A photographer gives an inside look at the fall of Kabul, her longtime home

Kiana Hayeri chronicles the Afghan city’s tension, her evacuation, and the guilt she feels for leaving people behind.

Photographs By Kiana Hayeri
Published 20 Aug 2021, 09:44 BST
Families and friends visit graves on Tappe Shuhada (Martyr's Hill) where 18 victims of a powerful ...
Families and friends visit graves on Tappe Shuhada (Martyr's Hill) where 18 victims of a powerful triple explosion outside a high school in western Kabul on May 8, 2021, were buried. Almost all of the victims of the attack, which killed at least 86 people and wounded more than 160, were teenage girls leaving their classrooms.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

Photographer Kiana Hayeri has lived in Kabul for the past seven years. For National Geographic, she chronicled the changes across Afghanistan as a generation born under relative freedom faces a future under Taliban control.

Kabul is her home. But on Sunday, August 15, the day the Taliban seized Kabul and the Afghan government fell, Hayeri had to evacuate. The Iranian-Canadian journalist spoke to National Geographic about what the city was like the day it fell, how she’s trying to help Afghan friends and colleagues, and the uncertain future that women face under the Taliban.

Even though you left Kabul on the day the Taliban took over, you’re still very much involved in the events there, to the point that you had to postpone our conversation yesterday. Tell me what was going on.

There's one family that I'm responsible for— a single mom and her two daughters—that we're trying to get out. And yesterday the reason we had to postpone was because the mission unfortunately failed. Actually, it failed today.

On August 15, 2021, people gather in front of Azizi Bank in Shahre Now to withdraw their money. Panic spread among Kabul residents as the Taliban swept through the capital.
A plane from Turkish Airlines takes off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 15, 2021. It's one of the last commercial flights to leave Kabul before the Taliban takeover.

Two years ago, I did a story inside Herat Women’s Prison, and that's where I met this woman. She was released from prison after the pandemic hit. I became very close to her and her daughters; we worked on an audio book together. When the Taliban came, I knew she had to get out: She’s a single mom, and she'd been all over the media because she murdered her husband to get out of abuse and domestic violence.

We're trying to get them to the airport. Their names are on the flight. But the airport is surrounded by thousands and thousands of people. And yesterday, we were trying to coordinate. We had somebody on the ground. We had several people in different time zones. I was acting as a translator, but also I had to keep them calm.

The three women stayed on the street all night long. Her youngest daughter was trampled. They hadn’t had any water. I think she was having heatstroke because they said she kept passing out. Today around noon, we had to make the call and ask them to go home because fighting had started. I could hear the gunshots. And I was told there were RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] shots. I just told her to go home for now.

KABUL | KABUL | AFGHANISTAN | 5/1/21 | Downtown area of Kabul. Almost everywhere on streets, there are thick and tall blast barriers made of concrete. They are a sign of the precarious security situation. With every blast that shatters the calm of the city, more barriers go up changing the face of Kabul further.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri
KABUL | KABUL | AFGHANISTAN | 5/1/21 | Downtown area of Kabul. Almost everywhere on streets, there are thick and tall blast barriers made of concrete. They are a sign of the precarious security situation. With every blast that shatters the calm of the city, more barriers go up changing the face of Kabul further.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

You had planned to leave Kabul later this week but ended up evacuating on Sunday, the day the Taliban took control. What was that last day like?

We knew eventually Kabul would fall. At first everyone thought it would be in a few months, six months, then it's three months, then it's one month, probably in September. And then the Taliban came closer and closer. They were tightening the noose around Kabul.

On Friday evening I bought a ticket for Monday afternoon. That was the first try. We tried to get the single mom to the airport. And I was up all night. Then I got a phone call from the New York Times that there was a flight available the next morning, on Saturday morning. I decided I wasn’t ready.

On Sunday morning, I went to the airport to photograph the people leaving. Then we tried to go home. The traffic in Kabul was insane, like nothing that I've seen before. You couldn't move the car. At one point we got out of the car and walked. I could feel something was off, I could feel people were tense, I could feel people were angry.

A woman mourns at Karte Sakhi cemetery in western Kabul on a Thursday evening in September 2019.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

At home, the phone calls started coming. The Taliban has been spotted on Darluman Road; the Taliban has been spotted on Company Road, which is west of Kabul.

This is the part where things started moving really fast. I wanted to photograph the banks because there were hundreds of people in front of each bank trying to get money, so I got into the car again and went to the bank. I kept asking people what was going on, but no one would admit that the Taliban was coming.

Once we got away from the bank the streets were deserted—no traffic, no cars, but many, many, many people on each side of the street moving really fast.

I don't think any camera would have ever been able to capture it even if you had the time and peace of mind to stay and shoot. It was the fear, it was a vibe, it was the air. Everyone was just really scared.

We passed a couple of famous beauty salons where people were ripping big huge photos of women off the walls.

Students gather in the schoolyard of Marshal Dostum High School, in Shibirghan in northwestern Afghanistan on May 5, 2021. More than two dozen girls from Darzab and Qosh Tepa districts came to study after the Taliban shut down the schools in their villages. Their families have come to the city so the girls can continue their education.
Unaccompanied minors wait in a truck to be transported to the transit center located in Zaranj City in 2019. They had smuggled themselves into Iran, where they were caught and sent back to Afghanistan.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

Why were they doing that?

Initially I thought it was—you know how you give a platform to people and then they come out, like what happened in America with white supremacists? I thought that it was people who don't like women. Then my second thought was that maybe it was a shop owner who wanted to protect their shops from damage.

When I got home, a phone call came from the New York Times: You have 15 minutes to pack. Get to the airport now. I got my hard drives and a few pieces of clothing. I forgot to take socks, that’s how quickly I packed.

Our apartment building has four armed guards who wear uniforms. When I came downstairs, I saw that all 10 apartment units were deserted, and all of our guards had changed into civilian clothes.

Where are you now?

I'm at a military base in Doha, Qatar. I've been here for I don't even know how I long … four days, this is my fourth day.

What has been the hardest part?

The guilt, the enormous amount of guilt that I feel.

Why do you feel guilty?

I have a passport that means I can get out and these people cannot. That is the guilt.

Young Afghans hang out at Simple Cafe, located in the Pul-e Surkh neighborhood of Kabul, in 2019. There has been a rise of cafe culture in western Kabul, particularity in the Karte 3 and Karte 4 neighborhoods.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri
Ali, 30, registers at the Afghan border on November 18, 2019. He had been living in Iran for 15 years, where he was caught on his way to work in Tehran.
Mohammad Barat, 34, is transported to the transit center in the southwest border city of Zaranj. He fell from the fourth floor of the construction site he was working on in Shiraz, Iran, and broke his ankle. He was at the hospital, waiting for the result of his X-ray, when he was arrested by Iranian police and immediately put on a bus to be sent back to Afghanistan.

Do you want to go back?  

I do want to go back. We have a lovely, lovely lady who helps with the housework. The day after we left, she called me. She was in my apartment. She had gone back, she's done my laundry, she put my room back in order. And she apologised. She asked if she could take the food, because we had bought a lot of food, if she could take the food that would perish within a month. She thought I'd be back that soon. I said, No, take everything for now.

Is she in danger?

She's a single mom as well. She's been working with foreigners for almost 20 years. And she's also a member of a minority religious group. We're trying to get her out.

Back when the Taliban was in control in the ’90s, as a woman you always needed to have a man with you. And you weren’t allowed to work. So who's going to work if you're a single mom with two daughters?

But we don't know how it will be. What's interesting is talking to people across Afghanistan, the Taliban impose different rules in different regions. In Shibirghan City I learned that if women put a burka on, they're allowed to go on the street without a man. Whereas in Herat, women wear the Iranian chador, black from head to toe, and they have to have a man with them. And in Kabul right now, women’s hijabs are slightly tighter, but they can go out on the streets without a man, and they show their faces.

Relatives and neighbors prepare the body of 16-year-old Basgul, who was killed in the May 8, 2021, bombing of a Kabul high school.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri
In an unfinished basement of the Qamar Bani Hashim mosque, neighbors and relatives of two girls killed in a Kabul high school bombing gather to support the victims' mothers.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

Is there a disconnect between what the Taliban is saying and what they're doing, or what people think they're likely to do?

There are several disconnects: the disconnect between what Taliban is saying they're doing and what's happening on the ground, and there's a disconnect between what's being reported and what's actually happening on the ground. I’m not defending the Taliban or anything, but I do see they’ve changed a little bit—at least at this point—in their behaviour toward women. But that might change any day.

More than 75 percent of the population is under the age of 25, with no memory of Taliban rule. Is there a chance these young people will push against it?

No, leading up to this there has been a lot of poverty, there has been war. When you're so desperate, when you're in survival mode day to day, you’ll submit.

We're talking about negative things, the violence, the poverty, the fear. But what did you love about living in Kabul?

What Kabul does to you, what Afghanistan does to you, is it strips you down to the basics, stripping away many choices and options. At the supermarket, you have two shampoos to choose from. That's it. Fruits and vegetables are seasonal. You're stuck with that, right? But it’s also true for your emotions. The emotions that you experience there are so raw and so basic, and it's beautiful. It's something I've never experienced anywhere else. Even friendships are very raw, very solid, especially with Afghan friends.

A three-day-old infant rests on a chair after he was breastfed by his mother at a west Kabul maternity ward. On May 13, 2020, a gunman entered the ward and killed 24 people. This baby's mother managed to follow the medical workers to one of the safe rooms. Ten mothers, two infants, and pregnant women were among the dead.

How was your experience different from what Afghan evacuees are experiencing?

I'm the privileged one. I have the money to replace everything. Most of these Afghans who leave their homes behind are leaving everything they have. They have to restart with nothing. This military base is basically a refugee camp, and the Afghans in our wing don't have anything. They don't even have their chargers with them. It's just them and a phone.

I'm lucky. I know I can buy a ticket and go back to Afghanistan if I want to. They won't be able to go back. These guys don't even have a choice about where they’ll end up. They're going to be processed at some point and told you're going to this place.

What is your impression of how the evacuees are doing?

Almost the very first thing that comes out is the people they left behind. Right now, they're just trying to do damage control. I need to get this person out; I need to get that person out.

It’s very hot here, but after the sun sets you see children outside playing. In the female bathrooms it's quite a scene. The women are washing themselves. They're washing the kids. They're washing the clothes. There are 1,500 people in the camp now.

Where do you go next?

We're bringing all of our colleagues and their families, 127 of them, arriving soon. I was given the option of moving on to wherever I want to go. But I speak Farsi, and these guys have been through a lot. I think it helps to have a female Farsi speaker for the families. So I'm going to go wherever they go until they settle down.

Night falls over the site of an explosion in west of Kabul.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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