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Life under the Taliban

KABUL – Taliban fighters sat barefoot on the back of a US-made Humvee at a busy roundabout outside Kabul airport, ammunition belts slung around their torso, weapons slung over their shoulders. A little over a week ago, hundreds of thousands of people had tried to break through the gates here, desperate to get on a plane that was going somewhere, eager to leave the capital that had just fallen to the militants. The then president of the country, Ashraf Ghani, also fled. With him most of his cabinet disappeared, many already had visas for third countries and owned foreign property.

You were prepared. The country wasn't.

The Americans have since left too. The airport is clean and operational again – at least for domestic flights and one or the other charter –and the Taliban celebrate their victory. And Kabul? The face of the city is changing rapidly.

KABUL – Taliban fighters sat barefoot on the back of a US-made Humvee at a busy roundabout outside Kabul airport, ammunition belts slung around their torso, weapons slung over their shoulders. A little over a week ago, hundreds of thousands of people had tried to break through the gates here, desperate to get on a plane that was going somewhere, eager to leave the capital that had just fallen to the militants. The then president of the country, Ashraf Ghani, also fled. With him most of his cabinet disappeared, many already had visas for third countries and owned foreign property.

You were prepared. The country wasn't.

The Americans have since left too. The airport is clean and operational again – at least for domestic flights and one or the other charter –and the Taliban celebrate their victory. And Kabul? The face of the city is changing rapidly.

Outside the former US embassy in the Green Zone, a fortified neighborhood built to keep out the very people who now rule the country, a giant flag of the “Islamic Emirate” was drawn on the demolition walls. Next to it is a Persian message: "We have defeated America."

Taliban members in a US Humvee in Kabul on September 1st. Stefanie Glinski

It is a job for Nasir Ahmad, a 36-year-old painter and calligrapher, one of several men commissioned by the Taliban to redecorate the many demolition walls of the Afghan capital: away with the colors and the once abstract and political murals, depicting the Afghan people, away with women's faces and the mural by George Floyd, away with the Afghan national flag. Instead, the country's Ministry of Information and Culture is setting up new embassies, which Ahmad is working on today. “The people will live under the Islamic banner,” were the words, black on a white background. He doesn't tell me whether he's okay with the new rulers or the all-male cabinet, but he says he's happy to have a steady job, especially now. Inflation and unemployment skyrocket, and hundreds of people stand in front of the city's ATMs every day, sweating for hours in the hot sun, desperately trying to withdraw even the smallest amount of money from their bank accounts as the country's cash reserves run low. Ahmad prefers to erase the murals one by one and get paid for it.

I arrived in Afghanistan the day the Americans finally left and drove across the country in a battered Toyota Corolla – a 13-hour drive with the windows down – from Hairatan, an Afghan border town on the Amu Darya River in neighboring Uzbekistan . With international air traffic still on hold, the route was one of the few ways back to the country where I had lived for almost three years.

A Taliban security guard manned a checkpoint in central Kabul on September 2. Stfefanie Glinski for foreign policy

At least a dozen Taliban checkpoints had been set up along the way, adorned with the group's white flags hanging on thin wooden sticks, manned by young fighters carrying weapons and sometimes grenade launchers, some wearing white headbands with the group's flag. Some wore army boots; others wore sandals. “We won the war. Peace has come, ”shouted a fighter when our car stopped in front of him before he carelessly waved us through. At another checkpoint high in the Hindu Kush, on a gravel road over the Salang Pass, a group of young Taliban members – perhaps still in their teens – asked for a selfie, which suggested we get out of the car and pose in front of the mountain panorama. Days later, returning from an assignment in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, things did not go quite as smoothly. A colleague and I were sitting in the back of another corolla, the headscarf covering almost our entire face. A uniformed Taliban member stopped us on the street and spoke to our driver harshly. “Next time the women should Burqa. Otherwise God is angry, ”he said.

Tensions have increased recently in Kabul, particularly since the announcement of the Taliban's all-male interim government, composed mainly of the Taliban's leadership council and senior members of the Haqqani network. There are few Uzbeks or Tajiks and no minority Hazaras at all. A “celebratory fire” lasted half an hour last week, which started for no good reason and killed several people. I wondered who my neighbor in the outhouse was who kept shooting a machine gun into the air. Protests have begun in Kabul and other major cities.

Women in Dasht-e-Barchi protest against the Talibans new all-male transitional government calling for womens rights, in Kabul on September 8th. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

"We have been robbed of our rights and of all the accomplishments that the past few decades have brought," said Sabrina, a 20-year-old student who shouted slogans at the Taliban in the Dasht-e-Barchi district of Kabul. Women like her have organized a number of demonstrations since the fall of the capital. Sabrina wore jeans, a black jacket, a nose ring and a headscarf that barely covered half of her light brown hair. no Burqa for her. “Never,” she said, yelling at the Taliban.

They, in turn, met the demonstrators – and the journalists reporting on them – with violence, their fighters fired live ammunition into the air to disperse the crowd, beat women and arrested and beat journalists.

“I know it's dangerous, but what can I do? I will fight and resist. There is no other option, ”Sabrina told me. “Afghanistan's women have changed. We will not bow regardless of the cost. "

I tried to cover up another protest. As soon as I pulled out my camera, a group of Taliban members aggressively stormed me. Her commanding officer, a man in a heavy turban who tried to reach for my camera, shouted hysterically: "Get out". On the same day, two Hazara journalists were arrested during the same protest, they told me, and then knocked unconscious with sticks, cables and truncheons – their bodies were covered with bruises.

Some aspects of Kabul seem unchanged. In the early morning hours, the smell of freshly baked bread is in the air. Most of the shops and large markets are open while people – men and women – buy groceries, clothes, and kitchen utensils. The ice cream vendor with his little silver cart, constantly blasting "Happy Birthday", is still walking past my window. At night vendors sell fruit and vegetables in dim battery-operated lights and announce the prices of the goods over loudspeakers. In a way, it feels soothing, but the city is much emptier, deprived of its former energy and life.

A street scene can be seen in Kabul on September 1st in which a large part of everyday life continues as usual.

A father and son shop at a market in Kabul on September 2nd. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

The streets are less congested, partly because many of the bulletproof vehicles that used to contribute to heavy traffic jams are missing. The little boys who sold Afghan flags on the side of the road are still there, but now they are selling the white flag of the Islamic emirate and red headbands with the same print. Taliban fighters roam the streets with pickups, flashing knives, weapons and rocket launchers. Fear runs deep as the Islamic emirate announces details of its new government, which looks depressingly similar to its previous regime. The Ministry for the Proposition of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is back, women have been pushed out of many jobs, and the media has been censored. This week, the Taliban called for a mobile broadband blackout in several neighborhoods in an attempt to quell the ever-breaking protests, largely organized by apps like WhatsApp. Women were marginalized in schools and denied access to certain subjects; some women told me that that includes journalism. Others were verbally abused for going outside without one Mahram, a male guardian.

A child sells Taliban flags and bandanas in Kabul on September 8. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

A plumb bob is under a sign that says: "We defeated America near the former US embassy in Kabul on September 8th. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

Many people are still in hiding, especially those who previously worked for the Afghan government. Afraid of leaving their homes, they are instead waiting for a chance to leave the country.

Most of my Afghan friends have already left because they believed that they would no longer have a place under the new regime. In the past few weeks, they have traveled to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Rwanda, the United Kingdom, and many other countries around the world. Here it was government employees and accountants, artists and musicians, health workers and tattooists. Now they all have a new name: refugees.

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