Translated from the Dari by Hajar Hussaini
Editor’s Note: Nilufar Danishwar is a homemaker who was living in Kabul with her four children and her husband when US troops pulled out and the Taliban took control in August 2021. Since then, she writes, “every moment of being alive is crammed with concerns.” In response to our request for stories of everyday life from a range of Afghan women, Nilufar typed out long notes on her cell phone, starkly chronicling financial difficulties, Taliban abuse, and logistical nightmares over the last year, which were transcribed into a document by her husband Danish, and later professionally translated from Dari to English. It was a multi-step effort, a modern game of telephone, and I’m sure some details were lost as a result. But what emerges here is a clear-eyed diary of fear and disappointment, pain and possibility, as Nilufar navigates the collapse of her world and struggles to build a new notion of the future for herself and her family.
In August, I told my husband Danish that the kitchen in our apartment was too dark, and that we needed to install a window so that we could have more natural light. He went to speak with a construction worker right away, and the worker agreed to come build a window for us the next day. He started working on the window on the morning of August 15th. By around 10 o’clock, a little window took shape and brought light into our kitchen. I was so excited about it that I called Danish at work to tell him about the new window.
Little did I know that the light of our lives was about to turn. Danish said, “The government has fallen. The president has fled the country. The Taliban have entered Kabul. Please take care of the children.”
When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, I was 16 years old. Suddenly, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, and couldn’t go to school. The violent behavior of the Taliban made life feel like a prison. I wasn’t a fully mature woman then, but I started to wear a burqa out of fear. I often wondered how long we would be trapped like this.
Memories of this period flooded back to me as I was on the phone with Danish. Already worried, I asked him to come home as soon as he could. He couldn’t find a car, so he ended up walking for three-and-a-half hours to get home. It was two in the afternoon when he arrived. We sat in front of the television watching the news, trying to comprehend this new reality. In the 1990s, I was a teenager, and I had my parents to take care of me. But now I was the parent and I had three daughters and one son who needed me to think about their future.
When Afghanistan was under Taliban rule in the 1990s, all the radio channels were also controlled by the Taliban, which meant that we didn’t have access to unbiased news. In 2001, I heard on the radio that the US President George Bush was speaking about defeating the Taliban. At the time, I understood very little about American military power. All I knew was that the Taliban terrorized our society; I had heard that they tortured and brutally assaulted people. It was unimaginable to me that America could get rid of them very easily.
One morning, though, my brother Ajmal came home and shocked everyone because he had shaved his beard. Under Taliban rule men were forbidden from shaving their beards, so we all shouted at him, “Ajmal! Why did you shave your beard? The Taliban are going to kill you!” He laughed and replied, “The Taliban have collapsed.” I remember that moment with so much joy. This was the beginning of a new life.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I enrolled in an out-of-school program and took mathematics and English language classes at an education center to make up for the time I had lost. This is where I met Danish; he used to tutor me and a group of other women.
Danish later went on to work for a United Nations office as an English interpreter, and we became engaged. When we married in 2007, our new life was hopeful; we began our journey together with hundreds of dreams.
Over the years, Danish has worked for many other UN offices and for programs that partnered with the United States. He worked on projects related to improving democracy, governance, and women’s rights, especially with political parties, local governors, and the media. During this time, the opportunity to emigrate abroad came up several times but our love for our homeland kept us from considering that as a possibility. Danish used to say, “This place needs its youth. We are the wealth of this nation.” It is now a decision that we regret.
Danish’s most recent position was with the High Council for National Reconciliation because he was interested in bringing peace to Afghanistan. I was happy that he wanted to make a positive difference in the world; my husband’s work has always made me proud.
When we heard that the Americans were going to withdraw their military from Afghanistan, I was afraid. It reminded me of when the Taliban took over 20 years ago. There were reports about a peace conference happening in Qatar, and I was comforted with the thought that, of course, the Americans would ensure that the peace process was a success before they left. But now the situation has changed. And I feel like I am losing myself, losing everything. This feeling, I have never felt this way in all of my life.
The day after the Taliban captured Kabul, we were informed that the United States military was going to evacuate Afghans who had worked with them, the ones who were now in danger. There would be flights leaving from the Kabul airport. I told Danish that we must try to go to the airport, which was only five kilometers from our house. He agreed and emailed some of his former colleagues in the United States to see if they could help.
One of Danish’s previous employers replied to his email and transferred Danish’s documents to the United States agencies that run the P-2 [refugee] program. They asked us to go to a third country and go through the immigration process from there. But all the neighboring borders were closed. Plus, Danish’s passport was about to expire, and my children and I did not even have passports. In addition, Danish hadn’t received his salary for the past two months, so we did not have much money in the bank—only about $200—and, anyway, all the banks were closed.
Even though we were dealing with many issues, Danish attempted to reach the airport’s gates on several occasions. Each time he faced a massive crowd as thousands of people were trying to flee the country just like us. By himself maybe he could have gotten past the crowds, but he could not think of leaving me and the children behind.
Late last year after the Taliban had taken control, my mother-in-law invited us to the wedding of Danish’s brother in Mazar-i-Sharif. We did not want to go, and we had many reasons to avoid it. For one, we didn’t have enough money to travel, and secondly, we also thought it might be traumatizing for our children to see the Taliban at checkpoints. The kids think the Taliban are cannibalistic monsters. However, when we thought about our traditions and considered the pressure from the family, we realized that we had to go despite the hardship. To pay for our travel expenses we sold a set of handmade carpets that were worth about $2,000, but we could only get $300. With that money, we were able to buy some groceries for the house and purchase bus tickets to Mazar-i-Sharif.
Just before leaving, we suddenly realized that my 13-year-old daughter needed to wear a burqa, so Danish and I went to the city market to buy one for her. She is young and still doesn’t even know how to wear a scarf, but now she must wear a burqa. This was the first time I inflicted pain on my daughter.
Although we were traveling for a happy celebration in Mazar, we were shaking in fear the whole time we were on the bus. At the first checkpoint, a Talib stepped onto our bus. We were sitting in the first and second rows, and our children held on to me and Danish tightly, fearing that the Taliban might beat them. I tried to calm my children, but it did not work. All of a sudden, I heard my eight-year-old son say something. My son was so afraid, but he was trying to say salaam to the Talib. The man didn’t hear my son, so my son raised his voice and said salaam again. I knew my son was trying to say salaam because he thought if he greeted the Talib, the man wouldn’t hurt him. I understood my son’s fear.
We arrived in Mazar at last. We were happy that we could be there since the celebration had been planned for so many months. We had even made a playlist for the event, and practiced dancing with those music tracks. But it turned out that no one wanted to dance and there was no music.
After a few days, it was time to go back to Kabul, but, again, we didn’t have any money for our tickets. We used to live in Mazar, and most of our furniture and belongings had remained there. But now we had to sell all of it. I had tears in my eyes as I thought about the things we had bought in Mazar when we first started our life together. I thought about how we had so many dreams for the future then.
When we had enough money, we returned to Kabul, lost in the darkness.
Since the last American evacuation flight left the country, we have lost all hope. We do not have work, so we do not always have enough food for the children to eat. And my older daughter cannot go to school.
Recently, the Taliban started doing house-to-house searches in Kabul. One day when Danish was away, they came to our home to search and tossed our things everywhere. My children and I were terrified.
For us and for our whole society, every moment of being alive is crammed with concerns.
I pass my days and nights praying that Danish will not be assassinated by the Taliban.
The only thing that brings a smile to my face is when my little daughter, who is only three, uses her childish imagination to talk about us going to America. America has become like a dream for her. She makes us laugh whenever she does these four things:
- When she says to her brother, “Brother, come sit on my bike, we’ll go to America.”
- When she plays at telling our fortune with a deck of cards, and if you ask her, “What are you doing?” she replies, “I am looking at our future to see if we are going to America or not.”
- When we eat our meals and pray at the end, and after the prayers, my daughter keeps her hands up and says, “I pray for us to go to America.”
- Whenever she asks for something that I cannot provide for her, because of our precarious financial situation, she gets frustrated and screams “Taliban come and beat my mom.”
One day, Danish received an email from a previous employer. They asked us to send our passports so that they could proceed with our evacuation from Afghanistan. But first we needed to get our passports. The Taliban has announced that everyone must file their passport applications in the province where their national IDs were issued, and Danish and my children had theirs issued in Badakhshan. Mine was issued in Balkh, but, as a woman, I could not travel alone to my home province. We decided to all travel to Badakhshan together.
Of course, we did not have enough money to travel again, nor did we have money for the passport fees, so we had to borrow some from Danish’s American friends.
It took 11 hours on the bus to travel to Kishim, Danish’s birthplace, where we were welcomed into the house of Danish’s uncle. Kishim is an hour and 45 minutes’ drive away from Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, where Danish needed to take the passport applications.
We thought that the process of obtaining passports would take about three days. But soon the days stretched into weeks. The Taliban have created a commission led by the provincial director of intelligence to review the documents of people applying for passports to prevent some people from leaving the country. The first day Danish went to the capital, he came back in the evening to say that the chairman of the passport commission was not there. The next day Danish went back to the capital and waited there till dawn, but still didn’t get to see the commissioner. The following day, he learned that the commissioner went to another district with the Taliban and wouldn’t be available for the next couple of days. The next time Danish went to the capital, he succeeded in meeting with the commissioner who told him that we needed to wait for two months and two days to apply for our passports. When Danish pleaded with him, saying that we didn’t have enough money to prolong our stay, a Talib hit him with a whip and kicked him out of the office.
After this, Danish wanted to give up and go back to Kabul, but I said, let’s try one more time. The next morning Danish got on the road to Faizabad with his cousin. On the way they saw a young man who was hitchhiking. Danish asked his cousin to stop, saying that good acts could bring “sawab,” or good fortune. Danish’s cousin didn’t want to stop, but Danish felt pity for the young man since they were driving through a desert and there weren’t any other cars around. When they stopped the car for the young man, it turned out that Danish’s cousin knew him; in fact, they used to play soccer together. And what’s more extraordinary and surely a good sign, his name was Sawab.
In the car, Danish explained to Sawab about why they were going to Faizabad. And Sawab told him that the passport commissioner was his good friend. When the Taliban were rebelling against the previous government, Sawab used to help the man’s family financially. He assured Danish that he would speak to the passport commissioner about our applications.
Sawab accompanied Danish to the man’s office. Now the commissioner couldn’t ignore the request of his good friend Sawab, and he suggested that we apply as sick patients seeking to leave the country for treatment.
We were worried about this since we didn’t have any illnesses and, more importantly, we didn’t have any documents to prove an illness. Still, we went to the hospital to see what could be done. When we arrived, a doctor walked up to Danish and gave him a big hug. He asked, “What are you doing here?” The doctor had studied in Mazar and used to visit our house. When Danish explained to him about our passports and the health forms, the doctor smiled, “Mr. Danishwar, I have enjoyed your hospitality so many times in Mazar. Please don’t worry about this ordeal. I am the chief of the health commission here, and I will approve your forms.”
And he did. He approved a list of different false illnesses for Danish and testified that I’m my husband’s caretaker. The doctor wrote that we needed to go abroad to seek treatment.
After that, we experienced more delays when the computer system at the passport office was down, and it took 11 days to fix it. Finally, we were able to visit the passport department and the person in charge signed everyone’s documents but mine. He argued that my national ID was issued in Balkh province, and I should apply for my passport there. Danish tried to convince him about our case, but when he pleaded too much, the officials whipped Danish in front of his own children. My children started crying, and even I couldn’t stop my tears.
The next day, Danish went to the passport department alone to at least try to get a refund for the fees we had paid for my passport, but they informed him that the money had already been transferred to the Ministry of Economy and could not be refunded. Danish went back to the passport manager and begged him to let me complete the passport process because we didn’t have enough money to reapply in Balkh. At last, the manager accepted his request.
March 8, 2022
When the war in Ukraine started, of course, we prayed for the people there. But we are also worried because as Western countries have started focusing on Ukraine, they seem to be forgetting about Afghanistan. Now the migration process here seems to be at a standstill. I worry that there is no hope for me and my family to get to safety.
March 29, 2022
We received our passports and are going to apply for visas for Pakistan. We are happy that we now have some hope.
Postscript: In early May 2022, Nilufar and her family finally received all they needed to leave Afghanistan: their passports, visas, and plane tickets. They traveled to Pakistan and have now settled in Islamabad while they wait for new visas to immigrate to the United States, a process that may take several years. Nonetheless, Nilufar said she can’t explain how happy she is that her family is out of immediate danger. She says her main wish now is that “the US will not forget our people in Afghanistan.”