The things they carried when they fled Afghanistan

Last year, two decades after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, they finally left Afghanistan. The Taliban made their comeback, engulfing areas across the country and closing in on the capital.

His fighters arrived in Kabul on August 15, sparking a chaotic exodus of artists, journalists, rights activists – anyone who embraced Western ideals or who the new rulers might see as a threat. More than 120,000 people fled in a series of airlifts over the next two weeks.

They had no choice but to leave most of their belongings behind. The objects they took with them often had a deep personal value and linked them to their homeland in ways big and small.

The refugees are scattered all over the world. Here are the stories of four refugees who landed in Paris and the items they carried with them to commemorate them.

Two shirts

A young woman holds two tiny shirts.

Mursal Sayas worked for the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan. She got a seat on an evacuation flight, but her children stayed with her ex-husband.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Mursal Sayas stuffed what she could into her bag: a laptop, ID cards and other papers, jewelry, some clothes.

children's clothing

The red shirt belonged to her son, Mohammad, 6, and the black, to her daughter, Mehrsa, 3.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

When time was running out, she reached into a pile of dirty laundry and grabbed two tiny t-shirts.

They wore the scents of their children. The red shirt belonged to 6-year-old Mohammad, who loved kissing her eyes. The black shirt was worn by 3-year-old Mehrsa, who had gorgeous curls.

She felt she had no choice but to leave the children behind. She was an employee of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and traveled the country working with soldiers, police officers and anyone else who would listen – a job that would almost certainly make her a target for the Taliban. Sayas secured a coveted seat on an evacuation flight, but there was no place for her son or daughter.

The children stayed with their father, her ex-husband.

“When they left with their father, I knew it was the last time I saw them,” she said recently.

The 27-year-old lives alone in Paris in a small apartment near the Eiffel Tower. She is writing a novel, taking yoga and boxing classes, and learning French.

“I got me,” she said. “I don’t have my children. I don’t have my job. I don’t have my family. My parents who supported me and helped me. I don’t have my sisters. I worked for her future. I don’t have my brothers. No one.”

She calls her children every day and hopes to see them again before they grow up. Her son recently told her that a mother who loves her children would never leave her. She hopes that one day they will understand.

Smell is the sense most closely related to memory. When the family was still together, her son once said to her, “Mother, when you’re not in the house, I smell your clothes.”

And now Sayas is smelling her clothes.

Every night before she goes to bed, she looks at pictures of them, pulls out the unwashed T-shirts and sticks her nose in them.

A digital audio recorder

A man is holding a digital recorder in the park

“When I looked at the recorder, suddenly all these images, the memories, everything, the people I was talking to, came alive before my eyes,” recalled journalist Asad Kosha.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

It was early in the morning when journalist Asad Kosha received a call saying that Taliban troops had arrived in Kabul.

digital recorder

“I’ve interviewed many, many people with this recorder,” says Kosha. Now he is working on memoirs and uses them to take notes.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“They are in the western part of the city,” said his source, a member of Afghan intelligence. “Watch after.”

Kosha had never felt so scared. He and the editor of his newspaper needed to calm their nerves, so they shared a glass of whisky.

Then he went home and started packing.

He loaded his bag with some pictures of his parents and siblings, a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and a few other books. He had to go to the French embassy, ​​where a bus was waiting to take him to the airport.

He looked around his room and found his digital audio recorder on a table.

The Sony recorder had cost Kosha $35 at a market on a hot summer afternoon about five years ago. Since then he has used it for his work.

“As I looked at the recorder, suddenly all these images, the memories, everything, the people I had spoken to, came alive before my eyes,” he recalled.

Before the Taliban takeover, the Etilaatroz newspaper he worked for thrived despite the financial challenges in Afghanistan. It won international awards for exposing corruption. Kosha felt he was helping to build a democracy.

Today, the newspaper is headquartered in Maryland, and its contributors are scattered around the world, reporting on their country from afar.

Kosha, 37, lives alone in a town outside of Paris and spends most of his time working on his memoir. He said that without the meaningfulness of the coverage, he sometimes feels like a loser.

Then he took the recorder and began to tell the stories he had recorded with it.

“I interviewed many, many people with this recorder, including a mother in Herat whose son was hanged in Iran,” he said.

Once, when an old woman came to his office to complain about “strong men” illegally occupying her apartment, Kosha recorded an interview with her, and the story he published helped rectify the situation.

“This recorder is my connection to journalism,” he explained. “And for me it’s a tool that we can use to tell the truth. We can change something.”

Now he uses the recording device to leave voice notes for himself and collect interviews with other refugees.

“Once I have my papers I can travel around Europe without any problems, but I would focus on trying to tell people’s stories,” he said. “To do what I can.”

A necklace

A woman sits at a table and looks at jewelry.

Atefa Hesari, an actress studying theater in Afghanistan, took away jewelry, including a necklace with a special meaning.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

As the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital, Atefa Hesari asked her theater professor at Kabul University for advice.

A black stone necklace held in one hand.

“It’s funny to me right now,” Hesari explained. “Just a black necklace. But I bring it with me, maybe because I feel like it’s important to me.”

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“What should we do? We are artists,” she said. “If the Taliban see us, the Taliban will catch us. They will kill us.”

The professor tried to reassure her that everything would be fine. People knew her. She had acted in two films and worked as a TV presenter for the Ministry of Culture.

But an hour later, a friend called with the news that the Taliban had entered the city, urging her to go home immediately. He said her life was now in danger.

The streets were clogged with traffic and people running from their jobs. It was almost impossible to find an empty taxi.

Hesari feared that her modern attire would make her a target for Taliban fighters.

Eventually she met her boyfriend Sadat, a man who two months earlier had declared his love and proposed marriage, an offer she turned down because they were from different ethnic groups. He drove her home as the city descended into deeper chaos.

When they arrived, she didn’t dare shake his hand in case the Taliban were watching.

She just said goodbye to him, then went straight to her room, locked the door and cried.

She packed her traditional Afghan clothes and some jewelry – things that made her feel beautiful.

A year later, she lives in a suburb of Paris and takes part in an art education program. She is 24 and shares an apartment with another Afghan woman, also a refugee. Her whole family – her brothers, her sister, her parents — stay in Afghanistan.

There is hardly anything on the white walls of her apartment. For comfort, she examines her jewelry. There is one item that stands out: a black stone necklace.

Sadat had given it to her when he proposed and told her to keep it as a token of their friendship.

“It’s funny to me right now,” she explained. “Just a black necklace. But I bring it with me, maybe because I feel like it’s important to me.”

Sadat stayed in Afghanistan and the two are doing their best to keep in touch. Eventually he stopped replying to her messages and she learned he had been beaten by Taliban police.

“He’s in danger now in Kabul,” Hesari said.

A coffee cup

Woman holding coffee cup in the park

Mina Rezaie paid a last visit to her café Cafe Simple to pick up a ceramic mug from Afghanistan. “There are many stories in this mug,” she explained.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Mina Rezaie was awaiting evacuation at the French embassy when she realized she had forgotten to pack an important item.

Hand holding ceramic mug

Rezaie’s cafe, manned by women, has become a meeting place for activists and journalists – unlike the Taliban.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

So she left, crossing town to return to the cafe that was hers one last time. There, she grabbed a white ceramic mug with a bird written on it and the company’s name: “Cafe Simple.”

She started it five years ago, filled it with women and watched it grow. It became a meeting point for activists and journalists – and a source of women’s empowerment in a male-dominated society.

“The coffee shop was where I built my career and proved the patriarchal society wrong, that we can work, we can do business,” she said.

This message contradicted the ideology of the Taliban. And so Rezaie joined the Exodus.

Now she is 32 and lives with other refugees outside of Paris. She blends effortlessly into the city with her boots, nose ring and army green trousers.

Former customers send her messages from all over the world, lamenting that their beloved coffee shop is gone.

The mug is on a bookshelf next to a photo of her family.

“There are many stories in this mug,” she explained. “The story of my cafe where people came. Young men and women came and drank coffee and were happy in a free Kabul that is no longer free.”

Then she started sobbing.

“Sometimes I feel guilty for not being there,” she said. “But when I sit alone and think deeply, I come to the conclusion that for me, for the women of Afghanistan, it’s game over.

“I left myself and my whole life in Kabul. I’m not the same Mina now. My soul stayed in Kabul.” The things they carried when they fled Afghanistan

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