PERSPECTIVE: "This is not the first time that this is happening to Afghanistan. It's history repeating itself, and I don't think ignorance and force and war are gonna win."
One year ago, Ayeda (not her real name) was a second-year student in Singapore, studying Physical Sciences at Yale-NUS College, with a minor in Philosophy. Now, the 20-year-old Afghan national is living under Taliban rule back home in Kabul, Afghanistan, as her family does everything that they can to try and flee the country.
Ayeda flew home to Afghanistan from Singapore in Sep. 2020 due to medical reasons. She then spent the first half of 2021 working in an Afghan media company, and had plans to return to Singapore in August to continue her studies.
However, she was unable to secure entry approval back into Singapore, despite multiple applications, and ended up stuck in Kabul when the Taliban swept into the nation's capital in mid-August.
Over a video call, she shared about what life has been like under the Taliban, her experiences growing up, her heartbreak for what Afghanistan has lost, and her hope for the future.
As told to Jane Zhang
Provinces falling to the Taliban
We had just been going to work. It was normal.
But then we were seeing provinces fall, one after the other, under the control of Taliban. We were a little bit angry because most of the provinces that they took over, the army didn't fight back.
I've seen footage and a lot of evidence. There were some soldiers literally crying; they don't want to give up their guns, but they're forced to give up their guns. And so they're not really given a chance to fight back.
Because of that, the provinces just fell one after the other. Two provinces resisted — it took a few days for those two to fall.
Me and my colleagues, we were actually just making fun about the possibility of the Taliban taking over Kabul. We were saying "No, it's the capital. At least we're gonna resist three to five months. It shouldn't fall that fast."
And then, I think just two days before the Taliban arrived in Kabul, we saw really big provinces fall, like Mazār-i-Sharīf, Herat. And the people who were in charge, like the governors and the people who are leading the army, left. Some people skipped to Uzbekistan, others to Tajikistan.
And when those two cities fell, we were thinking that Kabul might fall as well. But I think we were still just being very positive, [thinking] that, "No, I mean, there are the U.S. soldiers. And there's the Afghan army, the Ministry of Defense."
Kabul falls to the Taliban
The day before Kabul fell was crazy. There's a big prison really close to Kabul, and the Taliban broke in and they let a lot of those prisoners free.
The government couldn't really do anything about it. They re-took control of it a few hours after that, but a lot of people were already outside, especially the people who were members of the Taliban, who had been imprisoned in there.
And then the next morning, when the Taliban were arriving to Kabul, the same thing happened again. They broke into the prison, and this time, the Taliban set everyone free.
That day, we went to work [but] everybody was really freaking out.
In the presidential palace, there's like this big flag of Afghanistan. And whenever the Taliban take over a province, they take down the Afghan flag and raise their own.
One of my colleagues was looking at a Photoshopped picture of the Taliban's flag inside the presidential palace, and he was crying that morning.
It was really shocking for me, and heartbreaking. I was like, "No, it hasn't happened yet. Don't worry, it will not happen. This is the capital." I think we were just trying to give each other a little bit of energy.
And 20 minutes later, we were receiving calls from our families to go home because the Taliban had arrived in Kabul.
We all came home, and then for about like four or five hours, there were no news, no reports. The news agencies weren't reporting anything.
And just about four or five hours later, we saw the report that the president had fled the country, together with the national security advisor and some of his other people from the presidential palace, and the Taliban were now in charge.
The next morning, I woke up to the video of them taking down the Afghanistan flag and raising their own flag.
The current situation
The first few days, the streets were completely empty. I didn't really see a lot of people.
Now, I see some people around. I've been out of the house four or five times with my mom. And there's a lot that's different about the city.
First of all, I see a lot of Taliban around. They look very scary — the way they dress, the beard and hair, and all of that. It's just too much. I see them from, like, 10 metres away, and I feel like I'm about to faint.
Sometimes I'm at home and I hear really loud music. I don't know what it says because it's in Pashto/Urdu. Then I look out of the window and I see it's a big car of the Taliban. They have their flag, and they're just sitting there and crossing the road.
I've been seeing the pictures of women being erased from the beauty salons and some hospitals, just outside the city. Some places still keep it, but some have been removed. I don't know if the people that did it are the Taliban — I'm not entirely sure.
And I'm not going to work. Neither is my mom, because the Taliban told us to just wait for their further announcement about how we should dress and stuff before going to work again.
But my brother, who works at the same office as mine, is going to work. So apparently, they sent the message that that guys could come to work but girls should wait for some time until further announcement.
It's quite difficult to be a girl right now in this situation. I hate the fact that I haven't been able to go back to my work for like 16, 17 days now.
I don't think they should be imposing... I mean, first of all, I don't think religion should be imposed on anybody. And then after that, there come the restrictions about how women should dress and how they should talk and how they should communicate with their colleagues.
And I know, in some of the provinces, they already told women that if they're going to work, they should be supported by a male figure from their family. Which I think doesn't make sense, because what if someone doesn't have a brother and father and they're just alone in the family? How are they supposed to go to work? And to school?
And specifically seeing footage and my mom telling me about how the Taliban treated women 20 years ago, I don't think that can simply just change.
Women weren't allowed out of the house under the Taliban
I'm 20 years old, so I wasn't there back [when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001]. I've just heard stories from my mom and I've read about it. I've seen videos.
First of all, women weren't allowed to really go out of the house. They could go if it was an emergency, like they had to go to the hospital or somewhere, but they had to wear the burqa. And they had to be accompanied by a male figure.
At that time, if they were seen outside alone, the Taliban would beat them up.
Of course, they were not allowed to go to work. They were not allowed to study.
My sister, who was six years old back then, was studying at home with a group of others, and there was some teacher teaching them. Sometimes when the Taliban would go door-to-door to do house searches, they would just hide all of their books. And they would act like they were studying the Quran, which was religious studies, so the Taliban wouldn't really say anything about that.
Women were treated very badly. I've seen videos and I've heard a lot of stories about it.
I know that the Taliban took a lot of women by force, they raped a lot of women. There were Taliban leaders who had 10 wives or something like that.
The Taliban normalised all of these things through their years of government in Kabul so much, so even when the they were gone and women started to go out again, I'm pretty sure it felt very weird for women as well.
Because for those years, they weren't really allowed to step out of the house. Not a lot of women were working, not a lot of girls were getting an education.
Women started to slowly go back to school and back to their offices. They gradually started to make public appearances again.
Began to see progress
When I was growing up in Afghanistan, I was very used to the culture and environment. I thought, "Oh, that's how it's supposed to be."
But then when I started travelling — I travelled for my first cycling competition to India at age 14 — and started to see the differences between Afghanistan and other countries, I realised that there were a lot of restrictions and limitations, specifically for women in Afghanistan to develop and to get a good education or to even work.
And over the years, we have seen a lot of progress — like, women gradually were getting more involved with politics, with sports, with music.
There were a lot of limitations, still.
For instance, when I first started cycling, I was 13 or 14, there weren't really many girls doing sports.
People were saying that, because you have to wear really tight clothes for cycling since that's the uniform, you're not really supposed to do that because you're exposing your body and that's forbidden in Islam.
They were attacking girls when they saw them on the bike; I was attacked once, so that comes from personal experience.
There were also people who are claiming that girls playing music is forbidden in Islam. If they do this, it would probably represent them as a 'bad girl' in society because of social traditions.
But at the same time, there was a lot of encouragement from many people who were very open-minded and really open to development in the country.
In the last few years, I've been observing that so many more girls are riding bikes. There are girls who were who are actually going to offices and schools with their bikes.
Right now, people from the Afghanistan Symphony Orchestra and the other ensembles that institution are pretty much like separated as all around the world, with the evacuations and stuff. Just three weeks ago, we recorded a couple of musical pieces where most of the orchestra was actually girls, and they had a strong presence in there.
And so I think those are all the changes that we've been observing about how people saw certain things a few years back, and then how it changed over time, during the last few years.
And it's just really heartbreaking to watch that fall apart all over again.
The loss of the young people shaping the country
What disappoints me and breaks my heart the most is that I have a lot of friends working in different sectors who are contributing so much to Afghanistan. And out of all of them, probably only two or three people are left in Afghanistan.
The cycling team has fallen apart, the orchestra has fallen apart — the places that I was involved with. The company that I'm working with, so many of my colleagues have left.
The generation of young people, the people who worked really hard, studied a lot to be able to work in Afghanistan and do something for the country, they're all gone and out of the country.
That's already a win for the people who wanted this to happen... [but] I think it's very saddening.
Because it's not easy to educate a whole generation and for them to understand how they can love the country.
And personally, myself, I've always wanted to work in Afghanistan, but I don't want to stay here right now, so I will be going.
Even if I'm not in Afghanistan, I will be still working for the country. I will still try to raise awareness and all of that.
I think the Taliban want to kill young people who've been educating themselves and working, because those people are a threat to them. Because if those people are in the country, the Taliban will not be able to take over this easily.
The Taliban are very scary. But I'm not really super scared of them finding me or even trying to kill me for speaking up and trying to help the country. Because I think that even if they kill me or any other people for doing so, it will be a very dignified death.
So in that sense, I'm not really scared of them.
Trying to get out
I was very shocked and freaked out the first few days, but now I think I'm a little bit more used to the situation, so I'm trying not to panic and just figure out everything in a clear manner.
For now, it will be the safest for us to get out of the country, because I know that my family is under a lot of risk.
Because of the activities that I've had, because a lot of people are very active in my family, including my sister, my mom, my little brother, my uncle, a lot of people know our last name in the country. So it's not really safe to be here at the moment.
At this point, I think it's just important for us to get out of here.
My hope is to just be able to get my mom and brother out for now. If it (the situation) gets stable, and we have an opportunity to come back, maybe we will reconsider returning to Afghanistan.
My brother is almost done with school — it's very disappointing to see that he had just three more months of high school that he was going to be done, but the whole year was just ruined — so if we get out, he will probably start college soon.
And we're trying to get my mom to either of my sisters, who are abroad as well.
It's just been a lot of filling up application forms, emailing and phone calls about evacuation and stuff.
I've been reaching out to more people. I reached out to Princess Nisreen [Nisreen El-Hashemite of Iraq]. She has a lot of activities, but one that I'm involved with is Girls in Science 4 SDGs International Platform.
She's very involved with the UN, and I know UN is still evacuating people. So I reached out to her to see if she could reach out to her contacts and see if we could get on one of those flights.
But we're also exploring other options, either 1) being able to get on a flight if we can, and if not, 2) seeing if we can go somewhere by land first, and then from there, finish our paperwork and go elsewhere.
I think everything is in the process, I just hope we will be able to figure it out soon.
Will figure out how to come back to Singapore later on
I will also try to figure out a way to go back to school very soon, as soon as I can.
One thing I have been observing since I went to Singapore is that every day, there is progress. I felt a sense of improvement and development, like I learned something new every single day.
When I look at a semester on the whole, I'm like, "Oh, I've learned so much during these past four months." I think it's also a very Yale-NUS thing. But yeah, it's just being in Singapore. I've had a lot of opportunities to develop and just improve myself as a person.
But for now, I think it would be a little bit complicated for me to come back to Singapore. Because the goal for me is to personally get out of Afghanistan, see where we will be settling down, and finish my paperwork, if that's the place I will be calling home for some time.
And once I figure all that out, then I think I'll think about coming back to Singapore.
It's very sad, this semester has started already. I'm not taking another leave of absence for now. My professors reached out to me — they're very helpful. They're recording all of the classes for me.
I sometimes try to take some of those classes, but it's really hard to focus when my mind is a little bit all over the place. I think it's hard to focus on anything.
I don't know how the whole process of going back to school will work. But I think we're just taking one step at a time to see how this can all be figured out.
Hope and resistance
One thing about me is that I'm always hopeful. I try to stay positive and hopeful.
There's this one province that hasn't fallen under the control of Taliban yet — Panjshir.
Ahmad Massoud — the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's national hero who fought against the Taliban the first time they came to take over Afghanistan and was killed two days before 9/11 — is leading The Resistance.
He also has the support of Amrullah Saleh [Afghanistan's Acting President].
Amrullah Saleh wrote on his Twitter that, in accordance with the Afghanistan constitution, in the absence of the president — like fleeing or death — the vice president will be the caretaker of the presidency in Afghanistan.
Clarity: As per d constitution of Afg, in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President the FVP becomes the caretaker President. I am currently inside my country & am the legitimate care taker President. Am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus.— Amrullah Saleh (@AmrullahSaleh2) August 17, 2021
[Massoud and Saleh] are from Panjshir, so now they are starting from there, and I'm pretty sure they're going to start to go to the other provinces fight back against the Taliban.
[Editor's note: Since our interview with Ayeda, the Taliban have claimed that they have taken control of Panjshir and have announced a new government. However, the Resistance has stated that they are continuing to fight back.
The situation in Panjshir continues to change as the Taliban and the Resistance clash.]
Also, a few districts of some other provinces in the north were taken back by the local resistance of the people.
These people are giving me a lot of hope.
They are stating that they're open to negotiations, but if the Taliban just want to come here and take over the presidential palace by force and announce their own government, then they're going to fight back and I'm sure a lot of people will be standing with them.
Afghans love their country and are fighting back
I love the Afghan flag and I hate that the Taliban took it down from so many places. I think everybody was feeling the same, because Afghans, we love the flag. We even have like the National Flag Day, and it's celebrated with so much joy, and you just see how much people love the country.
The Taliban wanted to erase our flag and the national anthem by having their own.
And at first, I think a lot of people, like me, were just crying when they saw the videos. They were very disappointed but they couldn't really do anything about it.
But then, in the places that Taliban had raised their flags, people started taking down their flags and raising the Afghan flag once again. I think about five people were killed because of it, by the Taliban.
And then the next day, people took a 200-metre long Afghanistan flag down the streets of Kabul. I think that sent a very powerful message to the Taliban and also to other countries who say that Afghans did not fight back.
While a lot of people are giving me this opinion that "Oh, Afghanistan might actually turn into one of those very extreme Islamic republics", I'm pretty sure that the Taliban are not going to last very long.
I mean, first of all, because of everything that I observe and how people are resisting.
But also because this is not the first time that this is happening to Afghanistan. It's history repeating itself, and I don't think ignorance and force and war are gonna win.
In the end, it's going to be just fine. It has happened to Afghanistan before, the country's just going through it once again. And I'm pretty sure people will stay strong.
It's been my lifelong dream and goal to to come back here and work for the country. And I know it'll be possible — maybe not in the short future, or maybe!
I don't know when, but I'm pretty sure it will be possible, and hopefully, we will be able to get it back.
Top photos by Hoshang Hashimi/AFP and Aaamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images. Quotes have been edited for clarity and flow.
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