Home / World News / Afghanistan: A year on from Fall of Kabul Afghan journalist Orooj Hakimi describes horror of fleeing Taliban

Afghanistan: A year on from Fall of Kabul Afghan journalist Orooj Hakimi describes horror of fleeing Taliban

I can’t forget that day … it’s like a nightmare

It’s been a year since Orooj Hakimi set foot in her homeland.

This time last year, the then 33-year-old Afghan war reporter took a huge risk to tell The West Australian her story as she lay in wait – hiding, hunted and helpless while her beloved country was being torn apart just outside.

“My life has been spent in the last two weeks like a prisoner in a hiding place where I can only look at the sky through a small window and pray for freedom, peace and for my homeland,” Hakimi had said.

And then the unthinkable happened. On August 15, 2021, the Taliban finally seized Kabul.

She had been too afraid to give her real name, with the Taliban’s assault on Afghan media representatives made abundantly clear.

And being a woman made her a particularly obvious target for the terrorist group.

“In my first interview I was in my own country, but like a criminal. I had to live in a secret place. But now I have become an anonymous immigrant with a world of new worries,” Hakimi says.

With journalists being murdered all around her and shocking vision of terrified Afghan refugees desperately trying to flee the country beaming across news channels, Hakimi had little hope she and her frail parents would make it out alive.

They shot a young man in front of my eyes

“After the fall of Kabul, I tried four times to leave the country. On the first day, on August 17, I went to the Kabul Airport with my parents. I was wearing a burqa so as not to be recognised. What I saw behind the gates of Kabul airport cannot be expressed in words,” she says.

“I was very scared and my whole body was shaking. I was holding my parents’ hands to help them not to fall on the ground.

“We were faced with direct firing from the Taliban. They shot a young man in front of my eyes who was trying to enter the airport gate with his family. I can’t forget that day … it’s like a nightmare. It’s been almost a year since that incident, but it is still fresh in my mind.”

A probe is underway after a body was found in the wheel well of the plane.
Camera IconAfghans flood Kabul airport desperate to escape. Credit: Twitter/Twitter

It took about a month for Hakimi and her parents to escape to Pakistan with help from news agency company Reuters.

She cried during the short flight out and she cries now recalling the bitter day.

“After three months of living in Pakistan the Canadian government issued a visa for me, but not for my parents. I had to move to Canada in September 2021, with thousands of worries for my old and sick parents,” she says.

Canada ends its evacuation effort out of Kabul's airport.
Camera IconHakimi and her family were able to leave Afghanistan together, but they were refugees. Credit: AP

They were separated, but finally safe. However, becoming a refugee triggered traumatic memories for the brave journalist who had been forced to seek asylum from extremist forces as a child.

Afghanistan has suffered through a tumultuous history and Hakimi’s childhood knew only of Taliban rule until it was toppled in 2001.

But in 1997, when she was just nine years old, Hakimi’s family’s situation had become so dire they were forced to leave. As an employee of the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, her father Abdul Qasim was a target for militants.

My childhood was destroyed because of the Taliban

“I couldn’t believe I would become a refugee again and be far from my homeland. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a child, I tasted the bitter taste of being refugee, during the first period of the Taliban. I still remember the difficult days of immigration and my childhood,” she says.

Orooj with her mother Fayeza, 65,  and father Abdul Qasim Hakimi, 75.
Camera IconOrooj with her mother Fayeza, 65, and father Abdul Qasim Hakimi, 75. Credit: Orooj Hakimi

“The Taliban considered government employees as apostates and spies, and used to brutally abuse and kill them. We were lucky we managed to escape before they killed my father.

“For five years we wove carpets with my siblings. My childhood was destroyed because of the Taliban. Instead of going to school and playing with children, we used to wake up early in the morning and weave carpets until evening, even in the hot days of summer, just to stay alive.

“Twenty-five years ago we left everything behind and left Kabul to save my father’s life. And this time, after 20 years, we had to leave all our belongings, house, my sisters, my relatives and my homeland again to save our lives.

“Along the way, I was thinking about the hardships of immigration and I couldn’t stop my tears. It is difficult to bear the distance from the homeland, and it is even more difficult to be away from the family.”

Hakimi grew up watching her family and friends suffer under the extremist regime and vowed to rise up against it, becoming a war reporter to help shed light on the crimes.

But once dedicated to educating the world on the atrocities suffered by women and children at the hands of the oppressive regime, Hakimi now finds herself the victim, sharing her own story as the Taliban celebrates its first year in power.

Orooj with her mother Fayeza Hakimi.
Camera IconOrooj with her mother Fayeza Hakimi. Credit: Orooj Hakimi.

“Since the collapse of Afghanistan until now I have not breathed a single day,” she says.

“Yes, now I am in a safer place compared to Afghanistan, but I am still facing an unknown future and I am even unemployed. When I was going to Canada, I was thinking that I could build a new and more peaceful life for myself and my family in a safe corner, but it hasn’t happened so far, unfortunately.

“I realised my problems have just started instead of diminishing one by one. I finally arrived in Canada and I spent six months wandering and without fate, trying to find a way for my parents to get a visa and a solution for my sisters who are stuck in a dire situation in Kabul. Just because of the nature of my job they are in danger too.

“I hoped that all these hardships would end, but they didn’t.”

Women are being eliminated from society

Hakimi and her family yearn to return to their homeland. But she knows there is no life for her there. Despite Taliban proclamations of a modern ideological era, she remains understandably sceptical.

“Everything has changed in Afghanistan in a negative way,” she says.

“Women are being eliminated from society, freedom of expression has fallen to zero. It has been more than 300 days since girls’ schools are banned, unemployment and poverty have reached their peak where families even sell their children, and underage marriage has increased.

“The genocide of (ethnic groups) the Hazaras and Tajiks, especially targeted killings in Panjshir, Andarab and Balkhab, continues, the market for opium cultivation and trafficking has once again boomed, our underground resources are cruelly smuggled to neighbouring countries.

“The economic system is paralysed, unemployment has reached its peak, the medical system has collapsed and hospitals and clinics are facing a shortage of female doctors and nurses.”

Taliban guard in Kabul, Afghanistan
Camera IconThe last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan (1996-2001) it ruled with an iron fist. Credit: EPA

Hakimi paints a bleak picture and hopes for the beautiful country’s return to peace are fading. She is helpless as she watches it fall into ruin from afar, unable to help the loved ones that remain stranded in the chaos.

“My sisters and their kids have been in Afghanistan despite facing severe threats, and some of my friends have reached countries such as Iran, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan, and Canada, but some are still in Afghanistan,” she says.

“Right now it’s even difficult to imagine because the living conditions of women are painful in Afghanistan, but yes I wish I could return to my country one day without any fear and I will cover stories on freedom and peace. I will show the beauties of my homeland to the world via my stories, not violence and war.

“This is a great wish I will pray for as long as I live to come true.”

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan (1996-2001) it ruled with an iron fist, enforcing Sharia law at its harshest interpretation.

A woman on the street in Kabul
Camera Icon‘Afghanistan has once again become a prison for women.’ Credit: EPA

For women, the Taliban’s return marks a particularly dark period. Under its previous rule, women’s rights were almost non-existent.

Among the restrictions they faced, women were forbidden from working and from receiving an education. They were not to set foot outside their homes without a male relative and a burqa was required at all times.

Breaking the rules resulted in public whipping. Or even execution.

The Taliban has since pledged women will have rights in Afghanistan “within the bounds of Islamic law”, but all evidence points to the contrary.

“After the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has once again become a prison for women. They did a shameful deal with the lives of Afghan women,” she says.

“There are no more women in government offices, they have to work in the media with their faces covered, schools are closed for our girls and some women were even imprisoned.

“Women are disappointed, but they try to continue their struggle and fight for their rights. This bravery of Afghan women should not be ignored. Under the new Taliban regime, there will be no place or value for women as we see.”

An Afghan burqa-clad woman
Camera Icon‘Under the new Taliban regime, there will be no place or value for women as we see.’ Credit: EPA

Alongside a huge backwards step in women’s rights, Hakimi decries the loss of freedom of speech in Afghanistan.

While many of her colleagues managed to flee the war-torn country, those that remain work under dangerous conditions as they try to find an avenue of escape. All media is censored and what little information crosses its borders is largely inaccurate.

Fears of a domino effect in the region are entirely valid

In her first interview a year ago, Hakimi warned of the growth of extremist groups in Asia.

Afghanistan may be a long way from Australia, but the ability of the non-state Taliban to have taken and maintained control of the country for a year now with no sign of surrender stands as a chilling warning for the rest of the world not to underestimate its power.

Hakimi’s fears of what happened to her country kicking off a domino effect in the region – and beyond – are entirely valid.

“Afghanistan is facing a very ambiguous and complicated future,” she says.

“More than 21 extremist groups were active in Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul. Now think about how many other terrorist groups will be active with the Taliban takeover, which itself is a terrorist group.

“If the world underestimates the Taliban, not only it will be a problem for the countries of the region, but it will be a big problem for the countries of the world.

“Have they forgotten the incident of September 11? More terrible events may happen.”

Don’t leave us alone

Hakimi yearns to return to her beloved homeland. Her connection to her land and her people remains unshakable despite the distances she has been forced to traverse to seek asylum.

Orooj Hakimi.
Camera IconOrooj Hakimi. Credit: Orooj Hakimi.

With attentions shifted to the Western problem of Ukraine’s invasion, Hakimi worries the world has forgotten about Afghanistan and appeals to the international community for help.

“I ask the countries that promised co-operation to save vulnerable Afghans to fulfil their promises,” she says.

“My family and I are struggling with such an unknown fate, and, like me, thousands of journalists, women’s rights activists, and employees of government offices, especially from the Attorney General’s office, are facing the risk of losing their lives, so don’t leave us alone.

“I ask the international community not to recognise the Taliban and to save Afghanistan from the clutches of terrorist groups. Because this is for their own benefit.

“I am hopeful and looking forward to the day when I will see Afghanistan and its people, especially women, free again.”

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