Fatima Faizi was a reporter in the Kabul Bureau of The New York Times from 2017 to 2021. When the country fell to the Taliban in August 2021, she escaped and with the help of the Times made it to the U.S. along with her brother, sister, mother and father and is now attending Columbia University on a fellowship sponsored by the university’s Journalism School.
Rod Nordland, Faizi’s longtime boss and mentor, who is now on leave for medical reasons from his latest job as international correspondent at large for the Times, explains in an introduction below how Faizi’s role as the only female Afghan reporter for a major Western news organization in Afghanistan came about. Nordland is a past OPC Governor and has been a club member since 1985.
When I hired Fatima Faizi in 2017, in my capacity as the New York Times’ Kabul bureau chief, it was after a long and mostly fruitless search for an Afghan woman as a reporter/translator. Men have almost zero access to women in Afghan society; they can’t even talk to let alone interview women, except on rare occasions when a husband or father is present and consents. I was convinced we were missing a lot of important stories because of that. Events later proved me right: Alissa Rubin’s 2016 series of articles on the mistreatment of women in Afghan society won that year’s Pulitzer Prize. One early female candidate for a job with us showed up for her first day of work with her husband along as a chaperone, insisting that she would have to keep him with her whenever she was working. Another said she would only take the job if we provided a separate lunchroom for her from our male staff (in Afghanistan, employers are expected to provide lunch for their employees). Another wannabe woman reporter fled our compound in horror when she realized she would be expected to sit in our cramped little newsroom with three or four male colleagues.
Somehow Fatima heard through the Facebook grapevine that we were looking, and got in touch. Her resume wasn’t very promising; no higher education, a little freelance work for obscure European publications, a job with a foreign aid group translating. She was in Ghazni in southeastern Afghanistan. Fatima pestered me so much about the possible job, I decided to give her a job interview, just for the effort. Her spoken English was passable but not what you would call fluent – her written English was intelligible but needed work – which was true of nearly all our Afghan reporters at first. But what she lacked in qualifications, she made up for in spunk. When I told her she’d have to eat with the men – we had about 20 of them then, she said “of course” and marched right into the lunchroom, where the guys were all seated, Afghan-style around a big circular tray with a small mountain of Kabuli Pulao on it, rice, vegetables and meat eaten communally with the hands and a slice of the thin local bread as combination serving spoon, napkin and plate. She politely but firmly asked two of the guys to make room between them for her. Later we heard from the guys that she scolded anyone who used bad language during the meal. Soon they came to accept her and eventually said they thought having her there brought out the best behavior in everyone.
Her English was going to be a problem, though. One of our security advisers, Charlie O’Malley, had been an English teacher before joining the military and he offered to tutor her in English, and she came to work two hours early every day to study with Charlie. She did so well that Charlie said we should get her to enroll in the English courses offered by the American University of Afghanistan. When we offered to pay her tuition she jumped at the opportunity and immediately began studying not only 2 hours before work with Charlie but several hours after work at the University and made terrific progress especially in her written English which had to be at least clear enough for her to write a basic file from her reporting. She was well-worth the investment from our side, proving again and again that she was a brave and determined reporter. Some of my best work in Afghanistan was reported by Fatima. Slight and diminutive, Fatima seemed afraid of nothing and certainly of no man.
One good example of that took place one night when she was returning from an assignment with a male American reporter obviously not a relative and the policemen on the checkpoint outside the New York Times bureau were muttering and she heard them deride her as “a whore,” the default assumption toward any woman in Afghan society seen out with an unrelated man. She marched right up to the policemen who had just defamed her and gave them a dressing down that went on for half an hour. “Didn’t they have daughters themselves? And sisters? And mothers? How dare they call her a whore just because she was doing her job? And so on. Fatima’s tirade went on so loudly and long that the policemen withered before her onslaught; the next day those policemen came to our security adviser to complain that she had treated them abusively; his answer was: treat her with respect and she’ll treat you with respect; eventually they all came around.
I worked closely with her as her mentor – and still do – trying to bring her English to the next level in which she could actually produce copy that was publishable with just light edits, which is the case with this piece which she wrote entirely on her own. I helped out by giving suggestions on shaping it and some light line editing but otherwise it was entirely her own work, her first longer piece written entirely herself.
– Rod Nordland
by Fatima Faizi
Kabul – I almost had a panic attack. There was scattered shooting everywhere around outside. I was supposed to pack up everything and leave but I was told to just grab one small bag because space on the evacuation flight was limited. How could I fit my entire life into a gym bag? I called a friend, a Jewish woman from France, whose family had had to flee Algeria when it fell to Muslim rebels; I thought she might have good advice for me. We, the Hazara people, are the Jews of Afghanistan. The Hazaras suffered a genocide of our own in the 19th century, when more than 60 percent of our people were massacred because of their ethnicity; and the Taliban killed hundreds of Hazaras during the Afghan civil war in the 1980s, and many of us were deliberately starved to death during the previous Taliban regime, 1994 to 2001. So, when I called my Jewish friend for advice, she said “pack whatever reminds you of home.” I packed two dresses, a map of Kabul, my jewelry and a painting of the Buddhas from Bamiyan, one of the few places in Afghanistan where I as a Hazara felt safe. These were the things that gave me the feeling of home.
In a little backpack I put my New York Times-issued laptop; all my documents, high school diploma, my tazkera (national identity document) and a letter from the State Department explaining that I didn’t have my passport because I had left it at an embassy, and also my New York Times Kabul bureau press card. I kept this little backpack close to me because I worried that if the Taliban found the NY Times laptop, they could see who all our sources were. Especially sources for our weekly Afghanistan casualty report; in the previous month of July 2021, 335 security forces and 189 civilians were killed. June 2021 was even worse; it was the worst month since 2019; 703 Afghan security forces and 208 civilians were killed in June 2021; there were many more that we couldn’t document because it was too dangerous for our reporters in the provinces to do so. By then it was clear to everyone who followed our reporting that the Taliban would soon win, whether or not the Americans all left; the final American departure earlier in August just hastened the Taliban return to Kabul.
When I finished packing, I left my apartment with the remains of a takeaway meal I had ordered with some friends still spread out on the dining table. I took some pictures with my phone to remind me of my home and ran for the elevator.
I had called a taxi, but I spent a tense hour waiting for it to arrive; the streets were packed with frantic people – almost all of them men – looking for a way out. I was very aware that I was a woman alone, and couldn’t help but remember Farkhunda, who was brutally murdered by a crazed mob of Afghan men. Finally the taxi, a silver Toyota corolla, like half the cars in the country, arrived to take me to the airport. The driver was terrified and asked me for a thousand Afs, an exorbitant sum; I offered him the equivalent in dollars, $15, but he demanded Afs instead; I didn’t have any, just dollars. I told him. “Why don’t you have any Afs on you?” he said. “You’re an Afghan.”
(Afs is short for Afghanis, Afghanistan’s currency) It was a private taxi, from a company our bureau often used. Normally we paid them in dollars The driver seemed spaced out, bewildered, maybe paranoid. He checked the mirror constantly, and barely talked. He just muttered despairingly: “we lost everything, we lost everything.”
I was too numb with fear and sadness to feel anything. Outside the car I could see throngs of people everywhere – walking around, but with no destination in mind. It seemed everybody was out. Well, the men. I didn’t see one woman. The men all looked paranoid, and terrified. I could see the disappointment in their eyes and on their faces.
I was mostly on my phone. I feared the people outside too. They could attack the car. I was a woman alone. I rolled up the window and covered myself properly.
Just that morning I had gone to work, I was at our bureau until 1:00 p.m. I had worn a dress and took a selfie with my friend who was staying with me. We both looked sad. I wore the same dress in the taxi.
At the airport the first thing I saw was a man with a gun. Just a random guy – not a security guy, or someone with any kind of uniform. I didn’t have my passport on me because I left it at an embassy where I applied for a visa – and nobody asked for it. I had a letter that The New York Times had arranged for me from the State Department to present at the airport. It said: “This is Fatima Faizi. She does not have her passport. Please allow her to enter.” But nobody asked to see it. There was a search lady – she waved me through. She didn’t even have a headscarf on. She was in a panic. They were letting everybody in. Whether you had a flight booked or not. They didn’t stop anyone.
The airport staff didn’t know what to do. There was no commander anymore. There were rumors, soon verified, that the Taliban had entered Kabul and that the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled, using his U.S. passport. Long ago our former bureau chief, Rod Nordland, had us investigating a tip he had that President Ghani still had his U. S. passport, in defiance of an Afghan law that no high officials could keep second citizenships. The American embassy refused to comment, President Ghani’s office angrily denied it – now we knew the truth.
I was at the airport waiting to go to Ukraine. The Times had booked this plane for us. But the plane took off without us. Just one of our colleagues could get aboard at that time.
About 3:00 p.m. or so my family and colleagues joined me. By 9:00 p.m. all 128 Times staff and their family members were at the domestic terminal at Kabul International Airport. In the end the Times got more than 300 Afghan current and former staff and their family members out of the country. We all owe the Times our lives. We all worried about Taliban reprisals they said they wouldn’t touch journalists – “unless they were spies.” To the Taliban, anyone affiliated with the Americans or an American news organization was a spy.
Hamid Karzai International Airport was split into two sides: the red side where there was the domestic and the international terminal, and the green side, the American side, where 3,000 Marines and those with a foreign passport were. On the green side, you could access food, water, and they could verify your documents and get you to the planes. If you were on the green side, it meant you were safe.
On the red side, where we waited, people were smashing windows, doors, and computers. Anything and everything. The airport was completely looted. Everything was taken out from the terminal building, Someone even took the big sign reading “Hamid Krazai International Airport.” By this time, the airport had been abandoned by Afghan security forces. The doors were left wide open, literally.
We tried to go to the American side but it was impossible – as we weren’t Americans but Afghans. We couldn’t talk to the Americans directly. We were in touch with them indirectly through our office: we were in touch on WhatsApp and Signal with our people in New York, who in turn were in touch with the Pentagon and the State Department.
I was trying to help because there were so many people. I was scared for my father’s life due to his high blood pressure. He was shaking. I was trying to get somebody to help us. I was constantly on the phone to a friend who is a lawyer in DC. I was asking my colleagues in the States how I could stay calm. But it was impossible because there was shooting everywhere. I felt numb.
Due to the chaos, our group decided to go from the domestic terminal to the VIP parking lot. By now it was around 10:00 p.m. And although it was August, in that wide open space, it was cold at night.
The people in the crowds could sense that there was a reason we journalists were together: they understood that we were a group, and that we were up to something. This made us a target. We asked the Americans for help, through our office, because we were being attacked. People tried to enter the parking lot. The American Marines responded by putting a tank in front of the gate of that parking lot to block people coming through. The marines shot in the air to control the crowd. But people were so desperate they were not scared of dying.
It was not just normal people in the crowds. The Taliban had released thousands of prisoners from prisons across the country, including Pul e Charkhi in Kabul. These were notorious ISIS and Taliban prisoners. We suspected that they were in the crowd. They had weapons and guns. How else could ordinary people get weapons and guns? Surely the Taliban were among them; I had no doubt about that.
Next morning around 7:00 a.m. we moved to where American marines were stationed. There were hundreds of them trying to hold back perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.
I was worried at this point that there would be an attack. A French official who saw my name on a NATO list of Afghans who were allowed to go called me out of the blue and asked where I was. He told me to leave the airport. “For god’s sake, we don’t want you to be at the airport,” he said. “Please go home.” I was getting other messages from different contacts telling me not to stay at the airport. “The risk is really high. We believe ISIS might do something,” my contacts said. Indeed a few days later, when I was already out of the country, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 170 civilians and 13 American Marines at the airport. Sadly, my sources were right.
We stayed at the VIP parking lot overnight, with the Americans shooting all night long to control the crowd. We stayed at the airport without food and even worse, without water. There were babies among us. Half of the group were teenage boys and girls. Who had eaten and who hadn’t? I was worried for many of those in our group, especially the children.
In the morning, at 7:00 a.m. or so, we left the VIP parking lot and went to the domestic terminal. It was hot inside. I introduced myself to an American soldier. I told him, “I’m a New York Times journalist,” and asked him for water for my father who had high blood pressure. He didn’t have any water on him, he said. He offered me candies instead. I needed water. “I’ve been here for 36 hours. I don’t have any water on me. I am dehydrated myself,” he said. “Do you see the chaos behind me?” he asked. Yes, but the situation wasn’t just chaotic. It was apocalyptic. This was the day, Aug. 16, that 5 people fell off a U.S. military plane and were killed as it took off. 700 people had piled onto that plane heading to Doha in Qatar.
There was still no water and no food. Once again, we tried to move from one side of the airport to another. There was a water tank over there. We drank the water from the toilets. We even gave that water to babies. At some point, about 3:00 p.m., a mob attacked our group. They had guns. They were climbing the walls and getting close to us.
I was crying on the phone and telling my colleagues they had to do something, quickly. I thought that maybe one of the women would get raped.
Thousands of people were running toward the Americans, even though they were shooting in the air hoping to scare them away. People had nothing to lose. They were not scared. I was ashamed of the situation; I knew the soldiers had lots of water bottles in their supply depot. I kept asking them for some; mainly I was worried about my dad. One Marine called one of his colleagues and said “we got a New York Times journalist. We got to protect them.” But it was not his job. They were here to get people out. But one of his fellow Marines came and gave me two bottles of water. I gave one to my dad.
By now other news organizations – The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and others had joined our group. All of us were moving together toward the safety of the American Marines. We were waiting to get out, but there was no way out.
At 5:00 p.m., Taliban fighters came in the gate and began beating us with pipes and sticks. My mom was one of their victims. They ordered us to go home but no one listened to them. With each passing minute, the crowd was getting bigger and bigger. We waited for an hour, but the Americans didn’t succeed to “rescue” our team. Two Taliban fighters showed up again – they beat everyone, including my mother, father and brother. The Americans didn’t invade Afghanistan to just fight terrorism. We all believed they were there to defend women’s rights, but women were getting beaten up right in front of Americans and they were watching it. It was just painful to witness.
We left the airport. It was the first time I had seen Kabul this dark. The airport was pitch black. Thousands were trying to get into the airport, and thousands were trying to get out. When we were trying to leave the airport – the clothes and things we had with us got lost. I lost my gym bag where I had packed up my entire life. Now it was just me and my family. And my memories. Somehow, I managed to hold onto my little backpack with the Times laptop in it.
I told my parents we had to go to the Serena hotel. I didn’t know then that the Taliban had taken control of the hotel, Kabul’s only 5-star hotel. But fortunately, I saw one of my colleagues, a driver for our bureau, Kabir, and we went with him to his house instead.
We were hiding in Kabir’s house in Kabul for two days and it was the longest two days of my life. The Taliban were everywhere outside so Kabir pulled all the curtains so they wouldn’t see us. Kabir’s family, more than ten in all, many of them little kids, were in the rooms upstairs.
We saw on TV that the Taliban were holding press conferences as the new government. As a woman journalist I was not allowed to go to their press conferences – but foreign women journalists were allowed; they wanted to show they had changed and were more modern. The Taliban announced a “general amnesty” in their first press conference on Aug. 17. I didn’t see any Afghan women journalists there.
As an Afghan I do not know why I was granted amnesty: neither I nor my friends had committed any crimes. The Taliban, I remember thinking, had committed suicide attacks. Attacks which I had covered as a reporter. So maybe they were giving themselves amnesty for all their suicide bombings, torture and murder of innocent people.
Finally, we were given the news that we could leave – with the help of the Qataris, Americans and the Taliban.
We went to the Serena hotel on Aug. 19. We New York Times journalists left on two buses. We were supposed to go through the airport’s Abbey Gate, but there were thousands trying to get in there. The Taliban had put American tanks which they had seized from the Afghan government at the entrance of the airport. By now the Taliban were in charge of Kabul, the capital city. They had checkpoints everywhere. But the Americans still held the airport.
I was sitting in the bus thinking of my friends who had been killed by the Taliban. I felt guilty. Today, the Taliban were helping me get out of the country. I knew I was getting out, but my friends were dead, they had sacrificed their lives for nothing. I was getting out, but I didn’t know where I was going. At the airport Americans processed our paperwork. At 8:00 p.m. on Aug. 20 we flew to Qatar, and I was there for 5 days, and then to Mexico, for a week, before finally to Houston, where we could begin the process of resettlement in America as refugees and asylum seekers.
I was 6 years old when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. I was brought to Kabul the next year from a village in central Afghanistan. At age 7, I was asked to figure out my life: since I did not choose to go to Kabul, I was taken there.
20 years later. I have been taken to Houston and asked to figure out my life.
When I was a kid, I knew what to do – instinctively I found my way. I went to school, graduated, and got a job with the Times.
Now it strikes me that the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban was the exact day that 4 years earlier I had joined the Times. As a reporter, I had covered so many attacks the Taliban had carried out. I had reported on the Taliban attacks that killed my friends. I was writing for my job about how my friends were killed. There are still friends of mine who are missing: neither among the living nor the dead.
Today I am 27. Burned out. Suffering from depression, PTSD and anxiety. Columbia University is getting me therapy for my mental problems as the Times did earlier.
In 2012, I graduated from Surya high school in Kabul. I was passionate about literature. As a kid growing up, my mom read Hafiz, the great Persian poet, to me every night. I also listened eagerly to stories about my uncle who was a writer during the Communist era. He would write stories, poetry, and would record his voice reciting them. As a young kid, I would play his old cassette tapes and listen to him for hours on my grandfather’s ancient cassette player and radio, when the family weren’t using it to listen to the news on the BBC. This encouraged me to write. I also wrote poetry and enjoyed learning the different literary forms of Persian poetry. I excelled at writing poetry and was encouraged by my teachers. I began to keep a notebook, and log my ideas, thoughts and learning. The fields around our village were full of rabbits which as a child I loved. Then the Taliban came and used the roof of our family’s home to shoot the rabbits, for food. I hated them for that. Ever since then I’ve always thought of the Taliban as rabbit killers.
After graduating from high school, I studied photography for three months. Then in 2014, I joined a program run by USAID in which I studied multimedia journalism for a year and began working for the organization that ran the program, Equality. In 2015, seven people were beheaded by the Taliban in Ghazni province. A million people protested in Kabul. I decided to report on that and took photos of the protest. This launched my career. Al Jazeera saw my photos and asked me to take photos for them. I worked as a freelancer for two years, and freelanced for other international outlets too, such as The Guardian. In 2017, on Aug. 15, I was hired by The New York Times.
I learned at a young age that English was the language of money and power. I was a very young girl when one of our relatives who was a translator for the Americans was killed in Nimroz province. I found out that he had been earning good money translating. I saw that as a future path for myself and indeed it got me where I am today: Here in America applying for asylum. I am hoping that eventually I can help my family do so as well.
These lines from the Persian Poet Hafiz speak to me:
It rises, a glorious sun
If someone can sit quiet long enough,
Seeing it one feels:
I now have everything, everything I could ever want.