By Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, September 6, 2021
Late one afternoon this past August, Shakira heard banging on her front gate. In the Sangin Valley, which is in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, women must not be seen by men who aren’t related to them, and so her nineteen-year-old son, Ahmed, went to the gate.
Outside were two men in bandoliers and black turbans, carrying rifles. They were members of the Taliban, who were waging an offensive to wrest the countryside back from the Afghan National Army. One of the men warned, “If you don’t leave immediately, everyone is going to die.”
Shakira, who is in her early forties, corralled her family: her husband, an opium merchant, who was fast asleep, having succumbed to the temptations of his product, and her eight children, including her oldest, twenty-year-old Nilofar—as old as the war itself—whom Shakira called her “deputy,” because she helped care for the younger ones.
The family crossed an old footbridge spanning a canal, then snaked their way through reeds and irregular plots of beans and onions, past dark and vacant houses. Their neighbors had been warned, too, and, except for wandering chickens and orphaned cattle, the village was empty.
Shakira’s family walked for hours under a blazing sun. She started to feel the rattle of distant thuds, and saw people streaming from riverside villages: men bending low beneath bundles stuffed with all that they could not bear to leave behind, women walking as quickly as their burqas allowed.
The pounding of artillery filled the air, announcing the start of a Taliban assault on an Afghan Army outpost. Shakira balanced her youngest child, a two-year-old daughter, on her hip as the sky flashed and thundered. By nightfall, they had come upon the valley’s central market.
The corrugated-iron storefronts had largely been destroyed during the war. Shakira found a one-room shop with an intact roof, and her family settled in for the night. For the children, she produced a set of cloth dolls—one of a number of distractions that she’d cultivated during the years of fleeing battle. As she held the figures in the light of a match, the earth shook.
Around dawn, Shakira stepped outside, and saw that a few dozen families had taken shelter in the abandoned market. It had once been the most thriving bazaar in northern Helmand, with shopkeepers weighing saffron and cumin on scales, carts loaded with women’s gowns, and storefronts dedicated to selling opium. Now stray pillars jutted upward, and the air smelled of decaying animal remains and burning plastic.
In the distance, the earth suddenly exploded in fountains of dirt. Helicopters from the Afghan Army buzzed overhead, and the families hid behind the shops, considering their next move. There was fighting along the stone ramparts to the north and the riverbank to the west. To the east was red-sand desert as far as Shakira could see. The only option was to head south, toward the leafy city of Lashkar Gah, which remained under the control of the Afghan government.
The journey would entail cutting through a barren plain exposed to abandoned U.S. and British bases, where snipers nested, and crossing culverts potentially stuffed with explosives. A few families started off. Even if they reached Lashkar Gah, they could not be sure what they’d find there.
Since the start of the Taliban’s blitz, Afghan Army soldiers had surrendered in droves, begging for safe passage home. It was clear that the Taliban would soon reach Kabul, and that the twenty years, and the trillions of dollars, devoted to defeating them had come to nothing. Shakira’s family stood in the desert, discussing the situation.
The gunfire sounded closer. Shakira spotted Taliban vehicles racing toward the bazaar—and she decided to stay put. She was weary to the bone, her nerves frayed. She would face whatever came next, accept it like a judgment. “We’ve been running all our lives,” she told me. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The longest war in American history ended on August 15th, when the Taliban captured Kabul without firing a shot. Bearded, scraggly men with black turbans took control of the Presidential palace, and around the capital the austere white flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan went up. Panic ensued.
Some women burned their school records and went into hiding, fearing a return to the nineteen-nineties, when the Taliban forbade them to venture out alone and banned girls’ education. For Americans, the very real possibility that the gains of the past two decades might be erased appeared to pose a dreadful choice: recommit to seemingly endless war, or abandon Afghan women.
This summer, I travelled to rural Afghanistan to meet women who were already living under the Taliban, to listen to what they thought about this looming dilemma.
More than seventy per cent of Afghans do not live in cities, and in the past decade the insurgent group had swallowed large swaths of the countryside. Unlike in relatively liberal Kabul, visiting women in these hinterlands is not easy: even without Taliban rule, women traditionally do not speak to unrelated men.
Public and private worlds are sharply divided, and when a woman leaves her home she maintains a cocoon of seclusion through the burqa, which predates the Taliban by centuries. Girls essentially disappear into their homes at puberty, emerging only as grandmothers, if ever. It was through grandmothers—finding each by referral, and speaking to many without seeing their faces—that I was able to meet dozens of women, of all ages.
Many were living in desert tents or hollowed-out storefronts, like Shakira; when the Taliban came across her family hiding at the market, the fighters advised them and others not to return home until someone could sweep for mines. I first encountered her in a safe house in Helmand. “I’ve never met a foreigner before,” she said shyly. “Well, a foreigner without a gun.”
Shakira has a knack for finding humor in pathos, and in the sheer absurdity of the men in her life: in the nineties, the Taliban had offered to supply electricity to the village, and the local graybeards had initially refused, fearing black magic. “Of course, we women knew electricity was fine,” she said, chuckling.
When she laughs, she pulls her shawl over her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. I told her that she shared a name with a world-renowned pop star, and her eyes widened. “Is it true?” she asked a friend who’d accompanied her to the safe house. “Could it be?”
Shakira, like the other women I met, grew up in the Sangin Valley, a gash of green between sharp mountain outcrops. The valley is watered by the Helmand River and by a canal that Americans built in the nineteen-fifties. You can walk the width of the dale in an hour, passing dozens of tiny hamlets, creaking footbridges, and mud-brick walls.
As a girl, Shakira heard stories from her mother of the old days in her village, Pan Killay, which was home to about eighty families: the children swimming in the canal under the warm sun, the women pounding grain in stone mortars. In winter, smoke wafted from clay hearths; in spring, rolling fields were blanketed with poppies.
In 1979, when Shakira was an infant, Communists seized power in Kabul and tried to launch a female-literacy program in Helmand—a province the size of West Virginia, with few girls’ schools. Tribal elders and landlords refused. In the villagers’ retelling, the traditional way of life in Sangin was smashed overnight, because outsiders insisted on bringing women’s rights to the valley.
“Our culture could not accept sending their girls outside to school,” Shakira recalled. “It was this way before my father’s time, before my grandfather’s time.” When the authorities began forcing girls to attend classes at gunpoint, a rebellion erupted, led by armed men calling themselves the mujahideen. In their first operation, they kidnapped all the schoolteachers in the valley, many of whom supported girls’ education, and slit their throats.
The next day, the government arrested tribal elders and landlords on the suspicion that they were bankrolling the mujahideen. These community leaders were never seen again.
Tanks from the Soviet Union crossed the border to shore up the Communist government—and to liberate women. Soon, Afghanistan was basically split in two. In the countryside, where young men were willing to die fighting the imposition of new ways of life—including girls’ schools and land reform—young women remained unseen.
In the cities, the Soviet-backed government banned child marriage and granted women the right to choose their partners. Girls enrolled in schools and universities in record numbers, and by the early eighties women held parliamentary seats and even the office of Vice-President.
The violence in the countryside continued to spread. Early one morning when Shakira was five, her aunt awakened her in a great hurry. The children were led by the adults of the village to a mountain cave, where they huddled for hours. At night, Shakira watched artillery streak the sky.
When the family returned to Pan Killay, the wheat fields were charred, and crisscrossed with the tread marks of Soviet tanks. The cows had been mowed down with machine guns. Everywhere she looked, she saw neighbors—men she used to call “uncle”—lying bloodied.
Her grandfather hadn’t hidden with her, and she couldn’t find him in the village. When she was older, she learned that he’d gone to a different cave, and had been caught and executed by the Soviets.
Nighttime evacuations became a frequent occurrence and, for Shakira, a source of excitement: the dark corners of the caves, the clamorous groups of children. “We would look for Russian helicopters,” she said. “It was like spotting strange birds.”
Sometimes, those birds swooped low, the earth exploded, and the children rushed to the site to forage for iron, which could be sold for a good price. Occasionally she gathered metal shards so that she could build a doll house.
Once, she showed her mother a magazine photograph of a plastic doll that exhibited the female form; her mother snatched it away, calling it inappropriate. So Shakira learned to make dolls out of cloth and sticks.