Who Leaves, Who Stays

What happened when one Afghan family was forced to make a life-altering decision with no time to think

A military transport plane launches while stranded Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate watch and wonder, in Kabul, Afghanistan
Marcus Yam / Getty

When U.S. troops abruptly left Afghanistan after 20 years, the consequences were devastating both for the people who remained and for those who managed to escape. For many women in Afghanistan, their lives changed dramatically in a matter of days. Women and girls who had previously gone to work and to school were suddenly forced entirely out of public life.

Bushra Seddique, a journalist and fellow at The Atlantic, was one of those women. The decision that she, her sisters, and her mother had to make in a matter of minutes would change their lives and their relationships forever.

Listen to the episode here:


The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bushra Seddique: I’m trying to say the right words to share the feelings. That time, it was time of deciding between life and death. Because we don’t know who will die, those who are leaving or those who are staying.

My name is Bushra Seddique. I’m 23 years old. I’m a journalist from Afghanistan, and in August of last year, I left.

Claudine Ebeid: This is Radio Atlantic. I’m Claudine Ebeid. This week we return to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The painful choice it meant for the women of one family, and the harrowing journey that came from that decision.

Seddique: At that time, I was thinking of my sisters and my mother.

Ebeid: Can you tell me about your sisters?

Seddique: Asman is quiet with others, but the noisy and annoying sister to me. We have a two-year age gap, but we are like twins. We have a lot of mutual taste in everything from clothes to music, to movies to food. I mean, she was like my best friend. Everyone can ask everything about me if they want from Asman. I’m always telling my mother: If one day I die, go and ask all my secrets from Asman. I could never have imagined being apart from Asman, and she felt the same.

Ebeid: And I should say that Asman is a pseudonym we are using to protect your sister.

Seddique: Yes.

Ebeid: What’s your other younger sister like?

Seddique: My other younger sister is Sara. She’s like the opposite of me and Asman. She’s a very confident girl. I mean, she always thinks that she’s right and no one else is right. And this is kind of annoying me.

Ebeid: (Laughs.) And how old is she?

Seddique: She’s 17.

Ebeid: And what about your mother? What’s she like?

Seddique: I don’t know what to say about my mother. I love her a lot. She smells good. I can feel her smell. I like her smile. I like her hands. I think my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. She had bad experiences in her personal life, but she tried to be the perfect mother for us.

Ebeid: And for you, before you decided to leave, what was your life in Afghanistan like?

Seddique: I was a journalist. I was really in love with my job. The newspaper I was writing for then was very eager. We were a good team. I love every day of doing that job because I know what I’m doing for my country and people.

And I spend most of my free time with my group of girlfriends. We were always shopping. I imagine those moments. Walking. The noise of the crowd, the noise of the cars, the noise of good music. And I imagined at that time that this is my all-life picture. I’m not gonna lose those moments.

News Archival: Afghanistan 2021. The Taliban are back … After almost 20 years, America is leaving Afghanistan, but what is it leaving behind? … The withdrawal of foreign troops has left a power vacuum that Taliban are rushing to fill.

Seddique: I never imagined that the Taliban is coming and I’m leaving the country

News Archival: America’s nearly two-decade-long involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an abrupt and chaotic end. …The U.S. withdrawal is fast becoming a nightmare for Afghan women and girls. … The president, who just yesterday vowed to keep fighting, fled the country, and the Afghan government essentially collapsed.

Seddique: That was the day when I decided I’m going to leave. I cannot live here anymore. That was the day I decided I’m going to try for myself, for my family members, to have the chance to leave Afghanistan.

My brothers have worked with the United States, so they left the country three days after the collapse. So it was just me, my two sisters, and my mother trying to escape Afghanistan.

I start writing to everyone I can think of. I write to all the international ambassadors in Afghanistan. I write to women and journalists’ groups I know, and I reach out to all my international social-media friends.

It was just three or four days before the end of the evacuation. I haven’t heard back from any of those embassies or friends or groups. Then I heard from a friend. She said to me: “I was successful in putting you, Sara, and Asman onto a flight to Germany. I will try to work for the rest of your family, but at the moment, this is all I could do.”

And I ask: “What about my mom?”

She said: “I was not able to get her on this flight yet.”

Then I said: “Please, just one person.” And she said: “I’m not the one who decides this, Bushra. I was not able to propose more people. So I pushed for whoever I could.”

And I said: “I’m asking, requesting, begging you for my mother. Please. My brother’s gone, and my father is living with his second wife. She just has us, no one else. For God, please do something.”

She didn’t respond to me for minutes. And she said: “I can’t promise. I will try to plead with the ones deciding, but it’s not me who makes the decision. I know it’s a terrible choice. I’m sorry.”

And then she wrote to me: “Go to this location now. We are moving people. Will give further instructions as I get them. Bring food and water for 48 hours.”

It was a heartbreaking moment. I mean, how can I decide who should leave and who should stay? What will happen to those I’m leaving behind?

We had 20 minutes to decide. I don’t know what to say to my family. They’re looking to my eyes, what I’m going to do for them.

We sit all together. Me, Sara, Asman, and my mother in my room. A little small room with white-and-red curtains. All of us were sitting on the floor, on the mattresses. Sara and Asman, both of them were not saying a single word. Because they don’t know what to say.

I asked my mother: “What do we need to do?” And she said: “I don’t know.” It must be harder for her than any of us, because she was the one who was deciding between her daughters.

And, because we don’t have a lot of time, I remember I was the one who was asking: “What do we need to do?” And she said, “I don’t know.” It went on like this. My mother saying: “I don’t know. I don’t know.” It felt like at least 20 minutes passed like this. After a couple of minutes of quietness, she said in our own language: [Speaks Dari.]

“It means you and Sara go. And Asman will stay.”

And, at that moment. Asman smiled. And Sara said: “How can I go without you, my mother?” And my mother said: “You can go. You need to go.” And Asman laughed. She said: “That’s a good decision.”

I still don’t remember my mother’s exact sentence. But I remember Asman’s face and a fake smile, to make herself brave or show herself to be happy. But she’s not happy. She said: “You two go. And I want to stay.”

My mother, she was thinking about me and my siblings. She was thinking about Sara. My mother was the one who experienced the Taliban’s first regime. She was the one who didn’t get the chance to complete her education. She knew how the Taliban’s first regime was for women. She said that Sara needs to go because she needs to study. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to study, but the new government and the new country with the new rule will affect Sara more directly than me and Asman.

After the decision was made, my mother helped us to pack.

We packed two backpacks, with some clothes for us, and the urgent things we need. Then we put on our long black dresses with scarves, masks, and everything. As much as we can hide ourselves, as much as we can cover ourselves.

Ebeid: The way the Taliban wants you to.

Seddique: Your hands, your feet, nothing should be visible. So I wear the black dress, and Sara also wears the black dress. Both of us were completely covered with black dress.

And we were about to leave, and I remember the goodbye, which was very hard. Me and Sara, both of us kissed my mother’s hand, and we were crying. We were all crying, especially my mother. Then, I said bye to Asman, which was hard for me because she’s not the type of girl who cries a lot.

I’m the type of girl who cries a lot, [while] she shows herself as strong. But she cried too. We all cried.

The last person who said goodbye was my mother. And she said: [Speaks Dari.]

It means: “Goodbye, and I’m handing you to God.” It means: “From that moment, God is taking care of you, not me.”

We took a taxi to the given address where the buses were waiting for us. Our taxi stopped at one of the checkpoints, which it’s normal to be stopped. Before the Taliban, we were stopped by police officers to know if there’s any Talib inside the taxi, but we were stopped by Taliban.

And I had the chance to see the very first Talib in my life.

Ebeid: You had never seen a Talib before?

Seddique: No; I have heard them and I have seen their pictures, their videos, but I have never seen a Talib.

He was a very young guy. I didn’t know, maybe my age. He had a rifle, and he was wearing a waskat, which is traditional clothes. And he had surma on his eyes, which is black eyeliner to put something inside your eyes to make it look darker. He was staring at me, and I was staring at him.

I know that was kind of a scary feeling. But seeing a young person the same age as you, I have both feelings: fear and disappointment for him, for his future.

But it was just a few minutes that we shared. Then we leave the checkpoint, and we arrived at our final destination. We noticed the crowd. More than 200 people.

Ebeid: Was there a part of you that was thinking maybe you were gonna turn around and go back?

Seddique: There was a part of me. There was a voice that kept telling me: Don’t leave. Go back. Don’t leave. Go back. Despite hearing that voice, I knew all of us were going to be imprisoned inside our homes. And for me, it was impossible. Because I was a journalist. I was writing against Taliban. Leaving is the only option.

Ebeid: So it’s like your heart was saying: “Don’t go.” Your head was saying: “You have to go.”

Seddique: Yes, the logic says: Go because of your future. Leaving will help you to have the chance to help your family. But if you stay and lose the chance of leaving, you are going to lose a lot of things.

Ebeid: And so you get on the bus.

Seddique: With that feeling of heartbreaking, we didn’t have any other choice. So we sit on the bus. It was five buses, huge buses. And me and Sara were in the second bus. Right side, second chair.

The driver turned off the light in the bus, closed the door. And now it’s dark inside. Sara is sitting next to the window, and I’m by her side. We were feeling heartbroken about our family. At the same time, we are praying that everything will be normal.

News Archival: There are scenes of panic and pandemonium at Kabul Airport today as desperate people pour onto the runway, trying to flee the country in what can only be described as a chaotic exodus.

Seddique: We started moving to the airport. And, on that time, the airport was under highest threats. So it’s like four to five or six checkpoints to get inside.

News Archival: The growing crowds each day show few are dissuaded by the dangers. …This is how the United States is ending its longest war: American troops just yards from the Taliban.

Seddique: After the government collapsed, thousands of people were sitting and waiting with their documents to leave the country.

News Archival: Afghans are thronging to Kabul’s airport, desperate to get on planes and leave the country.

Seddique: The more crowded it becomes, it means the closer you are.

News Archival: Airport authorities have called on the people to avoid crowding the airport.

Seddique: And the driver said: “Okay, we are just a few minutes away.”

That was the moment when the bomb exploded.

News Archival: There’s been an explosion of some type outside the Kabul airport. We started getting reports about an explosion outside Kabul Airport.

Seddique: Me and Sara, because we were sitting at the right side of the bus, we have seen the lights of the bomb’s fire. It was clearly visible. People start running.

News Archival: Frantic people scattered in all directions after the explosion.

Seddique: My mom called me. She was crying, and she was telling me to come back.

News Archival: Across the city of Kabul, smoke could be seen above the airport.

Seddique: When the explosion happened, I hugged Sara tight to say: “It’s okay, I’m with you. It’s okay. Nothing happened. You know what these noises are.” She knows these noises are. She is familiar. She witnessed of a lot of these things close to our schools, close to our universities, and very close to our home. So she knows, and I say: “It’s okay. It’s like other explosions. Don’t think about that. We are safe. We are okay.”

But I didn’t know what would happen. If I die, what would happen to Sara? The only thing I remember is: While I’m alive, I need to keep my sister safe and alive.

News Archival: So many wounded, some shoved into wheelbarrows. Afghans who’d hoped to be on an airplane tonight, flying to a safer place.

Seddique: After the explosion, Taliban blocked all the gates. So there’s no chance to get in the airport tonight. So we are going to a safe place and park the buses. But we were not allowed to get out of the buses. No one was allowed to get out of the buses.

Ebeid: So you didn’t even know where you were going?

Seddique: No, we don’t know. We have food, but not enough food. There were no restrooms around us, so we tried to drink and eat as little as we can. Some of the kids and families slept that night, Sara slept for a few hours. I don’t think I slept on that night because I have seen the videos and picture of the bombing on social media. It was a picture that would not let me sleep. I didn’t know what would happen the next day. I was afraid, for both me and my sister.

When we wake up in the morning, we start trying again. But the Taliban will not allow us to pass the checkpoint, so we stayed on the bus for two nights. Then we received an update from the evacuation group that the buses are moving toward the airport gates. This time is going to be our final attempt to the airport. We are going to get in the airport, or we are all going back.

Ebeid: So this is it. You’re thinking: If we don’t get into the airport now, I’m stuck in Afghanistan.

Seddique: Yes. This is the very final try. But unfortunately we faced another Taliban checkpoint, and they were a different kind of Taliban.

Two of them came inside our bus. They were totally different from other Talibs. They were the commanders. They were wearing uniforms. They were stronger; their bodies were bigger. And they have covered their faces.

And they said: “Why are you leaving the country? Stay with us. If you stay with us, together we can make Islamic government.” And when they asked this question, nobody had the courage to answer.

Ebeid: And what are, what are you thinking to yourself?

Seddique: I say to myself: I’m done. Bushra, you are done.

Ebeid: Like you are thinking this is it for you? This is the end of the escape?

Seddique: End of my life. I thought they were going to kill me. Because at that time, it was 4:00 AM, and nobody would notice if that Taliban tried to kill all the passengers. So they can do anything to us. If they kill us here right now, no one knows that because nobody is here. That was the time I said: Bushra, you are done.

We are just trying to tell them that we have the permission. Americans know about this mission, about this evacuation. If we didn’t have the permission, maybe they will kill us, but because we have something on our hand, which permit us to do this evacuation, the Taliban were not allowed to do anything to us.

Ebeid: Wow. So then, do they finally leave?

Seddique: They get off the bus. And we were relieved and hopeful that we are going to have a try. But the next thing we know, I get a text from my friend. She wrote to me: “The Taliban won’t allow anyone to pass the checkpoints. We are out of options. There’s absolutely no way we can help you to get into the airport anymore. Everything is shut down there. It’s absolutely heartbreaking for us, but you are on your own now. Try to get to a safe place.”

Ebeid: After all of this, you see the words from her, what did that mean to you at that moment?

Seddique: There’s no other choice. This is the new life, and you are going to live under the Taliban. So I ask her: “What about us? What’s going to happen?” And she said: “We tried everything we could do.”

That was the moment that they said the mission was failed. And we are on our own to go home.

When we came out of the buses after two nights, it was 7:00 AM. And everyone is trying to go home. But, we were happy. I dunno.

Ebeid: You were happy?

Seddique: Yes, we were happy.

Ebeid: Tell me a little bit about what you’re feeling. It’s been three days, two nights on a bus. How did you feel when they opened those doors and you left the bus?

Seddique: We were happy that we are going back to see Asman and our mother. It seems like it’s been a long, long time I haven’t seen both of them, and I’m going back to them.

We arrived home. And the door is locked. But as soon as we knock, Asman opened the door. She was awake! She had kind of a smile and a little bit of a shout. [Laughs.] A laugh with a noise.

And she said: “I knew that you are coming back to me.”

We hugged each other, and we laughed loudly. Loud enough to wake our mother up. And then my mother came and she was [even] happier than Asman. And we were a circle, all four of us.

And my mother said: “Tell me what you want to eat.” Because she knows that we haven’t eaten anything for a lot of hours. And I said I need to sleep.

I slept until my phone woke me up at 4:00 PM. My friend was calling me, and she told me one sentence: “Look at your WhatsApp messages.” And she cut the phone. When I opened my WhatsApp, the message I received was with the headline of “URGENT.” They’d opened the gate for Afghan people that are cleared, and the Taliban is letting people through. This time, we don’t have 20 minutes. We just need to move now.

Ebeid: Did you, in that moment, have any hesitation? After all this journey that you went through on the bus, sleeping there for two nights. And now you’re finally back home. Did you have a moment where you just said: “I’m not gonna do it again. We’ll just stay.”

Seddique: Yes, that’s the same sentence I said to myself. There was nobody in my room except Asman, and I said: “It’s not going to work. I don’t want to go.” And Asman told me: “It’s up to you. If you don’t want to go now, or you have the confidence to stay in a country ruled by Taliban, by a terrorist group. What will happen to your dreams? Do you know what you want to do here?” She motivated me somehow to go and to use this chance.

Ebeid: Even after she couldn’t go with you.

Seddique: She couldn’t go. I called Sara and I told her: “They are trying once again.” Both of us put on our long black dresses, skirts, and masks. I asked Asman: “Where is Mom?” And she said: “Mom is not at home. She went to meet a friend that’s sick.”

Then Asman came to me and she said: “But Mom made quabili for you.” It’s my favorite food, just rice with raisins and lamb. A traditional food in my country. And I said: “I don’t have enough time to eat.”

We say bye to Asman. We say bye to our father, but we haven’t got the chance to say the last goodbye to our mother. Or the last hug or the last kiss.

Seddique: It was 2:00 AM when we arrived at the first Taliban checkpoint. All the passengers got out, and the Taliban were checking our documents. A Talib commander was speaking very good, fluent English, calling the names. Everyone’s first and last name, asking all family members to show themselves. And then, this commander allowed those families to get in the airport.

I waited for about 25 minutes. Then it was me and Sara’s turn. After we pass the Taliban point, now I can see American soldiers, with their uniforms right in front of me. And I was really happy at that moment because, when I see the American soldiers, I can see a plane, I can see the new world, I can see the new future.

Ebeid: It’s finally really happening.

Seddique: Yeah. So we are now in the airport with that group. Everyone is in. No Talib now. So Sara, take out her burqa. It was her first time in her life that she was wearing the long dress, and she hates that. And she said: “I don’t want to wear this in my life anymore.” And she trash it.

Ebeid: She threw it away.

Seddique: Yes. And now we can see American C-17s in front of us. There’s no Talib left. The only thing we can see is Americans, their airplanes, and American soldiers in front of us.

The Americans were trying to put as many people as they could in a small place. There are more than 500 people in one C-17 airplane. So me and Sara walk a little bit and try to find any space and sit. There was no seatbelt. And it was my first and Sara’s first time in an airplane.

Ebeid: How was Sara feeling?

Seddique: She was feeling happy because she loves planes. From the very first time that Sara saw the airplanes, she was very excited. And when we got inside the airplane, the pilot of the C-17 was a girl. And Sara can’t believe it. She’s picturing herself in her place. Like: “What if, one time, I will be a pilot like this?”

She was very excited. But after the airplane took off, she noticed: She’s leaving Afghanistan

Ebeid: It’s so many emotions for Sara, it sounds like, in that moment.

Seddique: It was for both of us, but for her, maybe more. Everyone cried. I cried. Sara cried. The elderly people in their 80s and 90s, they’re crying. The young dudes in front of us. Back of us. Right, left of us, they were crying. I don’t know why. Maybe they are like us. They’re leaving part of their family behind.

Ebeid: What were your feelings when that plane took off?

Seddique: I don’t know. When I cried, I cried for leaving my mother and sister behind. I cried for leaving my friends and classmates behind. I cried because I’m leaving my childhood, my past, the best year of my life. I left all of them behind.

I know I’m leaving all those behind, but I’m also leaving Taliban behind, which is a good part. And I’m happy my first picture of Talib and my very last picture of the Taliban are all finished.

Ebeid: So you took off from Afghanistan on the 29th of August. The next day the Americans left. Did you know how close to the end you were at that time?

Seddique: We don’t know for sure, but I think we were on the second to the last plane.

News Archival: The last American plane has now flown out after two decades of war. … Just hours later, the Taliban rolled into Kabul airport, taking over the final piece of Afghanistan to be held by foreign troops.

Ebeid: It’s now been more than a year. You and Sara made it to the U.S. You reunited with your brother. And now you’re living in Maryland. How’s your family doing?

Seddique: My mother is happy for both of us, but more for Sara. Because after the Taliban closed the high schools, Sara will still have access to education in the U.S. Millions of other Afghan girls like her are not able to do that.

She’s also happy for Sara because, here, she will be able to become a pilot, like she dreamed of.

Ebeid: How is that, that she’s gonna become a pilot?

Seddique: She joined the Civil Air Patrol as a cadet. She’s going there every Thursday night. It’s kind of like preschool, Air Force preschool, something like that.

Ebeid: Your mother must be happy.

Seddique: She’s very happy for both of us, but she misses us, and we miss her.

Ebeid: What is Asman doing now?

Seddique: She’s doing nothing. She’s at home. She’s not allowed to go outside unless she has someone—like my father or another family member—come and be with her outside. But sometimes, she tries to read. She wanted to be a clothes designer. She loves organizing her clothes, matching the colors, but unfortunately it’s kind of an incomplete dream for her now.

Ebeid: Does Asman have a favorite color?

Seddique: Yeah. Red. She has a lot of red dress. She loves wearing red dresses. Red lipsticks, a lot of red things. She has a closet filled with colorful clothings. But when she goes out, she can only wear black. Black scarves. Even black shoes. It seems like the whole nation is mourning.

Ebeid: And how are you doing? You made it here, but your mom’s not with you. So you’ve had to be more than just a big sister to Sara.

Seddique: Her position changed from a sister to a daughter. And we need to act differently. I need to act differently now.

Ebeid: That must be hard. For you and for her.

Seddique: Yeah; that’s hard. I’m not a good mother for her, and she’s not a good daughter for me. It needs a lot of time. We both need time to understand each other.

The thing that is not easy for her is us being apart from our mother. Sometimes I tell my mother that I am tired of cooking bad food.

Ebeid: [Laughs.]

Seddique: Because whenever I try to cook, I cannot make it as good as my mother. And I told her: “I miss your cooking. I wish you were here to cook for us, because whenever I try, I cannot do it as well as you.”

Ebeid: Isn’t it always the food that reminds you the most of home?

Seddique: Yes, definitely.

Ebeid: Do you cook in the kitchen with your mom? On video with WhatsApp?

Seddique: Yes. Whenever I’m cooking, my mother is like a teacher or a chef for me. I want to put salt in a food, so I show myself with the spoon: “Is that much okay?” She goes: “No, put more.” And I say: “Is that much okay?” She’s trying to teach me every step, and it’s hard, but she’s a good teacher.

Ebeid: This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend, Theo Balcomb, and me, Claudine Ebeid. It was engineered by Matthew Simonson and fact-checked by Stephanie Hayes.

Special thanks to A.C. Valdez, Rebecca Rashid, Emily Gottschalk-Marconi, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Adrienne LaFrance.

And of course, thanks to Bushra Seddique, who is now a fellow at The Atlantic magazine. Her latest story is: “What Afghans Want the Rest of the World to Know.”

Credits

This episode was hosted by Claudine Ebeid and produced by Kevin Townsend with editing from Theo Balcomb. Art by Sally Deng. Fact-check by Stephanie Hayes. The managing editor is Andrea Valdez, and the executive editor for The Atlantic is Adrienne LaFrance.