'We left with the clothes on our backs': Afghan refugees cling to mementos from home

Handfuls of prized possessions smuggled out as the Taliban took over are all they have left to remember the country

An album of photographs was all one refugee had to remember her life in Afghanistan. Photo: Gulafroze Ebtekar

Afghan activist Fatema Soleimani had minutes to grab what she could before beginning a treacherous 730-kilometre journey with her family to reach their flight from Afghanistan as the Taliban consolidated control over the country.

She had been living in hiding for more than two months after the Taliban swept to power on August 15, changing locations often to escape threats from the insurgents, who were pursuing her and her colleagues for their work empowering women and minority groups.

Nearly nine months pregnant and accompanied by her husband and two young daughters, she quickly put together a small bag of clothes, documents and some personal items, including supplies for her unborn child.

Within an hour they were packed, said their goodbyes to the extended family, and were on their way across the country, racing against time to ensure they caught their flight.

The Taliban takeover last year triggered a mass departure from Afghanistan, particularly of Afghan women, who lost their hard-earned rights and freedom.

Often with very little time to pack their lives, those leaving the country were forced to make hard choices about what to take with them to exile.

What they chose to save from their homeland now forms a collective memory for a version of Afghanistan that was at odds with the extremist ideology of the Taliban and no longer exists.

'How can one pack their whole life in two bags?'

“We did not have enough time to even think of what we might have wanted to take with us,” said Ms Soleimani, sitting in the small apartment allotted to her family at a refugee centre in Albania.

“We had a carpet in our room that we would sit on every evening to talk about our day, our feelings, our love and life,” said Hadi Rasooli, her husband.

“I know it was just a carpet, but for us it held so much emotional value, so many memories. We had hoped to grow old with it.”

Ms Soleimani broke down as she recounted the last few moments in her house, in the city of Herat.

“Everything in that house I carefully chose and built over the last 11 years. From kitchenware to furniture, rugs and everything else, we purchased those things with a future in mind. How can one pack their whole life in two bags in a matter of hours?,” she asked.

Taliban fighters in Herat on August 19, 2021, during the group's takeover of Afghanistan. AFP

Other Afghans now living as refugees in Albania voiced similar pain.

Afghanistan’s once burgeoning educated middle classes – who had salvaged a relatively pluralist society after decades of war – made up a large portion of those fleeing the country’s new rulers.

“I had less than an hour to pack,” said Negina Azimi, an artist who escaped Afghanistan in August.

“My family was in the middle of moving houses when I got the call. There was so much I wanted to bring with me, but everything I owned was already in boxes,” she said.

Ms Azimi said she barely had time to say goodbye to her family

Among the few items she took with her were a ring given to her by her mother and her father’s prayer beads.

“I hold these things close to me every time I miss them,” she said.

Former policewoman Gulafroz Ebtekar had been on the run from the Taliban for two months before she was taken to Albania.

“My sister and I learnt how to travel light, and how to avoid suspicion while on the road, so we didn’t have much when we finally did leave,” she told The National.

“The only thing that we managed to bring was a photo album of pictures of our family. This is the only memento I have.”

As Ms Ebtekar showed photos documenting her journey to becoming one of Afghanistan’s first female police officers, she said she wished she had been able to save her uniform.

“But, when you are under as much pressure and stress for your life, these are not things to prioritise,” she said.

Home comforts

For a young family like Ms Soleimani’s, reminders of the happier times they had in Afghanistan were the priority.

Her two daughters, aged 8 and 10, showed off the small haul of treasure they managed to sneak on to the evacuation flight.

“We brought these books because we used to read them in Afghanistan and they are some of our favourites. We want to read them to our new sister someday,” said Yusra, the elder of the two.

Some of the children's toys that made it onto the flight out of Afghanistan. Photo: Ruchi Kumar

She said the sisters had not forgotten to pack their dolls, including one for their yet-to-be born sister, “so she has something from our house in Afghanistan”.

Ms Soleimani gave birth only a week after arriving in Albania, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers as they settled in exile.

“One of the two bags I had packed was for the baby, but then we lost it during our journey and had nothing with us. We literally left with only the clothes on our backs,” she said.

For families like Ms Soleimani’s, what they left behind has become more than a collection of mere possessions.

Mr Rasooli said: “We didn’t just leave behind material things, but our memories, hopes, dreams – everything that we struggled to achieve for ourselves and our country.”

Updated: January 13th 2022, 3:00 AM