November 29, 2021

‘It’s painful to leave home while it’s burning’: Fleeing Kabul

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Sharif Safi, 26, is an Afghan activist, Chevening scholar and founder of the Kabul Peace Forum. He also leads the Mastooraat organisation, a non-profit that works to provide opportunities for youth and women in Afghanistan. His work with foreign affiliates put his life at risk under the new Taliban regime so he felt he had no choice but to flee. He shares his story.

I never imagined I would leave my country like this – only with a backpack, tears in my eyes, terrified and a sense of hopelessness. A bag wasn’t enough to fill all my dreams in, what I had worked towards my entire life.

I cannot find the words to express how devastated and heartbroken I feel right now – for my country, my people, my Kabul and myself.

The difficulties that I have faced in the past few days will stay with me forever.

I hadn’t envisioned that Kabul would fall so soon, so unceremoniously, but it did.

It was not just the collapse of Kabul, it was also a massacre of our dreams, our hopes and aspirations.

The moment the Taliban entered the capital, I knew that our hopes were now gone, our freedom was gone.

As they regained control of my city, they did not just bring down our flag, but with it, our identity, our hopes and our freedoms.

I felt desperate and abandoned.

From a personal perspective, the timing of it seemed particularly harsh to me. It happened just as I was waiting for my visa to the UK so I could travel to London to do my Masters – I had been chosen for the Chevening scholarship programme.

All the excitement I had had for this next chapter of my life turned into despair, and a dream that I was so close to realising appeared to be on the verge of vanishing altogether.

Taliban members patrol the streets of Afghan capital Kabul on August 16, 2021, as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country [Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu]

When the Taliban took charge of Kabul on August 15, I went into hiding for the first three days while trying to get myself on an evacuation flight.

I knew I was not safe as I had been challenging the Taliban’s narrative through my work, but also because of my close affiliation with foreigners. I had been receiving threats for at least a year from the group over social media.

Then the Taliban started door-to-door searches.

I decided to go to the airport to take my evacuation flight which I had already booked. I was fortunate enough to have documents from at least three European countries, emergency evacuation letters from Italy and France because of my previous work and affiliation with them, and the award letter confirming I had been chosen for the Chevening scholarship programme in the UK.

I made my first attempt on August 18.

I reached the airport gate at 7pm, there were thousands of people waiting to get to the checkpoint.

The Taliban were beating people at the head of the seemingly endless queue, to deter others from joining it.

They would also shoot in the air every single minute to disperse the crowd, it scared some of the women and the children, who could be heard screaming and crying.

It was a horrific scene, the desperation was palpable.

When Safi got to the airport, he could see thousands were in the queue and some had spent the night at the gate [Photo courtesy of Sharif Safi]

I tried to stay calm and waited to approach the Taliban checkpoint that would lead me to the gate close to the Baron hotel by Kabul military airport.

A Talib aggressively stopped me, put his AK47 to my head and told me to go back else he would shoot me in the head.

I turned back without giving him an excuse to carry out his threat and returned home at 3am after an hour-long journey. On my way back, I chose a different route to avoid some of the Taliban checkpoints.

I was back home but I was not prepared to give up, I couldn’t give up, I knew I had to take my chances.

So after resting for an hour, I left for the airport again. I got there at five in the morning, this time at a different gate, with my documents in my hand.

My name was on the list of those who had the required paperwork to be allowed through.

At this gate, people could only enter when their names were called on a loudspeaker from inside the camp.

On hearing your name, you would get closer to the gate, show your documents and they would open the gate for you after verifying your papers.

I waited for 48 hours in that queue but my name was never called, perhaps I was not far ahead in the queue.

But I found myself in the section of the queue where people got beaten by pipes, it was the Taliban’s way to stop people from rushing through the gates.

I still have the marks from that beating on my right hand.

Despite two failed attempts to get through the security checkpoints and on to an evacuation flight, Safi was determined to not give up [Photo courtesy of Sharif Safi]

By this point, it had been almost 60 hours that I hadn’t slept a wink – my whole body started shaking and my mind stopped working.

I headed back home with a heavy heart. There seemed to be no way to get inside the airport and on an evacuation flight. But I was not going to give up.

After getting some rest, I headed back to the airport in the early hours of August 21. This time I chose another gate, the Abbey Gate.

By now it was a familiar scene for me, a sea of people, thousands were in the queue and some had spent the night at the gate.

I wondered if I would be third-time lucky.

It took me 10 hours to reach the check post, where the security guards inspected my documents and let me in at around 1pm.

I was escorted by French soldiers to their camp in the Kabul military airport, along with other Afghans who were hoping to be evacuated to France.

We all waited there until midnight before boarding a French military aircraft. We were first flown to Abu Dhabi, and then to Paris.

Safi was escorted by French soldiers to their camp inside Kabul military airport, along with other Afghans who were hoping to be evacuated to France [Photo courtesy of Sharif Safi]

I sobbed the entire duration of my journey – for what was to come, and for what had been lost in Afghanistan.

When the aeroplane landed in Paris on August 24, I experienced a mix of emotions. I was relieved that I was safe but worried that my loved ones were still trapped in Afghanistan.

My emotions got the better of me and I burst into tears.

The tears may have stopped for now but the pain of having lost so much, so quickly, will forever be a part of me. I will carry it in my heart for the rest of my life.

I wonder if I will ever be able to overcome the mental trauma.

My mind is still occupied with thoughts of my family and friends, who continue to live in turmoil in Afghanistan, desperately seeking ways to get out.

I feel so traumatised and exhausted that I cannot sleep, I cannot drink and I cannot eat.

I had a good life in Kabul, I was happy with my work, my family, my home – but I had to leave everything and run for my life, lest the Taliban hunted me down.

It’s the most painful feeling to leave home while it’s burning. It’s the worst feeling to leave what is yours.

The horrific scenes I saw at Kabul airport will stay with me for the rest of my life – a nightmare that I wouldn’t like to relive. It revealed to me the extent of the fear and hopelessness that Afghans feel now that the Taliban are ruling the country.

I will never forget the anguish and desperation that I saw in my people’s eyes.

I have the privilege to move forward with my life, but millions of others don’t. I hope to travel to London to start my Chevening journey soon.

I would want to go back home, to serve my country and my people – but never under the white flag.