September 26th, 2021
By Farzana Ali
It was our second night in Kabul.
I met many people during my stay. And while it was important for me to get some bearing on the opinions and sentiments of working women, I began considering the views of stay-at-home women. It turned out to be an eye-opening venture when, as I sat down and talked with the women of a household, I noticed that they were hesitant to use the phrase “working women.”
On the guarantee of anonymity, Darsheela bore her heart… cables being shut down, malls lying abandoned, and the truth about Kandahar and Kunduz.
“Some people are of the view that the Taliban have changed. Do you think so too?”
“It’s been your second day of roaming the streets and alleys here… what do you think?” she instead bounced my own question back to me.
“It’s been difficult for me, no doubt about it, but I want to know the opinion of locals.”
“They haven’t changed. They’re just cautiously taking each new step so that the world can be fooled into thinking they’re different now.”
“Did you manage to venture outside after August 15?”
“Yes, just once.”
“How did it feel?”
“There are a lot of Taliban in our area so we were afraid, but we drove around a little bit and came back.”
“You have a daughter. Has her school reopened?”
“Yes, classes resumed yesterday. She goes to a private school, but because she’s still in the fourth grade her school was able to reopen. They’re still closed for grades seven and above.”
“They’re older children. Co-education hasn’t been allowed yet.”
“And public schools?”
“It’s the same. They’re open up till the sixth grade until the holidays, everything else is closed.”
All of a sudden, Darsheela piped up, “I want to tell you something.”
“When your Prime Minister Imran Khan came [into power], he said he would establish a riasat-e-madina. He never did over there but instead created it here.”
“But he didn’t do it. It was your people who have been struggling for it for the past twenty years,” I replied with a smile.
“They are our people, but…” gunshots echoing across Kabul cut her sentence short.
“What’s happening?” I demanded, throwing a puzzled look her way.
“I think Panjshir has fallen!”
I quickly snatched up my phone and called my Afghan correspondent.
“Yes sister, what can I do for you?” the voice on the other line offered.
“Why are they firing off shots? Any news from Panjshir?”
“Only conjecture, I’ve yet to confirm things. I’ll stay in touch and let you know as soon as there’s news.”
The firing had gotten so intense by that point that Darsheela’s eleven-year-old daughter, who was in the same room as us, crouched down on the ground.
“I think she’s frightened,” I turned to her mother.
“Our children are traumatized… sometimes it’s explosions, other times it’s gunshots… they see and hear everything and are shaken by it,” she explained and then turned toward her daughter, consoling her. She kept reassuring the small girl that everything will be okay soon, that it was just a little bit of firing and nothing more.
But this was not just a little bit of firing.
The intensity and duration of gunfire resounding in the streets began increasing. Amidst this cacophony, my phone began ringing. My Afghan contact told me that there was word of the Taliban managing to enter a district in Panjshir, however they had still not confirmed this development. However, Zabiullah Mujahid had issued instructions to cease firing. The correspondent told me that if there was any further information, he would contact me again.
I scoured through Twitter, where Pakistani media was reporting that Panjshir had been taken over. ‘BREAKING NEWS’ flashing everywhere and headlines scrolling across the screen… Darsheela too picked up her phone to watch a live broadcast from a Pakistani channel.
“How about that? You’re sitting right here and have yet to confirm things and over there everything’s over,” she grinned, the irony in her voice the same as when she had mentioned the Prime Minister. I implored her to see what the Afghan media was saying. She browsed through several Afghan media house and news agency websites. She stayed quiet for a long time.
“There’s nothing. It’ll happen when it happens,” she chuckled.
“Will it really?”
“Of course it will. When it’s happened everywhere else, how can Panjshir be the only place left standing?”
A simple woman who had a gradeschool education, who was born just two years before Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan, who had witnessed the arrival and unceremonious exit of the Mujahideen, the Taliban and the United States… she knew it all. She understood the internet extremely well, consuming information from Pakistan, Kabul, Mecca and Kunduz. What could possibly remain hidden from her?
“Do you think they’ll be able to govern things?” I inquired.
“Maybe for a little while. Those who they leave out will do what they need to too. It’s not that difficult to take territory here, the real problem is to keep affairs going and they face plenty of obstacles. Women are a lot more aware now, they want their rights and a share in things. If they don’t allow this, then there’ll be problems. On the other hand, older girls want to study and progress, but they’re stuck in their homes. These are all problems that need to be resolved. People are keeping quiet for now, but this silence won’t last long.”
Our conversation lasted till one in the morning. I had to report on schools in the area when it was daylight and therefore we decided to retire for the night. Profound silence pervaded the night air after the firing finally died down, creating a sense of mystery.
After breakfast, we headed off for an area called Khushal Khan where there were three schools nearby – two public and one private. I visited the private school first. I instructed the cameraman and reporter to remain in the car while I went to get permission to shoot inside. The principal was a man while both men and women were employed as teachers there.
Exchanging greetings, I introduced myself and explained my reason for coming there. They listened patiently and respectfully turned down giving statements on video, but said they would answer my questions anyway.
“Why not on video?”
“There are two reasons. Firstly, we are just employees. The school is owned by someone else and they are not here right now. Secondly, there is no clear policy from the Islamic Emirates and they keep altering their statement every new day. We don’t want to say anything that will add to our troubles.”
“We can just talk, then,” I had to compromise.
“When did the school open and what is your position?”
“We teach till the twelfth grade. We began classes for up until the sixth grade yesterday, the rest are not allowed to resume as of yet.”
“Is this a co-education school?”
“Yes, it is why classes for higher grades are closed.”
I asked a female teacher if there was anything different in her life now.
She laughed and glanced at the principal.
“Look at me and my clothes. Everything’s changed. I leave my house in fear every time, but I can’t leave my job. I have a home to look after.”
As I exited the building, I headed over to the government schools just across. There, only a handful of classes were in session while most of the rooms remained locked. Female teachers were holding classes. When I told them my purpose for visiting them, they told me that they received instructions from the school just yesterday that all teachers and students for grade six and lower were to attend, and so they were here. They related the same things that the female teacher from the private school had told me.
However, they added that there has been a consistent increase in the number of school-going girls in the past fifteen years, an incredibly positive development for a country such as Afghanistan. The interviewees expressed their hope that the trend continues, adding that any obstacle at this point will push them back again which they sorely did not want to happen.
From there, we went to meet with owners of pharmaceutical companies and traders whose businesses were in steady decline. One proprietor told me that he has had to bear a seventeen percent loss in the past week alone. The markets are all shuttered and the banks are undergoing their own crises, drying up all earnings.
“Did a delegation of yours hold discussions with any officials?”
“Yes, and they also threatened us that if we criticized anything, they would punish us per Sharia.”
“What do you mean? If trade thrives, it’ll be beneficial to your country. If trade thrives, so will the country.”
“Yes, that’s what we believe, isn’t it? But they want what they want, and there is no room for disapproval or questions.”
“But they have announced a general amnesty, so they can’t take action against just anyone willy-nilly.”
“The general amnesty applies only to common folk, but target killings are still going on. And no one’s allowed to report on this.”
The proprietor further told me that if things did not change for the better by next year or so, he will shift his business to Tajikistan or Dubai like many others planning the same.
On my way back, I kept thinking how crucial it is to take into confidence the business community of a country in order to boost its economy, yet here even they are being cowed into begrudging compliance. There was no way this was not going to have a negative impact on trade.
While I was still at the marketplace, I noticed the scores of Afghan flags – the colours that were flown prior to August 15 – hoisted in the area. I asked them why they had not changed the flags.
“Why should we?” an angry voice drew my attention.
“Actually, the new regime has a different flag… that’s why I asked.”
“They might have their own flag, but this is and always will be Afghanistan’s flag,” I was taken aback by his bitter tone.
We had just left the marketplace when we received word that a group of women had gathered in the city to demand their rights and protest against the attack on Panjshir, however they had been dispersed by then.
Darsheela’s words echoed in my mind…
“People are keeping quiet for now, but this silence won’t last long.”
And then, the very next day, the silence was broken and the world was witness to that which these women were desperate to repel. Scores of women took to the streets of Kabul, chanting slogans that we could not air.
On our way back to Pakistan as we passed through Kabul’s bazaars, I kept my eyes trained on the doors and walls that zoomed by. The walls that were once adorned with social messages alongside a picture of a woman and girl were being whitewashed.
And on those blank walls, the words “The occupiers will be swept away in a flood of martyrs’ blood” were hastily scrawled.
This feature was originally published by Aaj TV in Urdu and comprises three parts. Read part one and two here.