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‘The last day of our freedom.’ An Afghan gay man reflects on love, and loss, one year after the American withdraw

My generation is dead. Joe Biden killed us.

Anonymous

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Artwork by Leigh Brown for Outspoken Middle East

August 15, 2021 was a warm, sunny day. That morning, I took a photo of Kabul on my mobile phone without knowing that day was the last day of our freedom.

My name is Nazir Ahmed. I am 24 and I am from Kabul. I was three years old when the Taliban fell, and Afghanistan entered a new era. The first image of my childhood is from a night when we didn’t have electricity at home, but I could hear music from my father’s radio. With the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a new government supported by the West, the life of Afghans changed utterly. Music, which had been banned from the lives of Afghans for many years, had once again returned to the radio. We didn’t have electricity, but in the absolute darkness of the night, under the candlelight, we were listening to happy songs broadcast from the newly established radio station in Kabul. My mother insisted on holding my hand and making me dance; my father did not like that, but the family was in good spirits and full of hope.

The streets of Kabul were still dusty, but the city smelled of hope. The presence of international, mainly American, forces in those first years brought back peace in the country. The country gradually regained the order it had lost more than thirty years ago, and relative freedoms were evident in the lives of Afghans. Culture and civil society were moving forward. Our parents were full of hope for their children, and we were still little and unaware of the future ahead of us.

A photo of Kabul taken by the author the morning of Aug. 15, 2021 // OSME

The first time there were rumours of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was during President Obama’s time. My father used to say that if the Americans leave, the country will fall apart, which is what the American Democrats always wanted for Afghanistan. They shattered the country during Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In my father’s opinion, the Democrats had nothing to do but ruin the world and Afghanistan. I did not understand these words. During the years of Obama’s presidency, I had become a teenager and slowly realized my sexual identity as a gay man. Thanks to the Internet, which was a souvenir of the presence of Americans in the country, dozens of radio and television networks that were broadcast from inside and outside the country were freely available to us. Thanks to the relative freedom of speech, I slowly got to know myself.

I knew that I was interested in men. In the conservative society of Afghanistan, this was a great sin, but there was also a light of hope. Because of the presence of different countries, numerous international organizations and educational institutions and foundations working in Afghanistan, I had the hope that I would be able to go outside Afghanistan by studying. Or at least in Afghanistan, I can enter politics or the circle of power and try to change the law. What was surging in Afghanistan was hope. We could dream and wish.

The first time I fell in love was when I experienced a terrible explosion in Kabul. I was 19 years old. I managed to get into one of the American universities in the city by studying a lot. Afghanistan became increasingly insecure daily, especially after Ashraf Ghani’s government took office, his inefficiency in keeping the country unified made Afghanistan unstable. The world was still at war with ISIS. After months of surfing the internet and using apps like Grindr (which could be dangerous to use in Afghanistan) and hookups, I became interested in one of my classmates in our college and understood he was also a gay man. It had been a few days since we had each other’s phone numbers and talked, and that day we were supposed to go to a restaurant on a proper date after university.

On that hot summer day, when I left home to go to university, a massive explosion shook the city’s green zone around 8:30 in the morning. I witnessed the killing and wounding of hundreds of people from close-up. Due to the power of the explosion, one of the lenses of my eye glasses was thrown to a corner, and my ears couldn’t hear any sound for hours.

I did not go to university that morning. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t because of the explosion. I was thinking about my new love, Muhammad, with all my heart. The mobile network was down, and I could not contact him. I kept praying that he was safe; I, who had dreamt of kissing his lips was burning with longing to see him again. An hour passed with these thoughts until I decided to go to the university, maybe to find Muhammad.

I passed the hefty traffic of Kabul and reached the back of the college building around noon. The university was quieter than usual, and the students did not show up due to the explosion. I stayed on campus. It was a few minutes past noon when Muhammad arrived. I saw his eyes first. Black, and then my attention was drawn to him. I jumped and hugged him. It was awkward, but if anyone asks about my show of affection, I will say that I am glad he did not die in the explosion. From that day on, we were not apart for a second. Morning and night, night and morning. I took him home and introduced him to the family as a close friend. He also took me to his house. We studied together and planned for the future. We always joked that our relationship started with a huge explosion.

The underground life of LGBTs in Afghanistan was gradually improving. Mohammad and I used to participate in LGBT gatherings together. On Tuesdays, we met in a restaurant, on Fridays at a swimming pool in the centre of Kabul, and on Wednesdays in one of the foreign embassies that had a cafe. Little by little, some women’s rights activists were also talking about the rights of LGBT people. The media addressed the issue of LGBT people, and even a few members of the Afghan parliament mentioned their support for the legalization of homosexuality in Afghanistan.

Aside from the daily explosions and suicidal attacks, life still smelled of hope.

 Muhammad and I planned to finish our studies and go abroad with a scholarship. When Joe Biden came to power with the promise of a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I told Mohammad that I felt afraid. We were staring at the TV, listening to his statements, and praying to God that these words were nothing but an election promise. Mohammad and I, who had not seen the first round of the Taliban government, had heard painful stories from our parents. The fact that they put homosexuals at the edge of the wall and executed them was a story we repeatedly heard from our friends. The weekly dates with our LGBT friends had faded. Many were afraid to come out of the house and gather in public places. We were all worried. For the last time, about a month before the fall of Kabul, we gathered at the usual restaurant in the centre of Kabul. It was a Tuesday. One friend played the guitar, and the other sang a song with him. Even though we didn’t know about the future or even know that this was our last meeting, we were sad and in tears.

The situation was getting worse and worse. In 2021, the control of the country would gradually slip out of the hands of the Afghan army. Our hope was shattered. But we did not believe the American military would leave the way they did. We did not think that all those various international institutions would leave the country at once. And finally, we did not believe that in less than a few minutes, the government, the parliament, the army, and all the mechanisms built in the last twenty years would fall apart.

Let’s go back to the morning of August 15, 2021. That day was hot and sunny. Ashraf Ghani said in a speech that he would stay in power till his death and defend the country. Muhammad and I, who had survived the pressure to marry the girls of each other’s families, both wanted to leave the country. We both started working in a foreign non-governmental organization. We had agreed to make an excuse and buy a house together. Over the last couple of weeks, We were given security warnings, but we continued to work. We liked to keep our hope and think that life goes on. We wanted to think the world would not leave us alone against the Taliban. We believed that America would not open the door to terrorist groups again after twenty years. After all the promises of human rights, Biden would not leave us alone with a terrorist group. We wanted to believe that Biden would not sell us to the Taliban.

 Around noon on August 15, 2021, something strange happened. The whole city was running around. Everyone was telling me that the Taliban had entered Kabul. I was looking down from the top floor of the building and asking myself, where exactly are these people running? If the Taliban has captured the country, then it’s over. I encouraged Muhammad, who was sitting in front of me, to go home. We were the last people to leave our office building, and, as usual, we kissed each other in a secluded corner. Muhammad and his family lived west of Kabul, and my family and I lived in the northeast.

We said goodbye. I was so nervous. I stared at Muhammad on the street when he was walking away. He left and was lost in the crowd. It was around evening when the government fell and the Taliban officially took over the country. The phones were not working correctly, but I was still in touch with Muhammad. My mother and one of my sisters, a high school student, were crying. She said that the Taliban would not let her return to school. She guessed right. Little by little, radio and television programs took a different form. The music stopped, and Taliban leaders appeared on the stage. Was this the end? There were many news reports about the withdrawal of American troops. However, we still hoped that now that the Taliban had immediately occupied the country, Joe Biden would order the continued presence of these troops. Is it possible? Twenty years of work destroyed overnight?

I thought of all the happy days. We had nothing in Afghanistan. We were poor, there were explosions here and there, but hope was in our hearts. We knew that our society does not want LGBT people, but we hoped that the situation would eventually improve. We had a life.

Every second of that first night, I was cowering in fear. Muhammad felt the same way. We didn’t know if the Taliban would come to us because of working with a foreign organization. Are they aware of our sexual orientation because of our relationship with other LGBT people? Homosexuals were messaging each other on Grindr and asking if there was a way to escape the country or not.

Two days after the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban and the acceleration of the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, we received a message from the organization we were working for that both Muhammad and I could go to the Kabul airport and leave the country. It was a difficult decision–separation from family and flying to an unknown future.

Apart from all this, reports of massive crowding around Kabul airport were concerning. The Taliban forces occupied the streets around the airport, and we had to pass through the Taliban checkpoints to reach the Kabul airport. We decided to leave for the airport very early in the morning. The scary faces of the Taliban, with their long hair, long beards, bare feet and eyes full of hatred, who were busy hunting their victims, added to our anxiety. Some of these forces had sticks or whips in their hands and beat people. We were told to go to one of the entrances at the back of the Kabul airport, where British troops were stationed. But from one kilometer around this area, the crowd was surging. The screams of men and women, the cries of children, and the aerial fire of the Taliban and the British forces could be heard everywhere. Thousands of people waited for hours in the extreme heat to enter the airport. Most of them came there without any invitation and to escape from Taliban’s Afghanistan. Taliban forces sometimes beat the attendees to disperse them.

I saw many children being trampled and separated from their families.

After hours, we made it to the entrance. Muhammad and I held each other’s hands tightly so we would not lose each other. We had almost no luggage with us. We had gone to the airport with a handful of clothes, cell phones, and a bottle of water. When the crowd pushed us away from the entrance, we held each other’s hands so tightly that we wouldn’t be separated for a moment. Oblivious to what was in front of us, we tried to move forward as best we could. In one of the bars, when British army soldiers opened the door, I dragged myself to the front door. Muhammad’s hand was still in my hand. I gave the name and number we had to the soldier. The crowd shook violently and pushed Muhammad and me away from the door again. I returned to that soldier again. He had found my name and was asking me for the second person. I tried to bring Muhammad in front of the eyes of the British soldier who had been screaming so much since morning that he could not hear. The soldier pushed me into the compound and started talking and looking at Muhammad’s documents. With concern and the insistence of other soldiers, I was pushed away from the entrance into one of the airport buildings. I was looking out the window. I could still see Muhammad’s tired and worried face.

Suddenly, I heard several aerial shots. Some people were trying to enter the area by pushing the airport entrance. Suddenly, the unexpected happened. The U.K. military decided to close the airport to protect its troops and the fleeing passengers. I was hoping that Muhammad had entered the airport area. No matter how many times I looked for it, they couldn’t find it. The phones were not working. I was crying, and I couldn’t say that the person left outside was my love, my life, and my whole existence. I couldn’t shout how you let the heterosexual couples in and kept my husband out. I was asking myself if Muhammad was alive at all. There was no news of him, and the British military plane, which was flying to Doha, was ready to leave Kabul airport. I begged them to let me stay and take the next flight. They said there might not be another flight. I don’t remember the next few minutes. I did not understand at all how the plane took off from Kabul. I was crying. Almost everyone was crying. We were the generation of hope, and I didn’t want to lose my hope.

I hoped that Muhammad would come out of Afghanistan on the next plane. When we arrived in Doha, I connected to the Internet, hoping to hear from him. There was no news. I called their house in Kabul. His family thought he was with me and worried he did not fly with me. The following hours were terrifying. Our relationship, which started with an explosion in Kabul, ended with another blast in Kabul. Muhammad was killed in an explosion next to the Kabul airport that same day.

I’m still breathing. My body is alive. But on the same day, August 17, 2021, my soul was left at the Kabul airport. I still see Muhammad’s big black eyes from behind the window of Kabul airport, and I say to myself a thousand times a day: Curse Joe Biden. He took life and love from millions of Afghans. The president, who shakes hands with imaginary creatures and can’t even make a correct sentence, decided our country and destiny and destroyed us. I ask myself a thousand times a day, do my fellow American LGBTs know that the pro-human rights president of the United States deprived Afghans of their fundamental rights? It doesn’t matter anymore. I am dead. My generation is dead. Joe Biden killed us.

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