On an August morning, Mohammad Zaman Khadimi walked out of class and into a world entirely changed.
“I heard the news that the Taliban were coming,” he says. “They had captured Herat and Lashkar Gah and they would come to Kabul. Nothing would stop them. Everything changed. I knew I would be vulnerable.”
Within 48 hours, the Islamist group would seize control of Kabul and sit in the presidential palace. The Taliban would be the government.
For Khadimi, a 28-year-old Hazara man with a scholarship to a foreign university in his pocket and an Australian visa in his passport, his city was no longer safe.
It would take days, immense risk and a significant slice of luck, but Khadimi found a way into the sanctuary of Kabul’s surrounded airport. He endured whippings, beatings and threats from the Taliban to make it.
But he was also forced to make an impossible choice: he let plane after plane depart Kabul, waiting for his wife as she tried to breach the chaos and violence of the airport’s perimeter walls.
‘It was like they were not human’
Of all in his family, Khadimi was the first: to go to school, to university, to travel abroad to study.
Neither of his parents ever attended a classroom nor learned to read or write. But, hoping their children’s lives could be different, they uprooted their family from their ancestral district of Waras, a Hazara homeland in central Bamiyan province, for Kabul when Khadimi was ready to begin school.
It was the late 90s and the Taliban were fiercely ascendant in the capital. Khadimi remembers the first Talib he ever saw.
“They were very harsh, very violent, they would spit at the people. And everybody was frightened,” he says. “We knew to be afraid of these people, it was like they were not human.”
The adjustment was dramatic, from a mountainous rural village to a hardscrabble city of more than 2 million people. But school was a sanctuary. Khadimi was bright, and his success was celebrated and encouraged. On regular visits home to his village, Khadimi’s relatives would marvel at his marks and progress – “even reaching ninth class was something no one had done before”.
“My father was very keen that I should be educated so I could serve our people, because our people, the Hazara, were not given those rights that they deserve. I was very lucky to have that chance, because in previous generations, Hazara never had that. They were not even able to go to school.”
In the national university entrance exams, Khadimi earned some of the highest marks in the country. He was awarded a scholarship to study at Pune University in Maharashtra, India.
On graduating with a degree in business administration, he returned to Afghanistan and took up a position with the country’s chamber of commerce and later, the government’s ministry of finance, working in sustainable development.
A prestigious Chevening scholarship from the British government took him to the University of Leeds and a master in international business degree. He was invited to address international conferences in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Germany. He spoke at the UN conference on climate change and appeared on panels with Bill Gates.
With the banishment of the Taliban between 2001 and this year, all of this was possible in democratic Afghanistan. Coalition control of much of the country meant access to education became almost universalised.
Khadimi saw his government position as a way to develop his country’s economy and empower its people, particularly its multitude of ethnic and religious minorities.
“Since 2000, 2010, a lot of Hazaras have been educated, they have gone to school and to university. Their economic opportunities have increased, they have taken up positions in the government and started to develop their position in Afghanistan.”
Recognised as a future leader, Khadimi was awarded another scholarship – to study for a master of international and development economics at the Australian National University. He secured a visa to travel but then found himself unable to get to Australia because of Covid restrictions. With classes online, he enrolled and began his studies.
He also kept his job at the ministry of finance. With Canberra five and a half hours ahead of Kabul, Khadimi would wake at 4am for his online classes and a full day of studying before heading off to work.
But Afghanistan’s peace and progress was always fragile.
For months in 2021, Khadimi watched the resurgence of the Taliban, counting off the days until the hard August deadline for foreign troops to withdraw. The seizure of swathes of Afghanistan’s vast rural interior was expected. Few saw the desultory capitulation of Kabul coming.
“I was completely shocked by the takeover. I said to my relatives Kabul would never be taken by the Taliban – we have an army and support from international troops. We thought those forces would not give up the last two decades and be silent and abandon us alone. But that is what happened.”
The end was startlingly swift. Khadimi’s new government contract, freshly signed by the deputy minister the day before the Taliban takeover, was left sitting on a desk in the ministry.
“My documentation is in the hands of the Taliban now. My CV. Everything about me.”
‘When I put my foot on the plane, I was crying’
On Friday 13 August, Khadimi walked out of a Zoom class and on to the streets of Kabul, electric with the news: the Taliban were coming. The militants were already on the capital’s outskirts. Once improbable, their ascension now seemed irrepressible.
Suddenly, the qualifications Khadimi held were no longer laurels but liabilities. Testamurs from foreign institutions were evidence he was a traitor or spy, his Australian university scholarship demonstration he was still in league with the enemy.
Compounding that was his service to a soon-to-be-fallen government, a foreign visa in his passport, his Hazara ethnicity and Shia faith. His country was, or would soon be, no longer safe.
By Sunday, those fears were realised. Afghanistan’s president fled the country, its police and army, symbols of state power, melted away before the advancing militia. Khadimi watched as the Taliban consolidated control. Checkpoints sprang up across the city, its guards violent and unpredictable in their unfamiliar authority.
His mother urged him to leave. “You cannot stay, Zaman. The Taliban has come, they will kill you,” she told him.
With the window for escape rapidly closing, Khadimi made contact with staff at ANU and others in Australia who might be able to help. When the word came through that the Australian government wanted its citizens and visa-holders to go to the airport, Khadimi packed up his life and went. He carried almost nothing, beyond his documents he had only the clothes – old perahan tunban – on his back.
There were few chances for goodbyes. He did not know when, if ever, he would be back.
The scene on Kabul’s airport road was already chaos. Taliban checkpoints became anarchic bottlenecks as thousands surged towards the airport seeking any seat on any flight out of the country.
The Taliban fired indiscriminately to push back the crowds. Khadimi stayed, head down, seeking his way forward: he spent a full day trying to gain entry through the airport’s fortified gates.
“It was the first time I had been out of my house, because I was in hiding. At the main gate, I showed to the Taliban my passport, my visa, and said, ‘I am going to Australia’. They pushed me away. One of the Taliban beat me a lot with a cable. He hit me over and over again. It was very painful, but the fear was so much more.”
After more than 15 hours at the airport’s gates, Khadimi retreated to his uncle’s house nearby. He returned at 4am the next day.
This time, he was able to make phone contact with the Australian evacuation team on the ground in Kabul. He saw soldiers with Australian flags on their arms, but still he wasn’t able to breach the divide. He stayed at the front, desperate to catch an accommodating eye.
Finally, after more than four hours in the crush, a soldier spotted him and hurriedly waved him forward: he was rushed into the uncrowded sanctuary of Kabul airport.
“I felt hugely relieved,” he says, exhaling deeply at the memory. “I never expected that I would be rescued from the Taliban. It felt like I was in a different world, like I was out of Afghanistan already, and I was safe.”
Khadimi was quickly processed by the Australian authorities. But he told them he wasn’t ready yet.
He had not been able to bring his wife to the airport. She did not hold an Australian visa. Australian officials told him to ask her to come to the airport so she could apply for one on the spot: “It was a 50-50 chance.”
Khadimi’s brother brought his wife to the airport’s gates, but the Taliban drove them back, time and time again. Khadimi cancelled his seat on the next flight out, and the next, saying he would “take his final chance” on a flight the next morning.
“In the early morning she came back to the airport again but still she could not get inside. The crowd was too many, the Taliban were firing. It was not safe.”
Khadimi faced the agonising decision to leave his homeland to save his life, but without his wife. She insisted he go.
“She was encouraging me to go, pushing me to get on the plane, but she was crying also at the time: the separation, the uncertainty about what will happen. We do not know when we will be able to see each other again.”
An Australian official kindly urged Khadimi to board the flight, telling him the security situation at the airport was deteriorating by the hour. “This might be the last chance, don’t miss this opportunity,” he was told.
“When I put my foot on the Australian air force plane, I was crying,” Khadimi tells the Guardian. “I was crying because I never expected to see Kabul in this situation, I was seeing a very dark future for my country, for my friends and my family and my people. It was the hardest moment of my life.”
‘I worry about my whole family’
From the incongruous quiet of his new life in Australia, Khadimi worries constantly for his wife and family. He has spoken with migration agents and written to the Australian government, pleading that they might be reunited.
“I worry about her all the time. My whole family, I worry. They are vulnerable too. My wife has been working for girls’ education, which the Taliban opposes.
“But also because of my involvement with international universities, with education, my family will be punished. Because of me. I could not forgive myself if something happens to them.”
More broadly, he worries for the future of his country: the free Afghanistan he had dedicated his burgeoning career to build appears on the precipice of annihilation at the hands of a regressive and terrorist force.
There are thousands like him, Afghanistan’s best and brightest, future leaders and forces for freedom, who have been forced to flee.
“Many of the educated people have fled the country because of the Taliban. How will our country progress? I fear for the future, after all we have been through. I only see darkness for our people.”