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Fereshta Kazemi’s Escape From Kabul

The Afghan-American actress on the harrowing 72 hours that will change her life — and Afghanistan — forever

O n the morning of August 13th, Afghan-American actress and filmmaker Fereshta Kazemi was in her production office in Kabul, working on the trailer for her upcoming film, when she saw “Kandahar” trending on Twitter. The Taliban had just taken Afghanistan’s second-largest city, she learned; two more cities would fall later that day. Suddenly, the future Kazemi had imagined only moments before — “planning a screening, planning who’s going to come, which embassies” — began to dissolve, replaced with fear and uncertainty.

The news of the Taliban’s advance was devastating to millions of Afghans, but Kazemi had particular reason for concern. She has been a vocal feminist and advocate for women’s rights in a country that has historically had one of the world’s worst records of oppression. From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban last controlled most of the country, they carried out mass executions and cut women out of public life, forbidding them from having jobs or getting an education. Even as recently as 2018, a Thomas Reuters Foundation survey of 550 experts on women’s rights ranked Afghanistan the second most dangerous country for women.

Kazemi, who recently directed her first film, has not been afraid to comment on this, both explicitly and with the roles she’s taken and movies she’s produced. “Most of my work to date has a human rights angle,” she tells me. “It’s been a natural outcome of the many stories of violations of Afghan human rights, and [it’s] the most important subject matter that I believe art and film can address.” 

Kazemi has shown her hair and bare shoulders on film and was the first Afghan actress to perform an onscreen kiss. Playing the lead in 2013’s The Icy Sun, a movie about rape in Afghanistan, she raised questions about a culture in which victims have been jailed or forced to marry the men who raped them. For her work, she’s been labeled a trailblazer by some and received death threats from others.

All this had been risky when Afghanistan was ostensibly a democracy; under Taliban rule, it could prove lethal.

As her country crumbled around her over the course of 72 hours, Kazemi plotted a narrow escape. Here is her story, as told to Rolling Stone:


I HEARD THAT Kandahar fell, which was shocking because it was a big province. We had heard that districts were falling quickly, but when Kandahar fell, we were really worried. Then Herat fell. And then a third place fell in one day.

People were in shock that day, but life was going on. I went out for lunch to this beautiful restaurant that I always go to. Parents were there with their kids, and the kids were running up to little ducks, and people were eating Afghan food, and everyone was chatting a little, like, “What are you going to do? Are you going to stay?” But life was going on.

The very next day, several more provinces fell. So it’s literally a domino effect happening in real life. I was being told to go to a secure hotel compound near the airport when Kandahar fell, and I said, “No, I’ll be fine. I don’t want to go. I can’t.” But I booked a ticket. I was up all night — you couldn’t book tickets. They were running out. Every time we’d try to book, it was gone. We finally booked a ticket for the 18th. And then at 1 a.m. on the 15th, I was packing and I got a text from a friend that said Paghman fell. Paghman is an hour from Kabul. And they said, “Finish packing.” So I just stayed up again all night. I packed clothes and shoes, but I mainly packed my film stuff, my equipment that was mobile. My friends, through their military networks, called the secure hotel compound and booked me a room for three nights under a secret name. I didn’t understand, but they said it was for my protection. So that’s how I was able to get in. It’s not someplace that people can just show up.

I was also hearing from my friend from the Agence France-Presse that there would be possible chaos and anarchy in the streets of Kabul. We were already hearing that people were getting robbed. So at noon, I decide to go outside really quickly to go get cash from the ATM. And it was the most bizarre thing. The streets were empty. There were barely any cars in what’s always the busiest part of Shahr-e Naw. I couldn’t even get a little cab for two blocks to go to the ATM machine. Finally, some random Good Samaritan driver got me to the ATM at the supermarket — the supermarket where I always shopped — and they had closed the doors and they were looking through the peephole and they were terrified and were like, “No, we’re closed.” And they told me there was no money in the ATM; even all bank ATMs were empty. People were running away. Everyone was closing their shops. And it was heartbreaking to see everybody afraid, almost like kids scared in a horror movie. Except it’s adults, and it’s the real world.

And so I had to walk back, and as I was walking back, this woman said, “My sister, come here.” She said, “Cover this part of your hair, cover that part.” You know, I had a head cover on, and I had a jacket on to my thighs. But that’s not good enough for the really conservative culture in Afghanistan. She said, “Your jacket’s too low, your hair.” And that was jarring. I went back to my condo, and as I was walking in, the management told me, “Go inside. The Taliban may be coming into Kabul today at 2:30.”

I was waiting for an armored car from the hotel compound to pick me up when I was notified the driver was afraid of going outside and wouldn’t be coming. I panicked and called my cousin to drive me to the compound. My cousin was stuck: All the traffic police started running away from their jobs from fear of the Taliban arriving in Kabul. Suddenly the whole city started to get backed up in traffic. And then there was utter chaos at the airport, those first waves of thousands of people running [there].

I was calling everyone. I was calling the building manager, saying, “I need to give you money for the last month’s condo rent. I can’t get money out.” My cousin and I are trying to coordinate, but he was stuck in deadlock traffic. I’m telling friends, “Maybe I should leave tomorrow?” But my friends in the military are saying, “No, you have to get to the hotel compound today.” And finally — definitely [after] some tears, some stress — I decided that, OK, I’m going to have to make a run for it myself if my cousin or no one can get to me. And at that moment, my cousin arrived.

At 5 p.m. we went down with my bags. I wore a black abaya, a traditional black Muslim robe for women to cover up — not covering my face, but I had a Covid mask and a black headscarf cover for my hair. And literally when we got downstairs, the Taliban were there. They were in front of our building with guns and kohl liner, very serious. And they had sort of taken over the building security because the building owners were trying to negotiate, saying, “Hey, we can be friends. Please. You can be in charge of our building. We’ll invite you” — you know, something like that.

I was scared. My cousin was terrified for me. He had been raised when the Taliban were in power. He grew up with it, had seen dead women on the streets during that time. He was very angry and told me to be quiet, said, “Please, just stay to the side.” We got in the car, and we left. And as we left, there were Taliban all over the streets. They were just arriving. I was just getting out as they were literally stepping foot into the city. They were all around the city as we were driving through.

The hotel compound where I was taken is one of the compounds where internationals live when they work for certain U.S. government projects or international projects. The compounds have tons of security and move the employees around in armored cars. Over the years, many internationals, including myself, have been able to live in Kabul without armored cars and such, but that’s what the compound is like.

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American soldiers watch over Afghan refugees waiting in line to be processed for an exit flight out of Kabul, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Marcus Yam/ "Los Angeles Times"/Getty Images

When I got there, I was so exhausted from having not slept, so mortified at having to face the Taliban at the front door, I was in shock. I got my stuff in and just wanted to sleep. So I messaged my little sister who had been on the phone with me all week, and I said, “I’m going to sleep.” And she calls me, and she’s like, “There’s a problem at the airport. People are jumping on planes. People are trying to riot.” And I said, “Oh, it’s probably because someone sold fake tickets and it’ll calm down. It’s probably just on some small news site.” She said, “No, it’s on ABC.” I went to sleep, and my mom calls in the morning with my sister, both of them. And my mom is like, “Honey, there’s something really wrong with the airport.” So my family had been up watching the airport collapse while I’m sleeping. They’re witnessing the airport collapsing and watching my ticket collapse.

That’s when I went to the front desk and was told that the entire city had been locked down by Taliban checkpoints. So within one night, the whole city had been taken over. I had just made it. That was very jarring again.

I asked about taking an armored hotel car to the airport for my flight, and they said, “No, you can’t because the Taliban is outside the secure hotel compound. They took the armored car — made the [driver] and passenger get out and just took it. And there’s also thousands of people outside now.”

There’s two sides to the airport. There’s the commercial side, which you may have seen all over the news. And then there’s a military side where evacuation flights [were happening]. I was right next to the military side, and thousands had come. It went from 2,000 people in front of the hotel and the military airport to 20,000. The British, who were evacuating from inside the compound, told me, “We don’t even know if we can let you out.” And then my flight was canceled. Everything was falling apart. I could hear firing, and what I heard was that they were firing in the air to push people back.

My little sister, who was born in California, was helping me every step of the way logistically, and I was in touch with friends who were chartering flights to help people —they’re Americans who are helping people who worked with Afghans. I want to cry [voice breaks]. These Americans feel a personal responsibility because of what Biden has done and what the world and international community have done, so citizens who have means are stepping up to try to help people, to try to solve the problems that leadership is failing in. They’re trying to get people out that they worked with because they know they’re going to get killed. Those people are going to get killed. And so they told me, “We have a seat for you because we thought you were going to get killed.”

It was hard to imagine, but the collapse happened so quickly. I can’t just hide out and keep a low profile. Suddenly there’s no security. Suddenly I’m that girl that did this movie, that was wearing these clothes and that was advocating for freedom. And the Taliban had been assassinating people since last August. Since a year ago, there has been progressively more bizarre and violent assassinations of activist government people, human rights activists, anyone speaking out. And I have been involved in speaking out.

I began speaking out years ago, and there was a moment that shaped that. In 2015, there had been a Taliban suicide bomber that had killed 56 young Afghan soldiers. We had heard the bomb and were in traffic. When these attacks happen, you get stuck in traffic, and then suddenly you start to pass by the scene after many hours. They had picked up all the bodies, but there was an entire street full of blood. And it wasn’t just the blood, it was that there was someone washing it away. That was really one of those things that changes you. And it changed me. It wasn’t just the blood. It was the fact that it was being washed so quickly. It was almost like that’s how insignificant life was, that they were just being washed away so quickly.

And I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about this? Everybody in the country is so vulnerable and poor. They’re all poor. It felt literally like a bullying. Like, who are all these innocent people that they’re killing, these poor people with no means who are just trying to survive?


I LEFT AFGHANISTAN when I was four, but I have memories of playing in the street, fishing and being really excited about it, waiting for my mom, who was teaching, to come home, seeing her from a distance and then running to her, happy. And I remember going around the city with my mom, talking to people. She told me I was chatty, asking everyone, “What do you do?”

At that time during my childhood, there was a communist regime, and they were also assassinating people. They made lists of people who they thought would be a problem. And they had wanted to kill my father.

My grandfather on my mother’s side, Abdul Wahed Barekzai, was a general, and her family was deeply embedded in political society in Kabul. On my dad’s side of the family, my grandfather was a deputy minister of mines. So he was in government. And my dad and my mom and their generation were part of the intellectual and civic voices at that time that had an opinion about how their country should be shaped. That’s why my dad was on those assassination lists. I remember the Afghan and Russian communist soldiers had come into our home, and I had seen them first and yelled. And they had detained all the adults.

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Women in burkas stare at Fereshta Kazemi with her bare legs and uncovered head, in Old Kabul’s Shar-e-Kohna neighborhood, 2013. Carolyn Cole/"Los Angeles Times"/Getty Images

My dad wasn’t there — he was in Asia getting his masters. If my dad had been there, they would have killed him. My mom was able to get us out through political connections. When I was in school in America, I can’t tell you the number of Afghan kids I met who would tell me that their dad had been killed. And I remember just being dumbfounded, always thinking, what would have happened to us if I didn’t have my dad, and how lucky we were.

I came [back] to Kabul for the first time in late 2012 to do a documentary. When I got there, it was one of the milestone experiences of my adult life. My cousin was picking me up from the airport, and I was wearing rubber boots and yoga leggings and a T-shirt, and my cousin was like, “Please put this jacket on.” I didn’t really understand why I had to be covered up because I was so American at the time. But when I got into the car and we drove in the city, I started to hear Dari everywhere. The taxi driver and the traffic cop and everybody was speaking that language, and my ears had this intensely spiritual experience because I had always heard English. So for me to suddenly be in a place where for miles around me was my mother language? That was just incredible. And everything I saw, my heart went out to everyone. All the poverty and the dust and all that stuff that some people saw as negative? I saw courage. I saw it as absolutely beautiful and inspiring, and I felt magical. That’s what it felt like to me. It didn’t feel gross, and it didn’t feel scary — maybe because everybody’s faces and expressions reminded me of my family.

You know, I felt like there had been something missing. I sound American. I behave American. You become an American as a little kid growing up in America. And then you grow up and there are these existential, metaphysical parts of yourself that you don’t understand. And then you go to a country, and you go, “Wait a minute, everyone’s behaving the way I do.” Everyone’s giving me food and was asking me if I’m OK. There’s an Afghan way of inviting people as guests and taking care of them and loving them. I’m not saying Americans don’t know how to love, but it’s a different way. I moved back to live in Afghanistan in 2015, to continue making film and art about the ongoing killings, the suicide bombs, the truck bombs, all over Afghanistan. I felt an ethical, moral responsibility to try what I could, to share what they were about. Kabul became my home.

The killings, that street of blood, body parts of people. Afghanistan citizens witnessing these killings would take pictures, and we started tweeting them, and we kind of formed what’s called Afghan Twitter. And we got bigger and bigger, saying, “Look what is going on, that this is happening. There’s been a huge mistake that’s been made.” We, as the civic voices, were asking the United States to sanction Pakistan for sending suicide bombers to the Taliban. And why wouldn’t they? Well, I don’t know. [Pakistan has] nuclear power. They have a multibillion-dollar lobby in Washington. And so they’re a more important ally than Afghanistan. But if someone is trying to solve the problem of Afghanistan, why wouldn’t they sanction them?

I think the Taliban claiming that they can control their fighters or followers on the ground is wishful thinking. Now they’re empowered because of their belief in this victory. They’re empowered to commit violence and to promote violence. That’s how the Taliban govern. That’s how they’re implementing their agenda. They have these rabid young men who only understand violence. From a very young age, they’re being radicalized and they’re not being given a formal education, and they have no options for hope.

And I think that Joe Biden has exercised wishful thinking in negotiating with the Taliban as a good faith actor. They’re authoritarian, and they’re managing their power through chaotic violence, which is why they have been unable to stop their fighters at the airport from shooting at people. Even Americans are trapped in Afghanistan right now. There’s Afghan Americans, there’s Afghan interpreters, Afghan journalists, Afghan media, Afghan activists, Afghan women — who all these U.S.-funded projects supported in speaking out against the Taliban — that are now in danger.

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Kazemi visiting a refugee camp in Herat, Afghanistan in 2015 Hoshang Hashimi/Courtesy of Fereshta Kazemi

Nobody in Afghanistan wanted the Americans to stay forever. They wanted to be independent. But I don’t understand why Biden left this way. It doesn’t make sense. Why did Biden stop all logistical support enabling the Afghan military to fight? Take away all U.S. contractors who provided maintenance, logistics, supplies, and sustainment that the Afghan military was vitally dependent on, knowing no Afghans had technical readiness yet? Why didn’t anyone on Biden’s national security team consider this? Why did they evacuate the U.S. embassy? Who is going to find out where U.S. citizens are? If we have to witness these kind of human tragedies, the least we can do is ask for accountability.

The staff at the hotel were talking about everything that was happening. They told me, “The Taliban are now circling our homes outside of this hotel compound and they’re looking for us and they’re asking neighbors, ‘That staff works with Americans. What are they like? What have they said?’” A number of the staff were saying, “We don’t want to go back to our homes.” They were sleeping inside the hotel compound because they were scared. One guy came and said, “Can I get your number? Can you help me get out? Can you contact someone for me? Can I contact you?” And I just said, “Of course, give me your number. Let me send it to people who maybe can help you.”


I SPENT THREE nights at the hotel. I couldn’t look at the news anymore because I was just in survival mode. The third night, I had gone to sleep, and then at 1:00 in the morning I heard this loud banging on my door, and it was American military screaming, “Are you American? Are you American?” And I woke up, and they said, “We need to leave right now!” And I said, “OK.” And I got up, and I grabbed all my bags, and they said, “We can’t take all your bags.” And I said, “I’m waiting for a flight my friends chartered.” They said, “You don’t understand. This airport was overrun last night. There was Taliban attacking it, and people were trying to get through. We don’t know how the situation is going to be. You can’t take all your stuff.” So I picked two bags of film equipment and just left with the shoes on my feet, my jacket and the one outfit I had on. No hairbrush, no nothing.

I got in an armored car. They did a check of us until we got into the airport. They put us on a big military plane, one of those military evacuation flights. There was only 25 of us for that flight, so we weren’t in one of those packed planes.

It was so chaotic. I texted my sister I was on a plane, but I couldn’t process all of it. I had looked at my home before I left. In my home, I had left my production pictures of all of us on set, on film. You know how you write on a wall, “I was here”? I left them there to show that we were there and we did this work and whoever comes, maybe Taliban, they will say, “Look, this was an actress.” Maybe it was a weird little resistance thing. I was thinking of my apartment when the airplane went up.

They told us we were going to Doha, but we were sent to Saudi [Arabia] first because the American military were overwhelmed in Qatar. We get to this base, and there was a bunch of American military there to meet us. And I have to say, I would like to compliment the American military for treating all the Afghans so nice. They brought them food and water and toothpaste and anything you could imagine. And I kept telling them, “Thank you. Thank you.” They were asking [people] about visas, having it or not having it. They asked me to help translate. And then as I was helping, the American military people said, “Tell them not to be afraid. We’re not asking them because there’s anything wrong. We just want to make a list.” And that is really amazing. They even quickly constructed a private room for Islamic prayer — like, they built it out of wood — and brought prayer rugs and clean sheets to lay them on, as well as “tasbih” and prayer beads for the Afghans. That was a deeply loving act.

And at the end, before we left, the Saudis sent all these giant platters and had a dinner party for everybody there at the American military air base. As an Islamic sort of sign of love for the refugees and what they were going through, the Saudis sent all of this — it wasn’t, like, MRE [rations] — it was these amazing meals, big platters of Saudi rice and lamb and then desserts and everything as a sign to show, like, we know you guys have been through a lot.

We were in Saudi for over 12 hours, and then they took us from Riyadh to Doha. They separated us [Americans] from the other Afghans who had to await a sort of processing period to see where they can find refuge. It appears that a lot of countries are offering support for these Afghans until they resettle someplace else.

Then they took us to Kuwait, and this time the plane was packed. It was a big military plane. The whole floor was full of people, and it was so hot. People were fighting over where to put their feet. It was just panic. It was a situation where any misunderstanding could domino into chaos. I was just breathing through my nose, trying to relax. A woman passed out, and they had to have a medic come through.

[After] that flight, we finally got onto a normal plane to Washington. And then from Washington, I took another flight to the West Coast. I was in emotional shock. I couldn’t put two sentences together to summarize what had happened. Suddenly everything became fast, and I couldn’t keep up with the news.

I met one Afghan American guy who had come to the gate [in Kabul] for three days in a row from 7a.m. to 8p.m. trying to fight his way through with just a backpack. He finally called some friends who called the Afghan Special Forces — some of them who are still working — to make a way for him. There was another Afghan American woman who went back and forth for four days to that gate. She had marks on her hand, her driver had his arm broken by the Taliban. She had video of people trying to push people over the gate. There’s still just a ton of crazy things happening.

My friend told me there was a girl who was wearing a jacket that showed her forearms and that the Taliban shot at her arm in Khair Khana, Kabul yesterday and then they picked her up and put her in one of the black armored cars and took her away. There’s two female journalists who were chased down. One of them was caught and the other one ran away. Journalists are censoring themselves now. Anchors on TV have been removed and replaced with Taliban anchors. They’re silencing everybody.

In the negotiations [between the U.S. and the Taliban] in Doha last year, the specific issue of women’s education was that women can study maybe up until high school, but they can’t go to college. So this is part of the tragedy. An entire generation has come of age with restaurants and coffee shops, booming business, young people expressing themselves, people dating, young women living on their own, working and having careers and independent lives like women anywhere in the world. Now women [are] being turned away from work, turned away from university. Women are not going to be able to date. Women are not going to be able to choose who they want as a partner. The Taliban are grabbing young women and widowed women and forcing them to marry their fighters. It’ll now be in a situation where physical violence against women and sexual violence will skyrocket, and there will be no means for justice. In Sharia law, I believe, there’s “Zina”: If a woman has sex outside of marriage, she’s committing a crime, and she should be jailed. Even men who are not Taliban could take advantage of that.

But men’s rights are also being violated. There’s a lot of young men who don’t necessarily want to marry the first girl they’re dating. There’s a lot of progressive men who like to dress different and who like to be in the arts or like to do different things. They are in danger too.

My mom and I are trying to help family get out. My cousin said that her youngest son, who is eight, was crying in [her] arms. He was crying and saying, “I wish I was an older brother so I could at least protect my sisters outside.” His sisters are 10, 12 and 13. His mom was physically shaking.

My friends in Kabul told me nobody’s going outside. They’re scared. They said that when they go outside, the Taliban are scary. The way they look at them is scary. They’re afraid they could get killed if they do the wrong thing. They told me there was this weird silence and suffocation, and everyone’s just moving very quietly and slowly. And all the men are changing their clothes from modern clothes to traditional Afghan clothes.

Growing up, I heard in the ’90s that the Taliban would kill people and then leave them on the streets and wouldn’t allow their relatives to pick them up for funeral rites or burial; dogs will come and eat them. I heard that happened in Kandahar recently, that there were several dozens of bodies on the streets and that nobody was allowed to pick them up. I heard that they stoned a woman. I was like, “What? Have they not stopped with the stoning?” I just got American about it, like, “What is with the fucking stoning? Why are you still doing that?”

I’ve been crying every time I read the news. Like you couldn’t watch certain things, you just couldn’t. Thank goodness I’m here with someone close who said, “Come here, and we’re just going to take great care of you.” And I feel very blessed to be taken great care of.

I’m trying to create a special place in myself of understanding that creation and destruction are a part of life, and death is a part of life, so that I’m not overwhelmed and I’m not in panic and I’m not catatonic. Speaking up and asking for accountability is how I’m trying — and probably many others are trying — to hold one another through this. I’m grateful to be here and have some time to heal. I’m grateful for the military that I saw treating the Afghans really well. I’m grateful to be an American citizen. But I’m just mortified and in shock that I’m here and not in Kabul right now. I want Kabul.

This account was edited for length and clarity.

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