Journalist Khushnood Nabizada fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took the capital as U.S. troops withdrew. He lives with his family in Glen Allen now, one of approximately 4,900 Afghan refugees to resettle in Virginia since the end of the war in August. The story was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday, January 30, 2022
As the plane carried us away from Afghanistan last August, the feelings washed over me: relief, dread, déjà vu.
My family was safe. My country was not.
And once again, 23 years after the first time they forced me from my home, I had narrowly escaped the Taliban.
For nearly five months, I would wait at Fort McCoy, a military town in Wisconsin being used as a refugee camp for the Afghan evacuees, until my name appeared on the list of those to be resettled in Virginia. It felt similar to getting out of jail, even though everyone treated us well at Fort McCoy.
We had enough food and clothes and warm barracks to live in, but it is humans’ nature that only goes well with freedom.
On Dec. 28, I was moved to a hotel room in Richmond together with my spouse and three children. My parents and my siblings are still in the refugee camp, expecting to get out sometime in mid-February.
We were very warmly welcomed by friends and family in Richmond. They invited us to their homes, one after another. About two weeks ago, we moved to a townhouse in Glen Allen that I’m renting with the assistance of a friend and a generous landlord who chose a refugee over many other applicants with good credit and history in the country.
I liked Richmond from the very first glance. The city is beautiful, calm, green and most of the time sunny. The climate in Virginia – four seasons with not a very cold and long winter – is quite similar to Kabul.
I’m relaxed and happy to be here, with a commitment to love this place no less than my homeland, as anywhere can become your home country where you can live in peace.
But I have so much to do to stand on my own feet. And as nice as it feels to be safe, I never wanted to be here. I can’t stop thinking of all my friends, colleagues and countrymen who aren’t here. Who aren’t safe.
Emigration has never been my fantasy, but a compulsion to escape death. I suffer when I look back.
Aug. 15 was a sunny Sunday morning, but Kabul was silent when I reached my office at 9 a.m. and learned on social media that the Taliban were moving in on the capital. I called my boss, the state minister for peace, who was negotiating in Qatar at the time. He reassured me that the Taliban would not enter Kabul until the end of August.
But even as the call ended, my colleagues rushed to inform me that Kabul had collapsed. It was unbelievable but true. Soon after, we heard gunfire in the city.
I was a senior government official and a media agency owner who had already been on the list of the Taliban’s targets and survived one attack. I was no longer safe. I reached out to my diplomatic contacts and luckily the U.S. Embassy helped me get into their military compound inside Kabul airport.
I was of course relieved to escape death. But my dreams for a free and developed Afghanistan had vanished.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or maimed during the past two decades of war, a figure that rises to millions when you include the decades of war before the Taliban first took power.
A generation has been sacrificed for nothing.
The day we left Kabul airspace, it reminded me of my earliest childhood memory of escaping the Taliban.
I was 11 years old in 1998 when we heard that Taliban militia forces had captured Mazar-e-Sharif, the only major city still controlled by the northern alliance forces.
My father, who had a minivan taxi, rushed home and asked my mother and grandparents to pack ASAP: “The Taliban are heading towards Pul-e-Khumri city, and we must leave before they reach here,” he explained. “They have already shot and killed Hazaras like us and other civilians in many cities.”
My father’s taxi, which had originally been a Russian military ambulance, was adapted to seat more passengers. All three generations of our family, 10 of us including my five siblings and I, squeezed into the minivan. We could not carry everything. But I remember we brought essential foods like rice, beans, biscuits, raisins and peas from my grandparents’ grocery shop and attached our six precious turkeys to the car roof.
Our family is Ismaili Muslim, a minority group making up less than 5% of the population in our country. We have always faced discrimination for being different and also for being of Hazara ethnicity. Kayan, where we were heading, was the cradle of Ismaili forces led by Sayed Mansoor Naderi, the leader of Afghan Ismailis loyal to His Highness the Aga Khan, who was regarded as an intermediary and peacemaker between different mujahedeen groups back then.
The Taliban were a notorious armed militia, recognized as thugs by The New York Times, which had covered the fall of Kabul in 1996 under the headline “Guerrillas take Afghan capital as troops flee.”
Kayan, a small, modern town, was notable for its iconic statue of a huge eagle that stood on top of the grassy hill where a luxurious compound held high-level political meetings. Trade in the downtown markets and shops was brisk as a large population of internally displaced families like us were arriving in the valley, mostly sleeping inside local schools and mosques.
We reached Kayan at around 7 p.m, when we were given shelter inside a public school, with each classroom housing four to five families. The next day, we heard the Taliban had captured most parts of the districts and cities in the northern provinces and were heading toward the Doshi district not far away. Many said the front lines had been “sold” to Taliban forces.
The Kayan and Panjshir valleys were two strongholds, so we were confident enough that the forces in Kayan could push back the Taliban invaders. Nevertheless, after almost a week of resistance, the guerrillas entered the valley. They had unified their forces from all the other provinces to attack the north in great numbers.
All refugees, including us, had to abandon our shelters for the mountains. Our family, together with five others, went through a crack in the mountain and hid. We had grabbed some food and a few pots.
The first night we spent eating biscuits, raisins and peas. We could not light a fire to make food because the guerrillas would have spotted us. We were lucky to find a spring nearby for water.
We did not know what was happening in the valley for a couple of days until my grandfather snuck out and met with a few people there, who told him of the many young men and teenagers killed by the Taliban.
After 18 days out of sight, the Taliban announced that citizens could return to their homes. With insufficient food and clothing, we were relieved to come back down, although young men like my father remained in hiding for their own safety.
We put up a tent for shelter on a hillside, beside the house of a relative who was originally from the area. My father spent his days in the mountains and came to us at night. One week later, the Taliban announced that everyone must leave the valley within 24 hours. Apparently, they had found enormous depots of military equipment and other useful items they wanted to transport out of the valley.
My father and other men fled over a mountain to a village called Karazaghan, which was famous for its gold mines. The rest of us, mainly women, children, and the elderly had a grueling 20-mile walk from Kayan to reach Doshi and locate vehicles.
My mother had packed two blankets on my back, and I was to carry two bags. She had a 6-month-old baby to hold plus some backpacks, while my 7-year-old sister had to carry my 3-year-old brother all the way to Doshi. It was intensely hot, with dry desert-like conditions. We reached a place called Char Bagh, near Doshi, late in the evening and slept in a barn. I remember having the sweetest sleep, despite the wounds on my feet, as we were all dead tired.
The next morning, we headed on an empty stomach toward Doshi, where we rented a Kamas truck to take us to Pul-e-Khumri. We were relieved to reach our temporary home but concerned about my father. We had no idea where he was.
My grandfather and youngest brother fell ill, and we had no one to help us take them to the city hospital. Instead, we sought assistance from some neighbors.
My grandfather recovered, but my little brother died two weeks after my father was able to join us. Kiramuddin was 6 months old. The poor kid had taken some hard knocks when he had fallen on the ground during the walk from Kayan to Doshi, according to my mum. The lack of medical care available could also have contributed to his death.
A week later, we were home one evening when armed Taliban climbed the walls of our house into the yard, forcing their way inside. Thankfully, our father was not their target that night, but we feared he was at risk if we didn’t move somewhere safer, and fast.
My father initially left for Pakistan alone as he wanted to explore the possibility of moving all of us there. A month later, my father’s aunt, Bakhtawer Adil, who used to live in Pakistan, knocked on our door saying she was there to take us to Pakistan. We spent the next 10 days selling our belongings to make what money we could to start our new life in exile.
After more than 50 hours of driving, we reached the Torkham border, which thousands of Afghan women and children were crossing. A multitude of vehicles was parked on the other side waiting for their passengers. Back then, we could cross the border without documents. We rented a pickup truck to take us to Peshawar and then onto Rawalpindi, our final destination.
Unfortunately for us, the driver was linked to Taliban forces inside the Pakistan border that used to rob Afghan immigrants. He took us to a place full of armed men who pointed guns at our heads while they searched each of us in turn. I remember feeling terrified.
After stealing all our money, they put us on a Pakistani bus to Peshawar. We had nothing, but were grateful to escape with our lives.
We spent three years in Rawalpindi, where life was far from easy. We will always be grateful to Latifa Adel, my aunt, who supported us financially to prevent my sisters, my brother and me from becoming child laborers. Instead, we were able to study.
As well as attending school, I studied English and also received diplomas in computer programming, A+ Hardware, Graphic Design and MS Office.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, we wanted to return to Afghanistan. The U.N. Refugee Agency was supporting returnees, and we registered with the office, although we weren’t able to get back to our homeland until early 2003. This time, we did not go back to Baghlan or my birthplace of Bamyan but preferred to relocate to the capital, Kabul.
Although we owned nothing, thanks to my Aunt Latifa, we could live in her house, as she had emigrated to Canada. It was 10 of us in a one-room house, but we were lucky to have it.
I enrolled in grade 9, while my brothers and sisters were in different years. I also had to find work to help with the family finances, but I was only 16, small and skinny.
When I applied to be an English language or computer instructor, I was constantly rejected. No one could believe I was qualified, even though I had developed valuable skills while in exile that could be useful to my country in the post-Taliban era.
It took me six weeks to find a job in a community learning center teaching English and computer studies.
I joined a telecom company in 2005 while I was still at high school, a year before graduation. Two years later, I became a salesman for an insurance company making a good salary that allowed me to save money so I could continue my education. Daytimes were for work, while evenings were spent studying hard.
In the meantime, I was a bit of an entrepreneur. I did not have money to invest, but I had ideas that could easily work in the Afghanistan business market. So, in 2009, one of my classmates and I established a web-designing firm, approaching potential clients online and then doing the designs at night and on weekends. My working hours at the insurance company were quite flexible, so I could use the office computer for my own business as well.
I loved journalism and was always thinking about starting a news corporation but needed more experience in the field. In 2010, I designed and launched an online news portal, naming it Khaama Press. Khaama is the word I love most in my native Persian, as it means “pen.”
Initially, we started to publish stories in English written by me and one of my colleagues in the insurance firm. In the early days, we covered sports and entertainment, then extended our news coverage to include politics, business, health, education, human rights, peace and security. It was running well, a site developed to be attractive, user-friendly and professional.
By 2011, our portal had become so popular that it caught the attention of large companies that wanted to advertise with us – something that eventually helped it become self-sufficient. I also developed Persian and Pashto versions, rented office space, hired more staff and launched an SMS news “push” service for telecom companies, which generated significant funds for the business.
I was constantly working on our service quality, hiring the best Afghan journalists and writers. I never lived from Khaama Press income myself. I was just pleased as long as it could pay the rent, salaries and other expenses of the news corporation. I am also the co-founder of The Canada Now, another online news network, which is based in Canada.
The following year, my family arranged a good match for me, and I got married. I now have three kids: two daughters and a son. I am very much grateful to God as I have a healthy family and have been successful both in my professional and personal life so far.
In late 2013, I also entered politics, starting as an assistant in Afghanistan’s National Assembly. Next, I worked as part of President Ghani’s campaign team through the National Unity Party of Afghanistan, of which I was a member. Ghani won and, in 2015, I was selected first as assistant to the minister of Urban Development and Housing and later as his chief of staff.
In 2020, I was appointed to the State Ministry for Peace as chief of staff. We were a dedicated team of professionals working hard to assist the Afghan negotiating team in Doha and the High Council for National Reconciliation.
However, the peace process did not succeed because there was no clear communication channel between the government bodies. The Presidential Palace and the High Council for the National Reconciliation chaired by the president’s election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were in continuous conflict.
On Feb. 1, 2021, I left home as usual at 7:15 in the morning together with my elder daughter, Atrisa, and my son, Arash, to drop them off at school on my way to work. Five minutes later, our armored vehicle flew off the ground with a loud explosion. The vehicle was smashed up, its roof and front mirror torn off as it landed.
My security guard, who was sitting in the front seat, helped us get out via the front window as the doors would not unlock. Those who saw the vehicle could not believe we all survived unhurt.
My daughter cried the rest of the day. My son couldn’t speak. Growing up in Afghanistan, they understood what had happened to us, and why. I told them we walked away unharmed because God loves us so, so much.
The intelligence report confirmed that the Taliban was behind the explosion and that I was targeted because of my engagement in the media and journalism. We had been covering success stories of the Afghanistan National Security and Defense Forces against the Taliban under a contract with NATO/RS.
This attempt on my life forced me to think of my family’s safety. I could see that the political and security situation was getting worse every day. However, at the same time, we were working hard for a peace deal, a political settlement to put an end to Afghanistan’s 42-year-long war.
The president had signed a political deal with his rival, Abdullah, agreeing that HCNR, made up of almost all political leaders, would have full authority to make decisions on national reconciliation as well as peace negotiations with the Taliban. But he then ignored the HCNR’s decisions. Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, the chief negotiator, used to bypass HCNR and report directly to the palace.
The State Ministry for Peace was responsible for the management and support of the Afghanistan peace process. But most of the time, it was also used to act as a middleman between the Palace and HCNR as divergences increased. I personally have been involved in a high level of communication and had an intensely stressful job, staying long hours in the office and often being the last person to go home.
Instead of reaching a peace treaty, the country fell into sudden and complete chaos when the president did not agree to a political settlement and fled the country without prior notice.
The collapse of Kabul on Aug. 15 left no choice for me and many others of my generation. Those of us who had fought for the Republic and democratic values – whether as soldiers, journalists or political negotiators – now faced imprisonment, torture or death at the hands of the new Taliban government.
We had to flee incredibly quickly, leaving behind our belongings, properties, investments and, even more painfully, our hopes for a free, democratic and modernized Afghanistan.
We are alive, but we are not yet living.
In the past 10 years of my life, I have traveled to many countries, including Canada, England, most parts of Europe and some in Asia to report for the Khaama Press. My travels helped me get a worldview of what was happening around the globe, and I was hoping to use this experience and knowledge back in Afghanistan.
Despite my friends and family’s insistence that I should move out of the country, I had never thought of abandoning my homeland and the Republic we were fighting to sustain until it was the only option.
I wrote most of this story camped inside a U.S. military base for three months alongside 13,000 other Afghans who were lucky enough to escape with their lives. All of us were waiting to get resettled someplace – we didn’t know where and we didn’t know when.
I cannot disconnect my mind and heart from Afghanistan, as much as I try.
I can’t stop thinking of the terrifying conditions in my homeland right now, my colleagues who have been left behind in hiding, without work, and in fear of violent reprisals. My media outlet, which we have so proudly used to promote freedom of speech and news from Afghanistan and around the world, is on the verge of financial collapse.
The journalists and activists forced to flee Afghanistan should now join forces with the international community, working together to support our people who need urgent help and assistance.
The fight for freedom of speech also requires a joint effort between Afghan journalists and our international friends. We must continue to offer a platform for our people to share their concerns and experiences, so their voices can be heard.
One of my aims is to study besides the work I will do. I believe getting another degree will help me further to proceed well in life. I am searching for scholarship opportunities as I believe I would need to get educated in the U.S. in order to find my way better. The next thing I would like to work on is trying to help the news agency I established 12 years ago survive.
Khaama Press, a prominent news agency for Afghanistan that was established in 2010, is now on the brink of a collapse as the country has gone into a financial crisis.
Meanwhile, I’m starting over from zero. I recently got a driver’s license, and I’ve been applying for jobs. I need to enroll my children in school, teach my wife to drive and find an English class for her. I’m trying to find scholarships for my education and preparing to help my parents and siblings who are moving to Virginia next month, all while trying to help keep Khaama Press from folding.
Many in Afghanistan could think my life is easy because my family and I are not facing starvation or imminent death. Indeed, we are beyond grateful to have survived until now.
However, we carry the burden of knowing we failed in our quest to take our country out of war, fear and repression.
At the same time, we bear the guilt of having escaped when so many whose lives are at risk are still desperately seeking a way out.
We are worried and sad; we don’t know what the future holds.
Khushnood Nabizada is a journalist, media owner, and former diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @khushnabizada.