Episode #1 Transcript — The Fall: Escape from Afghanistan Begins

Project Brazen (00:05):

Nelufar Hedayat (00:08):
Please note, this episode contains references to war and violence. Please take care whilst listening.

Ogai (00:14):
On the street there was rush of people, “Oh, Taliban came. Taliban came.” Taliban arrived to Kabul.

Tariq (00:29):
You could see the fear on peoples faces and everybody’s running all over the places.

Fatima Faizi (00:34):
People in Kabul they are in jeans, T-shirts and their stuff but all of a sudden everybody was in pure traditional clothing.

Obaidullah (00:43):
The last thing you wanted to do with the Taliban fresh from the battle and fresh into power is to tell them that you were a lecturer at the American university.

Anon (00:54):
In excess of 10,000 Afghans trying to get into this gate and the Taliban were quite hands on. They had whips and sticks.

Mary (01:01):
And all we heard was explosion, explosion, explosion.

Javed (01:04):
I don’t know what to do with this scenario. Can you tell me clearly what should we do right now?

Fatima (01:11):
I was told to pack my life in a back pack. One dress, a pair of underwear and that’s it.

Taara (01:19):
We had to leave my husband there when we had to go and he was a little stronger than me but I was breaking down and crying in tears.

Obaidullah (01:32):
Sometimes a lifetime passes by and nothing happens and sometimes a lifetime passes by in a moment.

Nelufar Hedayat (01:43):
Last August the world watched as thousands of Afghans converged on Kabul’s airport desperate to flee. They came from all over the country and they knew that leaving was a matter of life and death. The Taliban threatened to erase hard won reforms undoing two decades of progress practically over night. So people packed onto buses, they pushed, they pleaded, some even clung to the sides of U.S. military planes as they lifted off.

From Project Brazen and PRX this is Kabul Falling, a podcast about the human stories behind those chaotic scenes.

SFX (02:36):
[inaudible 00:02:36].

Nelufar Hedayat (02:41):
Over the next eight episodes you’ll meet ordinary Afghans who were there when the Taliban returned to power. You’ll hear stories about big risks, very close calls and unexpected moments of kindness or luck that changed everything. You won’t hear from pundits or talking heads, but from Afghans who share the extraordinary things people did to help them escape and how in the midst of chaos they helped each other. This is episode one, The Fall.

I’m your host Nelafur Hedayat. I’m a journalist in London but I was born in Afghanistan. In 1994 when I was just six years old I escaped the civil war that first brought the Taliban into power. My family fled our homeland and we built a new life in England. Just a few years later in 2001 American troops invaded Afghanistan and cast out the Taliban.

Newsreel (03:49):
And this morning as the forces of the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul the people took to the streets.

Nelufar Hedayat (03:56):
Many Afghans cheered this new beginning. They were excited to rebuild their country as a democratic republic based on human rights, freedom, and equality yet almost immediately this dream came under threat. Warlords and strongmen jockeyed for power. American commanders and policy makers sank deeper into a quagmire of their own creation.

George W. Bush (04:22):
This war will not be quit and this war will not be easy.

Barack Obama (04:27):
It’s been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power yet war rages on.

Donald Trump (04:33):
No one denies that we have inherited a challenging and troubling situation in Afghanistan.

Nelufar Hedayat (04:41):
The defeated Taliban moved into the border regions growing stronger and plotting their next move, yet a new generation believed in a free Afghanistan. They fought for that dream and kept it alive. Some got out of the country. Others didn’t. All are still dealing with how the fall of Afghanistan upended their lives. Kabul fell to the Taliban last year but to many Afghans it’s still falling. Their stories are like fraying threads cut loose from an unfinished tapestry that is now unraveling in front of our eyes. Afghanistan is often portrayed in the western media as a bleak place where women’s lives are severely restricted, but before the Taliban returned to power young women in Afghanistan cities were pursuing opportunities across a wide range of professions.

Ogai (05:54):
I was happy as a journalist, as a girl in Afghanistan, as an activist woman in Afghanistan.

Nelufar Hedayat (06:01):
That’s Ogai Wardak, a young journalist who worked at a channel called ZAN TV, which means Women’s TV. It was Afghanistan’s first TV station aimed specifically at women. There were women in front of and behind the camera and its shows covered topics like women in the Afghan army. Back in 2019 the BBC published a video story about Zan TV, in it Ogai is just 18 with an infectious smile and a royal blue scarf draped loosely over her head. She’s a complete natural in front of the camera.

Ogai (06:40):
I have to work for my sisters. If you want a real Afghanistan, if you want a beautiful Afghanistan, so we have to work for Afghanistan.

Nelufar Hedayat (06:50):
Ogai was born in 2001 and had never lived under Taliban rule but she had a message for the group.

Ogai (06:57):
If Taliban will come to Afghanistan I will fight with them.

Nelufar Hedayat (07:04):
But Afghanistan was about to face its biggest challenge in decades.

Donald Trump (07:10):
I’ll be meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not too distant future.

Nelufar Hedayat (07:16):
In February 2020 President Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban setting a timeline to send all American troops home.

Donald Trump (07:25):
The other side’s tired of war, everybody’s tired of war.

Nelufar Hedayat (07:30):
After Joe Biden came into office he followed through with the plan to send the troops back.

Joe Biden (07:36):
I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war.

Nelufar Hedayat (07:47):
The U.S. withdrawal plan emboldened the Taliban to reclaim parts of Afghanistan.

Abdul (07:53):
The government is losing control over the districts, over the administration and slowly, slowly the Taliban start pushing and-

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:08:04]

Abdul (08:00):
Slowly, slowly, the Taliban start pushing and coming close to the city.

Nelufar Hedayat (08:06):
That’s Abdul, a longtime interpreter for American forces. In the Southern Province of Kandahar, he’d been keeping a close eye on every new development.

Newsreel (08:15):
The Afghan government and Taliban met today in Doha, Qatar for the start of peace talks. The historic negotiations aim to form a power sharing government between the two parties and thereby ending more than 40 years of war.

Nelufar Hedayat (08:29):
The Taliban agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government and to prevent Al-Qaeda from operating in areas they controlled. In return, the U.S. promised to withdraw all troops by September the 11th, 2021. It was a meaningful date for the American public but a completely arbitrary one for Afghans like Abdul, who would bear the brunt of the decision.

Abdul (08:52):
That was the time when people realized that the situation is not going in the right path. They say that the Americans will leave us behind.

Nelufar Hedayat (09:04):
Over more than a decade working as a translator for U.S. intelligence and military officials, Abdul had seen a lot of the Afghan government’s inner dealings. He held a more nuanced view.

Abdul (09:15):
I was like, “Man, I don’t know exactly. All these things are happening because of ourselves, because we are the ones doing all these corruptions. We are the ones not being able to form a good government. No one is going to help you forever.”

Nelufar Hedayat (09:35):
Still, as the Americans prepared to leave, Abdul had many reasons to feel nervous. By now, he’d left interpreting and was running his own business selling green tea and rice in Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan. He remembered living under Taliban rule in the ’90s. Back then, his mother and sisters were forbidden from leaving their home. They didn’t have electricity or running water.

Abdul (09:58):
“Why did you shave your beards? Why you are listening to music? And don’t do this, don’t do that.”

Nelufar Hedayat (10:04):
Under those conditions, all their hopes of a brighter future had vanished. So as the Taliban advanced again in 2021, Abdul was nervous for his four children, especially his daughters. What kind of future would they have? How would he feed his family? Would he even be around to support them?

Abdul (10:24):
Because I work with the Americans, I work with the Afghan government, so I was basically feeling a fear of my life. I may lose my life.

Nelufar Hedayat (10:34):
Abdul had already received many threats from the Taliban. In 2005, they left a letter on the front gate of his house.

Abdul (10:42):
“We know you have been working with the Americans and you are actually working against the Mujahideen and they are infidels,” and blah, blah, blah. “So we are warning you to quit the job. Otherwise, you will face the consequences.” And at the end of the letter, it was mentioned the Taliban’s Commander Mullah Akhtar Usmani, who was a high rank Taliban official, and his signature.

Nelufar Hedayat (11:18):
After that, Abdul had laid low for a while, but the Taliban kept looking for him. They even held his brother at knife point once in a dangerous case of mistaken identity so he knew what they were capable of and that he needed to make a plan.

Abdul (11:34):
Well, people were very much in panic. Everybody was, “What will be happening next? If a fight takes place, where will we be going and how we can survive?” And all these things.

Nelufar Hedayat (11:50):
Abdul knew he would be one of the Taliban’s first targets if they entered Kandahar again. He had to get his family out of there so he contacted an old friend, someone in America who he knew would be willing to help. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters were storming the provinces. For Salah, a recent college grad and engineer who had landed a job at the Ministry of Agriculture, the timing could not have been worse. We’ve changed his name due to security concerns. Salah’s father was a farmer from the Takhar Province, north of Kabul. He’d moved to the capital earlier that year and used his life savings to open a restaurant.

Salah (12:39):
[foreign language 00:12:39].

Salah’s interpreter (12:39):
The name of the restaurant is called Kandahar Zamin, which means the land of Kandahar, which is the Northern part of Afghanistan.

Nelufar Hedayat (12:49):
The restaurant had blue and yellow walls and extra rooms where weary travelers could bunk down for a night. It offered a simple menu to feed them.

Salah’s interpreter (13:01):
You have kebab, shawarma rolls, and burgers. And there was a very popular dish that was called chinaki, which you put inside the teapot, and it’s a soup with meat.

Nelufar Hedayat (13:15):
The restaurant was in Kabul’s Western Company District, which sits at the crossroad of several main roads. It’s a transportation hub for the rest of the country, which made for good business. But in June 2021, Salah and his dad started to notice something unusual.

Salah’s interpreter (13:33):
A lot of people have started running and migrating from all over because the war was getting very intense. Everybody started fleeing.

Nelufar Hedayat (13:45):
Some of them brought bags and trunks. Some had only the clothes on their backs and no money in their pockets. Many had come to the capital seeking refuge. Others were looking for a way to cross the border and get out of Afghanistan. All had left their lives, their families, and their homes behind. The restaurant became so busy with refugees Salah started working night shifts to feed them. He and his father opened their doors to people who needed a place to stay. There’s one night at the restaurant he can’t forget. It was around midnight and he’d closed up for the day when someone came to the door. It was a young man around 20 years old, just a boy, really, and with him about 10 women and many children. He opened the restaurant for them and they stayed for two days. Salah learned that the women’s husbands were important men, former government employees. Fearing for their safety, they’d heard that this young man and his family were fleeing and asked him to take their wives and children with him. Salah began to realize just how bad things were.

Salah’s interpreter (15:02):
They had to either sell their homes or rent the land. They had gold or anything there, they would sell it to be able to travel from all those distances and then back from Kabul and from here to Iran.

Nelufar Hedayat (15:18):
The young man’s face stuck with him.

Salah’s interpreter (15:21):
He’s alone and tired and afraid. You could see that in his eyes and his eyes were blacked out and he was always worried about what to do.

Nelufar Hedayat (15:39):
Back in Kandahar, Abdul was relieved to reach his American contact, a former CIA officer named Phil. Phil had arrived in Afghanistan in 2004.

Phil (15:49):
I remember the first time I hit the ground there at Kandahar Airfield. It was in the middle of July, so it was probably 110 degrees. A fine dust like baby powder everywhere. White washed sky…

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:16:04]

Phil (16:00):
… Baby powder everywhere, whitewashed sky, because it’s so hot.

Nelufar Hedayat (16:06):
Phil’s job was to collect intelligence on the Taliban. He met Abdul, his interpreter, on day one. Across two assignments, the pair hardly left each other’s side. They drove down winding desert roads, meeting the tribal chiefs and local power brokers. They watched out for one another through roadside ambushes and rockets firing down on camp. Those CIA officers are taught to maintain distance from the people they work with. Phil says he and Abdul became as close as brothers. So Phil was happy to help Abdul apply for a US visa. He began pulling together the employment verification and recommendation letters Abdul needed. In July as the Taliban intensified their assault on the country, Abdul and a cousin decided to fly to Kabul. Their plan was to settle in a safe house first and then bring their families.

Abdul (16:58):
Basically, that was the time when still the flights were available. We had to hurry, because there was a fear that the flights might get canceled if the Taliban get close more to the city.

Nelufar Hedayat (17:11):
A large crowd had gathered at the Kandahar airport. Everyone who could was trying to flee the fighting.

Abdul (17:18):
Too many peoples from Kandahar families and families were moving out of Kandahar. Some of them were trying to go to Pakistan. Some of them were going to Kabul. Some of them were going to Herat. So wherever they have had ties or a safe passage, they were just moving there.

Nelufar Hedayat (17:41):
Abdul said goodbye to his wife and kids and got on the plane to Kabul with nothing but a small handbag. Inside, there were three shirts, a razor, and some toiletries. He had no idea when, if ever, he would be back in Kandahar again. As the summer progressed, the Taliban seized more and more provinces across the country. Belal, a young business student from Kabul, was getting ready to study in the US on a prestigious, Fulbright scholarship. But as his departure date grew nearer, he became increasingly worried. He met his friends for a goodbye party at a local café.

Belal (18:30):
Girls and boys, we were having a table and then cheerful laughing over juice or coffee.

Nelufar Hedayat (18:36):
But he couldn’t shake the feeling that this might be the last time they could sit together like this, because if the Taliban came back to power…

Belal (18:56):
We will not be able to have these gatherings. We knew this is one of those moments that we might miss so big.

Nelufar Hedayat (18:56):
Belal had been working at an international aid organization, helping manage emergency relief programs across the country. One day, he was pulling together a report on Ghazni province when he received news that there had been a change in one of the district governorships. The new governor was part of the Taliban. They’d breached the province and were extending their control over the area. Ghazni was worryingly close to Kabul, just a three and a half hour drive away. On August 8th, Belal hugged his family goodbye and got on the plane, wondering if he was doing the right thing. By then, there were around four big provinces, still controlled by the Afghan government. Belal prayed they would hold. During the flight, he kept checking the BBC News update on the screen in front of him. When he landed, he frantically refreshed his phone to get the latest news.

Newsreel (19:52):
Taliban militants blast their way into Kunduz.

Newsreel (19:56):
Just spell out for me here. The Taliban is basically surrounding the entire city of Kandahar now. Is that correct?

Newsreel (20:04):
Definitely, yes.

Newsreel (20:06):
We can confirm to you that Herat has fallen this evening.

Newsreel (20:10):
Sources saying the Taliban have taken the Northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban now controlled the entire north of Afghanistan as well as large swaths of…

Nelufar Hedayat (20:21):
Even as the provinces were falling, the central government in Kabul continued to insist that everything was fine. Around that time, Hamid Samar, the founder of ZAN TV where Ogai worked, was invited to a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani. Hamid walked into the presidential palace to find a group of around 20 other media executives.

Hamid (20:44):
The president, Ashraf Ghani, told us that nothing will be happening in the countries and everything is saved. We have a strong national army and national securities.

Nelufar Hedayat (20:51):
President Ghani also addressed the nation. I remember watching it on Facebook.

President Ashraf Ghani translator (20:58):
Though, I know that you are worried about your current situation and your future, I assure you that as your president, my focus is on preventing the expansion of instability, violence, and displacement of my people.

Nelufar Hedayat (21:10):
His message was clear, keep calm and carry on. But then on August 13th, the Taliban took control of Heart, Afghanistan’s biggest Western province. Rodaba, a university student in Herat, was caught by surprise. That afternoon, she headed out to a bakery with her mother to buy bread. They lived in an area with lots of shopping malls, which were usually bustling with people day and night. But looking around, she realized all the stores were empty.

Rodaba (21:42):
Suddenly, shotguns started firing. And then my mom was shouting, “Hurry up, hurry up. Let’s go.” And then when we were leaving, we just saw that the Taliban just came to the center of the city. They took everywhere, even they took the police stations, also. And we just went to the home.

Nelufar Hedayat (22:05):
Rodaba and her family huddled together in a state of panic, too scared to move or even eat.

Rodaba (22:12):
This time, we understood that everything we have done and everything we have achieved is finished. There is no more future in Afghanistan.

Nelufar Hedayat (22:22):
Rodaba’s mother had raised six children and sent the eldest four to college. The youngest two were still at school.

Rodaba (22:29):
They have lots of achievements, and she understood that all of them are gone and everything is going to be under the soil.

Nelufar Hedayat (22:45):
Herat’s fall sent shockwaves across the country and to observers around the world. It’s a major city in the west of Afghanistan with a lot of history. To many people watching, it now seemed clear. Kabul would be next. Since Abdul fled Kandahar for Kabul in mid-July, he had been messaging almost daily with Phil, his friend from the CIA.

Abdul (23:17):
I consider Phil as my elder brother. Phil is a type of person who is very kind. He keeps the friendship.

Nelufar Hedayat (23:26):
In early August, Abdul’s family found a way to join him in Kabul. After the Taliban began attacking Kandahar’s airport, there’d been no more flights. Seats on the last few planes went to well-connected officials, so Abdul’s wife and four kids piled into a cramped taxi and made the 10 hour drive to the capital safely. Abdul arranged a safe shelter near the American embassy. The family stayed there for weeks, waiting for his visa papers to clear. Late in the day on August the 14th, they finally received good news. The last HR letter had arrived from Phil. Abdul planned to submit his application the following…

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:24:04]

Nelufar Hedayat (24:00):
Arrived from Phil. Abdul planned to submit his application the following day, but right outside their window, around 5:00 PM, he noticed something that worried him.

Abdul (24:13):
The Americans starts moving their embassy towards Kabul Airport. And so the whole night, all the way till next morning, 10:00 AM, the flights, the helicopters were going up and down, up and down doing the shipment work.

Nelufar Hedayat (24:32):
Abdul went to bed that night overwhelmed by dread. Something big was happening. Across the city, Ogai, the Zan TV journalist awoke the next morning on August the 15th and set out like it was any other day. She would go to her university first, where she was still finishing her studies, and then to her job at the station.

Ogai (25:01):
My father told me, “Don’t go to work and university because today is I think not good day for us”. Then I said, “Dad, no, everything is normal”. So when I went to university, there was no classmates. There was no students.

Nelufar Hedayat (25:16):
But on the streets, she saw a rush of people, all in a panic, trying to wrap their heads around the news.

Ogai (25:22):
Oh, Taliban came, Taliban came, Taliban, arrived to Kabul and there was no taxis, no cars.

Nelufar Hedayat (25:30):
Ogai frantically called her colleagues who told her they were rushing back home and she should do the same. She started running to her house.

Ogai (25:39):
I cried and my father told me that, “Relax, relax. Everything will be okay.” Then I said, “No, dad. How it’s possible? Country is gone. There is nothing.”

Nelufar Hedayat (25:52):
As soon as Hamid, ZAN TV’s founder, heard the Taliban had entered Kabul, he called his employees.

Hamid (25:59):
And I just called everyone to just be at home safe and do not go out. And the offices, just leave everything in the office.

Nelufar Hedayat (26:07):
Hamid frantically tried to get home, but traffic choked the streets. He was still in shock. Just a week before, the president of Afghanistan had told him straight to his face that there was nothing to worry about. He watched the large black cars of government officials and their bodyguard bully their way through clogged roads. Police officers changed out of their uniforms and into traditional tunics so they wouldn’t be targeted by the Taliban. Everyone was preparing for what seemed like the inevitable.

Hamid (26:37):
What happened in less than 24 hours, the 21 years achievements, the goals, the visions, everything is just finished. And we just went to back, like a century’s back.

Nelufar Hedayat (26:49):
Back in their safe house near the US embassy, Abdul and his family had not gone outside all day. Something that morning had felt off to him and he decided to remain at home, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Abdul (27:02):
Some people were saying that the Talibans entered the Kabul City. Some were saying, “No, they are at the edge of the Kabul City.” Some say that the government will fight with them, but there was a panic in the minds of everybody.

Nelufar Hedayat (27:18):
That afternoon, he saw for himself, the Taliban were here. Abdul watched them from the building’s third floor window as night fell.

Abdul (27:28):
But yeah, the Taliban came on that road next to the house, the building in which I was staying, that was intranet office providing the internet. So they had a big tower on the roof of the building. The Taliban thought that this might be a government office as well. At nighttime, they tried to enter the building. The security camera, they broke the camera out the front door.

Nelufar Hedayat (27:59):

After hours of watching this nightmare unfold, Abdul and his family didn’t know what else to do. They went to bed and tried to get some sleep. Later that night, the building security guard appeared at the door. He looked shaken. “The Taliban were downstairs”, he told Abdul, and they wanted to speak with him. In our next episode of Kabul Falling…

Tariq (28:34):
You didn’t respect our warning and you didn’t listen to us and we will come after you.

Ogai (28:38):
And they start the searching house by house. I thought that there is no more life Ogai for you. They will kill you.

Abdul (28:46):
The long shirts, lashing was pretty much fucking scary faces. And so this is that. Who are you?

Nelufar Hedayat (28:55):
We want to hear from you. Please get in touch via our website kabulfalling.com, where you can send a voice message or tweet using #kabulfalling. We’ll share some of the best responses during the course of the show. Also, to support the women of Kandahar Treasure, you can buy one of their hand embroidered scarves on our website. 100% of the proceeds will go to this women owned collective in Afghanistan.

Kabul Falling is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Our managing producer is Lucy Woods and Ireland Meacham is the producer. Susie Armitage is our co-producer and story editor. And Siddhartha Mahanta is our consulting producer. Our associate producers are Dan Xin Huang, Fatima Faizi, Francesca Gilardi-Quadrio-Curzio, and Neha Wadekar. Additional reporting was done by Nigel Walker. Our translators are Hasan Azimi and [ ]. Arson Fahim composed the original theme music. Sound design, musical scoring, and mixing by Brad Stratton. Cover design by Ryan Ho and Jane Zisman. Embroidery by Women of Kandahar Treasure. Additional audio and video by Nicholas Brennan, Megan Dean, and KK, with special thanks to Clayton Swisher. For more information on the people featured in this podcast and additional interviews, visit kabulfalling.com. Audiation.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [00:30:45]