empty after the police had run away. People were crying in the streets and you could hear gunfire echoing through the city.
When I got home, my mother was hysterical with worry for me.
After I learned that President Ashraf Ghani had fled Afghanistan, I remember watching my niece sleeping peacefully through her afternoon nap, blissfully unaware of what was happening to our country. I wished I could be as innocent as her.
That night, a neighbor knocked on our door to tell us we should burn our documents because the Taliban was searching door-to-door for people who had worked with Americans and the former government. I destroyed everything, then I stayed up through the night listening to Ahmad Zahir, our greatest singer, and waited for some miracle.
I first went onto the street three days later with my niece to go to the zoo. When a Taliban pickup truck first drove past us, I was very scared. The zoo is across the road from a large military base that the Taliban uses now, so any chance they get the militants come to see the animals. It was very interesting to watch them. Some of the commanders have beautiful young boys that are always by their side.
I watched some fighters taunting the zoo's bear with their guns. Others were shouting and hooting at the lions and laughing. It was shameful to see. One young Taliban member saw two jaguars -- we call them "palang" in Persian -- that had been brought to the zoo recently. He asked me what they were. He had never heard of such an animal. They were all like children in a way, climbing onto the cages to watch. They were fascinated by the animals.
After that outing, I stayed in my house for around three weeks. I grew my hair and a beard and when I finally went back outside I wore traditional Afghan clothing. I looked a little like a Talib myself.
Without a job, the only thing that gave me solace was photography. Every time I started thinking too much, the only thing that calmed me was going out into the lanes and the streets and documenting moments in people's lives. I had recently saved up and bought a Canon 70D, but it was too risky to use it, so I photographed discreetly with my mobile phone instead.
I tried everything to get onto an evacuation flight, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, we watched random people being flown to safety. It was very frustrating. I cannot tell you how many e-mails I sent. The U.S. State Department has my application for resettlement in the United States, but for them to begin the case processing you have to be outside Afghanistan. That's the biggest obstacle for many of us. And even then there are no guarantees.
Fleeing to Pakistan was the only option left. I had also planned to take my aunt, who is very sick, so she could get medical treatment in Pakistan. That turned out to be a lucky decision.
On the night we were going to leave, I deleted everything from my phone except one photo of my little nephew and niece that was taken on her birthday. That's the one thing I kept to remind me of my old life.
We made it to the border in the morning and waited in the cold through the day, then that evening the Taliban let us through. Some people we saw had been waiting there for days in the open, but they could see my aunt was very sick so they got us to the front of the line. The Taliban seemed very sensitive to people who are unwell, especially women. That was a big surprise for me.
Once I got to Pakistan, I had to concentrate on getting my aunt to a hospital. Only after that did I have time to stop and take it all in. I was trying to be happy, but honestly it was hard. I realized I was about to be alone for a long time in a country where I don’t know anyone and I've left everything behind, even my new camera that I'd saved up for. I kept thinking about my niece and nephew back home.
The best part was going to get a haircut and a shave, then seeing my face again without a beard and shaggy hair. I looked in the mirror and remembered, "Hey, I'm a handsome guy!"
Now I have a short visa in Pakistan and I need to wait for my U.S. resettlement application to be processed. That can take up to 14 months, so either I stay here illegally or I find some other country where I can wait. But it is very hard to fly anywhere with an Afghan passport.
There's no work where I am, and I don't trust the police here, so I mostly stay in my accommodation. I'm surviving on eggs and sometimes bananas with milk. Occasionally, I head outside to get some street food. There's a famous place here that makes black tea with milk, and it's excellent.
Every time I think about my Pakistani visa expiring, my heart sinks. Afghanistan is too dangerous with the Taliban hunting for people like me, so I just have to try everything to survive here or make it to another country.
My goal is to be a filmmaker, and I have this talent. Then my real dream is to one day return to Afghanistan when it is peaceful and show the world our nature and our people. We have a beautiful country.