On August 15, 2021, while on my way to the office, I asked my driver to speed up so we could arrive more quickly. It was around 9:00 a.m. and Kabul was not the same as the day before. A storm of rumors was making people anxious. A story about how the Taliban had entered the city was circulating widely.
As the head of current affairs at TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s largest 24-hour news station, my colleagues and I at the newsroom were constantly receiving information from various sources, but events were developing so quickly that it was not possible to predict the next few hours.
As I passed through the main street of Wazir Akbar Khan, a street where many diplomatic missions were located, I noticed fear and anxiety on everyone’s faces. I saw the shopkeepers in front of our office closing shop in a hurry.
In the evening, we reported that former President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country with his close aides, and that the Taliban were marching on Kabul. I had reliable information from my sources that the Taliban had not entered the city until around 8:00 p.m., just hours after the president had fled.
It was a critical and unbelievable moment for the country. My colleagues and I were horrified for ourselves and our family members, but we stayed firm and continued the live broadcast of events from different parts of Kabul. It was an evening that I never could have imagined.
Everything we had been building for 20 years evaporated in front of my eyes.
My mother and the rest of my family were watching the news and kept calling me to leave the office and come home. Around 7 p.m. I decided to go home as my mother was scared.
It was around 8 p.m. when the Taliban entered Kabul to the sound of horrific gun fire.
Kabul, which had experienced 20 years of democracy, development and free media, where thousands of women fought for their civil rights and freedoms, suddenly returned overnight to darkness. In less than 24 hours, we lost Afghanistan. Everything we had been building for 20 years evaporated in front of my eyes.
On the same night, many TV stations that would normally broadcast entertainment programming, dramas or music, switched over to religious programs. Other media outlets simply went off the grid. The management of TOLOnews decided to instruct women journalists not to come to the office the next day. Our broadcasts would be presented by men alone.
I knew that the Taliban would not be friendly towards us. They killed seven of my colleagues in 2016 alone and continued attacking TOLOnews employees as best they could. They had declared everyone working for affiliates of the MOBY Media Group, which owns TOLOnews and other media outlets, as military targets.
Said Najib Asil and his colleagues made their way to the airport after the Taliban captured Kabul. Photo: Said Najib Asil.
The next day, the deputy director of TOLOnews talked to the Taliban and informed us that we were allowed to return to the office, on the condition that we refrain from broadcasting anything against them. That afternoon, a group of 20 heavily armed Taliban gunmen entered our studios.
On the second day of the Taliban’s control of Kabul, our women journalists were reporting from every corner of the city, presenting the news from our studios and interviewing guests on live programs. Before the end of the day, the Taliban began imposing restrictions on media coverage, contrary to their previous commitments.
Unidentified members of the Taliban regime contacted our colleagues and sent threatening messages. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, expressed his disapproval of the type of hijab or head coverings the women in our office wore on screen.
Threats against our journalists kept coming in, as did harassment and violence against our reporters in Kabul. The Taliban expected the media to serve as a tool of propaganda for them.
Even if the Taliban decided not to kill me, staying would have been a gradual death.
Our colleagues and journalists from across the country began fleeing Afghanistan through different routes. I found myself at a dangerous crossroads. I had to make a choice between leaving, which would be a leap into the unknown, or staying to face a different terrifying unknown. I made the decision to save my life and leave. Even if the Taliban decided not to kill me, staying would have been a gradual death.
I decided to become a refugee instead of being a hostage in my own country.
I left my home and my country with just a backpack and couldn’t even check how much money I had in my pocket. I wish I had had a final look at my room, my books, my photos. I wish I could have had a proper goodbye with my mother and siblings. My mother cried. I had tears in my eyes and my dreams in my bag.
Like so many other Afghans, my colleagues and I rushed to the airport. We spent two days waiting outside the airport gates along with thousands of others who were desperate to leave and save their lives. I slept on the street next to the airport for two nights, waiting.
At the end of the second day, I received a call from the head of TOLOnews. He asked me to contact my colleagues and get to a particular hotel as soon as we could. The Yalda Hakim Foundation had taken over our responsibility for our evacuation, and when we entered the hotel we saw that the Qatari military was securing the locale.
At 2:00 a.m. the security personnel transported us to the airport, my heart was pounding in my chest the whole way. It was dark and the streets were empty. I tried to shake off this feeling of being in a nightmare. When we entered the airport gates we saw the American forces. We felt better and we stayed inside the terminal for another three nights.
Luckily on August 24, we got through the chaos and boarded a military aircraft destined for Qatar. During the journey everybody I knew who was boarding the plane with us was crying. For a moment I imagined flying out and leaving my soul back home. Nobody would do all this unless they feared for their lives.
After four days in Qatar I boarded a commercial flight to Albania. I thought that it was my final destination. I knew little about Albania before I arrived. When the plane landed, Prime Minister Edi Rama was among those greeting us. We were welcomed kindly by people who I could tell had something in common with us, but I didn’t know what it was. I later learned that Albanians have experienced similar traumas as Afghans.
Finally safe in Albania. The country hosted a number of refugees from Afghanistan. Photo: Said Najib Asil.
Albania is a very beautiful country and the country’s beach resorts were home for 1,800 unexpected guests over the past seven months. We found a safe harbor far from our homeland. We felt grateful for the generosity, warmness and hospitality that we received from the kind people of Albania.
After two weeks I decided to work there. My aim was to make the voice of Afghan refugees heard throughout the world. I started working as a media coordinator with a local and international media organization in Shengjin. It was a good experience, despite all the worries and uncertainty.
A large number of well-known Afghan figures such as journalists, parliament members, and women’s rights activists were evacuated to Albania and most of them were eligible to go to America or Canada. U.S. and U.K.-based humanitarian groups covered our costs.
After five months, on January 18, I flew more than 5,000 miles and arrived in Toronto, where the Canadian flag flew. I was disconnected from the life I had to leave behind and I found myself homeless, far away from my country and homeland. For now the biggest question for me is about what the future will hold. It is hard to equip yourself with the right tools to start a new life after you’ve already been living a different one.
I believe history will judge the Taliban. One day the Taliban will know they lost a shining generation of people. I am sure Afghanistan and its people will be free again. It’s only a matter of time.
Feature photo: Private archive of Said Najib Asil.