UNbove its tightly clustered houses and peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul’s blue skies were once dotted with countless colourful kites, flown by children from the hilltops or their rooftops. Since the Taliban took the Afghan capital a month ago, they have disappeared.
And while more than 100,000 people managed to escape their country’s uncertain future – evacuated through the international airport – those left behind are grappling with a new reality.
The Taliban rapidly took over Afghanistan in an aggressive offensive that only lasted a few weeks and saw much of the Afghan army surrender or escape. The militant group eventually entered Kabul without much of a fight as former president Ashraf Ghani and much of his cabinet fled.
Forty years of war have already devastated Afghanistan, causing suffering, death and widespread poverty.
Now the militant group the Americans came to defeat is once again back in power. A message painted on to blast walls in the city centre reminds of just that: “Our nation has, with the help of God, defeated America,” one of the new Taliban slogans reads, replacing the previous colourful murals that once decorated Kabul.
Over the past decades, the Afghan people have gained little but lost much. Ancora, many had to flee their homeland. They now live scattered across the continents, leaving behind their once comfortable lives and jobs – cherished even amid war – trading it for a future as refugees. Their hearts yearn for home, but many Afghans can’t imagine a future under the Taliban yet again, remembering too well the group’s brutal 1996-2001 regime.
The ‘Islamic Emirate’ has not outlawed kites, nor has the group denied education to women, but with the formation of a new all-male interim government, details have emerged concerning the country’s future leadership: women are not to study with men and music is outlawed. The ministry for the propagation of virtue and prevention of vice is back – once feared as the strict enforcer of sharia law.
The Taliban are seen roaming the city, their fighters visiting the zoo and amusement parks, eating ice-cream by the roadside, guns flung over their shoulders. Some say they have come from rural provinces for “sightseeing” while others have brought their children. They stand in groups and take selfies together, high-spirited and excited to explore the city.
The Afghan flag has largely been replaced with the white “Islamic Emirate” emblem, with children selling the new banners amid heavy traffic across the city, walking up to rolled-down car windows, asking for a few small bills in exchange for the new banner.
Women have taken to the street to protest the new regime in many parts of the city – demanding rights to work and education. Some protests have turned violent with Taliban fighters beating women in the crowd and journalists detained and flogged.
While Kabul residents say security in the city – once plagued by regular explosions, magnetic bombs attached to cars and targeted killings – has improved, many are concerned about rising poverty levels. In one of Kabul’s main markets women are seen selling their gold, trying to access some cash to support their families.
The nation is cash-strapped, with the United Nations warning that up to 97% of Afghans could plunge into poverty by mid next year. With the departure of US and Nato troops much of the foreign aid has dried up, though donors have this week pledged an additional $1bn in aid funds for the country.
On the outskirts of Kabul, Aisha Nawabi, 62, is one woman who remembers the Taliban’s previous reign well. “Of course they haven’t changed,” she said from her home, a mud-walled compound surrounded by apple trees on a quiet gravel road.
Nawabi is concerned, though not hopeless. Over the past decades Afghanistan has changed she said. Access to education and technology has grown and the country has opened up.
“This time women will not bow. This time they will fight for a better future," lei disse, then paused. “I believe this time Afghanistan as a whole will not go back. We will stand firm.”