It’s 5.40 pm, Friday. At the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghanistan flag flutters in the wind under a clear sky. The calm is deceptive — moments after arrival, what hits you is the foreboding sense of departure.
At the airport entrance, there are two billboards of a beaming Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir who was the nemesis of the Soviets, the hero of the Mujahideen when they took Kabul in the 1990s, and a perennial thorn for the Taliban before their ouster in 2001.
A third billboard is of the current President, Ashraf Ghani, whose forces are waging a desperate battle — in many provinces, a losing one — to check the return of a militia the world thought had been dealt with 20 years ago after two towers fell on a 9/11 morning many seas across.
The Massoud hoardings in Dari and English carry messages. “To compensate for a political mistake is difficult,” says one. The other is more direct: “If our independence is lost, life will not have any joy and value.”
Telling quotes, especially on a day the Taliban swept the country’s south and west and, after Herat and Kandahar, took four more provincial capitals –Lashkar Gah (Helmand), Qalat (Zabul), Tirin Kot (Uruzgan), Feroz Koh (Ghor) — in a lightning offensive, hoping to eventually encircle Kabul. Their rapid advance has taken everyone by surprise, coming as it does much before the US officially ends its two-decade war.
Friday is a holiday here, but the road from the airport to Shehr-e-nau in downtown Kabul is busy with traffic. Most shops are closed, barring some which sell bread and essentials. Men, women and children walk hurriedly and traffic piles up as cars, mostly old Toyotas, are checked at security barricades erected at regular intervals.
This is a city nervous and fearful of what lies ahead, dreading the thought of a return to times when women had no rights, music was taboo and life, as they have known it these past many years, did not exist.
Kabul is where many are headed as large swathes are being overrun across the country. Refugees from small towns are pouring into the city every day. The city’s famed parks are now sanctuaries, converted into refugee shelters.
Mohammad Yunus, a 38-year-old who is a businessman and shuttles between Delhi and Herat via Kabul, is anxious about his family in Herat. His dealings in cardamoms and dry fruits take him to Chandni Chowk, but he is now rushing home.
He says he will have to wait a few days in Kabul before he can reunite with his wife and 14-year-old daughter. The Taliban have just taken over Herat, the important city in western Afghanistan.
“I don’t know how this happened… government forces did not even put up a fight, Ismail Khan (the local warlord) joined hands with the Taliban on Friday,” he says, worried about his daughter. The only consolation, he says, is that his 71-year-old “Baba” (father) is there to look after his wife and daughter.
Forty-seven-year-old Nazir – he doesn’t use his surname, lest he is identified – is from the province of Kapisa. He lives with his wife, three daughters and two sons in Kabul, and is distraught by the news of the approach of the Taliban.
“If the Taliban take over, the majority of Afghans will live and breathe, but they will be like living corpses. Can you imagine what will happen if the Talibs want to marry my young daughters? What will I do?” he says – his daughters are aged 13, 14 and 16.
Nazir has lived in India for three years, and is now desperately looking for an exit. “But we need to have money and resources, setting chahiye,” he says. Many of his friends want to leave the country but it’s not easy.
Officials and diplomats in Kabul, too, are watching the Taliban advance with great concern.
The political situation is unfolding rapidly in Kabul, and there is speculation of a change in leadership, perhaps a power-sharing arrangement that will stop bloodshed. But no one is sure, and rumours fly thick and fast.
Outside the airport, opposite the Massoud billboards, there’s a big signage of white block letters and a bright red heart-shaped structure, a popular selfie point which says “I love Kabul”.
On that, there’s no dispute. Not even between the Afghan government and the Taliban.