My terrifying escape as the Taliban's assassins hunted me down

My terrifying escape as the Taliban’s assassins hunted me down: Last month, courageous female former Afghan MP SHUKRIA BARAKZAI wrote a brilliant dispatch for the Mail as Kabul fell. Now safely in Britain, she tells of the dramatic events that followed

  • Shukria Barakzai had been on the Taliban’s assassination wish list for many years
  • Recounts her journey from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport to Oxford
  • Former MP says she lost her house, work and extended family in a matter of days

Wedged into the back seat of my friend’s car, my face covered by a niqab and clutching a friend’s passport, I held my breath as the Taliban soldier shone his torch into my eyes.

It was close to midnight, and on the horizon I could see the lights of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport. Beyond that was the chance of safety, but only if I could get past yet another checkpoint manned by members of a regime who had been hunting me down for a week.

If they found me, I had no doubt I would be killed. So far, my husband and I had passed through two checkpoints unchallenged, with the aid of friends helping us to pose as a family heading for a nearby hospital.

This one was different. Searching our documents, the soldier questioned us for what felt like an hour — although in reality it was probably no more than a minute — before roughly gesturing us on.

Shukria Barakzai (pictured), who had been on the Taliban’s assassination wish list for many years, recounts her terrifying journey to England

My heart was in my mouth. It had taken so much to get this far. Just under a week earlier, I had arrived at the same airport with no thought other than to take a routine flight to Turkey for a series of medical appointments. By then, most of Afghanistan was in the clutches of the Taliban, but Kabul stood strong.

The day before I intended to fly, I had written in this newspaper about my despair at the way the country of my birth had fallen under their violent and bloody regime, but also of my hope that its capital city would resist. I was determined to stay.

But then, everything changed. Moments after I arrived at the airport on that scorching August Sunday afternoon, I learned that Kabul had been captured.

My flight was cancelled, and it quickly became clear that the Taliban were looking for me. As a former MP and prominent campaigner for women’s rights, I had been near the top of the Taliban’s assassination wish list for many years, and many attempts had been made on my life.

What followed was six days of terror during which I faced down Taliban gunmen, ran for my life, and was smuggled from one house to another as I was forced into a life in hiding.

Here in the UK, meanwhile, politicians frantically navigated mountains of red tape to try to get me and my husband of less than a year on a flight to England, and to safety.

The view outside my window in recent days is testament to my luck: a flat, grey English sky and a hotel car park.

This is the view from the hotel near Oxford where I quarantined since my arrival in the UK two weeks ago. My husband and I were confined to our small hotel room, and allowed out for just 15 minutes’ fresh air a day, but it still felt like freedom.

Shukria said the day she closed the front door to her home in Kabul, she left with a suitcase not knowing that she wouldn’t return. Pictured: Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul last month

It seems extraordinary I had closed the front door to my home in Kabul, the place where for years I had raised my children from my first marriage — five of them, aged between ten and 23 — little knowing that I would not return. I left the house carrying a suitcase with luggage for a few days, the time I intended to be away.

I knew, at least, that by then my family was safe: with the future of my country looking bleak, I had taken the difficult decision to send my mother and children to England.

But I had been determined to face whatever came, placing my faith in the Kabul-based soldiers who had kept the Taliban at bay so far.

Yet that faith was being challenged even as I travelled to the airport. The traffic was so bad that a trip that would normally take 20 minutes took three hours, while from the car I saw long queues outside the banks.

The scene at the airport was even more incredible. There were huge crowds and among them I spotted many of my former colleagues — members of parliament, governors and ministers. I was the only one with luggage: these people had all fled there at a moment’s notice.

‘What’s happening?’ I asked.

One of them pulled out his phone and showed me pictures of the Taliban at the gates of Kabul. ‘The city has fallen,’ he said.

Shukria said there were huge crowds at the airport and at least 500 people crammed into a plane meant to carry two thirds that number. Pictured: People walking on the tarmac of the airport in Kabul

I stared in horror at the footage of tanks rolling in and men waving machine guns. All I could think of was getting to Turkey.

The marathon journey to the airport, coupled with a long queue for Covid tests, meant I missed my original flight but — after a desperate scramble — my husband and I managed to get seats on another, scheduled to take off in the early evening.

As we settled into our seats on the plane, I tried to still my nerves. This is not what I had hoped for, but at least we were escaping the clutches of the Taliban.

In fact, it was just the start of the nightmare. At the last minute, a large crowd of people without tickets forced their way onto the aircraft. Refusing to take off, the pilot disembarked, switching off the lights and ventilation, leaving us all in darkness.

None of us knew what to do, but with Taliban fighters roaming the city, it seemed safest to spend the night on board the aircraft.

It was horrific. At least 500 of us were crammed into a plane meant to carry two thirds that number. Rows of seats intended for three passengers were occupied by five people squashed together, with others sitting in the aisles. It was dark, boiling hot, and we had nothing to eat or drink.

Worse was to come: as I sat gasping for breath in the stifling heat, my phone pinged with a message. It was from a friend, and the picture she sent chilled me to my bones. It was a photo showing gun-toting soldiers outside my home. ‘Shukria,’ she wrote, ‘the Taliban are in your house.’

Shukria (pictured) said she donned extra layers to try disguise herself, as Taliban fighters were everywhere in the airport

For a moment, I could barely breathe. Suddenly, I had to confront reality: the Taliban had come for me. All I could do now was get out. Little could I have imagined how difficult that would prove.

By the next morning, after being wedged into my tiny airline seat for 14 hours, my husband and I knew we had to leave the aircraft. It wasn’t going anywhere, and after 24 hours with no water or food, we were almost faint.

I donned extra layers, trying to disguise myself as best I could, placing first a face mask, then a scarf, then a man’s scarf over the top of my abaya, a long-sleeved kaftan-type robe which covered me from head to toe.

We emerged into chaos. The Taliban had taken over the main terminal, which was now a ruin, with broken windows and looted shops. Gunshots pierced the night air, and everywhere were Taliban fighters.

One of them looked straight at me. Had he recognised something under my disguise? Seized by panic, I fled into a toilet cubicle, where I cowered in a corner while I tried desperately to contact anyone who might be able to help. Every call went to voicemail.

Frantic, I had one last thought. Debbie Abrahams was a British MP with whom I had become friendly through our work on human rights. We had never met, but I trusted her. She too was on voicemail, but I left her a message begging her to help.

Shukria said a Taliban gunman beat her across the legs and lifted his weapon to shoot, however she and her husband managed to escape. Pictured: Afghans gathered outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport

‘We want to go towards the British officials,’ I told her. ‘Just please inform the U.S. army so they can let us go inside, the Taliban are here.’

Holding my breath, I emerged into the terminal building to find my husband. Our plan was to try to make our way to the U.S. military compound but within moments I saw a Taliban gunman coming straight towards us with a machine gun.

What happened next unfolded in seconds: smashing my husband’s hands with the rifle butt, he then beat me across the legs before lifting his weapon to shoot. Luckily, a crowd converged, and in the melee we somehow managed to escape.

All we could do was run, even though my leg was badly wounded. We had nowhere to go. There was danger behind us, and danger ahead. We just needed to leave the airport perimeter.

We were lucky. While the guards were asking people to show their faces, my husband told them I was sick and desperately needed to get home. That plea, and my limp, seemed to be enough to persuade them to let us through.

In Kabul, the Taliban were going door-to-door, searching houses, and what followed was five days of hell as we flitted from one refuge to another every few hours.

Meanwhile, my attempts to arrange safe passage out of the country were confounded by one layer of bureaucracy after another.

Sometimes I shouted, sometimes I wept, as I got through to yet another answerphone. It felt as if the walls were closing in.

British MP Tom Tugendhat (pictured), who served in Afghanistan, gave Shukria the contact number for a British soldier who was part of an informal network coordinating rescue efforts

Every hour or so it seemed new reports emerged of atrocities, of those who had worked with foreign embassies or the international military being beaten up and shot. By Thursday, three long and terrified nights after we had fled the airport, I was starting to lose hope.

Then, finally, some hope. Tom Tugendhat, another British MP who had served in Afghanistan, passed on the contact number for a British soldier who was part of an informal network coordinating rescue efforts. I messaged him instantly.

‘It is carnage at the gates,’ the soldier responded. ‘People are being crushed to death. I can facilitate through our system; not protocol but will do this as a favour.’

Another tense 24 hours passed, then, I got a call from an American soldier. He told me to send him a picture of myself and travel to a location close to the airport.

By now it was curfew, which meant extra scrutiny at checkpoints, but there was no time to lose.

Dressed in a black niqab — which covered all of my face except for my eyes — my husband and I got into a car with three friends who had offered to act as ‘cover’.

My leg, still swollen from the Taliban beating, looked convincing enough to justify a trip to ‘hospital’, while in my bag I had my friend’s passport.

That short journey felt like one of the longest of my life, as we navigated first one, then two, then three checkpoints before, finally, we made it to our meeting point.

Shukria (pictured), who wept for the loss of her country during her escape, said she lost everything in a matter of days 

There, after a tearful goodbye to our friends, all we could do was wait. Two agonising hours passed. Then, shortly before midnight, an Afghani civilian arrived to say he had been sent to escort us through the darkness to an American military compound.

At last, after almost a week in hiding, we were safe. Only one hurdle remained: we still had no documentation confirming our eligibility to fly.

Without it, we were going nowhere, and I slept fitfully in a bunk given up by a soldier until, as dawn broke, I received the email I had been waiting for. Finally, my husband and I were eligible to fly.

We boarded a packed military plane at midday, but only when the wheels cleared the runway did I allow myself to breathe freely. The tears came then, too. Of relief, yes, but also heartbreak.

In a matter of days, I had lost everything: my house, my work, my extended family, but something far bigger than that, too. As the vast, mountainous terrain of my homeland passed below me I wept for the loss of my country. Two decades of hard work and struggle had vanished in what felt like a heartbeat.

In the early hours of August 23, the plane touched down at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and, many long hours later, we arrived at the hotel room which would be our home for the next 12 days.

Our future now is uncertain. We have friends to stay with, but for now I know only that I want to clasp my children in my arms and walk the streets as a free woman, uncowed by fear.

I do not know when, or if, I will see my country again, but I have a duty to those left behind. Many are in mortal danger, at the mercy of a bleak and merciless new regime.

Meanwhile, for my husband and I it is one day at a time. My heart is broken, but I know how lucky I am that I and my loved ones are safe.

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