Reporting and text by Kiana Hayeri, Christina Goldbaum, Azmat Khan and David Zucchino.
Earlier this year, after President Biden announced that US troops would complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan in September, photographer Kiana Hayeri set out to capture the end of the 20-year occupation through the eyes of young Afghans, those who the US invasion in 2001. Hayeri, who has been based in Kabul since 2014, knew that the future these Afghans had envisioned would soon change; the question was how and when. They grew up in a world of Facebook, Twitter, American movies and TV shows, a world of new freedoms and opportunities. They endured war and terrorism, poverty and disruption, survived uncomfortably under a corrupt government and the constant threat of suicide bombings. Yet they matured with a growing sense that they could determine the course of their own future. Now they knew all that would be questioned. In early summer, some of the young people she photographed were already trying to leave the country; others went about their daily lives, anxiously waiting for what was to come. None of them expected how quickly and drastically their lives would change.
Gul Ahmad didn’t go to school until the fifth grade. After his father died, his mother remarried. When Gul Ahmad was 12, his stepfather forced him to go to Iran to work and return money to the family. At the time of the above photo, the boys had traveled to Iran, hoping to find work, but were sent back to Afghanistan and waited in a center for migrants to reunite with their families. When Hayeri met them, they were constantly on their phones. Gul Ahmad played games and Karim watched videos of young Iranian women smoking hookah and playing guitar.
Gul Ahmad (left), pictured with Karim, had already been deported from Iran three times. When Hayeri met them, all three boys planned to make another attempt to return to Iran as soon as possible. When asked if he was afraid, Saeed replied, “What should I be afraid of if I’m already facing death? I have had to deal with death twice, once when I was smuggled to Iran. I was sitting in the trunk of a car with two other children and nearly suffocated. Another time, when we walked to Iran, we were in the desert for seven days without drinking water. Eventually I passed out and someone dragged me up a nearby mountain and gave me well water, and I survived.”
By mid-August, after the Taliban invasion, Gul Ahmad had managed to return to Iran. He worked in construction and had lost contact with his family. He hadn’t seen Karim or Saeed since he left the country. “I miss Afghanistan,” he said. “I feel sorry for Afghanistan. I know the Taliban has taken Kabul. I think the country will be filled with war and kidnappings.” When asked what he would like to become one day, he laughed.
Karim is now also in Iran and struggling to find a job. As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, he explained, there were more people and less work. He had lost contact with his friends Gul Ahmad and Saeed. He remembered how Gul Ahmad tried to comfort them with songs. ‘If he were to sing to us, we would forget our weariness. He changed our mood.”
When the pandemic hit, Esmat was unable to continue his studies and as the political situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, he and his father agreed it was time for him to seek a new life outside the country, as three of his older brothers had done. Esmat grew up studying languages and computers, and he dreamed of going to medical school: “I want to become a doctor to help you and other women and people who are suffering,” he told his mother.
Outside of school, Esmat worked in a convenience store to provide for his family. In his little spare time he enjoyed sports. In June, he decided it was time to leave Afghanistan. The journey required a crossing through Iran. One night, near the Turkish border, Esmat fell ill, according to his family. The next morning he didn’t wake up. Esmat’s body was returned to his family in Herat five days later. A few days later they buried him.
As the men picked up the coffin, the sound of dozens of women wailing echoed through the air. “I have nine children and it feels like I’m being chopped into nine pieces,” said Esmat’s mother (pictured top right with one hand on her head). Her four daughters and five sons were divided by war, poverty and attempts to build a new life. “Esmat’s wish and dream was that all his siblings would be reunited and live somewhere close to each other,” his mother said weeks later. “They’ve all suffered from being so far apart in recent years.” She added: “All I wish is for my children to be happy and healthy, which I don’t think will happen for them.”
After they lowered the coffin into the grave, Esmat’s best friend, Qiamuddin, 20, pictured above, pulled a white scarf from his neck and carefully placed it over Esmat’s face. He grabbed a shovel and threw dirt on the boy’s body. As tears streamed down his face, others tried to take the shovel from him to offer some respite. “He was the kind of person who didn’t trust that tomorrow would come,” recalls Qiamuddin. “If I asked him about the future and what job he thought he had, he would never predict what would happen tomorrow. He would say, ‘Life is short. I don’t think I’ll live that long to plan it out’ .’ ”
It upset Maryam that so many people around her disapproved of women playing on stage that so few even knew what theater was. She joined Women Equality Ambassadors, a street theater group made up of women from traditional families who wanted to live more freely. In the image above, she was about to perform in a play about a woman who has to choose between getting married and pursuing her dream of becoming a police officer. On the day of her wedding, the woman is killed in a car bomb.
For the actors in the theater troupe, the storyline was painfully resonating: In June, the woman who played the bride, Tayeba Musawi, 23, was herself killed by a car bomb in Kabul. (She was in a neighborhood that is home to the Hazara minority, who are targeted by Sunni fundamentalists.)
Before her death, the actors often struggled to wail on command when performing the commemorative scene in the play. After that, their crying was real.
Seven weeks after these photos were taken, Maryam (pictured here with her younger sister) was outside the Kabul airport, worried she wouldn’t be able to board a flight. The Taliban surrounded the crowd and shots were fired as she spoke. “I just don’t know if we’ll live or not. I can’t talk for now. They’re going to shoot us. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” As she talked about her fantasies of walking the red carpet one day and winning an Oscar, her voice broke. “I’m going to cry when I remember my dream,” she said. “I know not sure if it will come true.” Now she was afraid that under the Taliban she would hardly be allowed to leave her home. “They say women are allowed to work. And it’s not because of women, it’s because they don’t know how to rule. And they need people to work in their offices.” Maybe women who have the chadori, an all-encompassing blue veil, could continue to work, she said. “But a girl who works in the theater or the cinema like me? She is no longer allowed to work.” Maryam was sure she would be the target. “Hazara people, the people who are journalists and actresses, they will not deal with them so easily. They’re going to kill them all.” She added: “If you’re writing about this, please tell us about the situation in Afghanistan.”
Naser Khan published articles and opinion columns in Logar’s university newspaper; he also studied political science and law. Two and a half years ago, he published an article, “What Is Love,” arguing that promoting love could stop the war in the country. Shortly afterwards, Taliban fighters knocked on his door, warning him to stop publishing his work. But Naser Khan did not stop.
Eight months ago, the Taliban killed another writer for the same university newspaper. Naser Khan burst into tears, describing how he met smugglers to find a way for him and his wife, who is five months pregnant, to escape. When the Taliban took control, his mother burned all his newspaper clippings. She’s at home, he said, waiting for the Taliban to knock on her door to look for him. Naser Khan plans to leave the country – legally or illegally – for Canada in the coming days.
All over the city merchants bought the contents of houses at a fixed price. As chaos descended on Kabul, Hayeri saw a woman trying to sell all her daughter’s belongings. The dealer saw that she was desperate to sell and negotiated the price. He ended up buying everything for 35,000 Afghans, which is about $400.
On August 15, just as Taliban fighters were about to reach the city, Hayeri passed through Kabul shooting what she could. There was a huge amount of traffic and people were walking fast, with looks of fear on their faces. She saw beauty salon workers tearing posters of women’s faces from the walls. When she got home, she got a call that she had half an hour to pack before heading to the airport to evacuate. She hastily packed her camera, hard drive and some things. The neighbors in her apartment building were also packing. By the time Hayeri got down, the entire building was deserted. “It was chaotic, apocalyptic,” she recalls. “Everyone left within an hour.” The four guards who usually stood outside had already stripped off their uniforms and set their weapons aside.
When she arrived at the airport to board a military flight to Qatar, she learned that Taliban fighters had broken into the presidential palace a few miles away.
She thought of the young Afghans she had photographed and the many others she hadn’t been able to meet. The last person she photographed the night before was the writer Naser Khan, whose words reflected the despair he and his peers felt. “Five years ago I put my head on the palm of my hand,” he said, using an Afghan expression to describe how he is ready to die. “I have nothing left to lose.”
The individuals prominently featured in this photo essay have given permission for their images and first names to be used, both at the time they were photographed and in the days prior to publication. Follow this link for information on how you can help Afghan refugees and those trying to leave the country.
Kiana Hayeri is an Iranian-Canadian photographer. She is a regular contributor to NewsMadura from Afghanistan, where she has been based since 2014.