Protests marking Afghanistan’s independence day were the scenes of bloodshed on Thursday as Taliban fighters shot at demonstrators in Kabul.
Eyewitnesses to the shootings in the Wazir Akbar Khan area, a diplomatic district in the Afghan capital, and Zanbaq Square said over 30 civilians were injured.
“They were also beating people up with their weapons. We don’t know how many were injured by that,” one witness said.
Official figures on casualties have not been released but independent witnesses told The National that at least 11 civilians had been killed in anti-Taliban protests across the city. In a similar incident on Wednesday, Taliban fire killed three civilians in the eastern city of Jalalabad during flag-hoisting demonstrations.
The 102nd Independence Day of Afghanistan was the first under Taliban rule in almost 20 years.
“But also the last, because we won’t allow a terrorist organisation to control us,” a protester said.
“We came out to celebrate our independence. We do not accept the Taliban,” said another, who asked only to be identified as Shamshad.
“We sacrificed thousands of lives to be who we are and we don’t want to give up our values and freedoms,” he said.
Mr Shamshad said he and his friends had come to Wazir Akbar Khan hill to re-hoist the large Afghan flag that once flew on its summit after it was removed by the Taliban.
The white Taliban flag is a more common sight since the group took over.
“But we faced clashes with the Taliban because they are against a democratic system and values. We lost 10 or 11 people and around another 30 got injured,” he said.
“They broke our cars and beat us up. They want to humiliate us, but we will continue to fight,” he added adamantly.
Afghan women, who fear persecution from the extremist group, were leading hundreds of protesters in passionate demonstrations in Kabul.
Dressed in black, red and green — the colours of the Afghan flag — they marched across western and central Kabul chanting slogans including, “Our flag, our identity”.
In central Kabul, Afghans carried a 200-metre-long Afghan tricolour through several neighbourhoods. In District Nine, young Afghan men hoisted the republic’s flag in Abdul Haq Square, named after an anti-Taliban commander.
“There were thousands of youths on the street. You can call this the first biggest anti-Taliban demonstration,” one protester said. “Inshallah, there will be more and I will be a part of it.”
“On August 14, we were a country with a president, government and army. It is true that we lost some part of these things, but they are not fully gone. We still have our flag and we shouldn’t just accept that everything is lost,” Shamshad added, urging Afghans to hold on to hope and resistance.
“I will fight until the last drop of blood in my body. We, the youths, won’t just give up. Those days are over. This is the 21st century and using militant power will not work against us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Taliban and foreign forces used firearms to push back desperate Afghans waiting outside the airport in Kabul on Thursday and Wednesday night.
“Last night around 11pm it got very crowded and to control the crowd, the Americans started shooting in the air. There were children, women, old people in wheelchairs. Then again this morning, when the crowd grew and became chaotic,” Mirza Yakubi, 29, who has been at the airport for the last two days, told The National.
Mr Yakubi, who worked with the Americans and CIA and is facing Taliban threats, asked for his name to be changed.
“I had applied for a [Special Immigrant Visa] but wasn’t able to pick it up, first because of Covid and then because of the fall of Kabul,” he said.
Mr Yakubi later received an email response from the US State Department to his request for an emergency visa, asking him to come to the airport for evacuation.
But upon arrival, he was met with crowds of thousands of Afghans hoping to be taken out of the country by departing foreign troops. As the crowds swelled and grew restless, several eyewitnesses said that the Taliban and foreign forces fired on the crowd.
“First it took me hours to cross Taliban checkpoints because they weren’t allowing anyone to pass. I convinced them somehow that I lived somewhere close to the airport, but when I got here, there was no way to enter the airport.
“I have an evacuation email and a pass to enter the airport but still I can’t get even an inch closer without the fear of being shot,” he said by phone as he stood near the walls of the airport.
The US said on Thursday it had flown around 7,000 people from Afghanistan. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the Taliban appeared to be co-operating in allowing Afghan nationals who have registered for US Special Immigrant Visas to come to the airport gate.
“We have indications this morning that that process is working,” Mr Kirby said.
The US had set an August 31 deadline for the removal of US troops, citizens and some Afghans, but on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that US troops could stay longer if necessary.
“Americans should understand that we're going to try to get it done before August 31st,” he told ABC, and added: “If there's American citizens left, we're going to stay to get them all out.”
Though many embassies rushed to close and remove their staff, Iran, Russia and China’s embassies remain operational.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasised this week that Moscow was “in no rush” to recognise the Taliban but added there were “encouraging signals” of their readiness to let other political forces join the government and allow girls into schools.
Mr Yakubi is among many Afghans who worked with foreign troops, governments, media and international organisations. Many are now at risk of being punished by the Taliban who have labelled them as “foreign puppets” and “stooges”.
“I had decided years ago, when my family returned from Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban, that I will never leave the country. I promised myself that I will never be a refugee again. But now I have to break that promise to save myself and my family,” he added, the disappointment heavy in his voice.
“I can’t go back home. I am already a CIA agent to the Taliban. They will skin me alive.
“I am starving, thirsty, sleepy, tired, exhausted and bored. I haven’t eaten anything for over 24 hours, I had only one bottle of water and haven’t closed my eyes for a single second. This is what you get when you serve a country as powerful as the United States.”