Reporting and text by Kiana Hayeri, Christina Goldbaum, Azmat Khan and David Zucchino.
Earlier this year, after President Biden announced that American troops would complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by September, the photographer Kiana Hayeri set out to document the end of the 20-year occupation through the eyes of young Afghans, those who were raised after the U.S. invasion in 2001. Hayeri, who has been based in Kabul since 2014, knew that the future these Afghans had imagined for themselves would soon change; the question was how, and when. They grew up in a world with Facebook, Twitter, American movies and TV shows, a world of new freedoms and opportunities. They endured war and terrorism, poverty and dislocation, surviving uneasily under a corrupt government and the perpetual threat of suicide bombings. Yet they came of age with an increasing sense that they could determine the course of their own futures. Now they knew that would all be thrown into question. In the early summer, some of the young people she photographed were already trying to leave the country; others were continuing with their daily lives, waiting anxiously for what would come next. None of them expected how swiftly and drastically their lives would change.
Gul Ahmad went to school only until fifth grade. After his father died, his mother remarried. When Gul Ahmad was 12, his stepfather forced him to go to Iran to work and bring money back to the family. At the time of the photo above, the boys had traveled to Iran, hoping to find work, but were deported back to Afghanistan and waiting at a center for migrants to be reunited with their families. When Hayeri met them, they were constantly on their phones. Gul Ahmad played games, and Karim watched videos of young Iranian women smoking hookah and playing guitar.
Gul Ahmad (left), pictured with Karim, had been deported from Iran three times already. When Hayeri met them, all three boys were planning to make another attempt to return to Iran as soon as they could. Asked if he was afraid, Saeed responded: “What do I have to be afraid of if I’ve already faced death? I’ve faced death twice, once when I was being smuggled to Iran. I was in the trunk of a car with two other kids, and I nearly suffocated. Another time, when we were walking to Iran, we’d been in the desert for seven days with no drinking water. Eventually I passed out, and someone dragged me up a nearby mountain and gave me spring water, and I survived.”
By mid-August, after the Taliban incursion, Gul Ahmad had succeeded in getting back to Iran. He was working in construction and had lost contact with his family. He hadn’t seen Karim or Saeed since leaving the country again. “I miss Afghanistan,” he said. “I pity Afghanistan. I know the Taliban has taken Kabul. I think the country will be filled with war and kidnapping.” Asked what he wants to be one day, he laughed.
Karim is also in Iran now and having a hard time finding a job. Since the situation worsened in Afghanistan, he explained, there were more people and less work. He had lost touch with his friends Gul Ahmad and Saeed. He remembered how Gul Ahmad used to try to comfort them with songs. “When he’d sing for us, we’d forget our tiredness. He was changing our mood.”
When the pandemic struck, Esmat was unable to continue his studies, and with the political situation deteriorating in Afghanistan, he and his father agreed it was time for him to seek a new life outside the country, as three of his older brothers had. Esmat grew up studying languages and computers, and he dreamed of going to medical school: “I want to become a doctor to help you and other women and people who are suffering,” he would tell his mother.
Outside school, Esmat worked at a convenience store to help provide for his family. In his little free time, he played sports. In June, he decided it was time to leave Afghanistan. The journey required crossing through Iran. One night, near the Turkish border, Esmat fell ill, according to his family. The next morning, he never woke up. Esmat’s body was returned to his family in Herat five days later. A few days after that, they buried him.
When the men picked up the coffin, the sound of dozens of wailing women pierced the air. “I have nine children, and I feel like I’m being chopped into nine pieces,” said Esmat’s mother (pictured above right with a hand on her head). Her four daughters and five sons had been divided by war, poverty and efforts to make new lives. “Esmat’s wish and dream was that all of his siblings would be reunited and live somewhere close together,” his mother said weeks later. “They were all suffering in the past years from being so far apart from each other.” She added, “All I wish is for my children to be happy and healthy, which I don’t believe is going to happen for them.”
After they lowered the coffin into the grave, Esmat’s best friend, Qiamuddin, 20, pictured above, pulled a white scarf from his neck and placed it delicately over Esmat’s face. Picking up a shovel, he tossed dirt onto the boy’s body. As tears poured down his face, others tried to take the shovel from him to offer some respite. “He was the kind of person who didn’t trust that tomorrow would come,” Qiamuddin recalled. “If I would ask him about the future, and what job he thought he would have, he would never predict what was going to happen tomorrow. He would say: ‘Life is short. I don’t think I’ll be alive that long to plan for it.’ ”
It upset Maryam that so many people around her disapproved of women performing onstage, that so few of them even knew what theater was. She joined Women Equality Ambassadors, a street-theater group made up of women from traditional families who wanted to live more freely. In the image above, she was about to perform in a play about a woman who must choose between marrying and pursuing her dream of becoming a police officer. On the day of her wedding, the woman is killed in a car bomb.
For the actors in the theater group, the story line was painfully resonant: In June, the woman who played the bride, Tayeba Musawi, 23, was herself killed by a car bomb in Kabul. (She was in a neighborhood that is home to the Hazara minority, which has been targeted by Sunni fundamentalists.)
Before her death, the actors often struggled to wail on command when performing the memorial scene in the play. Afterward, their weeping was real.
Seven weeks after these pictures were taken, Maryam (shown here with her younger sister) was outside the Kabul airport, fearful that she wouldn’t be able to get on a flight. The Taliban surrounded the crowd, and shots were being fired as she spoke. “I just don’t know if we’re going to be alive or not. For now, I cannot talk. They’re going to fire on us. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” As she talked about her fantasies of one day walking down the red carpet and winning an Oscar, her voice cracked. “I’m going to cry when I remember my dream,” she said. “I’m not sure it will come true.” Now she feared that under the Taliban, she would hardly be allowed to leave her home. “They’re saying that women will be allowed to work. And that’s not because of women; that’s because they don’t know how to govern. And they need people to work in their offices.” Maybe women who wear the chadori, an all-enveloping blue veil, could continue working, she said. “But a girl who works in theater or cinema like me? She will not be allowed to work anymore.” Maryam felt sure she would be targeted. “Hazara people, the people who are journalists and actresses, they’re not going to deal with them that easily. They’re going to kill all of them.” She added, “If you’re writing about this, please tell about the situation of Afghanistan.”
Naser Khan published articles and opinion columns in Logar’s university-run newspaper; he was also studying political science and law. Two and a half years ago, he published an article, “What Is Love,” arguing that promoting love could stop war in the country. Soon after, Taliban fighters knocked on his door and warned him to stop publishing his work. But Naser Khan didn’t stop.
Then, eight months ago, the Taliban assassinated another writer for the same university newspaper. Bursting into tears, Naser Khan described meeting with smugglers to find a way for him and his wife, who is five months pregnant, to escape. When the Taliban seized control, his mother burned all of his newspaper clippings. She is sitting at home, he said, waiting for the Taliban to knock on her door looking for him. Naser Khan plans to leave the country — legally or illegally — for Canada in the coming days.
Dealers all over the city were buying the contents of houses at a flat price. As chaos descended on Kabul, Hayeri observed a woman trying to sell all of her daughter’s belongings. The dealer saw that she was desperate to sell and haggled the price down. In the end, he bought everything for 35,000 afghanis, which is about $400.
On Aug. 15, just as Taliban fighters were about to reach the city, Hayeri went around Kabul to photograph what she could. There was a huge amount of traffic, and people were walking fast, with looks of fear on their faces. She saw beauty-salon workers ripping posters showing women’s faces off the walls. When she returned home, she got a call telling her she had half an hour to pack before heading to the airport to evacuate. She hastily packed her camera, hard drive and a few belongings. The neighbors in her apartment building were also packing up. By the time Hayeri came downstairs, the whole building had been abandoned. “It was chaotic, apocalyptic,” she recalled. “Everybody left in less than an hour.” The four security guards who usually stood outside had already changed out of their uniforms and put aside their weapons.
When she arrived at the airport to board a military flight to Qatar, she learned that Taliban fighters had entered the presidential palace a few miles away.
She thought of the young Afghans she had been photographing, and the many more whom she hadn’t been able to meet. The last person she photographed, the night before, was the writer Naser Khan, whose words capture the despair that he and his peers felt. “Five years ago I put my head on the palm of my hand,” he said, using an Afghan expression to describe how he is ready to die. “I have nothing else to lose.”
The individuals featured prominently in this photo essay granted permission for their images and first names to be used both at the time they were photographed and again in the days before publication. For information on how you can help Afghan refugees and those attempting to leave the country, follow this link.
Kiana Hayeri is an Iranian-Canadian photographer. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times from Afghanistan, where she has been based since 2014.