A year after the Taliban takeover, my heart remains in Kabul

Zabiullah Mujahid
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
Zabiullah Mujahid, left, the spokesman for the Taliban government, speaks during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 30, 2022. Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August 2021, urging them to advise them on running the country. Women were not allowed to attend.

In my native language, Farsi, we often attach the word “Jan” to the end of a person’s name as a term of endearment. Translated literally, Jan means “soul,” and it’s reserved for the living beings we most love and respect. It’s not a word used to describe places, with one exception: Afghanistan’s capital is known as Kabul Jan.

Kabul Jan has witnessed four decades of conflict. It is a burial site for thousands killed by car bombs, including many I knew. But it is also the city that, in the early years of this century, gave me and many others of my generation opportunities we never imagined we could have. It was a place that allowed us to fight for what we wanted. It was also the first and last place I can call home.

My parents fled Afghanistan in the 1990s to escape Taliban rule, so I was born a refugee. We

returned when the Taliban were driven out after 9/11 and for the first time in my life, I felt at ease. I met cousins, aunts, uncles and other family members I had never known.

As a refugee in Iran, I had been denied access to education. In Kabul, I was able to study. There were rules and cultural norms I disagreed with, but I had the freedom to push back against them. I could fight to wear what I wanted, decide what to think, and choose when to laugh.

I went on to Herat University and studied law, because as a person who had witnessed discrimination firsthand, I knew how important laws are to protect the rights of those whose rights are oppressed, violated and otherwise mistreated. I wanted to make a difference and be an active member of the “new Afghanistan,” where women were becoming an integral part of civic life.

After graduation, I got a job as an ethics adviser supporting the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, providing training to the ministry’s staff. Later, I joined the International Development Law Organization, which advised the Afghanistan Justice Sector. I was the only female adviser on the team, so I had to prove myself constantly and fight cultural norms that discriminated against women.

In 2014, the Taliban attacked my office and six of my colleagues were killed. In 2016, as thousands of Afghans took to the streets to protest the Afghan government’s discriminatory policies in doling out electricity, an armed group called the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, bombed them, killing and injuring more than 350 people. 

Less than a year later, in May 2017, extremists bombed Zanbaq Square, a busy intersection in central Kabul, a few kilometers from my office. More than 400 were killed or injured. The windows in our office shattered and we were knocked to the ground and covered in dust.  

We were living in a city under siege, but we were hopeful. We were working to build a democratic Afghanistan, a place governed by the rule of law, where women and girls had opportunity, where the media were free, and every child had the right to education. 

I left Kabul in 2019 to pursue a master’s degree in human rights in the United Kingdom. Never for a second did I consider not returning. I wanted to be useful, and nowhere could I be more useful and have more impact than in my Kabul Jan.

Then the United States brokered an agreement with the Taliban and did not include the Afghan government in the negotiations. The Taliban proclaimed victory. There was nothing in the agreement about women’s rights, or the rights of girls to go to school. The only thing the U.S. demanded was that the Taliban prevent any armed group from using Afghan soil against the security of the United States and its allies.

Eighteen months later, on Aug. 15, 2021, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country and my Afghanistan was lost. Once again, I became a refugee. 

In the 12 months since the Taliban took control, I have watched my country descend into a humanitarian and human rights crisis. My generation — those of us who were lucky enough to get an education — are scattered around the globe or in hiding. People are dying of hunger and preventable diseases because they don’t have access to basic medicine. Women are barred from public life. The press is muzzled. And yet, I see foreign diplomats meeting with Taliban leaders abroad, smiles beaming, women conspicuously absent from the photos.

I know we can’t go back in time. But would it be too much for the United Nations Security Council to impose travel bans on senior Taliban officials — and for the UN Human Rights Council to mandate an international body to collect evidence of the grave human rights abuses being committed in Afghanistan today so that there could be justice one day? Can donor countries and the World Bank not find ways to address mass hunger through mechanisms that avoid funding the Taliban authorities? Can countries not open their borders to Afghan refugees and expand visa opportunities for at-risk Afghans? 

We have lost our beautiful Afghanistan for now, but it is still my home. Many of my close friends and extended family members are still in Kabul Jan, and more importantly, so is my heart. And it is broken.

Fereshta Abassi is a researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @FereshtaAbbasi.

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