By Wednesday, Nilofar Ayoubi knew her name was on the Taliban’s list. She had learned the news from a friend — the same friend who on Sunday had told her that the Taliban were going door-to-door across neighborhoods trying to find women like her, the same friend who now warned her that it was time to go into hiding. The women on the list were journalists, politicians, pilots, business entrepreneurs — what they had in common was that they had been speaking about the rights of Afghan women loudly and persistently, online and IRL, for years.
Ayoubi is one of thousands of women who have built thriving, prosperous lives for themselves in Afghanistan over the past two decades, but with the fall of Kabul, their success and outspokenness have come to haunt them. Though the United States had long insisted that the rights of Afghan women would be a cornerstone of any peace deal with the Taliban, that promise now lies in tatters. As the Taliban enforce their writ on the capital city, Ayoubi and other women’s rights advocates have been left to fend for themselves.
Earlier that day, Aug. 18, Ayoubi, 28, had smuggled the young women who worked for her fashion brands to their homes from various points across the city by car. It was safer for the women to travel in packs, accompanied by their male work colleagues, who now functioned as de facto bodyguards.
For Ayoubi, one of Afghanistan’s first and youngest women to build her own furniture production company, the bad news was unrelenting; her network of friends and fellow activists constantly pinged one another with locations where the Taliban had set up checkpoints. Seventy-two hours after Kabul collapsed, she said, she received word that her home and offices had been raided four times by armed men who asked the staff and neighbors for her family’s whereabouts and belongings.
In the beginning, Ayoubi was reluctant to leave behind everything she had built — her flourishing business, her home, her family. But over the past few days, she has grown desperate to take her three children to safety, away from the reach of the Taliban.
“They are everywhere,” she told BuzzFeed News. “They learned about us from social media and media, especially those of us who spoke about terrorism during the Doha peace talks.”
Ayoubi insisted on speaking on the record despite the threat to her life. “I have spoken up enough times to be on a hit list, so speaking now won’t change anything,” she said. “I want to let the world know about the current situation.”
Just a few weeks ago, before the Taliban captured Kabul, Ayoubi was on the roof of her building, singing with her neighbors, and tweeting #AfghanLivesMatter. At the time, she was quoted by the French newspaper Le Monde: "If the Taliban come to Kabul, they will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years. As I look around, I wonder, what could I take with me? My three children and maybe some clothes."
Since the fall of the capital, women like Ayoubi have been left scrambling to find a way out with their families. Some of her friends have made it out of Afghanistan. But women on the Taliban’s list are walking on a tightrope where a single misstep could mean death. When the Taliban held power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women and girls were banned from education and forced to wear a burqa outside the home. They could not work at all, or even leave the house without a male chaperone. Punishments for violating this code ranged from public floggings to executions.
A document has circulated through social media and group chats for people trying to figure out how to leave the country. The author, who said they work as an adviser to a government in the region and asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the document collates publicly available information on visa processes as well as advice on security and travel logistics they had gleaned from diplomats and other contacts in the country.
“People can submit tips, and I’ll verify their accuracy before putting it on,” the document’s author told BuzzFeed News. “This information is mostly available, but buried. Information accessibility is a huge barrier.”
But the document, which BuzzFeed News has viewed, also paints a vivid picture of what it is like to navigate the maze of bureaucratic, logistical, and personal challenges for Afghans simply trying to get to Kabul’s international airport.
"You should bring as few belongings as possible, no pets,” the document states. “Only one piece of small hand luggage (e.g. a handbag) is allowed, and this is subject to space limitations - there have been occasions where space is so tight no hand luggage has been boarded.”
Getting to the airport is not easy. The document advises people to arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport before the Taliban’s curfew begins at 9 p.m. — but since evacuation staffers are working 24/7, a passenger’s listed departure time could fall during curfewed hours. At the moment, the document states, there are no flights out of Afghanistan from anywhere except Kabul.
“The US government has confirmed that they cannot ensure safe passage to the airport: you must make your own arrangements,” it says.
Entering the airport requires showing certain paperwork people often store on their phone, so the document suggests that people print out those essential files and carry an external phone charger. “Your Airport Access Pass is your lifeline,” the document states.
Yet it warns that some of the information it provides might not necessarily be trustworthy, particularly the collection of names and organizations offering to help people escape.
"I have listed some contact details below, but cannot 100% vouch for the authenticity of these projects,” the author wrote. “I do not advise relying on these benefactors for any high risk Afghans: remember that anyone can set up these projects and use it to phish your data, including the Taliban."
Ayoubi said she doesn’t know when she’ll try to flee.
As of Friday, she was hiding in a low-income neighborhood with her children, mother, cousins, and friends as “loyal employees” from her company guarded the door and brought them food, she said. In the past, these men had worked for Ayoubi at Niko Design, a boutique store that sold ornate living room furniture, bunk beds for children, lawn furniture, and designer clothing from Ayoubi’s brands — Maria Clothing, Maria Bride, and Maria Carpet, which ships handwoven Afghan rugs worldwide. Now, they are her last defense against the Taliban.
Ayoubi’s days are a blur of checking Twitter for updates, venting online, searching for the latest information on safe routes out of the country, and then disconnecting the internet and thinking about “our low chance of survival,” she said. For now, she is unable to plan for much of a future, she said, but hopes to eventually leave Afghanistan, somehow.
“This is the complete opposite of the life my kids and I had,” Ayoubi said. “I built my life from scratch, and now we are back to square one.” ●