The flight out of Kabul

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Start your story with a character saying “Where I come from, …”... view prompt


Coming of Age Sad Drama

‘Where I come from, tea is the preferred beverage.’ Sarah Yousafzai cradles a cup of lukewarm Starbucks latte. The ring finger and middle finger of her left hand are crooked, and jut out at an odd angle as she traces her spoon with her index finger.

‘Oh?’ The reporter, Anna Ramsay, flicks her gaze to Sarah's cup. ‘Why didn’t you order tea?’

‘I used to visit this coffee shop in Kabul with my friends. It was called ‘The Cupcake’, it had a very colourful décor, with tiny spotlights encrusting the ceiling. It felt liberating to disappear in there for a few hours, to ignore what was happening and what was about to happen, to hang out with boys and girls my age, without judgment or scrutiny, and talk about poetry, music, politics, war, hate and love.’ At the last word, Sarah casts her eyes down, her voice breaking.

‘Ah, brings back memories, huh?’ Anna smiles, a brief, cheerful curl of her lips. She leans in and widens her smile to inspire confidence. 'Any particular love?'

Sarah's mind conjures up an image of melting brown eyes perpetually bubbling with mischief, high-cheek bones framing a handsome face, and strong hands that folded in hers as if they belonged there. A face she would probably never see again. 'No.'

Anna glances at her watch. ‘I’m getting a little late so if you don’t mind, can we talk about the events of the twenty-sixth of August, 2021?’

Sarah opens her mouth and closes it. She tries to choose her words with care. Words that would make sense to someone wearing a navy Ralph Lauren suit, with a French manicure and a perfect blow-dry. She stares out of the glass panes beside her. Rain is beating down on an orderly New York, in slanting, neat lines. People are zipping down streets, clutching their leather bags to their chests, and frowning. 

‘Can you talk about the twenty-sixth?’ Anna repeats, this time with an exasperated edge to her tone. 

Sarah is propelled back to a sweltering day. The day she is supposed to talk about. The day she cannot decide was the first day of the rest of her life, or the last day of the life she wanted. 

That day, Sarah shuffled forward in the flood of people around her. A maniacal current jostled her forward. On the eighth day of the wait her nostrils were used to the dank smell of human excreta. The sun wasn’t benign to the eighty thousand people swarming like bees on a hive, but then God wasn’t either. She had relieved herself on day two of the wait in her shalwar, throwing her modesty aside as one of those luxuries that apply in times of normalcy. This, however, was an anomalous catastrophe, even for Kabul, even for ravaged Afghanistan. This was D-day, this was when souls were picked for eternal doom, or eternal redemption. But unlike the promised holy judgement, there was no merit to this system, it felt like Russian roulette. 

Afghans, young and old, men and women, waited for days in the bedlam, their children dragged alongside or held aloft on their shoulders. They waved their immigration papers and their passports, shouting, pleading with the US Marines guarding the gates to Hamid Karzai International airport. Soldiers in charge of the biggest airlift in history had no choice but to be strict, immigration papers were being texted around. There were no names on the documents, and everyone wanted out before the country was taken over by the Taliban.

‘Komak!’ The appeal for help rang out through the crowd.  A woman next to Sarah held her baby over her head, hollering to the soldiers standing on the wall, just over the sewage canal. Everyone in the crowd knew they had to get out discarding their former lives like snakes shedding skin, in the hope of an oblique, stable future. 

Hope had always been a precious commodity in Afghanistan, like Hershey’s and Cadburys chocolate or peanut butter, and smuggled diamonds in other, blessed parts of the worlds. Hope was a millipede that crawled forward on limping legs, and tears rained like hail- hard and cold. Flesh fell on barbed wires, bleeding, tearing apart. Yet this creature called hope inched forward, clawing at one lone chance to flee, acutely aware the barter was a poor, unfair one, it was an exchange of a life of terror for a loss of identity. The barter demanded a tethering of all bonds to land, kin and familiarity. It was the cancelling of an ancestral past, a constant curse of displacement, and an erasure of culture. What happens when a person chugs a chasm within his soul where their home ought to have been?

For a blinding, deafening, disabling moment, Sarah slipped. She went under the waves of desperation. A leather sandal stomped on her left hand, she heard a crunching of bone, and the vision of her turquoise nail paint blurred. In a suspended moment, words resounded in her ears from a month ago. 

‘You must get out of here, Abji, you’re only nineteen. You have a future ahead of you.’ Her brother’s soft, kind voice cautioned her. His fair face and golden hair glowed in the mellow afternoon sunlight filtering through the window, as he sat cross-legged on the red Kilim rug in their living room.

‘My life, moray, my friends, you…everything I love is right here….’ She argued, flushed with denial. 

‘You don’t understand. The Taliban will force you to stay home, you’re a brilliant student. You want to work, and that dream will never materialise here. One of them may take you as a wife, you never know.’

‘They can’t do that! Not against my will.’ Sarah shook her head from side to side, her long hair twisted around her. ‘That’s against the very Shariah laws they want to implement.’

‘You cannot argue with someone holding a Kalashnikov, Abji. We must apply for your papers.’

Her mother walked in, holding a Mastawi platter, a hearty lamb and lentil dish. 

‘Not in front of Moray,’ Yousaf whispered. 

Their mother was a heart patient and the siblings protected her from most distressing news. They seldom succeeded. Horrific news was copious and easy to come by. To hide her distress, Sarah ducked into the kitchen to get the jug of Ayran, a herby yogurt drink.

She had kissed her mother goodbye before she departed for the airport and cried till she felt faint. Her mother had told her to be strong and promised her with her usual optimism that they would meet soon.

Sarah felt a tug on her arm, Yousaf’s strong hand was pulling her up. She clung to him with her good hand. She could see American soldiers pushing some enterprising Afghans off the wall bordering the canal and aiding some over it, depending on who met official requirements. 

‘Not long to go now. They will let you through.’ Yousaf reassured her. They could only see one way to the officers, through the sewage canal. The young mother in a blue burqa was wheezing. She flung her face covering off and grabbed Sarah’s left arm. Pain shot through her arm from the tug. ‘Let me go,’ she gasped, trying to back away from her. 

‘Take my baby, please! Make sure she is safe. I cannot hold on much longer.’ She shoved the wailing baby into Sarah’s exhausted arms. Her azure eyes, a stark contrast to her greying pallor, bore into her, already dimming with fast approaching death. She collapsed next to her in the next moment, like smoke dissipating into air. Sarah was tugged forward by her brother’s strong grip as he elbowed through the crown. She knew the mother was dead by now, either by starvation, exhaustion, or despair. 

‘I can’t…. this baby….’ She tried appealing to her brother. 

‘It’s alright, take the baby, Allah will protect the life He has created.’ 

Sarah glared up, shooting a reprimand at the dull, blue sky. Really? Do you even care about us? 

They were wading in the sewage canal. She realised with horror that the filthy water came up to her chest and this time the stench was unbearable. She held the one-year-old baby higher. The baby wasn’t crying anymore and was tugging her earlobe with her soft, tiny forefinger and thumb. Her brother appealed, showing her immigration papers and passport.

The soldier nodded and gestured for her to climb the wall. Sarah hugged Yousaf for a long moment until he screamed at her, ‘Go!’ The American soldier helped her up the wall. 'Thank you,' she breathed out with a mixture of intense gratitude and abject humiliation, but he wasn't listening. There was some cackle in his ear from his headset and it didn't seem like good news. He led her down the ledge to the gates where the camps were set up for approved evacuees. She tried to steady her steps, grasping the baby tight to her chest until she reached a gate that opened in a narrow crack to allow her in. More soldiers looked at her documents, gave her a wrist band, telling her she made it, she's safe now. She was about to make her way to the crowd of Afghans like her, some standing and some squatting on the floor, waiting for their flight when they heard a defeaning blast. 

‘It’s happened, Fuck!’ One soldier near her cursed and ran to join the others.

Sarah’s heart thudded in her ribcage. Who could she ask if her brother was alright? She collapsed into wails until an Afghan woman took the baby from her, and another woman hugged her. They wept together in unified desperation until their tears ran dry. 

Many months later, her brother would tell her how he was knocked unconscious in the canal by the shrapnel from the blast. He woke up to find chunks of his flesh missing and his mouth filled with sewage water. Ordinary Afghans, once again, became what is known as ‘collateral damage’ in the crossfire. The ISIS suicide bomber killed many ordinary Afghans. And after the bomb attack, US soldiers panicking, opened fire at the crowd, killing some more ordinary Afghans. A US drone strike targeted a white van that carried nothing but water canisters. A child was killed near the van. 

On the twenty-eighth of August, Sarah walked to the aircraft, receiving a fist-bump by a cheerful soldier on the way. She huddled in a cramped spot on the plane, holding the baby to her, feeding her bottled milk that one female marine had given her. ‘What’s your name?’ Sarah drew both comfort and courage from the baby’s warmth and dependence on her. ‘I’ll call you Umeed. It’s apt since you symbolise hope.’

A chuckle brought her back to Starbucks. ‘I give up!’ Anna got up, picking up her bag, and flinging a ‘Good luck!’ on her way out. 

Sarah smiled. Luck was something she already had, otherwise she wouldn’t have alighted in the land of opportunity, grandiose heroism, and impetuous adventurism. But what of walking the tightrope of belonging and alienation, the juxtaposition of happiness and safety, the conflict between allegiance and dissent? What of basic human rights and the privileged access to them? What about knowledge and ignorance, and in what degree did either become lethal? It was as complex as the choice between tea and coffee. 

She yawned, her mind buzzing with a million thoughts that she found impossible to articulate, as usual. She had been burning the midnight oil for her thesis. Her days alternated between her political science classes at NYU and working as a waitress. She glanced at her watch and decided to order tea and kill some time. In another hour, she would pick up Umeed from day-care. The toddler who had become her anchor would run into her arms and call her ‘mom.’

September 24, 2022 00:52

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F.J Red
19:33 Oct 23, 2022

This is such a compelling piece! The way you depicted the feelings, the imagery, and how things from the present trigger the character's memory of her escape! There's heartbreak in every corner of this piece, from Sarah having to leave her whole family behind, to being expected to just recount it to the reporter like any old story. And yet, the ending is so full of hope with her going to pick up Umeed. I really like your writing style! Can't wait to read more from you!


Salmah Ahmed
20:34 Dec 03, 2022

Oh wow!! How did i miss this comment? I'm so sorry for not replying sooner and thanking you for this amazing feedback. I haven't been on this site lately and been wrapped up in a million things but thank you so much! This made my day. I feel you really got the piece and what I was trying to do here.


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Gayathri Sampath
08:20 Sep 24, 2022

Loved the way you captured the horror of that evacuation. The trauma of sacrificing all that is known for survival is unimaginable and you have absolutely nailed it. Great writing Salmah. Look forward to reading more of your work.


Salmah Ahmed
14:05 Sep 24, 2022

Thank you so much, Gayathri! Love your awe-inspiring writing as well :-)


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