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Muzhgan’s Diary: A Journey from Afghanistan to the Farthest Place in the World

I am Muzhgan, born and raised in Herat, one of the largest cities in Afghanistan. It’s a city known for its culture, poetry and music. I was born on a cold winter evening—or as my 68-year-old mother puts it, after Herat’s mesmerizing sunset—in Dalw (February) in a mud-and-brick house in Boland Aab, a village within Herat. My mother, who eagerly expected a son felt the weight of her responsibilities at home upon seeing me, as I was the latest of several daughters already born to her.

No sooner had I become familiar with the colorful world of the streets than I had my hair cut alongside the boys in a relative’s house: only eight years old, I had to turn into a boy for our daughter-filled house and for my ill father; I was no more than a kid, but it was a crime for my sisters to leave the house without a mahram (a Sharia-approved male companion).

I became neither a mahram nor a sayeh-sar (custodian). But I could leave the house dressed as a boy. I was renamed Sohrab [a male name], and my long hair, cut and tucked into a scarf, was taken away by a stream’s gushing water.

During the days when I was “Sohrab,” once inside the four walls of our home, I spent time alongside my sisters reading stories from the great poet Rumi, listening to my father reading the poetry of Hafiz and listening to the long epic poem, Shahnama.

I did not yet know how to write when I began uttering lyrical and poetic phrases, so my elder sisters wrote them down for me. The following is my first poem:

In your memory, in my memory,

I am like dry, burnt wood,

Do not seek a toy from me,

I sold away my childhood.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are felt with a clash of identities: being a girl at home and pretending to be a boy outside. There was oppression and suppression on one hand, and a love for learning, listening to music, and drawing on the other. Later on, in my youth, I became obsessed with poetry and writing. I studied art and economics at the Ustad Kamaludin Behzad Institute and Alama Private University. I moved to Kabul and found a job in the government at the presidential palace.

The Fall of Kabul and the Beginning of Darkness
I went to work at an office in the presidential palace five days a week for almost seven years.

Within the first few days of August 2021, most of the more than 400 districts of my beloved homeland had fallen to the Taliban. I continued reporting to work despite the uncertainties and the deteriorated security.

My sixth sense kept telling me that the dark era of the Taliban would return. The mere thought of it gave me chills. As a child, life under the Taliban had robbed me of my identity in public and, as a result, I felt as if my childhood was taken away from me. Every time thoughts about my childhood resurfaced, I tried to brush them off and remind myself of the statements and promises made by the new leaders in government, authority figures such as President Ashraf Ghani and by the American military generals and diplomats who said, “Afghanistan will not fall to the Taliban,” and that the peace process, brokered by the United States, would lead to a political solution.

The Sunday when the Taliban took control of the presidential palace in Kabul after President Ghani fled the country (August 15, 2021), I did not go to the office. I was in the city, but in an area close to my office. My younger sister and I were in a taxi, along with my brother and his wife, heading to Golbahar, a shopping center.

All of a sudden, we noticed that the city fell into a chaos. Cars started going in all directions. Passersby started screaming and running away. I asked the taxi driver what was happening. Trying to assume a brave appearance, he turned to me and said, ‘Maybe, the Taliban have captured the city.’ Then he turned on the radio. His phone rang. I could hear someone telling him, “Where are you, Sidiq? Get out of the city! The Taliban have entered the city from Kota Sangi.” Once he noticed the dread on our faces, the driver turned to us and said, “Don’t worry! I will take you back to your home no matter what.”

My mother began calling, urging us to return home. Her trembling voice coupled with the silence of my younger sister, who was in the taxi with me, filled me with deep pain. I held my sister’s head in my arms and told her, “Don’t worry! We will make it home.”

The roads were congested. The sounds of gunfire came closer and closer. People were fleeing on bare feet. I saw passersby who threw away their shopping bags and fled for safety. Not knowing what to do, I was hoping that this was only a nightmare. Terror had erupted everywhere in sight. It seemed as if even the sky was filled with sadness. The shopkeepers were closing their shops. A feeling of suffocation descended upon me. All roads were congested. The taxi we were riding in could not find a way out. I heard strange sounds. It was the Taliban’s celebratory gunfire mingled with the dreadful voices of people.

I began to lose hope of ever making it back home, of ever again seeing my family and spouse again. Once our taxi had made some headway, my eyes fell on a pick-up truck carrying the Taliban fighters. There were pieces of cloth tied around their foreheads, their guns directed to the sky, and their darkened eyes gazing at people. As soon as my eyes met those of a Talib, I turned away. They were mostly youngsters aged 16 to 18. Only a couple of them were older, 30 to 40, I assume. My hands and feet were trembling. No longer able to talk, I descended into a silence filled with pain and rancor. The taxi driver turned to us and said, “I don’t think I can take you home under the circumstances. I have to head back home. You need to get off here.”

My feet could not move. Not knowing what to do, I looked at my brother and his wife. We had to get out of the taxi. As soon as we did so, we began colliding with frantic people who aimlessly moved in all directions. My brother approached a different taxi, which was moving as we were running after it. “There are four women with me and it’s not safe for them to be here given the situation. Please take us out of this area,” he pleaded. “I can’t promise that I’ll take you back to your home. You can see the situation in the city,” responded the taxi driver, who let us in.

We hurried into the cab and it began to move faster. When we approached an intersection called Deh Mazang Square on the way out of Kabul, I saw a heavily armed Taliban convoy which had entered city. Then it dawned upon me that our city and country was back to the dark days of the Taliban rule and that we would once again see those days of despair.

Escape from Kabul: Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness
This time, the taxi took us to our neighborhood. I began running toward home. The sound of gunfire and the screams of people who ran in all directions was already a deeply felt pain for me. The first person I saw from our family was my mother, who, clad in an all-enveloping chador, was running towards me. She took me into her arms. I felt weak and listless. My mother turned to me and said, “Muzhgan, everyone was saying that Kabul would not fall. Do you see what they did? They abandoned us all to these oppressors. They abandoned our oppressed people to these barbaric creatures.”

The international community or human rights bodies were nowhere to be found. I felt as if everyone had abandoned Afghanistan. I could not believe this was real.

I was worried for my brother, my spouse, my sisters, and for myself. In addition to working in the government, I was involved in civic activities. I wrote poems and did art and painting, too. Since, as a family, we were involved in cultural and artistic activities, I was worried they’d eliminate us one by one. After capturing the provinces neighboring Kabul, the Taliban had persecuted whomever they could identify as having worked for the government, civics, journalism, rights, or was involved in the arts. My mother cried out, “Which one of you should I worry for? They’ll kill all my children.”

Having had to conceal my identity by wearing boys’ clothes during the Taliban’s previous stint at power, I was fully familiar with the repression of these barbaric creatures. I turned the TV on to see what had happened. As soon as I had confirmed that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, I turned the TV off. I withdrew to a corner, thinking about what was to happen. I was worried about everything. It occurred to me that I had left my belongings in the office in a locked cupboard, which included my diary notebook and other personal items. My mind was occupied with a thousand things. I was wondering if I could ever be able to go back to the office. I thought about my family and my country, whose wounds we had tried to nurse over the past two decades. But now everything seemed to have vanished into thin air.

I stood before my room’s open window when my eyes fell upon the roof of a neighbor’s house and a police station, which was now occupied by Taliban fighters walking from one side to another, donning their turbans and with eyes sparking in happiness. I closed the window, with my hands and feet trembling. I called my mother in and told her that we needed to leave our house. “The Taliban are just outside our walls now,” I said. My mother’s face turned pale. She said, “If they want, they can easily enter our house through the balcony.” We closed the curtains and all gathered in a room. My mother uttered a sigh and said, “Where should I take this pain?”

One thing that really preoccupied my mind at this time was that everyone, from those at the highest echelons of the Afghan government to American generals serving in Afghanistan, used to say that Kabul would not fall that soon. This really bothered me. I felt as if everyone had misled us. What an act of oppression toward us! The day the American forces left Afghanistan, I knew that a huge risk lay ahead. But our arrogant leaders kept giving us false hopes. They ruined everything and then left us all alone.

Just a day before the fall of Kabul, we held a meeting at the office to ask for a few days off until the situation got better. We were told that even if the Taliban captured all other provinces, they would not be able to take Kabul for about three months. But these were all lies. The Taliban had been seen in Kabul. Women complained more than everyone else about this issue. Whenever I left the office, I used to hurry back to my car because my driver told me that he had been seeing suspicious individuals around the office.

Until recently, I still had some hope that the international community would help us out of this situation and that things would change for the better. But alas, nobody heard our screams. It seemed as if everyone abandoned Afghanistan, leaving it to be consumed by ignorance. With the fall of Kabul, which was our last hope, everything, as far as progress, ended. We returned to the Taliban’s dark days. Once again, women became the oppressed sex that they were two decades ago; once again, men became the imposed breadwinners for their families.

My husband was beside me. A kind man, but with a letter from the Taliban saying that he had been tried in absentia for his work exposing the Taliban’s treatment of women.  It was not long since we began our married life. I was worried about the future of his family and of my own.

When I looked outside the window, our neighborhood smelt of pain. Everyone was pained and distraught.

The Journey to the Airport
Four days had passed since the fall of Kabul. Everything had ended: no job, no going out, nothing. The Taliban were the only ones who talked, through the Islamic Emirates news agency. I was homebound. A woman who left home every day for work–wearing half-red lipstick, mascara  and a perfume that she had chosen with her heart, was now condemned to home. Prior to this moment, I was happy in my daily life, eagerly looking at my workplan each day I was at work in my office. I was financially independent and led a free and peaceful life. I was happy to be serving my country and my people. Everything was going well. Now, even the thought of not being able to continue that path killed me. I had lost all hope.

The day after the Taliban overran Kabul, the city had become part of their rulership and there were no politics but that of the Taliban. It was about 10 a.m. when my cellphone rang. A lady from the other end said, “Hello, I am calling you form the United States. Am I talking to Muzhgan?” I responded with a yes. The lady added, “My name is Belquis. We provide support to women under threat so they can leave Afghanistan. Your name is on the list of women under threat that we have. If you can trust us, please make your passports handy.” I let her continue. She asked if the cellphone number was my own, to which I replied affirmatively. As soon as the call ended, I called my sister to tell her about the phone conversation I just had. After she asked the caller’s name and surname, my sister advised me to follow the woman’s advice. “Hopefully, something good will happen.” I began to sense a strange feeling of hopefulness. Later, I learned that Belquis was working with a group called White Scarves to help us.*

After I had finished that phone call, I could not believe it. But I had a strange feeling. I was wondering that, given our hopeless situation, if this was our way out. With recurrent phone calls, our case moved fast. On Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 after we sent in our passports and ID cards, we were told to go to the airport.

Since the airport was flooded with people, it was almost impossible to get to its gates. The airport area was controlled by everyone, from the Taliban fighters to unknown soldiers. People had dashed to the airport to escape the situation, many without any documentation. There was no way to get inside. Huge crowds were standing outside all of the entrances. We tried to get inside the airport, waiting close to one of the entrances for 48 hours, but had no luck, so we went back home.

Upon returning home, the first news I heard was that some people who had tried to escape by holding on to the body of the planes had fallen to their death. We screamed in agony about the pain unfolding in front of our eyes. For a week, we tried to get inside the airport to no avail. The Taliban fired on people. Every time we failed, it added to our hopelessness. Both the foreign troops and the Taliban fired at people, without regard for people’s lives. Some people had been killed. Some were forced to leave. They used tear gas. One time the tear gas hit my mother, who suffered from asthma. She started having difficulty breathing as a result. We all gathered around her, screaming and crying. We forced her out of the crowd and took her to a hospital. They took her to the emergency section. My mother had become extremely weak.

We didn’t have much to eat during our next attempt to enter the airport, standing in the crowd for 10-15 hours straight and for days and nights. We had neither water nor access to any food or accommodations, including washrooms. For many days, we would wander from one gated entrance to another, without any food or water and in the hot sunlight. We stayed on the street with no floor covering, still under hot sunlight and in the dark of night. The Taliban looked at us with anger, but we did not stop trying. The city was in chaos.

One morning when we were trying to enter the airport from Qasaba (the north gate), the Taliban and the Americans fired on us. Three people were wounded and killed right in front of our eyes. They fired at us without any mercy, trying to force people away from the gates. Bullets came down on us like rain drops. We took refuge under a construction site. We were sitting there in hot weather. Some people associated with the construction site showed up and asked us to leave the premises. Although the bullets kept coming, we were forced to leave the site.

After we left, we moved toward the airport’s gate once again. As soon as we got closer, the force of the crowd would push us back. Whenever we got closer to the gate, gunshots were fired at us. It was a scene of terror and death.

We would go back again and again to the airport’s entrance gates. We had lost count of the number of days and nights we had gone back and forth toward the airport’s various points of entry. The Taliban were moving around us. We felt more tired with each passing day.

People were now displaying various emotional states. Some were showing distress, some laughed, and some showed exhaustion because they had to stay awake so others accompanying them could get some rest. We were close to a hospital and a restaurant. We stayed there for two bitter days and nights. You could see death lurking around everyone. My mother once looked at me and said, “Muzhgan, we were born in war, live in war, and will die in war.” To which I responded, “I’m going back home.” The asthma she suffered from made her seriously ill. After days and nights of living on the street, where something could happen to any of us at any moment, she could no longer take it. I was exhausted and pained. But I took a deep breath and told my mother, “God has a better plan for us. We have endured so many days. Let’s wait some more time.”

Throughout all of this, White Scarves volunteers were in contact with us day and night, almost hourly and sometimes every few minutes via cell phone. Belquis from White Scarves kept saying “We are with you and doing everything we can to get you out safely.” Sometimes, her words would spark hope. Other times, I did not know what to say.

During our multiple attempts at fleeing the country, my family became acquainted with several other groups of families. As a result, I offered to be the point of contact for news provided to me by White Scarves to seven of those families.

Whenever I got a call, everyone wanted to know what was said. They asked what would become of them. They were tired of all the trips to the airport. I had no answers. The days passed by and no end was in sight. On the one hand I witnessed frustration, fear and even despair within the group of families and on the other hand I witnessed indescribable courage, resilience and patience in those trying to rescue us.

Each person in our group would respond to the information I was relaying in different ways. Sometimes they would get very impatient. One would say, “She does not convey our message.” Another would say, “Let me to talk to them, they need to know what we are going through.” I admit that I was hesitant to relay all of the information I received from my mysterious American supporter, knowing that this could dim everyone’s hopes of getting out of Afghanistan. Belquis was someone whom I did not know two weeks ago, but now she had become our only hope. She didn’t have to do all that she was doing to help guide us. Belquis and those for whom she was working on behalf, didn’t owe us anything. The White Scarves volunteers tried to give us hope, while trying to get us out of Afghanistan. On my calls, I could hear several female voices in the background, all except for Belquis, speaking in English. They sounded kind and caring.

The team of people who were trying to help us would constantly encourage us. They were awake day and night for us. For instance, they would call us at 2 a.m. their time. When we saw their efforts, we tried to endure and repeatedly get to the airport. Sometimes, they would call us every few minutes. They did not abandon us, not even for a second. They were with us during the gunfire, as well as during the Taliban’s violence. When we saw the support and dedication pouring in from them, our spirits were lifted and our attitudes changed. Whenever we reported a danger, they’d guide us in a new direction to go to. It was almost as if they were physically there with us. We could sense their humanity and support from afar. Experiencing the kindness of the people who were trying to save us would sometimes cause us to burst into tears and thank God for such support.

I grew to know Belquis as a lady who was deeply concerned about our predicament. When I talked with her, what gave me strength more than anything else was when she said, “Muzhgan, we empathize with you … We know that you are on bare streets under the hot sunlight, but please know that a big team is working day and night to get you out.” They always kept abreast of our situation, which helped us stay strong.

Huge crowds, the Taliban’s angry looks, the efforts we had made to conceal our identities—these were all sources of distress for us. We were terrified of the prospect of dying under the scorching sun as we continued to have nothing to eat and no water to drink.

Eventually, we managed to enter the airport, thanks to the continued guidance from White Scarves and American forces in-charge of the airport at the time. When we got to our departure gate, there was one plane and about a thousand people. We were worried that the plane may not have enough room for everyone in our group of families, 35 in total. They gathered us all in an open space. After eight hours, we were told the plane, a huge military aircraft, would finally be set to take off. We were told we could not take anything with us into the plane. They took away even the one set of clothing we carried with us and threw them into garbage cans. A soldier was standing there, who appeared to be angry with everyone. He sternly told everyone not to carry anything into the plane but themselves. One soldier was extremely violent with everyone. He aimed his gun at everyone and cursed at people. It appeared to me as if everyone was filled with hatred. We threw away everything we had into a garbage can and rushed toward the plane.

As I put my first step onto the plane, I felt suffocated. My legs had no energy to walk. I thought all had ended. With every step, I felt weaker. It was a bittersweet moment that is hard for me to describe. Overjoyed that we were finally safe, I was already longing for my home, my belongings and my books, as well as being worried for my friends. We sat inside the plane, and it took to the skies.

After leaving Kabul, my family and the others who travelled with us spent the next three months on military bases around the world, including the U.S. The men and women in uniform and the civilians on the bases were overwhelmed with the flood of Afghan refugees. They were kind and helped us get through the hardships. I will leave my memories of time on the bases to another time.

I am safe now. My immediate family is safe. We have started a new life far away from the country I call my birthplace and my motherland. We came empty handed and with empty pockets. I couldn’t even withdraw my salary from my bank account. Life is tough at the location where I now reside, as we are starting a new life from scratch.

We are in a place where it is not a crime to be a woman, where getting an education is not a sin. Here, I can choose what to wear, what to watch and where to go. Back in Afghanistan, millions of women and girls are deprived of an education and employment. They are denied agency by the Taliban. They must abide by the dress code the Taliban have chosen for them and they must be accompanied by a male family member anytime they are outside of their homes. The Taliban have turned my birthplace into a prison for women and girls.

No human being deserves to be treated the way the Taliban treats Afghans. There are times I feel guilty that I escaped, like I have abandoned the women and girls of my country and there is nothing I can do to help ease their sufferings. I cry from thousands of miles away along with Afghan girls who wish to go to school, but who are met with the Taliban’s barbarism. I cry for the woman who was the breadwinner of her family, but now, forbidden from working outside of her home, is reduced to begging for a loaf of bread on city streets while carrying her baby in her arms.

The Taliban have taken away every possible opportunity from women to earn a dignified income. All of this because of their twisted ideology, misogyny, and hatred for education.

While I may not be able to help my Afghan sisters back home, I know the international community can and the most powerful country in the world can.


 *White Scarves include Vital Voices Global Partnership, Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the U.S. Department of State, Mina’s List, human rights expert and founder of Women for Women International Zainab Salbi, and trusted on-the-ground humanitarian organizations.