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In Kabul, women who were once teachers and nurses now live in refugee camps while Islamist extremists tighten their grip on a fearful nation

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Female teachers who didn't get their salary for the past month queue in front of one of Kabul's major banks on Sept. 27. Long lineups at banks have been common since the Taliban takeover in August.Photography and video by Asmaa Waguih/The Globe and Mail

This is what the collapse of a country looks like: Hundreds of women standing in one line, and hundreds more men in another, pushing forward in the sweltering heat in case this was the day that the New Kabul Bank would suddenly open and allow them to withdraw their savings.

Order, to the extent there was any, was maintained on a recent morning by a handful of Taliban fighters, including a balaclava-clad militant who cackled as he lashed at men and women alike with a length of white electrical cable clutched in his fist. His comrades stood around, fingering their Kalashnikov assault rifles as they watched the slow-motion implosion of the state their movement fought for so long to control.

The crowd outside the New Kabul Bank was a snapshot of Afghanistan seven weeks after the Islamist extremists shocked the world by retaking power here – 20 years after they had been driven from it by U.S. military might. On the sidewalk outside the bank, there was no money, but plenty of guns. And people were growing hungrier, and angrier, by the hour. One man, a soldier in the former Afghan army that was routed by the Taliban in August, grumbled to The Globe that he had been sleeping in the bank lineup for five days.

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An armed security official asks people in the bank lineup to go back.

Women, told by the Taliban to stay home from their jobs, but allowed to stand in line at the bank – or beg on the streets – openly defied a Taliban official’s admonitions not to speak to a reporter.

“I’ve been here since 7 a.m. – we come every day, but since the Taliban came, we have not received any money,” said Malalai Popozai, a 50-year-old teacher, whose family had been forced to sell off both its TV and its refrigerator earlier last month. Even still, her family’s breakfast that morning had been plain bread and unsweetened tea – there wasn’t money for sugar. “Right now, my three children are at home waiting for their mother to bring them some food.”

Frustrated Ms. Popozai was still speaking when the Taliban official started tugging at my shirt. Then the militant punched The Globe’s translator in the ribs in an effort to end the interview. Ignoring him, other women surged forward to speak.

All had stories similar to Ms. Popozai’s. Before the Taliban came, they had been teachers and nurses. They were the educated middle class of Afghan women that the United States, Canada and NATO spent two decades and billions of dollars creating. “The world promised that they would support Afghanistan, that they would support women,” said Sheba, a woman in her 20s wearing a blue headscarf, who brandished an identification card to prove she used to work for a German-funded non-governmental organization. “But now they just leave us alone to suffer.”

The Globe spoke to dozens of Afghan citizens about how their lives have changed since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15. They feel abandoned. Many are increasingly unable to feed themselves and their family. Women have seen hard-earned rights evaporate, and a generation that believed in a better future is now trying to flee their country. For those who can’t leave, desperation is growing, as are fears of more violence.

Anaamullah Samangani, a spokesman for the Islamist extremists, says the Taliban remain committed to living according to their harsh interpretation of the Quran. But, he says, they are a different movement than they were the last time they held power, between 1996 and 2001 – and that the world needs to change how it views the Taliban. “As we are living in the 21st century … it’s the start of a new chapter in our relations with the international community and the West.”

But it’s clear that few Afghans believe them. During the eight days I was in Kabul, almost every single person I met asked for help getting out of the country.

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A refugee camp in Kabul's Sarai Shamali neigbhourhood is now home to children and displaced people from across Afghanistan, while in once-busy market streets, it's like a ghost town. Watch Mark MacKinnon as he explored the city and learned the hardships of those who live there.

The Globe and Mail

Refugee camps are dismal places anywhere. But the mixture of fear and desperation – and the complete absence of support from either the government or international aid organizations – in Sarai Shamali has few parallels. Thousands of people, most of them women and children, many in obvious need of urgent medical care, live in a clutch of homemade tents erected between two major roads.

The 1,500 inhabitants of Sarai Shamali, about a 15-minute drive from the city centre, are among more than 660,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who were driven from their homes by the Taliban’s military victories. They fled from other provinces to what they thought was the safety of Kabul – only to see the Taliban swiftly capture the capital as well.

As the international community reels from the shock of that takeover – and debates if and how to deal with the Taliban – the IDPs in Sarai Shamali live three or four families to a tent, with no medical care, sanitation or organized food distribution. The only security they have is provided by the same militants they tried to escape. “It’s desperation on par with the biggest crises of our generation,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of a handful of international aid organizations that has continued working in Afghanistan.

A Globe reporter and photographer who visited the Sarai Shamali were immediately surrounded by hundreds of people, who shoved and shouted over each other in an effort to make the case that their family was in the direst need of help.

Women thrust forward their children to show that they had broken limbs, internal bleeding, hernias and evident mental disabilities – all of which were going untreated in the camp.

“There is no food, no help, nothing here,” said Arya Siddequi, a widowed mother of six who was a policewoman in Takhar province, in the north of the country, before the Taliban blitzkrieg. She said 17 people in her tent had received their most recent meal – two round loaves of bread for each of the three families – four days previously. If she went home to Takhar, she believes, she would be executed because of her former profession.

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Former police officer Arya Siddequi, right, was among those living at the camp in Sarai Shamali. 'There is no food, no help, nothing here,' she says.

Mohammed Eshaq was speaking on the phone to The Globe and Mail – explaining how his business had cratered since the Taliban takeover – when one of the bearded militants walked into his grocery store. He had a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, and Mr. Eshaq could see he also had a pistol in his belt. There was another Taliban fighter standing outside the shop.

“I only have 40 Afghanis, but we need to fill our stomachs,” the first militant told Mr. Eshaq, who kept the phone line open so The Globe could hear. Forty Afghanis was worth less than $1, but Mr. Eshaq didn’t feel like he could point that out. He gave the Talibs two energy drinks, worth about 15 Afghanis each, and then cut them a slab of cake worth about 80 Afghanis. Satisfied with the offering, the fighters were soon on their way, and Mr. Eshaq continued his conversation with The Globe.

“I was scared,” he explained. “I didn’t want to charge them full price.”

Mr. Eshaq says revenues at his shop have fallen from about $150 a day to less than 10 per cent of that. Regulars who used to come in and buy items such as milk, cheese, fruit and cookies now purchase only the barest necessities.

The World Food Programme says 14 million Afghans are currently facing “acute food insecurity” – with only 5 per cent of the country’s 38 million people getting enough to eat.

Mr. Eshaq, a 50-year-old father of four, said he was worried that the Taliban fighters’ menacing shopping trip was a sign of things to come. “It’s getting scary. People are begging now. Soon they will take things by force because their children are starving in their homes.”

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At top, Afghans shop at a market in Kabul; at bottom, a woman begs on the street nearby. Affording food has become a challenge for many as jobs evaporate, banks are closed and the Afghan currency loses value.

Mr. Samangani, the Taliban spokesman, was a teenager when he joined the movement. His older brother spent five years as a prisoner of the U.S. military at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, but Mr. Samangani says that’s not why he joined the militant group. To Mr. Samangani, fighting against the NATO occupation was his duty, just as the previous generation had fought against the Soviet troops who occupied his country between 1979 and 1990. Even as a teenager, he saw it as his duty to resist.

Today, Mr. Samangani, though just 33 years old, is clearly a rising star within the Taliban – among a small handful of members trusted enough to speak to foreign media on behalf of the movement.

Over an hour-long interview, he acknowledged that the country is facing a dangerous economic and humanitarian crisis, and said the Taliban was “trying our best to find a solution.” However, the potential solutions Mr. Samangani spoke of – such as the Taliban luring foreign investment by turning Afghanistan into “a hub for transit and trade” – sounded vague and unrealistic. His answer to many questions was to blame the United States and the international community for all his country’s problems.

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Taliban spokesman Amanullah Samangani gives an interview in his Kabul office.

Last year, Afghanistan received US$8.5-billion in foreign aid – almost half the country’s GDP. Most of that money – including $270-million in promised Canadian aid over the next three years – has stopped flowing since the Taliban returned to power and appointed a cabinet dominated by hardliners and militants who were already on international sanctions lists. The U.S. has also frozen some US$7-billion of Afghan central bank assets.

The Taliban can’t afford to pay salaries to public servants. Nor can it pay the import tariffs on containers of desperately needed food that risk going bad as they sit in the Pakistani port of Karachi. But Mr. Samangani said it’s the international community that needs to alter its ways. “They should bring a change in their approach and in their thinking. They should not bring pressure on the Afghan government,” he said. “By talks and by negotiations, we can find a peaceful solution to this.”

But there doesn’t appear to be much room for compromise. Pressed about whether the Taliban was willing to accept the international community’s conditions for the resumption of aid – first and foremost, by allowing women and girls to return to their jobs and classrooms – he repeatedly dodged the question.

“There are many other things which are a priority for us. It is too soon to take a decision on [the education of women and girls],” Mr. Samangani said in his office at the Ministry of Information and Culture.

It’s a stalling tactic the Taliban has used before. Throughout its 1996-2001 rule, the group always said that it wasn’t necessarily opposed to women working or going to school – but that it was necessary to bar girls from classrooms and women from workplaces until it found a solution acceptable under their interpretation of Quranic law. None was ever found, and a generation of Afghan women went without education.

He waved away questions about the return of harsh Sharia justice in Afghanistan, which has already seen several gruesome public executions of suspected criminals. Afghanistan’s culture and values are different from those in the West, Mr. Samangani said, and the Taliban sees no need to change its ways.

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A man and child sell Taliban flags in Kabul. The Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, part of the tumultuous era after Afghans regained independence from the USSR.

Marzia Mohammadi has been a teacher for 33 years – a career that began in the late stages of the Soviet occupation of her country, through the civil war of the 1990s and then through the 20-year NATO presence. The only time she stopped was between 1996 and 2001, when she fled the previous Taliban takeover and took refuge in neighbouring Pakistan.

Now the 53-year-old fears her career has ended for good. Since the day the Taliban swept back to power on Aug. 15, she’s been sitting at home in Kabul, fielding calls from some of her female students, who also despair they may have spent their last day in a classroom.

“The students in Grade 11 and 12 are calling me and saying ‘we studied for 11 or 12 years, and now we have no future. No university, no jobs,” Ms. Mohammadi said in a telephone interview.

It’s not only women who despair at the fast-disappearing horizon in Afghanistan. There’s an entire generation who grew up during the NATO occupation of their country, believing in the values that Western countries said they were there to impart.

Concerns grew last month as dozens of professors quit after the long-time chancellor of Kabul University was replaced by a 34-year-old Taliban hardliner with troubling views on media freedom and women’s rights.

“Students don’t know what will happen to them, because they have Western educations, and the Taliban doesn’t want that in their country,” said Farshad, a 28-year-old graduate of the American University of Afghanistan, the campus of which is now a base for Taliban fighters.

Farshad is one of the cohort raised to believe in a different Afghanistan. After graduating in 2016 with a degree in business administration, he devoted his career to exploring the crossroads between human rights, democracy and high tech. His non-profit organization developed a mobile-phone app intended to help voters report suspected instances of fraud during Afghanistan’s elections. Another app helped women report harassment and abuse they encountered in the workplace. Neither bit of technology has an obvious role in the Taliban Afghanistan.

Farshad can’t help but feel bitter at the U.S. and its allies for showing him a different country was possible, only to abandon people like him to life under the Taliban. “Human rights. Women’s rights. Democracy. Were all of these just lies? Do Western countries really value these things?”

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Female university students listen to a teacher at a private university in Kabul. The Taliban's overhaul of education has left younger Afghans in despair that they can ever go to university or find a career.

The question of how Afghanistan ended up right back where it started is a boggling one. How did the world’s most powerful military alliance – headed by the United States – fail to crush a lightly armed militant group? How did the international community spend 20 years investing in Afghanistan, only to leave the country on the brink of starvation?

Omid Ghafoorzai, as director of international relations at the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment, was one of those who rubbed shoulders with the foreign ambassadors and the heads of the big international organizations that doled out funding to projects in Afghanistan.

He says he often pleaded with his interlocutors to invest first in critical infrastructure – the country still has a patchy electricity network, broken roads and open-air sewage canals – but donors were often constrained by plans drawn up in Washington or other foreign capitals.

“Whenever we would say ‘please build this project’ – like electricity or irrigation – they would say ‘sorry, it’s beyond our scope.’ They invested hundreds of millions marketing Afghan products [internationally]. But I was saying: ‘Where are the products?’” Mr. Ghafoorzai said, frustration and defeat plain in his voice.

Diplomats and aid workers, he said, held endless seminars to discuss how to battle corruption in the country, even as bribe-paying and bribe-taking grew rampant within the projects that Western governments were funding. Mr. Ghafoorzai said he came to believe that Western donors “were not serious” about battling corruption.

The impression that Western embassies and NGOs lost touch with the country they were trying to help is reinforced by a wander through the heavily fortified embassy district of Kabul, Wazir Akhbar Khan. The now-deserted neighbourhood is sealed off from the rest of the city by a series of blast walls. Few Afghans have been inside over the past decade, unless they worked for a foreign embassy or NGO, and from inside, the rest of Kabul is invisible.

“They spent US$837-billion in Afghanistan. But where are the results? Nothing,” he continued, referring to of the war, as well as development aid. “They made an artificial system, and when they were not here, everything collapsed.”

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Nawin Yaran, a popular Kabul restaurant, lies empty except for employees. This was once a haven for young people and women on weekends, but Taliban rule has changed that.

For a while, the Nawin Yaran restaurant was one of the trendiest places in Kabul. Most evenings, particularly on weekends, it was packed with the city’s hip young English-speaking youths. Some were students at nearby Kabul University, others worked for the array of foreign non-governmental organizations that had set up offices in Afghanistan since 2001.

They would gather to smoke hookah pipes, listen to music and sometimes even to dance.

The owner, Haji Zakir, estimates that perhaps 70 per cent of his clientele were young women.

The day the Taliban took over Kabul was the day the fun stopped at Nawin Yaran. “On the second day, the Taliban came in and said: ‘We have been observing your restaurant and the kind of activity you have here,’” Mr. Zakir said. “Later, I got a threat by e-mail saying they were following me.”

Business, Mr. Zakir said, plunged “at least 95 per cent” following since the Taliban’s return.

Two days after he spoke to The Globe, Mr. Zakir sent me a video, taken by security cameras at his restaurant. In it, half a dozen Taliban fighters brandished assault rifles as they wander through an otherwise deserted Nawin Yaran. There’s no sound in the video, but Mr. Zakir – who was hiding in a back room – told The Globe that the fighters told his staff that they would behead him if they found him.

Shortly afterward, Nawin Yaran closed its doors for good. Now, like so many other Afghans, Mr. Zakir is trying to flee his country.

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At a Kabul police station, Taliban members check alcoholic beverages and other seized items. Drinking and smoking are just some of the activities now prohibited under the Taliban's version of Islamic law.

The return of the Taliban is widely viewed as a strategic victory for Pakistan, whose intelligence services have supported the militant group since its initial emergence in the 1990s. The idea that the Taliban are something akin to a Pakistani proxy army was reinforced by the Sept. 4 appearance of Faiz Hamid, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, looking very comfortable and in control as he wandered through the lobby of Kabul’s Serena Hotel.

Across the border in Islamabad, Amina Khan – a Taliban expert at the government-run Institute for Strategic Studies – says the story is more complicated than that. Yes, Pakistan has influence over the Taliban, she said, but it was wrong to suggest that Islamabad could somehow control a movement that Pakistan fears will inspire Islamist extremist groups within its own borders.

The entire region, Ms. Khan said, was rattled by – rather than celebrating – the Taliban’s rapid return to power. With the U.S. and NATO forces gone, Ms. Khan predicted that it will be Pakistan, along with China, Russia and Iran, that will fill the void. Those countries, along with Afghanistan’s other neighbours in Central Asia – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – will jointly decide if and when to formally recognize the new regime. China, she said, will have particular clout as the only country that could help the Taliban economically develop the country they again rule.

Ms. Khan said regional powers were looking for signs of co-operation from the Taliban – signs they never received in the 1990s, when the Taliban cut off international contacts and instead gave harbour to groups such as al-Qaeda.

“A lot is being said about Taliban 2.0. Look, it’s ideologically the same group – but they’ve realized they have to change their ways,” Ms. Khan said. “The litmus test for any Afghan regime is six months. We’ll know in six months if they’re going to fall or no.”

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Taliban fighters keep watch near a police station in Kabul. Kabul is believed to be largely under the control of the militant Haqqani network.

While Ms. Khan said Pakistan views the Taliban as a single entity, with only some minor divisions within it, others see significant splits in the group.

Experts say there are two distinct factions within the Taliban. There is the wing that took part in peace negotiations with the United States, which were hosted by Qatar, and which culminated in the haphazard NATO withdrawal on Aug. 31. And there is the more militant wing, which believes the U.S. departure was brought about by their incessant attacks.

So far, the militant wing – known as the Haqqani network – appears to have the upper hand on the relative moderates, who are known as the Quetta Shura.

The all-male Taliban cabinet formed on Sept. 7 saw Sirajuddin Haqqani given the powerful post of Interior Minister, while Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most prominent figure in the Quetta Shura (he oversaw the Taliban’s participation in the Qatar talks), was given the relatively powerless job of Deputy Prime Minister.

Significantly, the Haqqani network, which has the closest ties to Pakistan, controls Kabul, while Mullah Baradar, who has built links with Iran and Qatar, in addition to Pakistan, spends most of his time in the traditional Taliban heartland of Kandahar.

The real decisions, however, are believed to be made in Pakistan. “Pakistan has deep influence on the Taliban from both sides,” said a veteran Afghan analyst, whom The Globe is not naming in order to protect his family from repercussions. “It is easy for Pakistan to push them in whichever way Pakistan wants.

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Young men play cricket at a public playground in Kabul. For Afghans in their early twenties or younger, life under a NATO-backed civilian government was all they knew until the Taliban regained control.

One of the few attempts at resisting the Taliban’s return to power occurred on Sept. 8, when a group of several dozen women marched down one of the main streets in Kabul, protesting the return of sexist and segregationist policies.

Noori, a 22-year-old aspiring dentist, was one of the women who protested that day. She was too young to remember life under the 1996-2001 Taliban government, but she had heard enough about it – and seen its effects on her mother’s generation – to know that she didn’t want to live that way. “If the Taliban is the same as before, we will be left behind, uneducated, like our mothers. We never expected this would be our future too.”

The protest lasted only a few minutes before the Taliban started shooting in the air and hitting some of the women. Noori was among a group forced into an underground garage, where they were detained en masse with no water and little fresh air as the Taliban dealt with the remaining protesters. They were there for an hour before a sympathetic guard helped the women to escape.

“That was my last time protesting. It was too dangerous. I would never do it again,” Noori told The Globe in a telephone interview. The Globe is not using her family name out of fear she would be targeted for retribution.

She said the experience had taught her that the Taliban, despite its promises, was no different from the group that had repressed her mother’s generation. She described watching Taliban fighters beat a group of women – Shia Hazaras who had covered their heads with scarves, but were not wearing the head-to-toe burqas common in the Taliban heartland – simply for how they were dressed.

“For the past 20 years, [the Taliban] have made nothing but bombs and suicide attacks,” Noori said. “The Taliban have not changed at all. If they say they will change, they are lying.”

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Taliban members patrol a mosque at the site where an explosion killed several people a day earlier during prayers for the mother of a Taliban spokesperson.

The hopelessness and desperation cut across all sectors. Fruit vendors who say they now lose money every day they come to work. University professors despondent at the changing rules around education. A traffic policeman receiving no salary, who stopped The Globe on the street to ask about visas to Canada. The nurse giving PCR tests to passengers leaving Kabul. Musicians and medical students I met at the airport before my own flight out to Qatar. All were desperate to leave Afghanistan out of fear about what comes next. Afghanistan isn’t facing merely a brain drain, but a black hole sucking the country’s talent and creativity away at a rate too fast to comprehend.

Not everyone has given up. Nargis Shams, a 23-year-old medical student, fled to Pakistan two days after the Taliban takeover. But after a month in exile, she decided to return home. Last week she was sitting in the front row of her gynecology class at Dawat University, a private institute in Kabul that always had separate campuses for men and women. “We want to work here. We want to study and become doctors and help people,” she said in defiant, flawless English. The only difference from pre-Taliban times, she said, was that female students now had to wear abayas at all times on campus.

“Before we could wear whatever we wanted,” she said, Nike sneakers peeking out under the mandatory head-to-toe black dress. “But right now, we are focused on more important things, like continuing our education.”

Ms. Shams’s words were inspiring, but the half-empty classroom also told a story. Her teacher said that out of 22 female medical students, only 11 were still coming to class. Some of the absent women had stayed away out of fear. Others could no longer afford the US$1,000 annual tuition.

Dawat University so far remains a bastion of stability in a country that has seen little of it. But the university’s director, Khalid Siraj, said that with student numbers falling and costs rising, he didn’t know if Dawat could remain open beyond this semester. “This environment is not normal. People are afraid that there will be fighting in Kabul, because every day there is no money – and people have a lot of guns,” he said, dropping his voice to a near-whisper so that nearby students couldn’t hear. “If this lasts for two or three months, the security problems will start – and I will also have to flee.”

With reporting by Mukhtar Amiri

The Globe in Afghanistan: More coverage

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