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15 August 2021

Diary: Witnessing the last days of Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan

As Taliban forces enter Kabul, foreign correspondent Lynne O'Donnell reports on the horrors following in their wake.

By Lynne O'Donnell

At time of writing, Afghanistan’s capital Kabul is on the brink of collapse. The Taliban’s shockingly rapid advance in recent days has spread panic and fear. People have arrived in the city from across the country, fleeing violence and abuses. Now they wait – to see exactly how the city falls. Will there be violence? Will a peaceful transfer of power be secured? And will the international community now step in, if not militarily, then with sufficient humanitarian and refugee aid to match the need of a country likely to be returned to Sharia law?

I have been in Afghanistan for three months, this is my first trip back since I was based here as a bureau chief for international news agencies between 2009 and 2017. A barrier of formality has been removed and people I respected as colleagues are now dear friends. That has been wonderful. But it has been difficult to watch their growing anguish as the insurgents’ blitzkrieg has brought with it an awareness that all they have – their freedoms; their confidence in their future as citizens of the world; their dreams for their children – is in danger of being vaporised as the Afghan government falls to the Taliban.

Time will tell. But meanwhile, this city risks collapsing under the weight of the country’s internal refugees. Kabul is, at the best of times, over-crowded and under-served by its leaders. The open drains that run on either side of its streets are still stinking breeding grounds for disease, and the traffic is gridlocked for most of every day. Now those drains are close to overflowing. Prices for food, fuel, rents are rising – an economist told me recently that inflation in Kabul is already close to 20 per cent. Road rage is visible in the tortured, traumatised face behind every steering wheel.

Many of the arrivals are being forced to squat where they can, and so some of Kabul’s public parks have become makeshift camps. There is no running water, no shelter. Ad hoc distribution of relief such as bedding is causing fights to break out. Horrible, heart-breaking scenes of elderly bearded men fighting with young boys over the possession of things such as a carpet to sit and maybe sleep on, only fill me with dread about how bad this siege could get before it gets better.

My recent travels around the country have made all too clear the threat that many here have sought to flee. In northern Balkh province, together with my friend and colleague Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer winning photographer, I escaped from a district governor’s office under Taliban fire. We walked, briskly, for a couple of hours through wheat fields, our rocky path lit only by the stars; me, Massoud, the governor and her husband. We spent the night in the beautiful, if utterly basic, house of a farmer and his family – where a breakfast of freshly-churned butter, home-made jam, just-baked bread and of course, the ubiquitous green tea, helped make up for the night’s events.

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We had a lucky escape. The Taliban, who have partial control of the district we were visiting to report on the frontline leadership of its woman governor, were undoubtedly coming for me and Massoud. When a contact in a security ministry told me that, I felt it couldn’t possibly be so. I am just not that important, I said, they were definitely after the governor. Nope, he replied. They can get her any time; they had one chance at you  blonde, international war correspondent. The “chatter” confirmed it. Can you imagine the propaganda coup that capturing or killing you would have brought, he added.

In Bamiyan province, in the centre of the country, it took the local authorities a couple of days to twig to our presence. That gave us some time to venture into the territory of a rebel militia group in the neighbouring province. It was a day out, a long drive through war-torn territory. But our big scoop came, as the best ones usually do, quite by accident, while I was interviewing the governor. Newly re-appointed, he dropped it into our conversation that the Taliban, while holding control over a district in a remote valley, had demanded lists of all the girls and women, and said they’d be married off to young insurgent gunmen. The story Massoud and I reported confirmed the terrifying rumours that had been circulating since the Taliban’s advance began in May. There was tremendous pushback. We were accused by Taliban sympathisers and trolls of lying, setting it up, making it up, fake news – and that was despite having half a dozen sources, and video and photos of our interviewees. Now everyone knows the truth of the Taliban.

In the beautiful, historic and cultured city of Herat we saw the personal army of a local warlord beat two men to death and throw their bodies to the dogs. The men, who their captors said were Taliban, had been presented at the gate of the warlord’s compound. When the gate didn’t open, the assembled men, part of a militia formed to fight the Taliban advance on the city, set upon them. When the warlord did emerge he didn’t even look at the mangled bodies in the street. And then he granted me an interview and Massoud took his photograph while he prayed.

“Allahu akbar” has become the rallying cry for all sides of this horrible war. The Taliban shout it when they blow up women and children. The militias shout it when they kill Taliban fighters. And the people shout it from the rooftops because they feel powerless to stop the violence.

Today in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani’s government is crumbling by the hour. The Taliban has entered the capital and the US is evacuating diplomats from its embassy by air. There are even reports that Ghani has already left the country for Tajikistan, like a rat leaving a sinking ship.

Here too now, “Allahu akbar” is the cry on many lips.

[See also: John Simpson: Afghanistan after the fall]

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the a bureau chief in Afghanistan for AFP and AP between 2009 and 2017.

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