Celebration, uncertainty and fear grip Kabul one year on

Taliban militants celebrate the one-year anniversary of their victory in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Aug. 15. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Taliban militants celebrate the one-year anniversary of their victory in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Aug. 15. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

KABUL — Chants of “Victory! Freedom!” rang out from central Kabul on Monday as hundreds of Taliban fighters and commanders gathered to mark a year since the group swept into the Afghan capital, ending a long, brutal war and upending the lives of millions.

Cars packed with families slowed to take pictures and video of the scene. Some drivers honked their horns as they shouted their support; others blasted Quranic recitations. Young men and boys draped in freshly printed Taliban flags joined the crowd, posing for selfies.

“For us, this is a day of liberation,” said Muhammad Zubair Shahab, a 22-year-old Taliban fighter who was among the first units to enter Kabul. “By the grace of God in a single year, we have brought security to Kabul and eliminated corruption,” he said.

The Taliban takeover of Kabul did end more than two decades of war, but it has also shattered lives, gutted an already struggling health-care system and thrown the country into uncertainty amid harsh crackdowns on women’s rights and a spiraling economic crisis.

Later in the day, a group of Taliban leaders took to the stage to declare victory over foreign “occupiers” and to celebrate the achievements of their first year in power as an Islamic Emirate.

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As the crowd in central Kabul for the rally grew, young children dressed in stained, threadbare clothing appeared on the sidelines, begging onlookers and members of the Taliban for pocket change. “Please, I haven’t eaten. I just want to buy one piece of bread,” they said repeatedly, moving through the crowd. Some of the revelers gave them money; others shooed them away.

The Taliban fighters celebrating on a roundabout admitted they have seen the Afghan capital slip deeper into poverty during their year in power.

“When you are liberated, you must endure hardship,” Shahab said. He claimed the group has a plan to improve Afghanistan’s economy and that the country will eventually rebound.

“The invaders were never going to improve the economy,” he said, noting the high levels of poverty that existed in Afghanistan for years before the Taliban takeover.

“They were just here for their own interests. We are here for the Afghan people,” he said.

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Elsewhere in Kabul, Taliban checkpoints blocked roads, effectively preventing any counter-demonstrations and leaving some residents feeling trapped inside their own homes on the recently declared national holiday.

Groups of women hoping to publicly protest bans on education for girls frantically exchanged messages trying to find a safe place to gather. A small protest was held indoors after they were unable to assemble outside.

But many women had already decided to remain at home. Some were still recovering from injuries after being beaten in the street by Taliban fighters dispersing a similar protest just days ago. Others feared arrest.

“I am just sitting in my home crying,” a female activist wrote in a message. She requested that her name not be published for fear of Taliban reprisals. “They say this is a freedom day, but for us, this day marks disaster. The situation is only becoming more and more dangerous.”

But for others in Kabul, Taliban rule has been met with appreciation. In Utkhel, a working-class Kabul neighborhood primarily made up of Pashtuns — the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban movement — residents say the group reduced street crime and immoral influences on their society.

“I am very happy they are here. Before they came people were selling drugs and stealing things. There were TV dramas that showed girls running away with boys. Now that has stopped,” said a shopkeeper in his 30s who gave his name as Sanaullah. “There was too much freedom. We are all Muslims, and now we are closer to Islam.”

Like many residents, he lamented the terrible state of the economy. On his counter was a thick notebook of items people had purchased on credit, some items as small as a box of laundry detergent. “Yes, we are facing poverty now, but we have Islam with us and we need to be patient,” he said.

During the official afternoon gathering, defiance, security and autonomy were central to Taliban messaging marking the anniversary Monday.

“I congratulate everyone for reaching our goal of total freedom and independence,” said Abdul Salaam Hanafi, the Taliban’s acting deputy prime minister from a spacious, modern auditorium crammed with Taliban members who hung on his every word. He boasted that Afghanistan is now an “Islamic system where everyone has full rights, no injustice and zero corruption.”

Scenes of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul airport played on a screen behind the stage throughout the speeches.

“A stable and secure Afghanistan means a stable and secure world,” declared acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. “Our territory is all under control now, there will be no more fighting, and the nation is with us.”

Among the tens of thousands who frantically tried to flee after Taliban forces arrived, was a doctor who said roadblock after roadblock kept him from making it to the gates. “It was total chaos, and very dangerous. We finally gave up and went home,” he said, asking to be identified only as Habib for fear of reprisals.

Today the gates to Kabul airport are quiet. Children ride bicycles past the spot along the Abbey Gate canal where a suicide bomber killed nearly 200 people last year. But the area remains strewn with remnants of those desperate to escape.

Scraps of clothing still hang from coils of barbed wire, discarded riot shields lie in heaps and wrappers from military rations litter the street.

The Taliban fighters now guarding the gate said they took up the position just hours after the airlift ended, and the area has been calm ever since.

“The foreigners were scaring Afghans to leave, but now people see that life is fine,” said Muhammadullah Abudijane, one of the guards at the gate. “And it’s better for us, we never had towers before, we were always in the mountains on the run.”

The doctor who tried to flee now spends his days trying to comfort patients at a small private medical clinic in Kabul. Many complain of depression and anxiety as well as physical ailments.

“People are so hopeless now. Many come to me in tears,” he said. “Men have been fired after years, or they apply for jobs and are told their diplomas mean nothing. Women beg me for medicine to calm their nerves but cannot afford to pay for it. All I can do is listen to their problems, but it makes me depressed, too.”

In western Kabul, potato seller Sharullah Safi, 40, is struggling to make ends meet under the economic crisis, but he said his greatest concern is for his children’s future. His daughter should be in seventh grade but is banned from school.

When it comes to education, he said, “the Taliban have made a big mistake.”

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