Fear, betrayal, confusion: Afghans grapple with new reality as Taliban take over

Kabul’s residents face uncertain future as insurgents sweep to power

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Kabul was engulfed by panic and an eerie confusion on Monday as residents began to grapple with a new reality after the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital.

With armed militants roaming the streets and entering the presidential palace, hoisting white flags and sending the republic’s president and his allies into exile, many feared for their lives and were either hiding in their homes or raced for the airport in hope of escape.

Yet other parts of daily life continued as usual. Some shops and bakeries remained open and people, though far fewer in number than normal, ventured out into the streets to shop and make sense of the Taliban takeover.

“Their faces are scary,” said a journalist who had ventured out briefly, referring to the fighters patrolling the city. He asked to not be identified.

On Sunday night, carrying weapons and rocket launchers, Taliban fighters entered homes and office buildings – including those in the previously fortified Green Zone – registering residents, confiscating cars and taking the keys to armoured vehicles.

Fears quickly mounted that government employees and Afghans affiliated with international organisations could become targets.

“We are afraid of being killed by the Taliban, of them taking revenge. We have seen their brutality in the past and we can’t be fooled,” a government employee who asked to remain anonymous told The National. “I’m exhausting all my options to obtain a visa.”

She said the destination didn’t matter.

“Away. I just want to be away from it all, away from the horror and panic. The Taliban might have entered with little fighting, but they will show us their real face again – a face we have seen in the past. They will rob our freedom, our happiness.”

Few Afghans have the chance to leave. Fewer have visas to third countries and many fear the return of the brutal regime that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and the US-led invasion in 2001.

Thousands of desperate Afghans attempt to board flights out of Kabul

Thousands of desperate Afghans attempt to board flights out of Kabul

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tried to assure residents that “the situation in Kabul is under control”. He said no one would be allowed to enter the homes of former officials, threaten them or demand their cars.

But many Afghans say the discrepancy between official Taliban announcements and ground reality is vast.

At a UN compound on the eastern outskirts of the city, Taliban militants have set up a guard post and on Monday began demanding food and weapons.

While US transport planes landed and took off at Hamid Karzai International Airport – mainly to fly foreigners to safety – evacuations were stopped later in the day as hundreds of people stormed the airport and ran on to the runway, desperate to escape a future that they had always feared.

Usually traffic-jammed and packed with vendors, pedestrians and armoured vehicles owned by the government or aid groups, Kabul’s roads have been much quieter – though not empty. Residents report feeling “relatively safe for now” among the chaos, but admit to a deep-seated panic over what lies ahead.

In some parts of the city, advertisements showing unveiled women have been painted over.

“I am scared and don’t think I am safe. We feel abandoned by our president,” said Massoud Niaz, 37, a driver and father of three.

“I’m angry at our leaders and the international community. They have all deserted us and we are left here to die.”

Mr Niaz previously worked as a mechanic for US forces, but his application for a special immigrant visa was rejected. Since yesterday’s takeover, he has been hiding in a relative’s home.

“My children are still young – only in elementary school – but they understand full well what’s unfolding. They are crying and begging me not to go outside,” he said. He explained he had switched his jeans and T-shirt for traditional Afghan clothes – a long tunic and loose cotton trousers – a style he had rarely worn previously.

“Everyone else has done the same. You won’t see men and women wearing modern clothes any more. It’s like we’ve gone back two decades.”

The city’s parks remain full of displaced families, many of whom have fled previous Taliban offences on the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. Others now say they would rather be at home, but hope to eventually leave the country.

Nasser Ahmadi, 31, a vendor in Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw district, said he had decided to go to his shop today as usual.

“That’s where I met them,” he said of the Taliban. “They came to my shop and told me everything will be under control – under their control. They said it won’t be dangerous any more.”

Ahmadi had wanted to flee Afghanistan for a while, hoping to set up a small business in neighbouring Pakistan. But he struggled to save enough money for the move.

“Now it’s too late,” he said. “We’ve been abandoned and the Taliban is our future. Today, the city is tense. What will tomorrow bring?”

Updated: August 17, 2021, 5:23 AM