On Saturday morning, a former interpreter for an American company in Kabul plunged into a mass of humanity in front of a door of the Kabul airport with her family in tow.
Even though she was being pushed around and elbowed by people in the crowd, she continued, desperate to get a flight out of the country for everyone accompanying her – her husband, her 2 year old daughter, her disabled parents, three sisters and a cousin.
Then the crowd poured in. The whole family was thrown to the ground. People stomped on them where they lay, the woman recalls a few hours later.
She remembered that someone broke her cell phone and someone else kicked her in the head. She couldn’t breathe, so she tried to rip off her abaya, a robe like a robe.
As she struggled to get up, she said, she looked for her toddler. The girl was dead, trampled to death by the crowd.
“I felt pure terror,” the woman said in a telephone interview from Kabul. “I couldn’t save her.”
In the six days since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, Afghans have negotiated a terrifying new reality after enduring 20 years of war and suicide bombings. Their world has been turned upside down, and something as prosaic as a trip to the airport now inspires terror. Just walking through the front door can be shocking and disorienting.
Across the country, Afghans who served the US military effort in Afghanistan, or the former US-backed government, are in hiding, many of them threatened with death by the Taliban. Armed men went door to door, looking for “collaborators” and threatening family members, according to human rights groups.
A 39-year-old former interpreter for the US military and Western aid organizations was hiding in a house in Kabul with his wife and two children on Saturday. He said the Taliban called to say, “Face the consequences, we will kill you.”
The interpreter said he gave up on trying to get a flight after a heartbreaking and ultimately futile attempt to force Taliban gunmen and unruly crowds through the airport the day before. He spends his time calling and texting American soldiers and officers in the United States who are struggling to find ways to save him and his family.
“I am losing hope,” he said over the phone. “I think I may have to accept the consequences. “
Another former US military interpreter was also in hiding in Kabul on Saturday. He, too, said he had given up hope of securing a flight for himself, his wife and young son after two terrifying forays at the airport.
“I lost hope,” he says. “I have lost faith in the US government, which keeps saying, ‘We are going to evacuate our allies.’ “
“Evacuation is impossible,” he added.
Afghans who crowd the airport gates tend to panic whenever tear gas is released or shots are fired into the air to disperse the crowd, the former interpreter said.
“Your child could be stepped on,” he said. “If the United States gives me the entire universe after losing a child, it’s no good.”
To cope with the expected influx of Afghan refugees, the Biden administration is keen to use commercial airlines to transport those arriving in the Gulf states from Kabul for transport to countries willing to offer them resettlement.
In Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw neighborhood, an Afghan journalist said she finally ventured outside after hiding inside since last Sunday. Trying to obey the restrictions imposed by the Taliban on women, she wore a full abaya.
“It was so heavy I felt sick,” she said. And in the street, she said, “There is no music, nothing. All you hear are the Taliban talking on TV and radio.
She said her sister-in-law appeared in front of male family members with her hair uncovered. Her brother-in-law gave her a vicious kick and said, “Put on your damn scarf!”
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
A former Interior Ministry police officer who was also in hiding had seen Taliban fighters ransack the ministry, combing through documents containing detailed information about the employees. He was afraid they would come and get him.
“Kabul has become a city of fear,” the officer said.
In Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, a reporter said he was hiding inside his home on Saturday, fearing to show his face. He had reported on the Taliban atrocities when the government controlled the province. Now the Taliban were in control and on the lookout for reporters, he said.
“The Taliban will kill me and my family members, just like they killed my colleagues,” the journalist said.
In the eastern province of Khost, another male journalist was also in hiding, moving between his home and that of a family member. Taliban fighters roared across the province in vehicles provided by the United States and captured by Afghan security forces, he said. He feared they would find him soon.
“I have no more hope,” he said. “Pray for me.”
In Kabul, the woman whose daughter was killed said the family were able to bring the girl’s body back for burial. She cried as she remembered how she tried to allay her daughter’s fears every time gunshots rang out in their neighborhood: she had told her they were “firecrackers” – firecrackers.
“My baby was such a brave child,” she said. “When she heard the gunshots, she would just shout, ‘Crackers! “”
She said it was unlikely that she and her family would be returning to the airport anytime soon. “I’d rather die with dignity here at home than die in such an unworthy way. “
Inside the Kabul house where the 39-year-old former interpreter was hiding, hope was fading. He said he was pleased with the persistent attempts to assist the American soldiers he once served, but concluded that there was nothing they could do.
“If the Taliban kill me, okay, I can accept it,” he said. “I only ask them to spare my children.
Jim Huylebroek, Sharif Hassan, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.