Kabul: It was a balmy morning when I began my journey from Delhi to Kabul on 8 August, an assignment I had been planning since the Indian consulate in Kandahar shutdown on 11 July as the Taliban rapidly moved to gain control of Afghanistan by taking over provincial capitals.
Equipped with just my mobile phone and a selfie-stick, I was going into a tricky situation that could turn ugly at any point, but the challenge wasn’t just navigating this terrain.
I was going to be a one-woman operation, from figuring out stories, building contacts to the more practical side of reporting, such as making video stories, which is not my forte.
The cameraperson who was supposed to join me in Kabul was not granted a visa by the Afghanistan Embassy in New Delhi due to the deteriorating security situation.
This was going to be the assignment of a lifetime.
I landed in Kabul via KAM Air. It was a smooth flight full of Afghans who were returning to meet their families and enjoy the ongoing melon season.
Mixed with this emotion was also concern, about the rapid advances being made by the Taliban as the US carried out its withdrawal of troops, on track to meet a 31 August deadline.
On the flight, I thought about what I wanted to cover. I had plans to interview some of the political bigwigs and regional strongmen as they make for interesting stories, but I also wanted to focus on the ground situation because not much was being spoken about it in the Indian media at the time, which was focused on showing the war.
The flight, although late, landed safely in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and I even caught a glimpse of the Hindu Kush mountains from my window seat. At the airport, I found myself in the middle of a massive crowd of passengers, jostling to get their immigration, shoving their bags in people’s faces. Somehow, this didn’t melee seem to bother anyone; it appeared to be an everyday affair.
Finally, I too jostled my way through and managed to collect my luggage while thwarting some big-bodied Afghans, who, for some reason, were claiming my suitcase/bag as their own. If one protested, the wives joined the fight.
I got a cab and made my way to the hotel. During the ride, I was happy to whip out my camera and take photos of Kabul — a city I had always been fascinated about. However, this was interrupted as my car was stopped by Afghan Police personnel near the Arg Presidential Palace. I was asked to handover my phone and delete the photos.
While my chauffeur got visibly nervous, I spoke to the Afghan Police personnel, explaining I was from India. They were shocked; they said they had mistaken me for a Pakistani. I then said I am a fan of Shah Rukh Khan, a fact that made one of the policemen immensely happy. He let me go with a smile, saying he also loves Shah Rukh Khan, and Deepika Padukone too.
I finally reached the Kabul Serena, a hotel where most of the international media had parked itself. Located in the middle of a busy street, the hotel is a fort situated a stone’s throw away from the Arg. The Taliban had attacked the hotel twice, in 2008 and 2014.
Cars were not being allowed all the way to the hotel entrance, which meant I had to walk up to the main foyer after going through several layers of security checks.
The loud screams of hawkers marked the start of my day. As I heard them from my room, I also felt myself gearing up, not wanting to waste a second. A quick breakfast later, I started my assignment with a short video report from Serena’s rooftop. From here, one gets a good view of Kabul city as well as the Abdul Rahman Mosque; it made for a mesmerising background.
On the street level though, the beauty quickly gave way to abject poverty, visible on the faces of residents, mostly of destitute children selling water bottles or boiled eggs on the road.
These were the stories I planned to capture amid the chaos of the Taliban, and the US troops’ withdrawal. Little did I realise that would mean going through a web of permissions. For international news organisations who have been covering Kabul for years, this may have been less of a task, but for someone like me, arriving here for the first time and having to manage on my own, it was going to be more work.
I headed for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) first. I had managed to engage a cab for the day that cost USD 50 (approximately about Rs 3,270). My chauffeur Nisar became my negotiator of sorts, speaking with the Afghan Police guards that manned every important section of the capital city. In Afghanistan, if one does not have a local accompanying them, conversing with people can become very difficult.
At the MoFA, I was given a temporary press card that would allow me to report on the markets and the streets without running into trouble with the Afghan Police guards, who were armed with sniper rifles.
That day, I also visited the Indian Embassy to register myself with them and let them know I was in the country and covering the situation.
As I chalked up my plans, I had decided to head to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city and capital of Balkh Province. Regional news channels were starting to report that the provincial capital could fall to the Taliban though an intense gun-battle had broken out on the city’s outskirts.
As it happens, I knew Mazar’s strongman, Ata Mohammad Noor, a former governor of Balkh. I had interviewed him when he visited Delhi in October 2020. From his secretaries, who are also part of his militia group, I learnt they were putting up a tough fight against the Taliban.
There was no time to lose.
It was a tense day. News started coming in that the Indian consulate in Mazar was going to be closed down given the increasing threat of the Taliban.
On landing in the Balkh Province, I made a pit stop at Hotel Arsalan — a place with a warm, roadside motel charm — dropped off my luggage, and headed for the consulate. I wanted to speak with the acting Consulate General, but he refused to meet since he was busy with evacuation operations.
Parked on the road in front of the consulate, I fired off a news report, and then went to the main city centre where the famous Blue Mosque is located. An integral part of the city’s heritage, the mosque was the kind of human interest story I was also looking for. What would happen to it if the city fell to the Taliban?
While I asked residents how they felt about the Taliban, they in turn asked me why I had come to report from Mazar and why I felt it was a dangerous sign that the Taliban were coming.
At the Blue Mosque, which is the shrine of Hazrat Ali, I asked the same questions. People here said the Taliban will do no harm to such places. The mosque houses a museum and a library.
As fighting on Mazar’s borders continued, I travelled five kilometres out to the Pul-e-Bukhri area — one of the key entry points to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Over here, soldiers of the Afghan government forces were kind enough to give me a quick tour of the area in their armoured vehicle as loud gunfire from the battle could be heard.
The soldiers said they would not let Mazar fall and would fight till the end. I now wonder what has become of them.
From here, my next stop was meeting Ata Mohammad Noor, the former governor of Balkh. The interview took place at his plush residence-cum-office — a well-decorated mansion with gilded frames and expensive pottery and artefacts.
Before entering the ‘compound’, an area that could very well fit a small Delhi locality, my bags were searched by his bodyguards, which included a nearly lion-sized dog.
Noor himself had a contingent of at least 40-50 men surrounding him, all dressed in army fatigues (like him), and holding what looked like M-16 rifles, though I did not get a chance to verify this. The battle was raging on, so they were in a hurry to finish the interview.
Interview done, I went back to my hotel before heading to catch my flight back to Kabul. But rumours that the Taliban had captured the airport and that flights had been cancelled began to fly.
There was a six-hour delay for my flight. As I waited at the airport, a group of girls came over to me and struck up a conversation. Sahar and Fatima were the most excited to speak to me as I came from the land of Bollywood. We trawled through Shah Rukh Khan’s Twitter account and Deepika Padukone’s Instagram handle, a fun distraction as uncertainty hung in the air. The girls were thrilled.
Our love for Bollywood having bonded us, they began to share more about themselves — wanting to run away to Kabul from Mazar, and then to another destination in search of a better and safe life. They also shared their food with me since I was not carrying any.
I finally took off from Mazar past midnight, reaching Kabul around 3am.
That night at the Mazar airport was eerie, but very memorable.
Back in Kabul, the situation here too become tense despite the peace talks continuing in Doha, Qatar. Reports were coming in that they were not going very well.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who represented Afghanistan at the interaction, “stressed the need to start meaningful and sincere negotiations to establish an immediate ceasefire and reach a political agreement”.
Clamour for President Ashraf Ghani’s resignation was also starting to grow louder.
By this day, the country’s capital was abuzz with developments. Reports of a ceasefire pact and a power-sharing deal between the Ghani government and the Taliban were surfacing.
I tracked the developments by following the local news reports on TV and the newspapers as well as constantly calling my sources.
It was becoming clear the Taliban was inching closer to Kabul. A large part of this day went in long conversations with some of my contacts over a lot of coffee at the Serena hotel. Meanwhile, the security situation was only getting worse.
This was a day filled with heart-wrenching stories of women and children who saw their families maimed and slaughtered at the hands of the Taliban. I had travelled to a refugee camp in Khairkhana, located northwest of Kabul.
This also happened to be the day President Ghani addressed the Afghan nation, promising to fight the Taliban and continue boosting the forces.
Amid the general feeling of looming doom, there was a silver lining, albeit just for me: I managed to eat a proper lunch for the first time since arriving in Kabul. I dug into some pizza at the famous Bukhara Restaurant there. I also visited a Turkish café in Kabul’s posh Shahr-e-Naw area with local friends that night.
By late night, the inevitable happened. Mazar, a major commercial hub of Afghanistan, fell and Ata Noor fled the country with his sons, hinting at a “conspiracy” of sorts.
By now a week had passed since I arrived in the country. All four provincial capitals had fallen to the Taliban, Mazar being the last bastion. The fighting was now getting closer to Kabul.
On this day, I had an interview with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader who was also Afghanistan’s prime minister twice in the ’90s.
This interview experience was very different from how Ata Noor’s went. Hekmatyar’s office had everything set up, from cameras to lights to even lapel mics. This was a best-case scenario since I didn’t have much equipment with me.
Nearly an hour later, while returning from his office to my hotel, the Taliban had entered the city. In other words, Kabul had fallen too.
I was about 8 km away from my hotel by this time, but the roads were already getting blocked and police were stopping traffic. To add to the melee, my cab broke down in the middle of the road.
I walked the remaining 3 km to the hotel amid scenes of local residents running to safety while some came out with guns to fight the insurgents themselves. I discovered nerves of steel that carried me through that 45-minute ordeal.
Eventually, the Taliban entered the city in full force.
My hotel, having survived two Taliban attacks in the past, boarded itself up.
In the past week, I had travelled to where the fighting was, following chaos and mayhem. Now, it had come to where I was.
My office booked me on the next day’s Air India flight, scheduled to depart at 11am.
The Indian Embassy in Kabul directed me to catch an Air India flight. I was supposed to leave early in the morning to avoid the rush. However, over the course of the night, Kabul had come under the tight grip of the Taliban, along with the airport.
Thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee the country thronged the Kabul airport; scenes of scores of them clinging to planes have since become a defining image of the country’s situation. The civilian part of the airport had ceased to function while evacuation exercises were taking place through the technical area of the airport, manned by the US forces.
Airport employees vacated the premises, which gave the masses a free path to the tarmac. Both the domestic and international terminals, though, wore a deserted look.
The Taliban, in 8-10 armoured vehicles, took complete control of the airport, even firing at the crowd that had gathered at the airport.
My experience of navigating jostling crowds when I first landed turned out to be a life lesson of sorts as I somehow made my way through the chaos.
I made my way back to the Indian Embassy by negotiating with Taliban fighters at several checkpoints. When I reached the embassy, I discovered they were already in evacuation mode.
A full 10 days after coming to Kabul — but what has come to feel like a lifetime — I returned to India on an evacuation flight.
All commercial flights have been stopped by the Taliban.
I was put on a flight with the entire diplomatic staff, including Indian Ambassador to Kabul Rudrendra Tandon. We landed at the Jamnagar airbase in Gujarat, where, in a press conference, Tandon remarked that India “has not abandoned the people of Afghanistan”.
I, for one, would want to return to Afghanistan.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)