A year after the Taliban swept through Kabul, Afghans who chose to stay behind as thousands fled are coming to terms with the impact of their decision.
Women's rights severely curtailed, a collapsed economy and millions experiencing hunger have left some wondering if they made the right call.
Before the Taliban takeover, 23-year-old Susan Hamidi worked as a legal adviser, providing support to Afghan women dealing with domestic violence. She had also launched her own YouTube channel, in 2019, covering social as well as entertainment stories from her city of Kabul.
“I used to work as a video producer at a media company as well, and was very active in the civil society groups,” the mother of one said. “Despite the increasing security issues, there was hope. My husband and I had just started our small family.
“I never imagined that we would lose everything within days. I still can’t believe it sometimes … that Afghanistan is once again under the Taliban control.”
Ms Hamidi was very young when the Taliban controlled the country in the late 1990s and had not experienced the curtailment of women’s rights by the extremist group. Now her baby looks set to grow up under the newest Taliban regime after US and Nato troops left Afghanistan in August last year.
The group have also been cracking down on the Afghan media environment that has grown significantly in the last two decades. Ms Hamidi lost her job, was forced to limit her YouTube channel, and became very cautious about her movement.
“Everything Afghanistan achieved in 20 years we lost,” she said. “Our basic rights, women’s freedoms, our choice, but most of all our diversity and the sense of unity, it has all been eroded.” She added that the city that she had once felt she owned was unfamiliar to her.
Even those newer to Afghanistan hoped to continue living a somewhat normal life under the Taliban. Raha Amiri, 18, managed to spend just two free years in Kabul after returning from the neighbouring country her parents fled to during in the 1990s.
“I returned even though my parents protested. I fell in love with Kabul, and I wanted to study in my own country. I was preparing for kankor [university entrance] exams to enrol for a degree in computer science,” she told The National.
Ms Amiri never had the chance to finish high school as the Taliban closed schools for girls over grade 6, effectively banning millions of Afghan girls from education.
“Its been a year, and they haven’t permitted us back and I can’t get a diploma, without which I cannot begin my university,” she said.
Both women, headstrong and unwilling to give up, joined civil protest groups in Kabul, meeting regularly to demand their basic rights. Ms Hamidi, along with several other women and colleagues formed the Spontaneous Movement of Afghan Women and mobilised protests across the city. For many months, regular demonstrations, almost always consisting entirely of women, chanted slogans of “work, food and freedom” on the streets of Kabul.
“Under the rule of the Taliban, you cannot do anything that does not benefit them. It’s not just about women, but all Afghans are affected and suffering,” Ms Hamidi said.
The economic collapse has left many businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, creating widespread unemployment.
“I became a beggar overnight,” said Mohammad Rashid Anwari, 39, an Afghan business owner who until a year ago was financially well off, often contributing to charities and a respected community leader.
“When the sanctions came down after the Taliban takeover, we lost all our business with the international companies and NGO we used to supply to,” he said. “Many of the companies left, some even took the money they owed us. I had no choice but to close my business.”
Mr Anwari said that while the loss of foreign aid has deeply hurt the Afghan economy, Taliban policies haven’t helped the private sector either. “I am not here to criticise the Taliban, but we can’t deny the fact they are not doing a good job with the economy. They took over a relatively stable economy and now people are starving. Families are selling their kids, so they have stale bread to survive.”
The financial and banking crises caused by the Taliban takeover and international sanctions against the militant group have plunged many Afghans into extreme poverty, with more than 20 million facing starvation, according to UN estimates.
Mr Anwari, who has taken up work as an electrician, is also struggling to make ends meet, or pay his children’s school fees. However, despite the challenges, he refused to leave the country even when he had the chance.
“I invested in Afghanistan with the hope of building this country, and I feel a sense of belonging and ownership I can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “I chose to stay because this is my country. I was born here, raised here, studied here and I will die here.”
But Ms Hamidi, like many others who stood up against the extremist group now running her beloved country, has been forced to flee.
“We were arrested, beaten, some were forced to make false confessions of being paid by foreigners, some others turned up dead. But we didn’t and haven’t stopped fighting,” said Ms Hamidi, who was among the women detained by the Taliban earlier this year.
She shared photos of bruises she suffered on her body from being beaten while in Taliban custody. “I was forced to leave Afghanistan for the safety of my son, I am a fugitive now in a country I worked so hard to build,” she said, choking back tears, from exile in a neighbouring country where she is in hiding.
“But I am still fighting.
“I will not betray or abandon my country. I will keep fighting until all Afghan girls are allowed to study, until the media is free again, and my people have their rights and dignity.”