The cab wove its way through streets choked with cars, motorcycles and minivans. Black exhaust belched from a truck in front of them as men dressed in perahan tunbans waited for breaks in the traffic before striding across the streets. They moved quickly, a sense of urgency in their stride. Market stalls on the sidewalks were empty, most looked like they had been abandoned in a hurry. One had tipped sideways and newspapers lay strewn around it. It was early in the morning, the sun rising in the clear blue sky. No clouds could be seen - as if the sun had simply wiped the sky clean, not a single blemish or imperfection to be seen. It almost looks beautiful out, Abdul thought for a moment. The cloudless sky felt at such odds with the palpable sense of dread hanging over the city. He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked over at his wife. She was rocking their 3 month old daughter, Hooriya and whispering to her. She looked up, her face strained.
“It’s going to be ok,” Abdul said. He squeezed her thigh gently. Samaneh didn’t say anything. Her beautiful face was lined with worry. She wore a shawl over her head and curls of black hair rolled out from the sides.
“Let’s go over our plan once more,” Abdul said. “We get to the airport and we ask for the Canadian consular employees.” Samaneh nodded but was quiet. “Then we show them our papers, my work documents showing that I was an army translator and that we are requesting evacuation. We will give them the email I printed off from the consular staff and we should be ok to pass through.”
Samaneh was still quiet, looking out the window.
“You have the email right, jaanaan?” Abdul gently rubbed her shoulder.
“Yes it’s in the bag,” Samaneh said without looking back.
“Can I see it?” Samaneh sighed and grabbed a bag between her feet and pulled out a printed email. Abdul scanned it.
Silence stole over them. The cab rattled down a bumpy section of road. He slammed on the breaks as a bus from a side street cut out in front of. The driver cursed and honked at the bus. Samaneh flinched at the noise.
“It will be ok jaanaan. I promise,” Abdul said. He was trying to catch her gaze but she stubbornly looked away. She turned to face him, eyes blazing.
“How do you know Abdul? How can you say it will be ok? Our world has been destroyed. The life we have built for Hooriya has been shattered. Look at us now!” She gestured to the interior of the car. “Here we are in the back of a cab fleeing to the airport. Praying we can get on a plane to God only knows where. Our country is gone. The Taliban have come. Nothing will ever be the same.” Tears welled in her eyes as her voice became thick.
“Hey, hey, it’s ok, I’ve got you. It’s ok,” Abdul said as he pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her. They held each other without speaking, gently rocking back and forth. He could faintly smell pomegranate and cardamom. He closed his eyes and held her as tears streamed down her face. He pulled back and gently kissed her cheek, tasting salt from the tears. Her green eyes welled again but the tears held, shimmering like mirages in the desert. He put his hand gently on her cheek and she closed her eyes.
“As long as we have each other, nothing else matters.” He gently brushed a tear under her eye with his thumb. She made a tiny nod and sniffed, composing herself.
“I just can’t help but think something terrible is going to happen.”
“It will be fine jaanaan, trust me. All will be ok.”
As they arrived at the airport the traffic ahead was so thick they ground to a halt. They crawled along slowly, the driver hammering the horn to no effect. People ahead were jumping out of vehicles and unloading suitcases in the middle of the road.
“I think we might have to get out, Abdul,” Samaneh was saying. Abdul was straining to try and see ahead of the vehicles, looking for any signs of the sudden obstruction. “Abdul,” his wife gently shook him.
“Abdul we should get out.”
“Yes ok let’s go.” They paid the cab driver and stepped outside. The heat from the sun overhead was already uncomfortably warm. Abdul grabbed the suitcase from the trunk, a tired old leather bag - all their worldly possessions at this point. They stepped away to the side of the road and joined a line of people dragging their suitcases along to the airport entrance. Hooriya had begun fussing and Samaneh rocked her gently to calm her down. She carried the small cloth bag over one shoulder with their passports and documents. The smell of dust and exhaust choked the air. Streams of people were moving towards the main entrance road to the airport. Abdul couldn’t help but feel panic rising up in the back of his mind, like unwanted trash floating up from the depths of a dark pond. What if we can’t get through. What if we can’t find the Canadian consular staff. What if they don’t accept our papers. What if we are turned away. He quickly had to quell those thoughts. He looked at his family - his wife huddled over their 3 month old baby. Her dark hair falling in curly locks from under her silk shawl as she whispered soothing words and sung a short lullaby to their daughter. He couldn’t really hear the words she was saying but recognized the familiar tune and could read her lips. “...The child behind the window, lalo. Your father has gone hunting. Your mother has gone to work. Asleep, you're a beautiful child…” He steeled himself and forced the despair out of his mind. I need to be calm for them. I need to be a rock. It will be ok. He put his free arm around his wife and smiled at her. She returned a quick anxious smile.
They approached the main road to the airport and rounded the corner into a scene of chaos. Hundreds of people milled around on a dirt road. Foreign soldiers in desert style camo with heavy machine guns ambled around. Families dragged belongings and their children. Women in shawls and hijabs, the men in perahan tunbans. Children ran around playing games, oblivious to the desperation that punctured the air in only the way children can do, or otherwise crying and clinging to their parents as they were dragged down the road. Trash littered the sides of the road - medical masks and empty flattened plastic water bottles, bits of cardboard and empty food containers. They were boxed in by a high wall on either side of them with rolls of razor wire on the top. Masses of people crowded together ahead at what looked like a kiosk of some sort. People were shouting and jostling to get ahead of each other in the crowd.
They continued further down the road to another crowd of people, spying a Canadian flag above. Abdul tried to push into the crowd, but was blocked out. One of the Canadian consular employees behind the table produced a megaphone and shouted into the crowd. “Everyone! Everyone! Please calm down. Please quiet down.” The crowd fell to a hush.
“Unfortunately it has come to my attention that due to security reasons, the Canadian consul is unable to process any more applicants for evacuation today.”
A cry rippled through the crowd, and the noise began to rise again.
“Everyone please listen. Please for a moment if everyone could just listen. We will be continuing our evacuation efforts as soon as possible, but unfortunately at this moment we cannot say when that may occur. For the foreseeable future, the Canadian consul will have to shut down our kiosk here. We will reopen at another location when it has been deemed safe to do so.”
“But what about us? What about our safety?” Someone shouted in the crowd.
Others joined in. “Yeah! What about what we did for your country?”
“You owe it to us to help us!”
“The sacrifices we made!”
“The Taliban will kill us! You have to save us!”
Everyone was shouting now and the individual voices drowned out in the collective din of dozens of people screaming. The crowd started surging towards the kiosk. A man tried to jump over the desk but a soldier grabbed him and pinned him to the ground. A woman screamed. Abdul saw a lone child clutching a ragged doll crying. She had a dirty pink bow in her hair.
He backed away from the mess. He grabbed Samaneh’s hand and they started walking away.
“Come on,” he said.
“Abdul, where are we going?”
“We have to get away from here.”
Gunshots pierced through the angry buzzing of the crowd. Screams rang out. They dropped to the ground, Samaneh shielding Hooriya. Abdul looked back to see a soldier waving an M16 in the air, shouting at people to get back.
“Quick, let's go.” Abdul said as he helped Samaneh up. Hooriya was crying. He tried to brush the dirt off his shirt and they started a half-crouching run down the alley. They did this for a few minutes before turning into a small alcove formed by a concrete guard tower. They slid behind some boxes and sat on the ground, both panting.
“What. Are. We. Going. To do now?” Samaneh stammered.
Abdul didn’t respond. They’re going to torture you. Hooriya will never go to school. Your wife will become a slave for the Taliban. She will never see you again, because they will hang body in the streets. Ugly thoughts bubbled to the front of his mind, like methane gas in a septic pit. Stop it! He had to do something. He had to get them out of here. He could feel panic rising again. Sweat beaded on his brow and flicked down into his eye, stinging. He craned his neck around the corner of the guard tower. Just then he caught sight of someone he hadn’t seen in a while.
“Just wait a minute.” Abdul got up.
“Abdul, where are you going? Abdul!”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said as he started walking down the alley. “Haatim! Haatim!”
A man wearing a black tunic and sandals turned around. He had a light scarf around his neck and a Nike backpack on. He had an umbrella over his head, shielding the harsh glare of the sun.
“Abdul! It’s good to see you!” The man smiled as they embraced quickly. “How are you? Where is Samaneh?”
“She’s just around the corner with the baby. What are you doing?”
“Trying to get out of here as fast as I can. I’ve heard the Taliban have circled Kabul and are making an approach on The Arg.”
“I know, I’ve heard as well. Listen, how are you getting through? The consul turned us away.”
Haatim looked away, a bit uneasy. He rubbed his hand through the stubble on his face.
“I uhh, I might have been able to secure a route through a back channel. But there’s hardly any room left.”
“What do you mean?” Abdul grabbed Haatim’s shoulder. “How many spots do you have?”
“I have been told there’s only room for one more than me.” Abdul felt his breath catch. “I’m sorry Abdul, truly I am. There’s no way I could take you all with me.” Abdul was thinking fast, his brow furrowed. “Will you come with me? If you are, we have to move soon.” Haatim was glancing over his shoulder in the direction he had been walking. “What’s it going to be?”
“Listen,” Abdul said. He placed both his hands on his friend’s shoulders to look him square in the face. “You have to do something for me then.”
“Sure, I can try my best. What is it?”
Abdul told him.
They walked back to Samaneh and Abdul introduced the two of them. Abdul quickly explained the plan to get to Haatim’s contact and they started off.
They moved down the alley further, passing the area where the Canadian consul workers had been. The crowd had dispersed and the workers had left the tables and taken off. Scattered papers were strewn over the ground beside several of the overturned tables. A hot breeze picked up down the road and blew dust into their eyes. They squinted against the dusty wind and the sun beating down on them. They rounded a corner and could hear the noise of another crowd building. A mess of several hundred people had gathered below a wall ahead of them. They were shouting and shoving. Some were hoisting each other up to try and scramble over the wall but it was very tall. The razor wire had mostly fallen down on this stretch of wall. A couple soldiers were looking down on the mass of people and shouting for them to go back. A man had managed to get to the edge but a soldier pushed his hands off the ledge and he fell back into the crowd.
“Haatim, over here!” About 50 feet from the nearest edge of the crowd a man’s head was poking just over the wall. He was waving at them. “Come on, we have to go now!”
“This is it, hurry,” Haatim said. They ran to the edge of the wall. Haatim tossed his umbrella on the ground.
“Haatim, who are these people?” the man over the wall said.
“They’re coming with us.”
“You know we can’t bring everyone, there-”
“-Shh, shut up, we’ll make it work!” Haatim silenced him. “Quick Samaneh first” The man on the wall groaned and reached down. Samaneh handed Hooriya over to Abdul. Haatim helped boost Samaneh up and she grabbed the man’s hand, hauling herself over the edge to land beside him. “Now the baby.” Abdul used Haatim’s cupped hands as a step and reached up as high as he could with Hooriya and passed her over to Samaneh.
“Hey, over there,” someone in the crowd shouted. Abdul looked up and saw dozens of people watching them. They started running towards them.
“Abdul hurry!” Samaneh shouted.
“You next, my friend,” Abdul said to Haatim.
Abdul cupped his hands and braced himself as Haatim pushed his foot off his hands and reached up to grab the man on the wall’s hand. He hauled himself up.
“Come on Abdul,” said Samaneh. She was gesturing with one hand for him to come up to them. Abdul and the man on the wall were leaning over as far as they could, arms outstretched. Abdul took a run and just as he was about to kick off the wall, he was knocked flying sideways. He hit the ground hard and felt the wind go out of him. He saw stars for a moment as pain shot through his right elbow.
“Get up Abdul!” he could hear his wife scream. All around him people swarmed, suddenly taking up every spot of dirt near the wall. He looked around and saw a sea of legs all pressing in around him, everyone desperate to make it over the wall. He felt feet come down on his hand on the ground and something crunched. He cried out in pain. He knew if he didn’t get up he would be trampled and crushed to death by the relentless mob. He forced himself up, pushing a man beside him out of the way. He was packed in a swarm of people that were all shoving each other. He was being jostled about like a stick caught in the surf. They were all packed in so tightly. Everyone was screaming. He could barely breathe. Everywhere he looked he saw desperate and angry faces. Men shoving each other and pushing some to the ground. Some of those who fell weren’t getting up. He could feel the hope he had being squeezed out of him. I’m not going to make it.
He looked up and saw his wife on the edge, her hands stretched down as far as she could, her other arm wrapped tightly around Hooriya. Pain was etched across her beautiful face. Her green eyes shone even against the bright blue sky behind her. He looked over at his friend Haatim, who was crouched beside her. He nodded at Haatim, who nodded back, his face grim.
He looked back to his wife and mouthed the words, “I love you.” Haatim was tugging on her shoulder, shouting “we have to go.” The man on the wall had already disappeared over the other side. Tears were streaming down her face into the crowd frothing below, like hungry sharks.
“I will find you again,” Abdul mouthed.
“I can’t leave you,” she mouthed back to him.
He struggled to free his hand from the tight press of people around him. He blew a kiss towards her and held his hand up.
“For Hooriya,” he mouthed.
She closed her eyes as Haatim pulled her away from the edge and she disappeared from view.
Abdul fought his way out of the crowd and collapsed into a patch of shade around a corner. Exhaustion stole over him. They’re going to be safe. Haatim thought. His heart pounded in his chest. Pain coursed through his hand and elbow, but he felt a calm settle in his mind. They will be safe, and I will not see them for a while. But this is not the end. He pushed himself up slowly, brushing dust off his pants and shirt. He looked back at the mob and sighed.
We will meet again.