As hope was blossoming in our hearts, the dark shadow of the Taliban regime arrived. The pain of losing Mahsa, Zahra, Habiba, Latifah, and the other female students at Seyed al-Shohada school had been relieved just a bit. Their memories are a part of my heart and soul, forever laced with tears and smiles. We had dreamed of our goals with passion for the future. Together, we laughed, joked, and cried.
Our dear classmates were taken away by the enemies of knowledge, yet we remained standing, determined to make our voices heard again. We cleaned out the dusty classrooms. Keeping alive the memories of our martyred friends, we planted seeds of hope and desire in our hearts and returned to school. We put flowers on Latifa and Habiba’s chairs, promising them that we would stick to the path of learning. We started studying without Zahra and Mahsa, who are sleeping beneath tons of soil. We pledged to fulfill our responsibilities to them. My classmate Soghra has deep wounds on her body as well as her soul, yet she sat with us in class, brightly burning the torch of knowledge.
We had been hopeful until life suddenly turned upside down. As the Taliban advanced, the days grew gloomy. Kabul was shrouded in darkness. Confused and bewildered, the city lost hope. Kabul fell. That day, in the midst of that darkness and bitterness, my mother died after a long illness. I was a 17-year-old girl. My mother had always comforted me through difficult moments. She was my teacher, but, above all, she was my soul and my sweetheart. I was left alone in pain after she passed away. On that same day, the most misogynist group in the world became the ruler of our city.
Yes, it was my dream to live a more pleasant and happy life in my homeland, Afghanistan! I couldn’t imagine there would come a day when life in Kabul would be a nightmare. Never in my dreams did I expect to see a day when my people were planning to leave. They packed their luggage and the Kabul bazaar became a shopping mall where terrified people sold their furniture for cash.
My grieving soul was penetrated by the sadness of those days. Under Taliban rule, I witnessed the death of all my dreams, one after another. I had not yet accepted the death of my dream of attending university, when I heard that we were not even permitted to return to school. Having no way out now, I would stare in silence, recalling the good old days. I managed to pass the stage of anger and pain that sometimes caused my books to be scattered all over my room. I reached a point of numbness and silence. My mother’s death, the dark days in Kabul, the closing of schools, and the death of my dreams have left such a heavy sadness in my heart and soul that silence filled me. I cannot shed any tears. There is no place left to study, to seek refuge, or to escape from this chaotic struggle.
After the Taliban arrived, the number of emigrants increased every day. My brothers were among them. I was left alone with a traditional father who hadn’t had the chance to learn how to openly express his love and support for his daughter. My father never deprived me of studying. I know he wishes me well, but our relationship is one of commands and obedience. As an absolute ruler, he only expects me to say “yes.” I shouldn’t be disappointed or feel blue. In the world of my feelings, he is like an alien. Although he sees physical diseases and is careful, he cannot comprehend the pain that overwhelms my soul.
Three months after the Taliban arrived, I had no friends or acquaintances left in the city except for my father. I had no way to connect with my classmates. All of us were imprisoned in the corners of our houses. Kabul has become a dangerous city for us. Getting out is a real risk for us girls from vulnerable and unsupported families who are struggling to make ends meet. As a girl, you run the risk of being whipped without reason or kidnapped and even killed. It is as if they are lurking everywhere for us because we are girls of another ethnicity.
The desire to learn and build a future led me to enroll in entrance exam preparation courses at the beginning of winter. Learning was the healing I needed for my wounded soul. For a few hours, I could escape the corner of the house and my loneliness. In spite of this, spring and the beginning of the school year were painful for us. By closing the school gates, the Taliban stole the dreams of millions of Afghan girls. I had studied hard in the last two years of high school and got better grades. Those high grades made me feel proud. I had one year left to finish school before starting my journey to the future. But our hopes for the future were suddenly snuffed out when the enemies of knowledge shut the school doors and turned off the learning lights.
I didn’t stop learning. I continued to study at home. Every day, I studied for eight hours. Given the current situation, my father believed that marriage would be the most suitable option for me. Every day he pressured me into submitting to a forced marriage to a man he chose, but I kept resisting. Nevertheless, he allowed me to attend the entrance exam preparation centre and the English language course. I liked them. I was struggling to survive. In the midst of darkness, I sought a ray of hope. I found the Taliban’s treatment of women difficult to accept, and I still refused to give up. After one year without formal education, I still had hope for a better future in learning. I was determined to study and pass the entrance exam.
One Friday, in the first days of autumn, while I was taking the preparatory exam for the entrance examination at Pole-Khoshk in Kawsar Educational Centre, I heard a loud noise. Upon returning home, I heard that the other students, among whom was my best friend, were annihilated at the Kaaj school while they were taking their preparatory exams. In the graveyard, while wiping my tears at my friend’s grave, her mother’s worries and restlessness tore at my heart and a deep disappointment filled me: How shall I continue to fight for survival? How strong do we need to be? That’s enough!
Note: Soheyla is one of the survivors of the terrorist attack on Seyed al-Shohada High School in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul in May 2022 that killed at least 85 people. Her name and those of others in the article have been changed to protect their identities.