By Eman Kamel and Hamad Mohammed
DOHA (Reuters) – Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary began his career in 2001 helping cover the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and subsequent fall of the Taliban. Never in the 20 years since did he imagine Kabul would once again fall to the Islamist militant group, he said.
Fearing reprisals, Sarwary and his family were evacuated to Qatar along with more than 150 other people, including other journalists and artists, a few days before Thursday’s deadly Islamic State suicide bombing https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/western-nations-race-complete-afghan-evacuation-deadline-looms-2021-08-25 outside Kabul airport.
“For me personally it was 20 years of burying my life, my dreams, my network of friends, my home. So it was perhaps the most painful journey in my life,” he told Reuters in Doha, where he arrived almost a week ago.
“Even in my wildest dreams I did not believe that this would happen, that we would suddenly be forced to leave,” he said. “All of us on that plane, we were not there to tell the story… this time we were the ones being forced to flee.”
Sarwary, who fled Afghanistan before as a child during the civil war in the 1990s, said he lost contact with three friends who were outside the airport with their families on Thursday.
“They were telling me that they were all waiting inside the sewage canal and it shows you how desperate the conditions are to leave. As I was talking to them suddenly the explosion took place,” he said.
The United States said on Friday that the next few days of an evacuation operation that has flown out more than 100,000 people in the past two weeks were likely to be the most dangerous.
Mariam Sayar, who arrived in Doha four days ago with her mother, sisters and her brother and his family, said she felt lucky but sad for those unable to leave. She said she had left after fearing reprisals for working with U.S.-funded projects, while her siblings worked for international media and aid organizations.
“We have no hope the Taliban will ever be able to govern Afghanistan,” Sayar said, recounting feeling devastated when the group tore down the national flag at a Kabul park.
“We feel horrible that the people who are educated are coming out of Afghanistan at this point, at a time that my country needs us, that we should stay in our country, we should work and serve our country, but everybody is in a situation that they have to leave Afghanistan.”
Her brother Ahmed Sayar, 32, said Kabul became a “ghost city” when the Taliban entered, with people afraid to venture out. His family waited for 12 hours at Kabul airport to leave.
“We are happy that at least we made it out… but at the same time we feel really worried and really bad for those people that are stuck in Kabul,” he said.
Sarwary fears Afghanistan faces bloodshed and economic hardship without a functioning government. Countries should find a way to engage with the Taliban, whose biggest challenge now is transitioning from “fighting into governance”, he said.
Sarwary, accompanied by his parents, wife and baby daughter Sola, whose name means peace, is now waiting for a Canadian visa.
“I would like to think that we would go back because (of) our love affair with Afghanistan … That’s a hope that I think I will continue to cling on to,” he said.
(Reporting by Eman Kamel and Hamad Mohamed in Doha; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)