“We see ourselves standing in a desert” – Afghan describes life under Taliban and her journey out

An Afghan man sits at the Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 19, 2021

What Afghans miss the most since the country was taken over by the Taliban this summer is freedom. Lack of aid strategy also helped government corruption, says Zakia, an Afghan woman with Czech residency who managed to leave the country after several failed attempts to cross the border.

The journey

Zakia, last time we spoke it was just a few days after the Afghan President had fled the country and the Taliban had occupied Kabul. There was a big panic at the time and many people were trying to get to the local airport to get out. You were one of them, but said the route was too dangerous. You are now back in the Czech Republic, where you hold permanent residency. So, if we trace your journey, tell me what happened after we first spoke?

“After we spoke, we tried to leave Afghanistan through different borders. We tried to cross both the Pakistani and Uzbekistani borders by road. Unfortunately, they did not allow us to cross, even though we had all of the valid documentation.

“We were very lucky that commercial flights started going from Kabul to Islamabad, which is the capital of Pakistan. We managed to get seats on the first flight to Pakistan. We flew to Islamabad, and then took another flight to Doha, Qatar. From there we were able to fly to Prague in the Czech Republic.”

So how many weeks did you stay in Taliban controlled Afghanistan?

“There were a lot of poor people, a lot of people who you could see need help.”

“I think it was almost three weeks.”

And the reason why more people are not choosing to take flights instead of crossing the border is because they are expensive?

“They are very expensive. They are four times the normal price.”

When we get pictures or videos in the West of this journey, we often see people in masses waiting or walking amid arid countryside. Is that how it really is? How does one actually make that journey?

“The videos that you see are usually of people that are trying to cross the border illegally.

“However, we had a Pakistani visa as well as our European documents and the tickets showing that we are going to Uzbekistan to fly to Europe from there. We had all of the legal documents and if you have these and you want to cross the border legally you just drive their by car, get out and cross the border, or walk for a few minutes.”

Ok, so there is no chaos on the roads or anything like that?

“No, unless someone wants to cross the border illegally, for example by going over the mountains or jumping into the river.”

Why didn’t they let you into Pakistan or Uzbekistan even though you had a visa?

Zakia standing by Amo river which divides Uzbekistan and Afghanistan | Photo: archive of Zakia

“Yes, it was strange, because we even had some papers from the Pakistani Embassy. We were only missing one paper. I think it was from the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan.

“We actually did cross the border, the gate to be exact. However, when they checked the documents and found one paper missing, they said we had to go back.”

As far as I understand there are two routes from Kabul to the Pakistani border and at least one of them has a Taliban checkpoint. Did you have to pass it or were you just able to drive directly to the border?

“There are two main border crossings. One is in Kandahar, which people often cross also just for their daily activities, but it is closed now.

“We tried to cross from Torkham, where there are both Taliban and Pakistani checkpoints. We had no issues when passing through the Taliban checkpoints. They just let us pass.”

You said that, once you arrived in Islamabad, you took a flight to Doha and then to Czechia. Were there any complications when you arrived in Prague?

“No. We had all of the necessary documentation. We were vaccinated and had COVID-19 tests, so it was very smooth.”

Taliban fighters hold their weapons as they stand atop a building at the Kart-e-Sakhi shrine in Kabul,  Afghanistan,  October 19,  2021 | Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz,  ČTK/AP

Life under the Taliban

What was it like during your stay under Taliban rule? When they took over, there were promises that they were not going to reinstate pre-2001 sharia law completely. However, then we started hearing reports that these promises were being broken. How did the situation develop during the three weeks that you were there?

“I think that it certainly is different to what it was like in 2001. Girls can go to school up to the sixth grade and they promise that they will open up the remaining ones.

“During the first week, I was a bit scared, because it was a completely new regime and government. You could see a new kind of people. Even though they were wearing traditional clothes, it was a different style. When you went outside, you noticed the new policies regarding how women are treated.

“I think that Afghans, including myself, see themselves standing in a desert from which you cannot see anything when you look around.”

“The first week I was a bit scared, but I left the house the following week. I was fully covered, so it wasn’t an issue. Also, while I was there, I didn’t notice any problems in regards to what women were wearing, so that was a good experience. I hope no one will have to experience problems there. I started going out like before, going shopping for example.

“Of course, when you went out, you could see the difference. There were fewer people. There was less work. There were a lot of poor people; a lot of people who you could see need help.”

And who were these poor people? Were they refugees who arrived in Kabul, or locals stricken by the rise in prices?

“The prices had risen. People didn’t get their salaries. They hadn’t received them from the previous government or from the Taliban. I have cousins who have a clothes shop there. When I was visiting it, they were just sitting there and there were much fewer people coming in to buy their wares.

“Regarding the poor people, it wasn’t just individuals who had come or fled to Kabul due to the war, but also locals. Right now, 70 percent of the population is thinking about how to get food, how to manage their life and how to run their life.”

Experts are split on the question of what will happen in Afghanistan. Some say that eventually Afghans will want to get rid of the Taliban and try to set up a democracy, others think the state may fall into the influence of China. Do these questions get discussed in Kabul, or are people just more interested in minding their daily business and don’t perceive things like this at all in the same way that we do?

“The reason why people were mostly sad when the Taliban took over was because of freedom.”

“I think that Afghans, including myself, see themselves standing in a desert from which you cannot see anything when you look around. We cannot see anything positive, I would say.”

By this you mean that there is also no time to think about the larger picture, that there is a need to focus on immediate survival?

“Yes, but we are hopeful, including myself.

“With the Taliban promising to let women keep their rights, that everything will be fine, that they have no problems with women working or studying, one feels that if they stick to their own problems and others countries, for example from NATO, continue to financially support Afghanistan, then there is a hope that the situation will be better. There may be hope that people will at least be able to live their lives in a peaceful environment.”

You were saying that you saw some members of the Taliban there, you obviously must have seen some in Kabul as well. What are they like as people? Did you ever manage to talk to one of their members, or are they more distant?

“One of the things that I experienced is perhaps a little different to what you normally hear about the Taliban. They actually treated us well and helped us.

“You know, there is this tradition that women are on one side and men on the other. Because we were women, they respected us and told us that they will take us to the gate where we will not be among the men and going across.

“So they took us to the gate and helped us pass the queue. They actually treated us very well, because we were women and were not accompanied by a man. Their behaviour was surprising for me and my mum. We told them that we have the visas and if they could take us to the gate.

“There were one or two guys who said that they will help us. They were calling me ‘sister’ and my mum ‘mother’. So that was good.”

We are already hearing about masses of Afghan refugees. Do you think there will be a huge Afghan refugee wave? Will it go on?

“If the situation continues like this and people don’t find jobs and do not get their salaries, I think it will happen.

“Right now, most of the emigration is happening because they don’t have a job, don’t have money, or they cannot get a job to survive and run their families. I do not think that the reason behind emigration is so much the security situation, but mainly the financial situation. That pushes people to get out of the country.”

You were in Taliban run Afghanistan for three weeks, but I imagine you still follow the situation closely. Does it look like the situation will eventually stabilise, will people start making money again?

“I hope they will. The Taliban just promised that they will start paying out the salaries to the people. They started doing so even to the people from the previous government. I hope that there will come a time when people can start making money again. If they stick to their promises I think it will happen, but if they don’t than I don’t see that being likely.”

Afghans walk outside at the Kart-e-Sakhi shrine in Kabul,  Afghanistan,  October 19,  2021 | Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz,  ČTK/AP

Free regime, but crippled by corruption

What is it that the people miss about the time before the Taliban?

“The reason why people were mostly sad when the Taliban took over was because of freedom.

“They have limited freedom now. Before that, they had democracy. You could talk freely, go wherever you wanted to go, do whatever you wanted to do, also when you were a woman. There were singers, models, all kinds of different jobs that you can find in other countries.

“Even though the government wasn’t perfect, there was freedom and that is why people were happy. There was also this collaboration from the Western countries. There was so much help and aid coming to Afghanistan, which is no longer there. Basically the country, or the government, was living from this aid.”

Why did the government and its army collapse so easily if people treasured freedom so much?

“This is a question that I think most Afghans are wondering about. From my point of view, it was first of all corruption. Second, I think it was not having the right leadership, whether it is in the military or the government.

“From my point of view, the Afghan president did try to do something and he initiated economic reforms. But his work was not enough for the country.”

“Within the government, jobs were not awarded according to talent, skills or experience. It was mostly based around referencing people and that goes back to the corruption.”

It seems so strange, because, for example, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was an academic who studied and taught in the West, specialised in state-building and social transformation. It sounds like these were the kind of people who are less likely to be corrupt. Why do you think it is so hard to avoid corruption in Afghanistan?

“I think it’s because, when you are surrounded by corrupt people, it doesn’t help even if you alone are doing your best to do things in a right way. For a family, for a small business, it might work. However, for a country this is not enough.

“From my point of view, the president did try to do something and he initiated economic reforms. But his work was not enough for the country.”

How do you think Afghanistan could exit this circle of corruption?

“I do not know for certain, but, since they came to power, the Taliban claim they are working towards combating corruption. I am sure that corruption is down now, but, the thing is, there is nothing to be corrupt about.

“Before, there was so much aid, so much money coming into the country. Now the level of corruption is down but there is…”

Nothing left to take?

“Yes, exactly.”

All of this aid money seems to have been both a blessing and a curse then?

“Yes, I think that is right. Too much is not good, but nor is too little. I think that all the money that went to Afghanistan from various countries did not come in with a clear strategy.

“They were just saying that they are sending money to the country, but there was no good management or process on how to spend it.

“Just giving money is not a good idea, but giving money with a purpose or a goal could help the country much more.”