ENTERPRISE JOURNALISM BY USA TODAY
GUEST BLOG / By FATEMA HOSSEINI and KIM HJELMGAARD with KELLEY BENHAM FRENCH, USA TODAY
ILLUSTRATIONS AND GRAPHICS BY VERONICA BRAVO, JANET LOEHRKE, JAVIER ZARRACINA AND STEPHEN BEARD, USA TODAY
Afghan journalist Fatema Hosseini in better days before the fall.
KABUL, Afghanistan – Every time I blinked awake, I would meet my mother’s eyes. My father, my brother and my baby sister were all asleep, sprawled across the floor in my dark apartment on the west edge of Kabul.
They had fled just before the Taliban ransacked their home in Herat, and now we were together for one more dusty sunrise. The Taliban had not yet knocked on my door, but we knew they would, the same way we knew that summer was cruel and the sky was brown and our freedoms were all a mirage.
I was 27, a bad Muslim, an educated, single woman who asked too many questions and rarely wore a hijab. I was a working journalist, a member of the Shi’a Hazara ethnic group, daughter of an Afghan national soldier.
To a Taliban fighter heady with new power, silencing my voice would be a gleaming, golden step on the stairway to paradise.
In my dreams, which came every night now, I had tried to fight. I had tried to run. And at last, I’d pushed my way through chaos and smoke, crushed by crowds in a desperate surge toward the airport.
Hands grabbed at me.
Women were crying.
“What is it?” my mother said when I startled awake again. She had been up all night, watching over me.
“Just a nightmare,” I told her. It was time now. I had to get out of Kabul.
THE FALL OF KABUL
It seems impossible that civilization can be knocked back a few decades in an afternoon, that life as you know it can collapse before lunch, but it can, and it did. Sunday morning, the Taliban were on the edge of Kabul. I picked up warm naan from the bakery, as was my habit, and headed to the ATM because some worried the banks would close.
The ATM was broken, so I waited an hour with a small crowd, then gave up and headed to the office in my usual jeans, dress, scarf and sneakers. The streets were crowded. Hundreds of vendors spilled into the road hawking vegetables and fruits over loudspeakers: “Apple! Melon! Mango! Fresh tomato, 20 per kg!” I weaved through their carts among women in colorful dresses. It must be one of the loudest cities on Earth.
|Taj Begum Restaurant, Kabul|
I passed my favorite restaurant, Taj Begum, always brimming with hookah mist and laughter. It is named for an Afghan warrior princess and owned by the fiercest woman in Kabul. She drives through the streets shouting at the other drivers, all of them men. In the office of Kabul Now, the English-language section of the Etilaat-e-Roz news agency where I work, phones were ringing as the Taliban advanced. My mother called me, crying. “Put on your long dress. The Taliban are everywhere.”
I thought she was joking. “Mom, it's OK! My dress is not that short!” But it was.
She started shouting. “You’re not listening to me!” A rumor spread that President Ashraf Ghani had left the country. Soon no one could focus. Men who came to work that morning in suits came back later in peran tunban, the traditional long shirts and loose trousers.
The Taliban were in the presidential palace by now, but we didn’t know. Early in the afternoon, I decided to go home, but my colleague stopped me. He said I couldn’t leave without a male escort. That’s when I knew it was real.
I took a car most of the way. The shops, bustling just that morning, were closed and the streets nearly empty. At Taj Begum, the owner had locked the door and smashed all the hookahs. A truck loaded with Taliban flew by. I walked the last few minutes alone. The few men I saw stared at me for a long time.
At the apartment, I hugged my mom. She said, very slowly: “Your dress is short.”
KIM HJELMGAARD This is Fatema's story to tell. I can help explain how she became the center of a military-style rescue operation that sprang from a lucky connection. But no matter how many mobilized to support her, Fatema’s escape was ultimately up to her.
I’m a London-based international correspondent for USA TODAY. Fatema was a journalist for one of Afghanistan's leading news agencies and a freelance reporter for USA TODAY. We often can’t cover the world without journalists like Fatema who live and work in the places they report on.
They are our eyes when we can’t be there, and often our partners when we can. Fatema had never lived under Taliban rule and didn’t intend to now. Her family left for neighboring Iran when she was 3 months old because of the group’s persecution of Harazas and its abhorrent treatment of women. She returned at 10, after the 2001 U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban from power.
She later interviewed Taliban fighters and reported about women's lives now and then – then being a time of moral darkness when women and young girls were excluded from public life and education. When they were beaten publicly for daring to venture outside without a male guardian, for wearing nail polish, for listening to pop music.
She has reported from remote, rural areas where the Taliban never really went away.
Her hashtags on Twitter alone were enough to get her killed: Virtually no one expected Kabul to fall so quickly. The Taliban promised to honor women's rights, but their bloody track record suggested they would not. I contacted Fatema a little before noon London time that Sunday. The Taliban had just rolled up the Afghan flag at the presidential palace. “I hope you are OK,” I wrote in a WhatsApp message. “Tell me how I can help.”
If the Taliban came to my apartment, all the evidence they would need of my infidel status was right inside the front door. I covered the wall with photos of my friends and me doing normal things: eating ice cream. Laughing. Wearing silly glasses. Jumping. Lying on the grass in the sun.
My hair spills out around my face. My lipstick is a happy shade of cherry. The Taliban don’t want to see my face. They don’t want to see me with friends from the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh or the fellowship I did in Dhaka. My education and my work are threatening to their ideology. A wisp of hair showing around my face is an affront to God.
The Hazara people are some of the most oppressed in Afghanistan, and among the most progressive about women’s rights and education. Before he joined the Afghan National Army, my father guarded a library full of books he couldn’t read. My mother was a housewife who was passionate about school but who couldn’t continue her education because she needed permission from her mother-in-law, and then she got pregnant with my sister. I remember my mom reading Disney books to me when I was 5 and giving me an empty notebook so I could copy what my older sister was writing.
She took loans to send me to an international high school, Afghan Turk, the top school in Afghanistan. There I learned Farsi, English, a little Arabic, a little Turkish, a little Pashto. My relatives and neighbors were worried. “She’s just a girl,” they would say. “Investing at this level will be useless to her.”
He smiled and said, “I’ll come to your house, and knock on your door, and say ‘Hi.’” My job was to listen, not to argue, but there were some things about which I could not be neutral. I laughed. “It’s not going to happen.”
Now I knew the Taliban would be at my door in a matter of days. I snatched down the photos, quickly, because I couldn’t bear to look at them. I took down the song lyric I’d posted on the wall: "No one can say what we get to be, so why don’t we rewrite the stars? Maybe the world could be ours." I dropped it all into a bucket. I lit a match. The room filled with smoke.
KIM: COUNTING ON CONNECTIONS
Fatema emailed me her passport information, national ID card and a visa application she’d texted to the U.S. State Department. She’d received a confirmation message but no application number, no guidance about what came next. The only secure way out of Kabul was the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Land routes out of Afghanistan were clogged and dangerous in every direction – west to Iran, south and east to Pakistan, north to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kabul is 3½ hours ahead of London time, 8½ hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time.
By now it was the middle of the night in Afghanistan, and Fatema needed to rest. But I had one more question. "Would you be prepared to go without your family?" She quickly wrote back. "I think so." Then she sent two photos. One was of a photo collage taped to a wall in her apartment, about two dozen snapshots of Fatema smiling and laughing with her family and friends. The second photo showed a small steel bucket consumed by flames.
The next day, Monday, I rose early and started message-blitzing anyone I could think of with connections to Afghanistan or the Middle East. Contacts in the U.S. military and members of Congress. European diplomats, aid workers, journalists. I wrote to senior USA TODAY editors informing them that Fatema was hiding in her home.
They started calling contacts as well. In Kabul, Fatema hunkered down on the fifth floor of the apartment block where she lived. She started asking questions for which I had no answer. Fatema went quiet for several hours. As the U.S. evacuation gathered pace, the U.S. had abandoned its Kabul embassy and thousands of Afghans streamed into the airport.
Women were trampled. Crying children were handed over airport walls to American soldiers. Terrified Afghans clung to the undercarriage of a U.S. military plane taxiing on the runway, then, as it took off and gained altitude, dropped to their deaths one by one. Among those who died was a promising young soccer star; another was a dentist who had recently achieved his dream of opening a clinic in Kabul.
Guiding Fatema safely through an airport spinning out of control was daunting. Then came what seemed like a breakthrough. A U.S. Navy reserve public affairs officer responded to one of my messages. "Hey Alex, asking a real favor here," I had texted him, explaining who Fatema was and that we were trying to get her evacuated from Afghanistan. "Absolutely,” he responded. He added: "It's going to be tough."
He was hearing of people pinned down by Taliban gunfire outside the airport military gate. He promised nothing, but still, it felt like progress. I’d met Lt. Alex Cornell du Houx, 38, two years ago aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer patrolling the Persian Gulf. He was my media guide for the trip, and we had kept in touch. He was smart and dynamic, had served twice in the Maine House of Representatives and had a civilian job addressing climate change. He struck me as someone who could make things happen. Within a few hours, he had an update.
"An interesting option from a friend in the Ukraine gov. They have a flight with extra seats," he messaged on WhatsApp. "The Ukraine gov has offered a flight and special forces said it is a go." I wrote back thanking him, thinking, "We're almost there." Fatema would go to the airport, the Ukrainians would get her through the gate, she'd get on the plane, and we'd work out later how to get her to the U.S.
FATEMA: WHAT I WAS LEAVING BEHIND
I got a message from Ukraine’s special forces to head to the airport Tuesday, but once near, I was called off. Go home and wait for word, they said. Out the open window of the cab I could smell the dank canal, moldering fruit from the market, exhaust warming in the sun. Kabul was a place of struggle and joy, and it hurt to see Taliban fighters rip through in U.S. armored vehicles and Ford Ranger-style pickup trucks.
That night, I ran into a married female policewoman who lived on the same floor of my building. “What is your plan?” she asked me. I shrugged, unsure how much to reveal. “Well, you'd better make one because the Taliban have already started forcing young girls and widows to marry them. They will definitely find you, and they will marry you off.”
She wasn’t wrong. This summer, when the Taliban took over Badakhshan, Takhar and Baman, where I was born, they ordered local leaders to provide a list of girls over 15 for marriage with Taliban fighters. It’s a brutal life of rape and baby after baby after baby. It made me angry that the policewoman was so matter-of-fact about my future.
Policewomen are role models for girls in Afghanistan.
My mettle is a credit to my parents. Most women in Afghanistan are married off by arrangement. As a little girl, I never played in high heels and a veil. I didn’t dream about my wedding day.
In my country, when you are married you are owned. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts – none of them got to choose the men they married.
In our family’s photo album, page after page shows brides clutching bouquets. Following tradition, but also because they were miserable, not one of them is smiling. They stare at the camera with dead eyes.
When I was young, I was promised to my cousin, and my sister was promised to another cousin. Our parents arranged it with their parents. That’s the custom, and interfamily marriage is normal. I couldn’t stand my cousin, though.
He was always trying to talk about silly things, and his mom wasn’t nice to mine. Once, when he was visiting, I snuck up on him in his sleep and sewed his pajamas into the mattress. Another time, I asked him to plug in a fan that had faulty wiring. The electric shock launched him across the room.
As my sister turned 13 and her wedding drew close, she told my parents, “If something happens to me in this marriage, you are responsible.” My parents agreed not to force either of us to marry. Our families didn’t talk for years.
Now, I am 27. I still couldn’t imagine myself in a wedding veil.
KIM: PEOPLE JUMPED IN TO HELP
I logged on about 3 a.m. London time. Fatema said it had been a difficult night. Alex sent a series of instructions by WhatsApp. The Taliban weren’t just at the airport gates – they were guarding the roads that led to the airport. Alex said he would be on hand as Fatema made her way back to the airport.
I impulsively sent a message to the Ukrainian special forces soldier who would be charged with finding her and getting her through the gate. I thought about sending him a long list of the questions Fatema wanted to be answered, but I edited myself and just thanked him for his efforts.
"No drama," he wrote back. "Will try my best to bring her."
FATEMA: SHREDDING THE PAST
My mom sat on the floor cutting documents that told the story of our family’s achievements. My dad’s military training, photos in his army uniform, ID cards. My sister’s certificates for courses in computers, QuickBooks, English. My brother’s certificates from English classes and boxing training, even first aid. If they were written in English, they identified us as people who might have worked with foreigners.
The cutting went on for days. We would sit in the apartment and my dad would say, “If I were the Taliban ...” and he’d name something that might cause trouble. Later my mom would say, “If I were the Taliban …” and remember something else. While she cut she did not talk. The certificates were laminated thick, and the scissors struggled through them. Wednesday, she cut through the night. At some point, she fell asleep with the scissors in her hand, blisters rising on her fingers.
The scraps of our lives filled a trash bag. I had burned my photos, but I couldn’t bring myself to burn my memory notebook that I’d kept since 2009. It was spiral-bound with roses on the cover and a broken lock, and my friends signed it each year, like a yearbook. It was filled with stickers of Disney princesses, but I knew only the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. Inside were my drawings and poems in Farsi and English, a dried flower, just one petal left.
“I have a feeling you will be someone powerful someday,” one friend wrote in 2014. “You are intelligent and smart. Don’t waste your life away.” I gave it to my mom. “I don’t have the heart to burn it,” I said. “Maybe you can.”
I had a pocket-sized Quran. I was so curious about Islam, so I read it from the first page all the way through, underlining passages, making notes. Maybe, I thought as I read, a hijab was not so much a literal curtain as an ethical one. Maybe when the Quran says “As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands,” it’s not a mandatory sentence but an analogy for teaching logical consequences.
And how was it possible that another verse with no clear translation, Chapter 4, verse 34, has led to so much sanctioned violence against women, when it makes clear that men should honor their wives and protect them? "Men shall take full care of women with the bounties Allah has bestowed on them …" Is this what God wanted for us?
Once, my mom borrowed my Quran and freaked when she saw all my notes. “Why did you do that? You thought it was your drawing book? You shouldn't do that!” “Mom,” I said, “I have questions.”
I couldn’t bring myself to burn it or throw it away. That felt wrong, and desecrating the holy book is punishable by death. If anyone found it, they would come after me, because they don’t tolerate questions. Not about Islam.
THE FRIEND: A VOICE OF HOPE IN THE DARK
I have a feeling you will be someone powerful someday. You are intelligent and smart. Don’t waste your life away. No one knows whose interpretation of Islam is right – but the Taliban's skewed, extremist version is absolutely wrong. I took the Quran to the mosque next door.
The festival of Ashura was going on, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s a day of mourning for Shi’a people, my people.
When I entered the gate at the mosque, some men stopped me. They said I needed to go through the smaller entrance for women. “I don't want to interrupt,” I said. “I just want to give away this book.” I added some money on top so they wouldn’t look at it too closely.
On Twitter, the Taliban were celebrating. I was disgusted, but I had to focus on saving my own life now. I deleted the app. I didn’t pray. Not then, not even later, in the worst moments. I felt embarrassed to turn to God when I needed something, even though I never doubted He was there.
Alex was working with Iryna Andrukh, a colonel in Ukraine’s military, to get Fatema on a Ukrainian Air Force jet to Kyiv. They met in 2019 at NATO School in southern Germany, on a lunch break from a psychological operations class. Alex was careful not to say too much about Iryna right away. But I eventually found out that she was 33, a trained psychologist, exceptionally devoted to her somewhat overweight sausage dog named Joy.
During the height of Ukraine’s recent conflict with Russia, Iryna walked across a battlefield unarmed and negotiated the release of Ukrainian hostages. Iryna was a war hero. Alex had reached out to Iryna as he and I were brainstorming ideas to help Fatema.
Iryna told Alex, "Oh, we're sending this plane to Kabul to get our people. Maybe we could make this a humanitarian task.” She got a general to approve it. I knew little about the Ukrainian special forces soldier who Iryna said would assist Fatema on the ground. Alex would say only that he had been deployed to Afghanistan many times.
Iryna would not reveal anything about him apart from his first name, which has been changed in this story to protect his identity. Iryna said that if anyone was the right person for this mission, it was Ivan.
It was getting late in Kabul, Alex had one more message for Fatema: “Please be flexible if the Special Forces call you and tell you to go to another location. They have not landed and don’t know the entire situation.”
“OK,” Fatema replied. It was 10:30 p.m. in Kabul. “I will try to be.”
FATEMA: WOULD I SEE MY FAMILY, AGAIN?
My mother woke me at 4 a.m. She held a scarf across my back, measuring the distance, and sewed my university diploma into the scarf, in a pouch. It was the one certificate she couldn’t bear to cut. I tied the scarf across my back. She sewed another scarf into a belt that held my passport and a hard drive containing some of my work. I tied it around my waist.
Over that I put on a sleeveless dress and a jean jacket. I put on a long chador that belonged to my mother. It covered my head and upper body, leaving room for just my face, and I had to clutch it tight under my chin and at my waist to keep it on.
I had no idea if I would see my family again. We hoped eventually they could slip across the border to Pakistan or obtain a visa to India. I tried not to cry.
On the steps outside I told my mother, “Take my lead and be strong.” I wore a backpack and carried a medium-size suitcase. The weather had reached above 90 degrees all week and I was overdressed, but my mother had told me, “It’s just one day.”
My brother and brother-in-law came with me, because I needed an escort now anytime I left the house. Traffic grew intense as we neared the airport. Without Twitter, I hadn’t realized the airport was such a mess. My phone data connection was slow, and the area was swarming with Taliban fighters searching cars and turning people away. Kim was calling but I couldn’t answer. The cab driver was asking too many questions, and I didn’t want him to hear me speaking English. I hid the phone under my chador to type. “Cnt talk”
KIM: TALIBAN'S LIST
Fatema’s messages were distressing. “Heavy crowds and trapped in jam.” "The Taliban opened fire." At each of the half dozen entrances to the airport, the Taliban had erected checkpoints that travelers had to pass before they could reach barricades controlled by U.S. and NATO forces.
The Taliban were acting as enforcers. They appeared to have lists of people they definitely did not want to let leave Afghanistan: politicians, judges, helicopter pilots who spent years bombing Taliban positions, high-profile human rights defenders, critics like Fatema from the media.
They also were trying to keep some vague order around the airport and deter tens of thousands of people trying to flee. Others were professional bullies and opportunists who saw a chance to solicit a bribe, exert influence, wield power. Once at the airport, Fatema had to walk past three airport gates: the main terminal gate, then the Abbey Gate, and finally the East Gate, where we hoped the Ukrainians would be looking for her.
"Proceed with caution,” Alex said. “Coordinate with the special forces on the ground."
FATEMA: WHEN I LIE MY NOSE TURNS RED
I got out of the taxi, and right away I lost my brother, who had my suitcase, in the crowd. A militant chased him and he was gone. My brother-in-law had gone back home. When I reached the first checkpoint, I faced a huge crowd – men lined up on one side, women on the other – and fought my way through. At the front, two militants were crazily beating people, lashing them with whips and firing bullets into the air. “My brother. My brother is there, let me pass,” I shouted in Farsi. I was going to tell them I was trying to reach my brother on the inside.
Usually when I lie my nose turns red, but I couldn’t worry about that now. Two militants controlled the line. One of them angrily shoved me back, cursing me. For some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off of his face – his crazy, tired eyes lined in kohl – which made him furious.
“You’re shameless!” he shouted. “Look down if you talk to me!” He swore to God that he would kill me. He shoved me with the butt of his rifle. He raised his arm to whip me, but his colleague stopped him in Pashto.
His colleague looked at me and said, “This is your only chance.” I ran forward through the checkpoint, leaving them arguing. I heard the first one shouting that I would be dead if he ever saw me again. Sweat was running down my back, and I was so thirsty my tongue felt sticky in my mouth. I made it to the second checkpoint, where NATO troops were standing on the wall, tossing down water bottles.
The Taliban commanders were opening the bottles and pouring water on people. We needed to be drinking it. A Taliban militant was ordering people to sit, but I didn’t understand his language. I pushed forward and saw him raise his whip. I dodged it and it hit the woman behind me on her shoulder.
It tore her dress, tore her flesh. I saw something white in her shoulder and her blood and heard her crying. I couldn’t move, so I just sat, right in front of the soldier.
Around me, people were shouting that it was my fault. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn and tend to her or anyone else, because I would be shot or lashed, and I’d never make it to the gate.
“Can you let me pass?” I asked in Farsi. “Where do you want to go?” “The other side. My brother is there. I want to take him back home.” I must have looked so pale and thirsty. He could barely hear me because my voice was stuck in my dry throat. “Just let me go.”
KIM: RESCUE ATTEMPTS BY CELLPHONE
Fatema’s calls kept dropping, and she tried to swap SIM cards to get a better connection. I was calling. Alex was calling. Ivan was trying to reach her. "Stay strong Fatema,” I wrote. “You can do it." Alex was tracking Fatema's location in real-time via WhatsApp maps and relaying those maps and other information to the Ukrainians. She was now outside Kabul airport's East Gate. A core group of editors was monitoring WhatsApp throughout the night. None of us could do much, but we couldn’t sleep either. No newsroom I have ever been in has a situation room, but this felt like one.
There's no guidebook for getting reporters, drivers, and interpreters out of a fallen Afghanistan Fatema sent an audio message: “I think I’m five minutes away from the gate, but the place is overcrowded and they started opening fire so I can’t go near it.” Then just, “I need help.” Alex asked, “Did they fire in the air or at people?”
There was no response.
FATEMA: SO MANY GATES, SO LITTLE TIME
The East Gate doors were tall and solid gray, and the soldiers were shouting from the walls that they couldn’t open them unless people backed up. Someone asked me for my documents, and when I said I had a passport, he shook his head. “Everyone here has a passport,” he said. “It means nothing. You have to have a document.” Only Ukrainians were getting through this gate, it seemed.
Alex told me to stay there so Ivan could find me. I wandered around trying to get a signal. "Can anyone help with this please,” I typed. “am so close to foreign troops." No signal. No signal.
Then the phone rang and Ivan said “Go to North Gate.” He hung up before I could answer. I had no idea where the North Gate was, but I could not fathom that I had to face that militant at the checkpoint again – the one who wanted me dead. I had come this far and it was useless now. I approached the skinny, angry Talib at the checkpoint I had just crossed. “My brother’s not here,” I told him. “I have to go back.” He knew I was lying. “You’re the one who wants to leave,” he said. “You’re shameless. There is no way back.” He pointed his gun at me. “Speak another word, and I’ll shoot you dead.”
I was stuck. I felt so disappointed and helpless that I couldn’t stop my tears. I turned away. “Where is the North Gate? Where is the North Gate?” I kept asking people. “Is there another way out of here?”
People had been waiting here night after night with no food or water. I was so thirsty and I didn’t have the guts to ask anyone for water. They wore days of dust on their faces.
Mothers were crying.
There were piles of suitcases, abandoned. The Taliban were picking through them. Someone said that when the gates opened before, people were trampled in the rush. So many injuries. So many children underfoot. God knows whether they were alive.
I could not spend time talking to these people. I had to leave. I had been told the plane would leave at 1, and it was past 12:30 p.m. I sent an audio message to the editors saying I was headed to the North Gate.
“I hope they wait for me.” A man told me to follow the canal around the far edge of the airport, then get a taxi to the North Gate, which was about a half-hour away. I blindly did what he said.
|Did she make it in time?|
My hard drive was poking into my hip; my mom tied it so tight around my waist. I opened the belt and put it in my backpack. I walked fast to get out while I tried to text my brother and brother-in-law. When I raised my head I found myself among a group of armed Taliban who were staring at me.
They could have stopped me to check my phone or even beat me to death, but I was too exhausted to care. I reached a crowded area and approached a shopkeeper to help me get a taxi. “Go back home,” the driver told me. He said he could tell I worked with foreigners, but the Taliban wouldn’t find out about me if I would be an obedient girl and stay at home and wear a burqa. I had never worn a burqa, and I couldn’t bear hearing that anymore, so I started to cry. I cried so loud people backed away.
I climbed into a taxi with a crazy driver who kept exaggerating that the Taliban were his relatives. He stopped in front of a mosque where a group of Taliban were sitting. He rolled down the window to say hi to them, and the Taliban looked at me angrily. I didn’t know why he would do that – just to scare me?
We drove for 20 minutes before we reached a public road. He asked me to take him with me. He would abandon the taxi and escape with me. The roads were winding and narrow. Then I saw a sign that read “Welcome to Bagram.”
This isn’t the way to the airport, I thought. I’ve been abducted. I was not going to be forcibly married to a Taliban soldier and live forever in fear. I would not be a Taliban sex slave. I would prefer to die.
I started looking for something I could use to cut my wrist in case the worst happened. I couldn’t find any glass. I realized if I had to I could use stones. Then the car stopped again, and the driver pointed out the flags for Turkey and Afghanistan at the North airport gate, 10 minutes away by foot.
It was past 1 p.m. now, and I was still – again – on the wrong side of a Taliban checkpoint.
KIM Alex sent a video clip showing several dozen heavily armed Ukrainian special forces soldiers in commando-style bulletproof vests, helmets and camouflage gathered on the military side of the North Gate. They appeared to be preparing to move toward the checkpoint. "Ivan is working his way to her," Alex said. Fatema texted, “Tell him am on the other side. The Afghan troop side. I can’t cross it. They open fire.” Then two crying emojis. She left voice memos, but it was hard to hear her over the gunfire.
FATEMA At the checkpoint, people were sitting because the Taliban had warned that if anyone stood they would be shot. Men and women were crowded together. I was duck-walking to stay low. I had to keep moving forward. I had to focus. I saw a woman with her hand dragging on the ground, and people were stepping on it. It seemed disconnected from her shoulder. I glanced at her and then a tear gas canister landed in front of me.
I took a direct hit. People started running and pushing, and tears were streaming out of my eyes. My head felt heavy. I got trapped in the middle of a large family. The woman was so mad, but I couldn’t tell who was part of the family and who was not. She pushed me back. So I tried to slowly move through them in a crouch. I couldn’t stand because the Taliban would shoot. They were whipping people who got close.
Then people got mad about the tear gas and started running. Once I stood, a man reached around and grabbed me hard between my legs. I couldn’t move forward because he was grabbing me, and I couldn’t sit because his hand was between my legs, and I couldn’t stay standing because bullets were zipping over my head. I couldn’t move his hand. His family watched the assault. A woman smacked me on my back and said: “Sit down! They’re going to shoot you!”
I thought, OK, Fatema, you’re going to die here, but this is torture. I stood taller and shouted, “I want to get out!” A Talib inches away emptied his gun next to my ear. I went deaf. Another woman beside me was hit by bullets. I could see the shells falling. I didn’t dare look back. The Talib pushed me hard and I stumbled out of the crowd. Everything went black. When I woke up I was by the roadside, and someone was giving me water. “It’s salty,” he said. I drank it all. I checked my phone. Somehow my brother was on the line. I told him: “Bring water and take me back home.” For me it was over.
KIM: BE CALM
"I cnt," she texted. "I will die. They open fire. And throw tear gas." From 8,000 miles away, Alex reached out to calm her. "Pls pause and think of something you love.”
FATEMA: LIFE'S GOOD THINGS PASSING BY
Dancing in my bedroom to Bollywood songs, singing so loud I forget myself. Being alone under my own roof. The first bite of a sour kiwi. The tender ruffle of a daffodil. Meditating on the rooftop in the morning stillness. The sound of my baby sister Mobina’s laugh.
The courage I feel in the morning when I leave the house looking the way I want. Arguing in the restaurant until after dark, walking home in the empty streets. The version of me I am building. The new strength in my voice. Steaming coffee in my boss’ office.
Chunky peanut butter. Pomegranate seeds. Wednesdays. Storm clouds gathering on Mobina’s face, then evaporating into laughter. The rhythmic clicking of my fingers on keys, a story unspooling before me. My mom’s ash sabzi soup. Racing up the Ghoriq mountain to see the sunrise.
The smell of humid soil after a rain. My favorite passage from Azadi, a book about India. The title means Freedom.
KIM: APEX OF FEAR, ANGUISH BUT KEEP MOVING
An hour went by. "The gas went to my eyes," she finally wrote. "I cannot stop my tears. They kept firing." Alex responded, "It’s OK, let the tears flow. Do not run blindly somewhere and focus on your breathing." He then messaged me privately: "I've been more stressed out over this night than being in Afghanistan myself." Alex also explained that Iryna’s military boss in Kyiv, the high-ranking Ukrainian general who had authorized the mission to extract Fatema, was now talking directly with the Taliban to negotiate a way past this checkpoint. It appeared that Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, who had spent much of his career as an undercover intelligence officer behind enemy lines, was prepared to pay the Taliban if it came to it. Alex texted videos of scenes at the gate.
In one, families cower as gunfire rings out and crooked camera angles show civilians crouching by short walls, desperate for any protection. Another showed a boy, crying, sitting on a man’s shoulders.
Less than a foot away, a soldier with an assault rifle briefly consoles him by touching his chin with one hand before shooting into the air with the other. Fatema texted us: "The foreign troops keep firing and using the tear gas. Please ask them to come and get (me) soon."
FATEMA: THE BUBBLE THAT POPPED
I could try to go home but had nothing to go back to. The Taliban would beat me or kill me or own me. There was nothing to repair. We have organizations devoted to women’s rights, but the culture and corruption are too entrenched to allow true gains. Women like me take all the risks. Our progress was not real. It was a bubble that popped.
The phone rang.
It was Ivan, telling me to meet up with a guy who would take me closer. After a few minutes of searching I found him. He took me to a place where many Ukrainian families were waiting to get through the gate. I saw the Ukrainian flag rise from the foreign troops’ side. “It’s time to move,” I said, and pushed forward. There was no solid wall, only a wire fence, so the NATO troops feared a suicide bomber, and when we got too close to the wires, both the Taliban and foreign troops opened fire. When I looked behind me, I saw only one family. The rest were gone. I don’t know where.
Closer to the wire, closer to the Taliban. One tried to push me back. I looked at him directly, just a man about my age, with dark eyes like mine. The words poured out before I could stop them. “We might be the same age, but God, you are so violent. You don’t need to beat people up, you don’t need to kill them. These are our people.”
He looked as if he were listening, but he was getting mad. He shoved me. But all my fear was gone. “Look at those troops on the other side,” I told him. “They are waiting for me and watching us now. If you beat me up, they will come after you.” He let me closer to the wires, where I stood as tall as I could, lifted my hands to the sky and screamed, “Ivan! Ivan! It's Fatema! It’s Fatema!”
He was standing right in front of me on the other side of the fence, and sent one of his forces outside to get me. This soldier half carried me, half dragged me, and I stepped over God knows how many on the way through the gate.
KIM: SO FAR, SO GOOD
“Am in,” she texted. “Am safe.” Ukraine's Air Force plane stayed in Kabul two more days as Ukrainian special forces tried to rescue more of its nationals and others who needed help. As we waited for the plane to depart, Iryna sent us updates. "She is smiling, safe and not hungry," Iryna captioned a photo of Fatema standing outside near a wing of Ukraine's Air Force jet at Kabul's airport. Fatema beams in a green dress, leggings and jean jacket. No hijab.
FATEMA: ON THE PLANE
We got into a military plane. It was cavernous with seats along the sides but no seatbelts. We were given packages of military food that tasted good to me but made some people sick. The first night, we slept warm, sitting up in our seats, but the second night there were more people, so we ran out of space and blankets. A Ukrainian soldier lent me his coat, which I used to cover me as I slept.
When I woke, it was gone. He needed it for work. Every single passenger in the plane carried their exhaustions, sorrows and dead dreams with them. The same was with me. I saw an old woman with tired eyes whose only wish must have been to spend the last years of her life at home. How would she start over in a land with no memories? I saw a woman six months' pregnant, who might have hoped to give birth to her baby in a developing country where the younger generation was trying to make change possible.
And I saw the children, of course, whose earliest memories might be the nightmare of the fall of their homeland to the Taliban. One boy on the plane, maybe 5, was telling his younger brother: “Don’t cry, or the Taliban will come.” Fatema walked out of the arrivals terminal blinking into the sun at Kyiv's Boryspil International Airport at 9:30 a.m. Sunday local time. Iryna sent a photo of the two of them together, all wide smiles and blessed relief.
They went back to Iryna’s apartment. Fatema promptly fell asleep. Iryna said that in two days she herself would be going to Kabul as part of a new Ukrainian special forces mission to try to evacuate more Afghans.
Fatema could stay in her apartment. "Give me more names," Iryna said. "We will try to bring them here." USA TODAY gave 17 names of journalists, partners and their families. And, of course, Fatema’s parents, Sayed Amin and Masuma, her brother, Abulfazl, and her baby sister, Mobina.
FATEMA: I GAVE THEM NAMES
I told my parents: Be ready, be ready, lighten your suitcases. Mom had one whole suitcase full of kitchen stuff and one whole suitcase of dried herbs. I said, “You have to throw every single thing away!” They were in the middle of dinner when I called and told them they had 30 minutes to meet the bus. “You’re so late!” I kept saying. “The bus is going to leave!” The bus was built for 25 and held 45.
Alex, through a contact in the German military, had sourced an Afghan bus driver willing to pick up the group and circle the airport until contact could be established with Iryna and the Ukrainians. In exchange, the bus driver and his family would be allowed to join the flight out of Kabul. The bus ended up sitting in front of the airport overnight, as Taliban militants prowled the area and issued various threats.
My brother texted and said: “Mom can’t breathe. People are sitting on top of each other. Mobina is crying. She’s exhausted.”
Kim came to see me in Ukraine. He was tracking my family on WhatsApp. We knew they were through the gate at the airport when we heard that a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt, killing scores of people. Images from the airport showed smoke rising in front of planes on the runway. I tried texting my family but got no replies. For a moment I thought I’d lost them. Kim frantically messaged Alex. “Are they in the air?” I clutched my phone. I could do nothing. There was so much confusion.
“Yes,” Alex finally said. After my family was safe in the Ukraine, after I’d hugged my mom and kissed Mobina’s face and everyone had slept, my mom and I talked about the things we left behind. She’d had to abandon the herbs and her fuzzy kitchen slippers. I missed dresses I couldn’t pack.
“I brought those,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d left them in a pile on the floor. “My journal,” I said, remembering that I’d asked her to burn it.
“I brought that too,” she said. That was my mom, salvaging what she could. She forgot my brother’s underwear, but she saved my purest memories, the ones where I found my voice.
FATEMA: FIRST OF MANY
I was the first Afghan Alex evacuated from Kabul. Afterward, still in his civilian capacity, he worked with Iryna and other contacts to rescue 500 more. His involvement started with that phone call from Kim.
My family remains in Kyiv. Their plane lifted off from the Kabul runway minutes before ISIS-K terrorists carried out a suicide bombing at the airport gate, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers in the worst loss of life in Afghanistan for American troops since 2011.
After the U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters beat two of my colleagues at Etilaat-e-Roz who were covering a protest over women’s rights. They were hospitalized. The Taliban have been seen in my Kabul neighborhood. Video shows them beating a woman and forcing men into the trunks of cars.
The Taliban has tightened their control of women’s freedoms. When Afghanistan’s new education ministry ordered all male teachers and students back to school in late September, there was no mention of female educators and pupils. The Taliban’s new government has no women in it.
On Sept. 11, I flew from Kyiv to Doha, Qatar, to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the very airport where, 20 years ago, a jet took off loaded with passengers and hijackers and fuel.
Shortly after my plane arrived, the airport held a moment of silence marking the time the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think so.
Twenty years, almost to the minute. Followers of Osama bin Laden and others are still in Pakistan and Afghanistan, organizing and recruiting.
Women are cowering under black cloth. Young girls are hemorrhaging in childbirth. We still have a world to win, and some part of that fight belongs to me.
Fatema Hosseini continues to report on Afghanistan and the Taliban for the British news company Newsquest, a USA TODAY affiliate.
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