Bilal Sarwary: ‘The plane hit the tower and all our lives changed’

Bilal Sarwary: ‘The plane hit the tower and all our lives changed’

Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary saw the Taliban toppled in 2001 and his country transformed. But in his view, as he explains here, the US missed an opportunity to try to bring lasting peace. And in the last two weeks the path of his homeland took a terrifying twist, one that put his own life in danger.

In 2001, I was a carpet salesman at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, having yet another unremarkable day at work.

I’ll never forget glancing up at the TV in a brief moment between sales, only to witness firsthand the dramatic live footage of a passenger plane careening into the World Trade Center in New York. Then the second plane, and another at the Pentagon.

None of our lives would ever be the same.

International attention immediately focused on Afghanistan where the ruling Taliban were accused of providing a sanctuary for the attack’s prime suspects – Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement.

Only the next day, there were suddenly hundreds of foreign media crews crowding the hotel’s lobby, desperate for anyone who could speak English to assist them as a translator as they crossed the nearby border into Afghanistan. I took up that offer and I haven’t stopped since.

I hadn’t lived in Afghanistan since I was a child – our family had fled the violence during the civil war in the 1990s when the Soviet troops withdrew. So when I entered Kabul for the first time again after all those years, I was shocked to discover the destruction, with buildings reduced to rubble and twisted metal. All signs of hustle and bustle had vanished. The people were so poor, and there was so much fear.

I was initially working with Abu Dhabi TV and was based in the Intercontinental Hotel with five other journalists. I woke up every morning clouded in a haze of fear, as Kabul became the primary focus of American airstrikes. Known al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban came and went from our hotel, and we saw them wandering in nearby streets. Explosions rang through the night. I wondered if our hotel would be next.

And then one morning in early December, the Taliban were gone.

Within hours, people were lining up again outside barber shops to have their beards trimmed. Rhythmic Afghan music filled the streets, filling the vacuum left by explosions. Afghanistan was born again that morning.

Barber shop in Kabul, November 2001

From that moment onwards, I was intimately involved in observing the lives of ordinary Afghans firsthand, as they transitioned back to normality, no longer as a translator but as a journalist in my own right. From covering Tora Bora in the East to the Shai Koat battle in Paktia, I had seen the Taliban toppled.

Their fighters vanished into the mountainous rural areas, and their leadership fled to Pakistan. In retrospect, it is clear to me that this was a missed opportunity, a time when the US should have sat down with the Taliban to discuss a peace deal. I saw a genuine willingness amongst the rank-and-file of the Taliban to lay down their arms, and resume their lives. But the Americans didn’t want that. From my reporting, it seemed to me and many other Afghans that their motivation was revenge after 9/11.

The ensuing years were a catalogue of errors.

Poor and innocent Afghan villagers were bombed and detained. The Afghan government’s willingness to allow foreigners to drive the war effort created a gulf between it and the people. I remember clearly an incident where the Americans had mistakenly arrested and detained a taxi driver named Sayed Abasin on the highway between Kabul and Gardez. His father, Mr Roshan, was elderly and a legendary employee of Ariana airlines. After we exposed the error, Mr Abasin was eventually freed. But others were not so connected and not so lucky.

Russian tanks used to create training course in 2009

The Americans persisted with a heavy-handed approach, causing excess loss of life among ordinary Afghans. In a clear attempt to minimise American casualties, they prioritised bombs and drones over the use of ground troops. Trust for the Americans continued to erode and hopes for peace talks faded.

There were brief glimpses of what Afghanistan could become. I could now drive on an open road for thousands of kilometres without fear of death. I criss-crossed the country, driving all the way from Kabul to remote villages in Khost and Paktika provinces late at night or early in the morning. Afghanistan’s extraordinary countryside could be traversed.

The year 2003 was the turning point.

It was when the insurgents started to strike back with a renewed strength. I remember one day very clearly – it was the day that a huge truck bomb pierced the heart of Kabul, shaking the city and shattering windows. I was one of the first journalists on the scene and I’m still traumatised by what I found. It was my first experience of witnessing what would become the new normal, an imposed fact of life – carnage, flesh, and dead corpses littering the blood-splattered ground.

And it just got worse. Later we would come to understand that the truck bombs and suicide attacks against Afghan forces, foreign forces and unarmed civilians in the middle of the city would mark the start of a very brutal chapter of the conflict. In response, the Americans escalated their reliance on airstrikes, this time expanding their list of Taliban targets – weddings and funerals in rural parts of the country.

More on the Afghan crisis

Ordinary Afghans came to see the sky as a source of fear. Gone were the days of gazing at the sunrise, sunset or the stars as a source of inspiration.

On one trip to the lush green Arghandab river valley, close to the city of Kandahar, I arrived eager to see the country’s most famous pomegranates. But when I arrived, it was the blood of its residents, not the fruit, that was flowing. What I saw was a microcosm of what has happened in so many rural areas in Afghanistan.

The Taliban had thrust their fighters into the valley, but government forces were doing all they could to push them back. Control of the area teetered back and forth between the two sides, with ordinary Afghans caught in the middle. On that day, I counted 33 separate airstrikes ringing out. I lost count of the number of suicide car bombings launched in response by the Taliban. Homes, bridges and orchards were all destroyed.

Damaged wedding site in Kabul

Many of the US airstrikes were led by false intelligence, provided by someone who wanted to settle a bitter personal rivalry or land dispute at a village level. The growing lack of trust between ground forces and ordinary Afghans meant that US forces couldn’t tell the truth from the lies. The Taliban used these attacks to wedge Afghans against their own government, which proved to be fertile ground for their recruitment drives.

It was also during this period (between 2001 to 2010) that Afghanistan’s 9/11 generation – young Afghans who had been granted opportunities to study overseas in India, Malaysia, the US, and Europe – came back to join the country’s effort to rebuild. This new generation had hopes of being part of a great national rejuvenation. Instead, they found themselves confronted by new challenges. They returned to see newly empowered warlords enlisted by the Americans. And they saw that corruption was rife. When a country’s reality drifts too far from its ideals, day-to-day pragmatism becomes a person’s primary driver. A culture of impunity started to prevail.

Our country’s landscape is deceptive.

It is easy to be struck by its beautiful valleys, sharp peaks, winding rivers, and little hamlets. But what presents as a peaceful image hasn’t provided ordinary Afghans with any peace. You can’t find peace without safety in your own home.

About four years ago, I was at a small village in Wardak province for a wedding. As the night fell, people had gathered and they were eating food under the stars. The sky was so clear. But suddenly, the night erupted into the sound of thundering drones and planes. There was clearly an operation taking place nearby. A sense of doom fell upon the wedding party.

Northern Alliance fighters in 2001

Later that evening, I found myself sharing Kabuli pilau, bread, and meat with the father of a Taliban fighter who described in excruciating detail how his son had been killed in Helmand. His son was only 25 and left behind a widow and two small children.

I was left speechless when the father explained with melancholy pride that although he was only a humble farmer, his son was a talented fighter who had believed in fighting for a different life. All I could see in the face of this old man was pain and sadness. Under Taliban control, music wasn’t permitted, even at weddings. Instead, all gatherings of villagers were just full of these sad stories.

People often overlook the human cost for the Taliban – there are widows, fathers who have lost their sons, and young people crippled by war on the other side too.

When I asked this father of the Taliban fighter what he wanted, his eyes filled with tears and he said: “I want an end to the fighting. Enough is enough. I know the pain of losing a son. I know Afghanistan must have a peace process, must have a ceasefire.”

My Kabul office was only a few kilometres from a large military hospital.

Friends, family and acquaintances visiting from my home province, Kunar, often asked me to accompany them to the hospital to identify the corpses of relatives who were members of the Afghan National Security Forces. Sometimes I felt like the spirit of my province was being crushed by the weight of these coffins.

When the Americans recently commenced negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, we were initially overwhelmed with hope. The country was pining for a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the negotiations were seen as the only pathway through. I, like so many millions of Afghans, had not seen peace in my country in my lifetime.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu in Doha

It didn’t take long for our dreams to be shattered. It became clear that the talks were only about capitalising on battlefield victories, not trying to agree on a vision of peace. From an ordinary Afghan’s perspective, they were meaningless. The Americans released 6,000 Taliban fighters and commanders from jail, which was sold as a means to a credible and meaningful peace process, and a permanent ceasefire. But that never happened.

Instead, the peace process became clouded in a heartbreaking campaign of high-profile assassinations. Some of our country’s most capable people from the media, legal sector, and judiciary were being killed on their doorsteps in Kabul and across the country.

As talks between the Americans and Taliban took place, I remember a local police chief stood up in the middle of a war council meeting and suddenly accused the Americans of abandoning Afghan forces by talking to the enemy. “They’ve stabbed us in the back,” he said angrily. Like many Afghans his relationship with America is steeped in pain.

One of my former classmates is a member of the Taliban and we are the same age. Over the last 20 years, we have continued to talk despite the fact that he’s adhering to a different ideology. But recently, I saw him at a wedding and I could see how his attitude had hardened and soured. I saw and felt how this conflict has really divided Afghans. When we met, we could barely converse. He wasn’t the guy that I remember from our days in Peshawar, playing cricket and stuffing our faces with juicy oranges.

How could I know that all these years later I would find him on the other side?

His story is also one of deep personal loss. His brother, father, and uncle were killed in a raid that was based on false intelligence and petty local rivalries. Separated as we are, I can’t help but hope for a future of national reconciliation.

But that seems a distant possibility now. I covered the regional capitals falling to the Taliban in recent weeks, with massive surrenders where no one put up a fight. But I didn’t think they could make it into Kabul and take over the city.

Refugees at the airport

The night before it happened, officials I spoke to still thought they could hold it with the help of US air strikes. And there was talk of a peaceful transition of power into an inclusive government. But then [former president] Ghani left by helicopter and suddenly the Taliban were in the city. There was fear hanging in the air – people were very scared to see them back.

Then I was told that my life was in danger.

I took two changes of clothes and was taken to an undisclosed location with my wife, my baby daughter and my parents. This is a city I know intimately – every inch of it. I belong to this city and it’s unbelievable to think no place was safe for me.

I thought about my daughter Sola – her name means “peace” – and it was simply devastating to think the future we had hoped for her was now in tatters. As I left for the airport, I was reminded that for the second time in my life, I was leaving Afghanistan behind. When I got there, memories from years of work came back to overwhelm me – trips I had taken with officials or as a journalist heading to the front lines of the war.

Then I saw all these people, all these families lining up to flee. A generation of Afghans burying their dreams and aspirations.