ARLINGTON, Va. — Nadima Sahar, a 36-year-old government official in Kabul, was resigned at first. She would stay, no matter how bad things got. She saw hope in the progress Afghanistan had made over the past two decades. Maybe, she thought, she could push for an inclusive government, with more women and ethnic minorities.
But on the day the city fell to the Taliban, her friends and family members flooded her phone with calls and text messages, begging her to leave.
When one friend told her that the presidential palace staff had already fled, and that there were rumors President Ashraf Ghani was gone, too, Ms. Sahar decided she had to get out. As a high-ranking government official in education, she said that she knew that the Taliban would probably kill or arrest her.
“As soon as I heard that, my heart just sunk,” Ms. Sahar said. “If the president had left the country, then that meant we truly were in a bad situation. We truly have lost everything.”
Ms. Sahar’s 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son had left Kabul three days earlier with her sister, Sadaf Sultani, who was visiting from Britain.
“My sister was willing to fight until the end,” Ms. Sultani said. “But I had to force her to allow me to take her kids.”
Ms. Sahar let them go thinking it would only be a few weeks before conditions in Kabul calmed down, even as the Taliban advanced toward the city after seizing province after province. On nights when the gunfire and explosions were especially loud, the family would shelter in the living room, which had few windows.
For Ms. Sahar and thousands of others, fleeing Afghanistan meant abandoning the only home they knew. Although many were determined to escape in the last days before the U.S. troop withdrawal, risking their lives to reach the airport, others resisted leaving, worried about relatives and clinging to the lives they spent years building.
Ms. Sahar knew it was naïve to think that the situation in Kabul might not become so bad. But the thought of leaving again terrified her. She had been through this before: When she was about 5, she had fled to Pakistan during Afghanistan’s civil war.
“I think it was that crippling fear of becoming a refugee again, not knowing what the future holds for you and starting your life from scratch,” Ms. Sahar said, her hands wrapped around a cup of tea in a friend’s apartment in Virginia, where she has been staying since she fled. “I guess I just didn’t want to face that.”
By Aug. 15, the day the government collapsed, only Ms. Sahar and a cousin were still living in the four-bedroom apartment.
Around 2:30 p.m., she grabbed a backpack and tossed in her documents, wallet, laptop and scarf. She took one extra set of clothes: a bright floral-print chapan, her favorite piece of clothing. As she packed, her hands couldn’t stop shaking.
The cousins fled on foot after they heard that the Taliban had invaded Kabul. They tried to take a taxi, but the streets were already crowded, and every driver told them it was impossible to drive through the mayhem. People were crying and shouting on the phone, and some had started to loot banks.
After running for more than an hour and a half, they reached Hamid Karzai International Airport, where hundreds of people were waiting inside. Families, government officials and affluent business executives clambered to reach the tarmac, desperate to find space on one of the few flights scheduled to leave that day.
One of Ms. Sahar’s friends booked her a ticket for a flight to Istanbul, the last plane set to take off. As they tried to get onto the tarmac, word spread that the Taliban had reached the gates outside. Ms. Sahar told her cousin to leave immediately. If they were found together, Ms. Sahar said, the Taliban might kill them both.
Tensions began to rise. One man beat an airport worker who was turning people away at the gate. All of the flights were overbooked, the workers told the crowd, and there was no chance that any of them would depart.
Ms. Sahar started to lose hope after trying to move forward for more than five hours. But then Kabir, an airport worker, took her through an employee-only door and onto the tarmac. He said he did not know her but felt a responsibility to help.
“She was crying,” he said. “She was alone, and nobody came to her.”
Kabir told one of his friends to stay with Ms. Sahar while he tried to find a way to leave. She attempted to board her flight to Istanbul, but flight crew members said the plane was already full and were turning people away.
About an hour later, Kabir called. He told his friend and Ms. Sahar that they had five minutes to get on a plane in another section of the tarmac. Its lights were off when they reached it, Ms. Sahar said.
They climbed the stairs to the plane, and even though Ms. Sahar did not have a ticket, the flight crew let them both on. They were the last two people to board.
About 20 minutes later, the flight took off. It was far from full, with every other seat empty, she said. Later, a crew member told Ms. Sahar that the plane did not have permission to fly, and that it had been chartered to evacuate the airline owner’s family and friends. She did not see any other plane take off that night.
On the flight, she said, feelings of guilt, shock and grief collided. But mostly, she felt numb.
Ms. Sahar did not know where they were going. About an hour in, she asked the person seated next to her, who did not know either, but they soon learned that they were on their way to Ukraine.
Once they arrived, the passengers were detained for several hours. Some of them had firearms and many did not have passports or visas.
After she was released, Ms. Sahar contacted a few friends and booked a flight to Northern Virginia. She arrived at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 17, just before thousands of Afghan evacuees arrived in the next few weeks.
Since then, she has been staying in a spare room in her friend’s apartment in nearby Arlington. The walls are mostly bare and the closet is nearly empty, except for a few shirts and pairs of pants her friends bought her.
Security workers at her apartment building in Kabul, where several government officials lived, have told her that the Taliban have come four times. Most recently, 21 people from the Red Unit, an elite force, showed up. The Taliban have also visited her office three times, leaving messages with her colleagues saying they would give her amnesty if she returned and transferred power to a new head of the education authority she ran. But Ms. Sahar and many others have grown skeptical, given the increasing reports of detentions, disappearances and executions at the hands of the Taliban.
“The strength of your word is something I no longer believe in,” Ms. Sahar said.
Ms. Sahar, a U.S. permanent resident, hopes to get a job in Virginia. She came to America in 2002, graduating from Roger Williams University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She worked in Washington for a year before returning to Afghanistan in 2009.
She does not know when she will be able to fly her children to the United States. For now, she is submitting job applications and calling her children every night to read them a bedtime story.
Even though she fears retaliation, she hopes to return to Afghanistan. Staying in America permanently, despite its security, is not an option, she said.
“That’s like giving up on everything you believe and saying, ‘You know what, do whatever you want to do with that country,’” Ms. Sahar said. “I would like to go there to contribute in whatever capacity that I can, even if it means being there as a voice of dissent.”