A Journey Through Kabul, Afghanistan on the Day of the Fall

A Times correspondent who grew up in the Afghan capital returned before the Taliban’s victory, taking in the end of one era and the fearful start of another.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — In the hours before the Taliban walked into Kabul, and the two-decade quest to build a democratic Afghanistan tumbled into fear and uncertainty, I left my parents’ home to take a bus around the city. This was not a reporting outing. It was personal.

I had woken up that morning, Aug. 15, with a feeling that the window on Kabul as my generation knew it was closing. City after city had fallen to the Taliban, at such dizzying speed that my colleagues reporting on the war could not keep up. As the map changed, the possibilities for the capital were down to two: Kabul would get turned into rubble again in a stubborn quest to save those in power, or Kabul would fall to extremists who, when last in power, had ruled with oppression and banished some of the most basic liberties.

I was a boy when the Taliban were toppled in 2001, growing up here as new life was injected into the ruins of a capital that had been deeply scarred by civil war. For years, the world felt like it was opening up to many of us, though on the back of an increasingly bloody war and a worried sense that corruption and mismanagement were sliding toward something ominous.

Now, on the eve of another power change in Kabul, I was back in the city again, taking a break from my post in The New York Times’s New Delhi bureau to visit family and colleagues. And I knew — everyone here knew — that an era of hope, however uneven and misplaced, was about to end.

In the days to come, the world would fix its eyes on the latest catastrophe in this small nation, after barely noticing years of gruesome daily bloodletting. Cameras would zoom in on the stream of humanity descending on Kabul’s airport in hopes of an evacuation flight — to anywhere; on the blood of the dead mixing with sewage outside the airport where they’d waited, documents in hand, for rescue before terrorist bombs took as many as 170 of their lives.

Those who found a seat on a flight would suddenly become exiles in lands far away. Those who stayed, exiles on our own streets.

But before all of that, I wanted to see our city one last time — the way it had been.

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As the Taliban’s takeover loomed, Kabul residents went ahead with various official errands, though many must have known they were in vain. Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

At the main roundabout close to our home, next to the neon-lit corner joint that churns handmade ice cream in the summer and sells fried fish in the winter, a wedding car was being adorned with flowers. War or peace, marriages go on.

On a narrow stretch of sidewalk behind tall blast walls, officers at the police precinct opened shop for what would be their last day, one of them placing the visitors’ ledger next to a helmet on the table. On this side of the wall, a municipal worker in an orange jumpsuit talked to the plastic flowers on the headlight of his bike-trolley, in which he collected garbage. He fixed the flowers, and kept talking to them.

At the money exchange booth, transactions were scarce but inquiries plenty: What is the dollar exchange rate this morning? The man parroted the same answer — the currency had depreciated by more than 10 percent in one day.

I found a window seat in the back of a bus headed downtown, passengers in front of me and the uncertainty of the city around us. Some held documents, others scrolled on their phones. An eighth grader clung to his geography book — it was the last of his summer exams.

In the second to last row of seats, a middle-aged man fidgeted with his old Nokia phone and constantly made calls. Refugees from other provinces, fleeing the last stretch of intense fighting, were still streaming into Kabul, and he was calling friends and relatives offering to host them.

“The two rooms upstairs are still empty,” he told one person, insisting the family stay with him, as two other friends already had. “Of course, of course — for you a thousand times, anything you need.”

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Everyone on the bus seemed tense, and it didn’t take much for things to boil over: It was one young man in the back row, briefly lowering his surgical mask (lest we forget that Covid was still stalking us) to put a pinch of tobacco into his cheek.

The man on the phone looked at him and couldn’t help himself. “Is that even good for your health?” he said, gesturing at the tobacco.

The young man stared at him, said nothing, and lifted his mask. But the man next to him, a lawyer named Zabihullah, stepped in.

“The Taliban haven’t even come to Kabul and you are policing people’s behavior?” he told the middle-aged man.

Then it was all argument, wild and loud, about everything: corruption, democracy, failure, change.

The older man said the Taliban could at least end the kleptocracy and what he called the “vulgarity” of society and bring order. The young lawyer lost it.

“You think the only thing that came of the past 20 years was vulgarity?” he said. “I am also made in the past 20 years. You think I am vulgar?”

The older passenger tried to correct his statement, bring nuance, but the lawyer wouldn’t hold back.

“If you think the Taliban will practice true Islam, you are wrong. I can argue with you all night with proof to show you that what they practice is Talibanism and not true Islam,” he said.

The man with the phone turned back in his seat and muttered under his breath: “There is no point in arguing with you.”

When we hit traffic, the lawyer and I got off the bus and walked. He was trying to process documents for his final exam to become a judge. He was completing a two-year equivalent of a highly competitive master’s degree — something like 13,000 applicants had sought the 300 slots, he said. On the side, he was a masterful calligrapher, continuing a dying tradition of reed and ink calligraphy. He showed me samples of his work on his phone.

“Twenty years of effort, and all for nothing,” he said as we said goodbye.

The Deh Afghanan roundabout, one of the busiest in Kabul, was bustling.

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A tank parked at a Kabul roundabout, under a billboard that read “coming soon,” in the final moments of uncertainty.Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

“Fresh apple juice, fresh apple juice!” the megaphone on one cart blared. “Drink, and refresh your heart!”

“Watermelon of Lashkar Gah, watermelon of Lashkar Gah!” shouted another, referring to the southern city renowned for its fruit. It had fallen to the Taliban, after weeks of car bombs, airstrikes and door-to-door fighting, just three days before.

The Taliban’s entry into Kabul was still just a possibility at that moment. But things were changing quickly.

As I turned onto the narrow street that leads to the Foreign Ministry, in a neighborhood with malls, government offices and many homes of the elite, a growing sense of panic was carried by the sound of revving engines. Vehicles for V.I.P.s, most of them armored, were tearing up and down the road.

They were likely acting on information we hadn’t gotten yet — that the government’s top echelon, including President Ashraf Ghani, had fled, taking with them the final hope of an orderly handover that could have kept Taliban fighters outside the city gates.

Streams of people on foot took it in, walking close to the tall blast walls that line the street as the vehicles roared by. They were clutching documents, on urgent errands — a final bank run, a desperate search for a foreign visa. They kept surging forward, almost mechanically, certainly knowing now that their errands were in vain, and that the Taliban were coming.

One of my last stops before the Taliban began streaming into the city was the Slice Cafe and Bakery.

On a normal day, it would be packed with young people who had landed on coffee as the right match for their needs — after jumping from traditional green tea to a multitude of energy drinks in the early years of the war. This was where to find political debate, dating and flirting across the room, an after-work game of chess, or just a chance to catch your breath.

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A truckload of Taliban fighters entering Kabul late on Aug. 15.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The cafe was empty, except for a table with two women — both final-year medical students — and another with a woman, already a practicing doctor, and her two children. The doctor said her husband lived abroad. What was consuming her thoughts now was how, if the Taliban entered the city and re-established their old rules, she could keep managing groceries and the daily basics for her children without a male chaperone.

“I was never into news. But the past couple weeks, my phone is in my hand and I am constantly scrolling to see which province falls next. The helicopters overhead multiply the fear,” said one of the medical students, 22. “The university canceled the exams today because in the past two or three subjects that we had exams everyone did so poorly — no one, in any way, was ready for exams.”

By early afternoon, it was increasingly clear that the government had collapsed, that the president and his entourage had gone. The signs of it were in the chorus of rumors, the people rushing home, afraid to look back in the direction from which the Taliban were said to have arrived. The streets were emptying.

People moved quickly, trying to find safety. In an odd coincidence, they passed through mournful streetside commemorations of the eve of Ashura, which marks the day the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson was martyred. There were gunshots, speeding vehicles and even tanks roaming the streets — no one knew what belonged to whom. The Taliban later said the vacuum had forced them to enter the capital, to head off anarchy, rather than wait for a more gradual transition.

In the days since, Kabul has been a paradox that in many ways is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 1990s rule, no matter the softer tone of their public statements.

On the one hand, petty crime is down, walking the streets feels physically safer, and the Taliban are touting the fact that beyond the airport, casualties of war — not long after 50 to 100 people a day were being killed — are now close to zero.

On the other hand, there are the scenes gripping the world. Young Afghan men falling to their deaths after clinging to an American evacuation plane. Thousands of Afghan families massed outside the airport, hoping for any rescue in the last days of the Western withdrawal. The carnage of another suicide bombing, and a promise of chaos to come, even for the Taliban.

Many people, including those who are desperately trying to flee, feel a direct threat from the Taliban. But this is also about something bigger: It is about a people giving up on a country.

After 40 years of violence, and so many cycles of false hope and misleading lulls, what is gripping the hearts of many Afghans is despair: the fear that this time will be no different, unless it is worse.

Mujib Mashal is an international correspondent for The New York Times who covered Afghanistan from 2015 through 2020, and is now based in New Delhi. He is a native of Kabul.

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