All is Lost: A Former Soldier and Her Journey to Safety

All names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.

On August 15, 2021, when Shereen, 37, arrived at her office at the Afghanistan Ministry of Defence, her heart was racing with fright.

A few hours later, her colleagues rushed to her office, breaking the news that would change Shereen’s life forever.

“Pack up and leave immediately,” one of her colleagues told her in fear, “the Taliban are entering Kabul.”

“That was the moment,” Shereen began chronicling her experience under the Taliban that spoke of pain, “I felt my life had shattered into pieces. And, all of a sudden, my dreams to serve, to build my country, went in vain.”

Before packing her stuff, the dread for her family’s safety soon engulfed her.

She immediately called her husband, Jawad, 37, who worked not so far from her at the Ministry of Interior.

“Where are you, Jawad?” She anxiously asked her husband.

“I have to stay for a while to make a few clearances, but I will come to see you and the kids shortly,” Jawad responded with a heavy heart, “don’t panic.”

Shereen panicked anyway.

She was holding back tears as she left her office. On her way, she picked up her 5-year-old son, Ibrahim, from his kindergarten. Two hours later, Shereen and Ibrahim were at home where her 8-year-old daughter, Nazanin, was waiting impatiently for their arrival. In the dark of their cramped living room, they turned on their big flat-screen TV, watching in horror the breathtaking speed of unfolding events in Kabul that signaled the beginning of an inevitable tragedy: the return of the Taliban.

Shereen with her family in Kabul, including a guest, right. Photo sent to KabulNow.

The news was all over the headlines.

By then, President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, and the Taliban, whose previous regime was toppled following the 9/11 attacks on America, had seized the presidential palace after a 20-year-long war. Leaning on the country’s seat of power, a top Taliban commander recited prayers of victory whilst Taliban fighters surrounding him chanted slogans celebrating the ending of the war with the force of their “swords and guns”.

The victory was so rapid, so unexpected, and unlike anything else, Shereen told me in awe. “The Taliban fighters had caused all hell to break loose,” she continued.

On the streets of Kabul, there were scenes of chaos, of people panicking in fear and uncertainty. As Taliban fighters circled the city to confirm their power, thousands of desperate people rushed to Kabul airport, seeking to leave the country. Western diplomats were evacuating their embassies, and international troops stormed Kabul airport, in a last resort to evacuate people who had assisted in the US-led war in Afghanistan, and to eventually pull out all NATO forces.

The scenes at Kabul airport were even more chaotic. US military planes were landing and marines were being flown in to help the evacuation effort, all while the airport was overrun by huge crowds of men, women, and children, trying to force their way onto planes. Several people died or sustained injuries amid the chaos and intermittent marine gunfire into the air to disperse people. Videos emerged the culminating scenes of men, clinging to the side of a plane, and falling to their deaths during take-off.

In February 2020, then-US President Donald Trump brokered a deal with the Taliban and sidelined the former Afghanistan government. The successive Biden administration pursued the deal that eventually paved the way for all Western troops to withdraw from the country and allowed the Taliban to seize control of power.

By the end of August 2021, over 120,000 people were evacuated to safety, while tens of thousands of others were left behind, including those who had assisted the US over the past two decades. On August 26, a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport claimed the lives of 170 civilians and 13 US military personnel.

On August 30, the US completed the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan as the last Western marines boarded a final military flight out of Kabul airport. The Taliban soon celebrated, hailing the withdrawal as “full independence” and total control of power.

Nearly two years since the Taliban won power on August 15, 2021, Shereen says her life has been turned upside down. Like millions of others, her life, and her family’s, have been devastated, their dreams have been crushed, and their rights have been severely curtailed. A few months ago, Shereen and her family fled Taliban retribution and they struggle to reconcile their past with their present and an uncertain future.

No Life under Taliban Rule

The downfall of the Ghani administration was inevitable once Western forces began withdrawing from the country. Shereen somehow felt it, too.

“But I didn’t expect, actually no one did, the country to fall so quickly,” Shereen recounted while sitting cross-legged on the floor holding her son in her lap.

And ever since, life for former members of the security forces, official employees, and ordinary civilians has changed drastically — mostly for the worse. “Honestly,” she added before clearing her throat, “there is no life under the Taliban.”

Shereen developed a keen interest in joining the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) when she first saw posters of women in uniform before attending a university in the western Herat province to major in social sciences.

“When I first saw a woman in a military uniform, I dreamed of joining the military,” Shereen, wearing a purple velvet headscarf and calf-length dress with long sleeves, told me before sipping her green tea. She explained further. “When I finished university in 2011, I returned to my home in Kabul. One day, I told my parents that I wanted to join the ANDSF. My parents welcomed the idea. A few days later, I enrolled.”

For ten years, Shereen was known as a determined, courageous, and hardworking military officer, beginning her career in the Finance Department of the Ministry of Defense, and later serving in the Chief of Staff Office. In a country where most women hardly left home without a male escort, Shereen traveled the country, worked with male colleagues, and commuted in Kabul mostly alone.

Two years ago before the collapse of Kabul, Shereen was appointed head of the Inspection Department at the Ministry before being promoted to Major rank. Like most of her female colleagues, she is a Hazara, a predominantly Shia ethnic group that has been long persecuted and massacred by the Taliban.

Shereen receiving a promotion badge from a senior official. Photo sent to KabulNow.

Shereen had high hopes to serve in the higher ranks and to affect change in her war-ravaged homeland.

Her spirit was tested at least three times, as she vividly recalled how she and her colleagues were targeted once in a suicide attack, and twice by targeted shootings. Recalling the deadliest attack, Shereen said that, in the winter of 2014, a military convoy protecting senior officials of the Ministry of Defence, was targeted by a suicide bomber, in an attack later claimed by the Taliban. Many of Shereen’s colleagues were killed or injured. She narrowly survived. “God was with me, so I escaped unhurt each time,” She assumed before pouring herself another cup of tea.

Shereen had high hopes to serve in the higher ranks and to affect change in her war-ravaged homeland.

“You know. I know that the threat was everywhere, more so if you worked in the military,” Shereen continued before realizing her son had dozed off in her lap, “I had to show resilience and courage and fight back or surrender. I didn’t choose the latter, for sure.”

As the Taliban tightened their grip in Kabul, Shereen watched each time the group imposed new draconian rules and showed systematic gender discrimination to erase women and girls from public life, which, according to human rights reports, could account for crimes against humanity. The Taliban authorities went on to impose more than 50 repressive edicts between September 2021 and May 2023, barring women’s and girls’ rights to education, employment, mobility, appearance, and civic participation, and impeding other freedoms.

Everything was changing for Shereen bit by bit. First, she lost her job at the Ministry. Next, she was barred from continuing her higher education at a private university. Later, she was consistently threatened by unknown men. And then a string of repressive bans gradually curbed her mobility and other freedoms.

“It was suffocating me,” Shereen uttered. “In the beginning, I was confronting every restriction with strength and resilience, but gradually they were taking a toll on me and my family. I was losing hope with the speed of light. I was helpless.”

Despite all odds being against her, Shereen decided to shatter a final glass ceiling when she convinced several of her colleagues, all women, to prepare and sign a joint letter, requesting the newly-appointed Taliban director at the Ministry to allow them to resume their jobs.

It was not until she delivered the letter to the Taliban director at the Ministry that she realized the “depth of Taliban’s misogynistic behavior” that would plunge her into another abject misery.

“I can’t allow women to work under my supervision, and most definitely not a Hazara woman. Get out and I should never see your face again,” The Taliban official ridiculed her letter in a way that signaled that she could no longer get a foothold in the male-dominated Taliban administration as long as the group remained in control.

But life for Shereen had already been crumbling. She suffered from extreme weight loss from stress. Financially, she was restrained as she could no longer work. But when her husband who, like Shereen, was a determined military officer, lost his job, the financial hardships were becoming backbreaking. They were on the verge of collapse, as making ends meet turned extremely difficult.

Shereen’s husband, Jawad, middle, in his office in Kabul. Photo sent to KabulNow.

The psychological toll particularly devastated Shereen. She had restricted her social life, turning aloof and reclusive. Threatening calls Shereen would receive intermittingly with ambiguous messages intimidated her and exposed her to depression. And when she later developed suicidal thoughts, her husband insisted that she see a psychologist. Shereen did, but it was not effective.

With everything being jeopardized and life losing meaning, Shereen knew she had to do something before it was too late.

“I was brought to a dilemma: I was either to continue a life of hell under the Taliban rule in Kabul or give up and flee in a bid for a better and safer life,” Shereen told me so woefully that it brought a lump to her throat.

“In the end, I decided to flee. I couldn’t bear a second longer. I fled with so much despair, with so much heartache that I can’t explain. All my life I built with tears, sweat, and blood from scratch and found my way into a senior position at the Defence Ministry. All gone in a blink of an eye.” Shereen struggled to continue before tears rolled down her cheeks and landed on her son’s face, waking him.

Lost Life, Bleak Future

When Shereen and her family were unable to cope with their lives in Kabul, and their futures coming to a grinding halt, they decided to flee to Pakistan for it was the best option they had.

In early May, under harsh circumstances, and informing no one, except their close family members, Shereen, Jawad, Ibrahim, and Nazanin managed to escape to a remote village in Jaghori district, Ghazni province to meet and give farewell to Jawad’s family.

Two nights later, the family decided to take a precarious journey to illegally move to Quetta, Pakistan, traveling through Spin Boldak, a border town in the southern Kandahar province. Along the way, they had to stop their vehicles and change routes twice, after learning about Taliban checkpoints.

A smuggler had charged PKR 25,000 ($90) per person and promised Shereen and her family a safe crossing from the border. But it was not an easy crossing as thousands of desperate people like Shereen’s family were pushing to cross the border amid tightening border restrictions by the Pakistani government.

During the crossing, Shereen was forced to split from her family because crossing all at once was not possible. The smugglers forced her to cover in a burqa, and insisted that Jawad put on a Pashtun-style headgear and Patu to hide their identities. Nevertheless, Jawad was insulted and beaten by two Pakistani border guards after they recognized his accent, which Shereen found out later. Another border guard had stopped Nazanin and slapped her with full force. Shereen was slapped twice.

“I can’t explain to you the humiliation and mockery we experienced at the border,” Shereen cautiously told me. “We were not treated as humans. Once our dignity was degraded by the Taliban, and next by the Pakistani border guards. That is all I could say.”

A day later, they finally reached Quetta.

Shereen along with her husband and son in Quetta. Photo sent to KabulNow.

“Can you imagine? We had to leave everything behind only to take with us an old carpet, two sheets, four pillows, and four blankets. That is all we had come with to a strange city. I don’t know how would I pick up the pieces and start again,” Shereen told me before muttering her son to hush.

In Quetta, Shereen and her husband have found temporary shelter in a rented home, but they are staying under the radar — they are afraid they will be stopped by authorities if they venture too far from their neighborhood. They are also skeptical of registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), fearful of harassment at the hands of Pakistani police or people learning about their identity.

Shereen and her family were recently offered an opportunity for resettlement in a safer country, but they have to wait as their applications are reviewed and processed.

“It is difficult to sustain a living here. We are living a low-profile life. We don’t know how long would we stay,” Shereen said, lowering her voice to not allow her neighbors to learn about the news. “But God is kind, and, if he wills, we will leave behind all the problems and resettle somewhere where we can live in dignity, in peace, and free from any harm.”