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Journalist Sonia Sarkar on a military plane leaving Afghanistan, along with 120 other Indian citizens being evacuated from the country. Photo: Sonia Sarkar

How I left Afghanistan, with a Taliban escort to the airport

  • After being stranded in Kabul following the Taliban takeover, journalist Sonia Sarkar managed to leave on an Indian air force plane, but with no luggage
  • She describes how her taxi driver negotiated to get her to the Indian embassy, and seeing hundreds of desperate Afghans near the airport, waiting to flee
Sonia Sarkar

New Delhi-based journalist Sonia Sarkar arrived in Kabul last week intending to report on the implications of the conflict between Afghan forces and the Taliban on the back of the US troop withdrawal. After the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, sparking a mass evacuation of diplomats and civilians by the United States and its allies, she got in touch with the Indian mission in Kabul, which helped her return home. Here is her first-person account of leaving Afghanistan.

As chaos broke out at the Kabul airport on Monday fuelled by Afghans fearful of living under a Taliban regime, my local contacts advised me to stay put and not leave my hotel. One of them, who had been out and about in the Taliban-controlled areas of other provinces, texted me to say: “Pull your curtains shut, they are out on the streets”.

But I wanted to return home. By then, I had learnt that commercial flights would be suspended and the seats I had secured on two flights leaving Kabul for India would not be able to take off as scheduled on Tuesday.

What made me more worried was local women contacts who asked if I had left the country. The Taliban had started looking for female Afghan journalists, they said. Would they do the same to foreign women journalists, I asked?

“But you are Indian,” came the reply, reflecting what I had heard during my short time in Kabul, that “Afghans love Indians but the Taliban hates Indians”.

New Delhi has strongly backed the Kabul government and opposed the Taliban, with no direct channels of communication between them.


As I contemplated my next move, the Indian embassy got in touch with me and a fellow female Indian journalist in response to our multiple requests made throughout the day to evacuate us. They told us to reach the embassy quarters in the next two hours as they planned to leave Kabul in an Indian air force aircraft late at night. My suitcase was already packed.

As a foreigner in Afghanistan, I had the option to leave this country. Unfortunately, millions of Afghans don’t
Sonia Sarkar

I hurriedly called a reliable local taxi driver who said he would take some time to reach me. I later found out that he had to battle through a maze of traffic as he was coming from Arzan Qimat, a neighbourhood in far eastern Kabul, near the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. Hundreds of inmates had walked free soon after the Taliban took power on Sunday, while residents were rushing out to draw money and get supplies.

When I gingerly stepped out of the hotel the street outside was deserted but I could see men dressed in shalwar kameez, the traditional clothing of Afghanistan, patrolling neighbouring streets. Some had set up checkpoints and were stopping vehicles. They were carrying what looked like Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles.

After picking up my fellow journalist, we headed for Wazir Akbar Khan, the diplomatic enclave in Kabul.

A group of Taliban stopped us at the entrance to the enclave. They scrutinised our passports then told us to return the next morning.


We could not leave. It would have meant missing our chance of exiting the country. And I feared I did not have any place to go as I had checked out of the hotel, and later learned it was full of Taliban fighters. So we waited in the taxi for three hours before we approached them again.

The taxi driver was able to convince them that it was imperative for us to pass. But one of the Taliban, a man who looked to be in his 20s, said it was getting dark and as we were women, we could not walk into the compound on our own.


Finally, a member of the Indian embassy called one of the Taliban mediators to speak to the men manning the entrance, and they told us to get onto their green “police” vehicle – that they had taken from the erstwhile Afghan security forces on Sunday.

Afghanistan conflict: I watched Kabul fall to the Taliban

My fellow journalist and I were hesitant but worried that saying “no” would invite trouble, so we threw our luggage on the back and then climbed onto the back seat. Barely 100 metres (330 feet) from the embassy, the vehicle stopped and we were met by an armoured car belonging to the Indian mission.


Once we entered the gates of the embassy, a wave of relief swept over me.

It wasn’t clear when the plan was to leave for the airport because negotiations were under way with the Taliban to let Indian diplomats have safe passage to the airport. An embassy official told me that a day before, some people had been allowed to leave but other Indian nationals were stopped.

“We are at the mercy of their whims,” the official said.

Afghan men and women sit on the road at the entrance to the airport in Kabul, desperate to leave the country. Photo: Sonia Sarkar

At about 10pm local time on Monday, we were suddenly called to assemble, and board the cars. We were ready to leave but many of us could not bring our bags, as we were told the priority was to evacuate people, not luggage. So I left a suitcase full of clothes behind.


This time, the Taliban forces escorted a convoy of 22 armoured vehicles to Kabul airport, where a military aircraft was waiting to evacuate over 120 Indian citizens after New Delhi decided to shut its mission in Afghanistan. Sources said the Taliban had promised to “take care” of the embassy’s property and vehicles, and would hand them over when the diplomats returned.

Near the airport, we saw hundreds of men walking on the streets, many carrying sophisticated weapons. As we got closer, we saw women and children too. None were carrying luggage and looked like they had left their homes in a hurry.

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Each time the crowd became unruly, the Taliban fighters patrolling the street would shoot into the air. In a span of 30 minutes, I heard them open fire three times. The civilian men were kept on one side, while the women, some carrying infants wrapped up in blankets and children with schoolbags on their backs, looked petrified and stood on another side.

On Sunday night, over 640 people were evacuated in a US Air Force plane which flew to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Perhaps these people were expecting to do the same.

Since its shock seizure of Afghanistan’s capital, the Taliban has furthered its sophisticated propaganda through a news conference in which it declared that it wants peace and that it will respect the rights of women within the framework of sharia, or Islamic, law. On Tuesday, more women appeared on the streets of Kabul.

A military aircraft evacuates over 120 Indian citizens from Kabul. Photo: Sonia Sarkar

A female broadcaster for Tolo News, Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster which lost several journalists to Taliban attacks over the years, interviewed a Taliban official while several female reporters conducted interviews on the street.

But my local women friends told me that they are still fearful of stepping out of their homes.

“The Taliban claim that they will not harm women at work, but we cannot believe their words,” a postgraduate student in Kabul university wrote to me late on Monday night.

It was the early hours of Tuesday by the time our group walked past a Lebanese restaurant and a cafe to reach the airport terminal for our flight.

Some US soldiers were sleeping on the floor while another group was busy making the exit smooth. As we took the stairs to reach the waiting room, they offered us water and made us wear a white wristband. After some minutes, Indians were asked to take off the bands and directed towards the aircraft.

It was about 5am. As I fastened my seat belt, I texted my sister to say the aircraft would take off soon.

I realised, as a foreigner in Afghanistan, I had the option to leave this country. Unfortunately, millions of Afghans don’t.