Photos: I dodged the Taliban to get out of Afghanistan. Here's what it was like - and what I lost along the way

Two women, masked and draped in blankets, lean against one another amid a crowd of travelers.
Fatimah Hossaini (left) with her friend Roya Heydari. Fatimah Hossaini

The night before the Taliban took Kabul, I was out at a restaurant with my friends. I'd gone shopping, and I met them at Le Bistro, a French cafe, for dinner.

We already knew these normal, carefree days were numbered; the Taliban had control of almost the entire country. Just a few days before, they'd taken our most important provinces. But Kabul? They need at least a month to defeat our beloved city, we thought.

We meant that word, beloved. I was born a refugee in Iran, in 1993; my parents had fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation - that first thunderclap of war in the violent storm that has consumed my country since before I was born. After the Soviets came the Taliban; my parents and grandparents watched with worry and horror as extremists tore our land and people apart.

I was just a toddler then, and I grew up in the shadow of two Afghanistans. One of them looked, back then, the way it looks in the news today: a dangerous country of violent leaders and desperate people where hope dwindles every day. The other is an Afghanistan rarely seen - a gorgeous land, rich in culture, with music and cuisine and colorful, patterned textiles that change as you move from region to region, people to people. It's a diverse, vibrant place, and I fell in love with it before I ever set foot there.

When I visited for the first time in 2013, I didn't feel like it was my first time. I felt like I was returning home. So that's what I did: In 2018, I moved to Kabul to take a job as a photography professor - one of only three visual arts professors at Kabul University.

My mother thought I was crazy - "Why would you go back to that place that we sacrificed so much to leave?" she would ask - but I loved this country, my country. I filled my apartment with the handiwork of our different tribes; I learned to cook Afghan foods my parents themselves didn't know; and I traveled all over, making photographs for a host of clients. I started an organization, Mastoorat, as a hub for artists and performers in Kabul. I also began my first book, portraits of women - of feminine beauty and power - that go unseen in Afghanistan. I had such big plans.

A women is seen addressing a classroom full of students.
Fatimah Hossaini teaching her university students in Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini

Sunday morning, Aug. 8 - the day the Taliban took Kabul - was supposed to be my last day in the city. Even though I didn't want to leave, I had booked a seat on one of the last passenger planes. My mother was calling every day, crying with worry. I just needed my COVID test results, and I would leave the next day.

I had seen a video of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, telling us not to worry, that everything would get back to normal soon, that nothing could happen to Kabul. I believed him: Everything around me looked normal, too. But when I tried to take a taxi to the clinic to get my PCR test for Monday's flight to Istanbul, the driver refused. He told me there were Taliban at the gates of Kabul, and I needed to go home.

I did as he said, but I thought the driver must be confused. I came back home and made myself some green tea and sat on my balcony, overlooking my beautiful city. Suddenly I saw him: A Taliban fighter, wearing a gun and waving a flag, riding a motorcycle - right there, below me, in downtown Kabul. In the Green Zone, where our government officials and foreign diplomats live, or used to.

The sun is seen in the distance over the Kabul skyline.
A view of Kabul from Fatimah's terrace. Fatimah Hossaini

I turned on the news, and I saw Taliban all over my city. I watched them take the Presidential palace, then parliament, then the national TV channel. I felt as if a part of my body was dying.

I called my mother, who was as scared as I was. "I told you more than 100 times," she cried, "not to go back to that place. Please, just get out of there, please." I cried, too.

Three friends of mine, also female journalists, and I hid for two days in a different apartment. We only went out to get food, and when we did we wore full hijab. We didn't want to attract attention, but we also didn't want to be recognized. I won't say we were celebrities, but our work had made our faces familiar to most Afghans. I had done an interview with the BBC just a few days earlier, and I had gotten some threatening messages from Taliban fighters who had started following me on Twitter. If the Taliban saw us, they would know us. And I wouldn't be alive now.

Inside the apartment, we worked like crazy, scrubbing our avatars, deactivating our social media accounts, requesting that interviews be taken down, dumping whole websites. We tried to become as invisible on the Internet as the Taliban want women to be in real life. But we could never really know if it worked.

A women looks behind a curtain.
Fatimah peers out the window as she gathers with several close friends. Fatimah Hossaini
Two women sit at a table while a third lies on the couch.
Fatimah, left, with two of her friends, after the Taliban captured Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini
Several women are seen on the street with full coverings.
XX Fatimah Hossaini

We felt stronger together, the four of us, than we would have felt staying alone, and we were happier. We cooked together and cared for each other. We needed each other.

On Thursday, we went together to the airport, our first attempt to evacuate. We arrived to find chaos. People surrounded the airport, and the Taliban were pushing them back. They beat people, even children, and tried to keep those who had reached the airport gates from getting inside. I had grown up with these stories, and I had heard so many stories from the women I had photographed - but still, I couldn't believe my eyes.

We left the airport, heartbroken. Later, two of us decided to try again. We stood with all those people outside the airport for hours. It was hot, under the sun, and then it was cold, when the sun set, and we waited, in total uncertainty, which has its own feeling, its own temperature, that I cannot describe.

A camera, some fabric, and pictures are seen in a packed suitcase.
Fatimah's packed suitcase as she prepares to leave Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini
A woman, dressed in a black covering, poses in front of the Kabul skyline.
Fatimah is seen on her terrace as she prepares to leave Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini
Soldiers and others are seen through a window.
A view from the airport in Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini

Finally, an American journalist I had worked with was able to help us get into the airport through a back gate. We were relieved, but a new kind of heartbreak set in: We left the apartment so quickly, almost like we were going to run an errand. "I'll be back later when I can't get in," I'd told our friend who decided to stay. "See you!"

I slept in the airport all Thursday night, and finally I got a seat on a French evacuation plane. I had exhibited photographs at so many European embassies, and those connections helped me. One of my friends also made it to Europe; another got out with the Americans.

Landing in Paris, I couldn't believe where I was. It is almost like I couldn't feel it, and then I was overwhelmed. I had to cry in the bathroom, away from others. And then I took a selfie - me and my two small bags, all I had been able to carry, all I had left of my life and my country.

A woman, masked and carrying bags, seen in a selfie from an airport bathroom.
Fatimah's selfie after arriving in Paris. Fatimah Hossaini

I'm finishing my COVID quarantine soon, and then I have to figure out my life in France - where I'll live, what I'll do, how daily life will look. The kinds of things you can think about, you can plan for, when you are safe.

My body is safe in Paris, but my mind and heart are in Afghanistan. Yesterday, my friend sent me a picture from the balcony in the apartment the three of us shared, "Fatimah, I miss you," she wrote. "The apartment is so empty without you." I don't know what will happen to her.

I don't know what will happen to any of us. I still have relatives in Afghanistan, family who are now seeing the Taliban take over for a second time, who have lived whole lives of violence. What will become of them?

And what will become of us, the new generation, and everything we have built? Everything we have fought for? We were not just an empty country. We had everything; we were building a future.

A woman wears high boots and embroidered clothes.
A portrait of Fatimah Hossaini. Fatimah Hossaini
A woman stands with her eyes closed.
A portrait of Fatimah Hossaini. Fatimah Hossaini

After the Taliban rolled in with their motorcycles and their weapons, they held a press conference. They promised the world that everything will be normal; that women can go out and be active; that everybody can go back to work. How is that possible? In the past 20 years, they killed my journalist colleagues. They killed my students at Kabul University. They killed my friends. And now we are supposed to trust that things are changed?

The Taliban say, We are all Muslims. They publish all these statements, they go on the radio and television, that we have to follow Shari'a law, that after all, as Muslims, we know this, we must believe it. What part of Shari'a law says you should kill people? Innocent people? Children and mothers and activists?

It breaks me, what is happening. It literally breaks my heart. I could never have imagined I would ever be a refugee again.

Now, I understand my parents and grandparents much better. I know what they went through when they left with their small bags. I feel their pain when I remember their stories about leaving their farms, their families, leaving everything. My mother always told me, "Why are you making such pain for yourself?" For her, to live in and love Afghanistan could never be anything but heartbreak. Now, I understand how bitter this is.

A woman is seen photographing a subject in an narrow street.
Fatimah at work in Kabul. Fatimah Hossaini

But I refuse to give up on Afghanistan. When things are safe, however and whenever that is, I will go back. This, my mother cannot understand. "Look what they are doing," she says. "What you saw them do. How can you possibly think about going back to Afghanistan?"

"How can you just say that like it's just a name? Just a word? I ask her. "It's my country. It's my Afghanistan. And one day, yes, I will definitely go back. I have to."

(As told to Jina Moore)

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