In the western part of the Afghan capital, inhabitants live in fear, but they are still not prepared to accept Taliban takeover.
As the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, Reuters reported that the Islamist militants are close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion. Over the past week Le Monde spoke with locals in the Afghan capital about their fears of what Taliban rule would mean:
KABUL — As you enter Pule Surkh cultural center's cafe in a western district of Kabul, the reality of daily life in Afghanistan hits you immediately. The entrance walls are adorned with a dozen photos of young women and men, some smiling, some wearing serious faces, eyes fixed on the camera lens.
"These are journalists killed by the Taliban," explains Shahed Farhosh, the 29-year-old who manages the cultural center. "This is Sami Faraz. He was dispatched to cover the aftermath of an attack on a stadium in western Kabul [in 2018]. He started broadcasting the images live. But the second bomber blew himself up next to him. After that, everything went black. No more pictures. No more sound."
Farhosh then points to the other pictures and tells the story of each journalist. He stops. "The photo of Dawa Khan Menapal is missing here. I am going to add it soon."
Taliban militants are seen inside Ghazni city in eastern Afghanistan, only 95 miles from Kabul — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Press
Menapal was killed last Friday, August 6, by the Taliban. He was a former journalist who had served as deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Two days earlier, the insurgents had vowed to carry out "retaliatory" operations against senior government officials in Kabul in response to aerial bombardments by the Afghan army.
Since May, the Taliban have been on the offensive as international forces have withdrawn. U.S. troops' departure, agreed to in the February 2020 peace agreement between Washington and the Taliban, is set to be completed by August 31. On August 8, the Taliban seized a large part of the strategic city of Kunduz in the north. The movement has now claimed several regional capitals, four of which it captured in just three days. More than half of the country's territory is now in the hands of its fighters. Never before have the inter-Afghan negotiations in Doha seemed so far from a peaceful settlement.
"Afghanistan has become the land of the dead," sighs Farhosh. "There is no way of knowing what lies ahead." Before the fighting intensified, the slender young Afghan was optimistic enough to rent this building and turn it into a cultural center. The Pule Surkh neighborhood, known for its open-minded attitude, as evidenced by the freedom with which women dress in public, is home to several lively streets filled with cafes and restaurants. It could have attracted a loyal and sizable clientele for Farhosh's community center. But the Taliban's rapid advances and targeted killings have ruined his plans.
Girls are forced to marry Taliban fighters.
Reports are spreading online about the horrors committed by the Taliban in their newly acquired land, further spreading public panic. Farhosh, who has three younger sisters, explains that just like under the last Taliban regime, women cannot go out on their own and must be accompanied by a male guardian. They can't work either. "Those who break these laws will be whipped with a cable. Some girls are forced to marry Taliban fighters," he added. "A few days after one girl's forced marriage, she came back and asked her father, 'Did you give me to one man or many?'"
In the afternoon, after work, his friends come to drink tea. But their conversations revolve around the war. "We are all in a daze. We look at each other and ask, "What should we do?" As for me, I've decided to carry on like this and keep doing what I can. If I have to, I may even take up arms. Whatever happens will happen. Even if it means death."
Activist and entrepreneur Nilofar Ayoubi — Photo: Nilofar Ayoubi Official Facebook Account
It was this resilience and desire to live in the moment that led him to join the crowds chanting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great" in Arabic) on the Kabul streets the night of August 3. Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghan intelligence, posted on social media asking the public to show support for Afghanistan's exhausted soldiers. His goal was to boost soldiers' morale, many of whom have been worn down by the intensity of fighting, lack of supplies and authorities' poor management of the crisis.
Nilofar Ayoubi climbed to the roof of her building and sang with her neighbors. For the past few days, along with some 400 other women, this 26-year-old entrepreneur has sought out ways to change the bleak picture that is Afghanistan today. The group launched a campaign on social media using the hashtags #AfghanLivesMatter or #SanctionPakistan, before a United Nations Security Council meeting on August 6. "The goal was for the UN and the international community to react and help prevent the situation from deteriorating even more," says the tall, elegantly dressed woman.
They will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years.
Since the fall of Kunduz, Nilofar Ayoubi has begun to lose hope. "That city is my homeland, and many of my family members still live there," says the mother of three young children.
Her uncle's car was shot at as he tried to flee Kunduz with his children, leaving it riddled with bullet holes. It was her own uncle who reported to her what happened in Kunduz: the Islamist fighters set fire to many commercial centers and houses, destroying the infrastructure of the city. "If the Taliban come to Kabul, they will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years. As I look around, I wonder, what could I take with me? My three children and maybe some clothes."
Furious at President Ghani, who she sees as living "in a bubble," Ayoubi now finds herself defending the former warlords she once despised for their atrocities, opportunism, corruption and nepotism. This includes Abdul Rashid Dostum, the influential general from the north of the country, and Ismail Khan, who was able to mobilize militias in Herat to prevent the fall of the city a few days ago.
"I don't forgive them for their past, but at least today they don't disappoint us. They are fighting so that Afghanistan is not lost," says the entrepreneur. "Ghani doesn't care. He has surrounded himself with corrupt people, economically and morally. They all have foreign passports and can leave whenever they want."
Coming from a wealthy family, Ayoubi has the option of moving to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, but is not ready to leave."We are caught between the Taliban on the one hand and the state on the other," she says. "Even if there is only 30% hope, I will stay in Afghanistan."