Zombie in my city. A journalist who fled Afghanistan is now safe in Poland

photo by Nasratullah Taban

My name is Nasratullah Taban. Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, I’ve been working as a journalist covering affairs in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Russia for the past six years. Now I am trying to manage my life in Poland. After all, living in Europe can be a little different than living in the countryside of Afghanistan.

It was only two decades that Afghanistan had enjoyed a relatively democratic system. In the new political order, citizens gained relative rights and freedoms, minorities gained a chance to breathe, and political parties and civil institutions gained an opportunity to act.

Women benefited to some extent from the rights and freedoms of citizenship. Education expanded, trade flourished, media increased, the private sector expanded its scope daily, and Afghanistan’s interaction with the world increased. Afghanistan reached significant growth in various political, economic, social, and cultural sectors.

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On the day the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, I was on my way to the Turkish Embassy in Kabul. I had just obtained my fully-funded scholarship for my master’s in Turkey.

I was almost at the embassy when my phone rang. My friends and my brother asked where I was and if I was safe. Surprised, I replied that I was going to the embassy to get my visa. I didn’t check my social media that day, I don’t know why. I didn’t realise how serious the situation was. My brother told me on the phone what was happening. He said, “everyone is fleeing or seeking refuge, and you think you can get your scholarship business done at the embassy? The embassy is closed!”. All I managed to say was “please don’t say that!”.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed on August 15, 2021. President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital by helicopter to Uzbekistan in the afternoon of the same day. As late as the 2nd of August, he had vowed never to leave Afghanistan. He said he would sooner die than leave Kabul. After Ghani’s departure, the Taliban, who had overrun dozens of provincial capitals in recent weeks, quickly reached Kabul. Within hours, the rebels were comfortably seated at Ghani’s table. 

The Escape

Because of my brother’s occupation, he was in real danger. He asked me to go into hiding and provide shelter for our parents. I took my family to my relatives’ house and stayed in my flat just to protect the building and our belongings. After two days, however, the situation became too difficult to bear. Different people came to me asking where my brother was and what he was doing. So we decided to unofficially leave for Pakistan, taking the land route. When we crossed the border, we contacted our friends at the Polish embassy. They did their best to take us to Poland. My brother had previously worked with the Polish Ministry of Defence. At that difficult moment, we asked Polish people for support, and they helped us. I will be forever grateful to them for that.

Due to my brother’s previous occupation in Afghanistan, we cannot return to our country anytime soon. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, has blocked me on Twitter. This means they know too much about me.

Many difficult questions

There are questions as to why Afghanistan collapsed, despite support from the US and NATO.

For decades, the international coalition had focused on fighting the insurgency and consolidating power. However, these objectives were separate from democracy-building. International donors, desperate for quick fixes, pumped huge resources into Afghanistan with minimal due diligence. Instead of reforming dysfunctional state institutions, they created counterparts, which only undermined the legitimacy of the government. 

It is easy to argue that Afghanistan was not ready for democracy, given the rapid collapse of the government. However, Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution contained few provisions for democratic decision-making, and many were never implemented. This was clearly a political choice made by Afghan political leaders, with little opposition from US and NATO sponsors.

“Night of the living dead” in Kabul

Before the takeover, I thought that sooner or later it was going to happen. It must have been shocking for the Afghani everyman, but as a journalist, I was somehow prepared for the Taliban takeover. I was in close contact with the officials in many provinces and the only thing they were able to think of before August 15th, was the Taliban. A week before the takeover I had a conversation with my colleagues. We were imagining the return of the Taliban like in the movie “Night of the living dead”. We felt like the zombies are coming back to our cities.

You see, Afghanistan is a post-war country. People for years have been hearing stories about the Taliban killing and torturing people. Now the stories became the cruel reality. Many journalists have been killed. The zombies really came back and were doing their job.

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One year after

Now, almost one year after the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban has control of all of the country. They have started to make Afghanistan a country under the rule of the Shariat.

People are being deprived of their basic privileges and freedoms. The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice imposes a series of moribund bans in the Taliban-controlled area. Girls over the age of 12 are banned from going to school. Inappropriate behaviour, known as fitna, that may attract public attention and jeopardise a woman’s reputation is prohibited. An Afghan woman cannot get into a taxi without a male chaperone, or mahram. She must also wear a burqa at that time. Music has been banned in shops, restaurants and even private cars under penalty of imprisonment and closure of the premises in question. Shaving is not allowed, e.g. young men are not allowed to get rid of their beards. All citizens must pray daily at the mosque, shops must be closed during prayer and cars should stop in the street 15 minutes before. The list goes on.

One year since they took control of Afghanistan, the de facto authorities have clarified their position on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion. They curtailed dissent by cracking down on protests and restricting media freedom, including arbitrarily arresting journalists, protesters, and civil society activists and imposing restrictions on the media.

The human rights situation is being exacerbated by a nationwide economic, financial, and humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. Currently, according to the UN, at least 60% of the population needs humanitarian assistance. Therefore, the Afghan people call on the international community to continue to support the people of Afghanistan.   

Mixed feelings

I have been in Poland for ten months. I am now working in Krakow as Senior Recruitment Coordinator at Jacobs. I also continue to do freelance journalism assignments.

To be honest, I don’t feel welcome in Poland. I am not saying that I am not grateful for the hospitality of the Polish people. But the government that had helped me come to Poland, then left me on my own. I spent six months in a camp for foreigners near Grudziądz.

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The behaviour of the staff in this centre was questionable. They told us that we should find a place to live outside the camp ourselves. I wanted to leave it as soon as possible, so I was desperately looking for a flat. They gave me one month to do this. The staff kept asking me if I had managed to find something. But when the landlords heard that I was from Afghanistan, they hung up the phone. My situation was becoming very serious, so I asked the staff person what would happen if I didn’t find a flat. She replied that I would be deported to Afghanistan. It was no use explaining that, after all, I was here at the invitation of the Polish Ministry of Defence. This applied to all Afghans in the camp.

It was only because I had the support of my company that I managed to find accommodation. God sent me this company. 

Coming home

I now live in a dormitory provided by my employer. In Afghanistan, I had a very clear plan for my future. I had the chance to get a master’s degree in Turkey. But you have to adapt to different changes, right?

I know I will only return to Afghanistan if there are fair rights for women and girls, democracy, and a legitimate government. I don’t dream of the Taliban returning my country to the people, I hope for that. I hope for so many things. 

I hope that girls and women in Afghanistan get their rights back. I hope that no one in the world has to leave their homes like we did. I hope for the reunification of all separated families. May no one miss their mothers as we do. I dream that one day Polish men and women will be able to visit Afghanistan as tourists and learn about our culture. No, I do not dream; I hope for it.

Nasratullah Taban is a journalist and photographer born in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Over the past years, he has worked as a senior reporter for a number of Afghan and Kazakh media outlets, mainly covering Central Asia and Afghanistan. He is also a volunteer with WHO and the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

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