The Falling Man of Kabul

Zaki Anwari represented what a free Afghanistan could achieve. His gruesome death is a vivid reminder of the human toll of U.S. abandonment.

A military transport plane takes off in Kabul.
A military transport plane takes off while Afghans unable to get into the airport watch in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 23. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

On Aug. 15, I was in a southern Indian city, where I recently joined a journalism program after graduating from a liberal arts university in New Delhi. Outside, there were celebrations of India’s independence day, but all I could think about was Afghanistan. I was speaking to a classmate in my hometown, Kabul, about the Afghan military giving up without a fight against the Taliban.

On Aug. 15, I was in a southern Indian city, where I recently joined a journalism program after graduating from a liberal arts university in New Delhi. Outside, there were celebrations of India’s independence day, but all I could think about was Afghanistan. I was speaking to a classmate in my hometown, Kabul, about the Afghan military giving up without a fight against the Taliban.

We feared Kabul might fall soon. We were still on the phone when her brother told her the Taliban had entered the city. I started shivering. My friend panicked. She started feverishly speaking about her education, her safety. “What if they knock on our door? I heard they forcefully take girls and marry them,” she said.

I sat in silence, reading the news. In the afternoon, I read Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country. I watched Taliban fighters sitting inside the presidential palace in Kabul. My home was being snatched away on live television.

Afghanistan was always a poor, difficult place, but we had made some progress in the past two decades. It was a deeply flawed polity and society, but a generation of Afghan women and men in the cities had found a modicum of personal freedoms and had begun to pursue their dreams. I feared the clock was being turned back by 20 years. An intense sense of homesickness overcame me. My heart sank. I was dizzy.

I spent the day calling my teachers and friends in Afghanistan, filled with fury at the United States and the United Nations for abandoning us. I obsessively posted calls for help on social media. Losing Afghanistan and seeing the Taliban remove our national flags felt like losing a parent.

People fall from a plane during its liftoff.

A video scrreengrab shows people falling from a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III plane as it takes off from Kabul’s airport on Aug. 16.VIA Twitter

On the afternoon of Aug. 16, the first day of Taliban rule over my country, I came across a video of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III taking off from Kabul’s airport.

A couple of hundred men were running along the plane as it taxied on the runway. Fear for their lives and hopes for the future had brought thousands of Afghans to the airport. There had been rumors of foreign countries evacuating people, even without visas. Any place they could fly to was safer than home. Several Afghan men had climbed onto the landing gear hatches of the plane and others held onto the fuselage in an act of desperate, unfathomable hope to get wherever the plane was going.

The video reminded me of my own, less chaotic flight out of Afghanistan—the first time I boarded a plane—in 2014. I went to the same airport, with a passport, a student visa, a ticket, and the hope of building a new life after receiving a scholarship to study at a boarding school in India. Like many of those clinging to the C-17, I didn’t know a word of English. I knew nobody in India. Yet I lived with the consolation that I could safely return to Afghanistan someday. The men on the Kabul airport runway didn’t have that hope.

A red circle had been drawn around the falling men, whom distance and winds had reduced to tiny, flailing snowflakes.

The gray C-17 gathered speed. The men chasing it parted like waves. More videos of the aircraft rising into a pristine blue sky above the airport appeared: Two men, who had climbed onto the aircraft’s landing gear or its wing, fell. A red circle had been drawn around the falling men, whom distance and winds had reduced to tiny, flailing snowflakes.

Two more men had fallen from the C-17 onto rooftops of Kabul houses, miles away from the airport. Another report spoke of body parts found in the landing gear of the aircraft when it landed at a U.S. airbase in Doha. Various estimates suggest as many as 14 Afghans died after falling from that plane. (According to the U.S. Defense Department, it had landed to deliver equipment and quickly took off again due to the chaotic security situation on the runway—suggesting it departed without any new passengers inside.)

I watched those videos on loop throughout the past week. Who were these countrymen of mine, the latest among hundreds of thousands of Afghan dead that go back four decades as foreign powers—the Soviet Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan—and their proxies eviscerated Afghanistan to further their imperial hubris or satisfy their thirst for revenge and influence, reducing my homeland to a chessboard for their great games and strategic interests?

On Tuesday, I read a report on the BBC Persian website that published a photograph of a handsome teenager in a red jersey on Afghanistan’s national junior soccer team—whose players are under 18 years old—describing him as one of the first Afghans who lost their lives after falling from that departing plane. He was 17 and he had a name: Zaki Anwari.

Afghan youth soccer player Zaki Anwari poses.

Afghan youth soccer player Zaki Anwari, who died while trying to evacuate from Kabul’s airport, poses in this undated image.Zaki Anwari/Facebook via REUTERS

Anwari was around the same age as I was when I left Afghanistan; his death reinforced my sense of homesickness, the precariousness of our journeys for safety, and our uncertain futures. The world will remember him as one of Afghanistan’s falling men while strangers in comfortable chairs in distant Western capitals will recount his death as they argue about U.S. foreign policy. Few will bother to speak of his life.

I searched for Zaki Anwari on Facebook, which is extremely popular among young Afghans. Several people had posted about him by tagging his brother, Zaker Anwari. I was aware he would be grieving, but after some initial hesitation, I sent him a voice note on Facebook Messenger. A few minutes later, Zaker replied. We exchanged numbers, and he promised to speak to me on Friday, Aug. 20.

Zaki and Zaker were born and raised in the largely middle class, densely populated Kohte Sanghi neighborhood in the Sixth District of Kabul. Their father, Gholam Ghaws Anwari, who has now retired after working for the Afghan government, ensured his four sons and three daughters were educated. The eldest son, Zekaria, didn’t graduate high school and gave up on education during the notoriously repressive Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. After internet connectivity, cable television, and mobile telephone access spread in Afghanistan in the mid to late 2000s, Zekaria opened an electronics goods store.

Anwari’s younger children came of age in post-2001 Afghanistan, experiencing better access to education. One of his daughters is at a university in Kabul; another daughter graduated high school and is continuing her education in theology at a seminary. Nasir, his second son, completed his senior high school education in 2004 and spent several years working in the Persian Gulf before recently returning home and opening a mobile store.

His third son, the 19-year-old Zaker, is studying political science at Rana University, a private university established in 2009 that offers degrees in law, commerce, political science, and journalism. His youngest child was Zaki. “Zaki was going to graduate high school this year,” Zaker told me. “I still can’t believe my brother, my dearest friend, is dead.”

In the days since Zaki’s death, Zaker has been replaying home videos his family made of Zaki when he was a little boy. When Zaki was a child, he had trouble saying the word “guftam,” which means “I said” in Dari, one of the most widely spoken languages in Afghanistan.

“He would say ‘uftam’ instead of guftam,” Zaker recalled. Zaker has been replaying a video where one of his elder brothers asks Zaki, “Zaki jan, how much do you love me?” Zaki replies, “uftam.” The brother asks Zaki again, who opens his little arms wide open and says, “I love you this much. Uftam!” The brothers would watch the home videos together and laugh. “But now when I watch it,” he said, “it is very difficult.”

Zaker and Zaki were like twins. The brothers studied at Esteqlal High School, a prestigious Franco-Afghan public school established in the 1920s in Kabul, which counts Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary anti-Soviet commander, and Atiq Rahimi, a novelist and filmmaker, among its alumni. “We went to the same school. We bought the same clothes. We loved to look alike in every possible way.”

Zaker would play soccer after school in a Kabul park. Zaki followed him and started playing too. Zaki turned out to be an excellent player, who continued improving his game and was selected as part of Afghanistan’s national junior team. The young soccer star hoped to represent Afghanistan in tournaments outside his country, and it was in that context alone that Zaki once spoke about getting a passport.

He also seemed aware of the almost impossibility of building a career as a professional soccer player in Afghanistan and didn’t give up on his education. Zaker had won a place as an undergraduate student at a university in Turkey but couldn’t join because of the pandemic. When he asked Zaki about his plans after high school, Zaki wanted to follow his brother’s example of trying to get a college degree abroad.

But in the past year, every such dream and every plan seemed tentative as Afghanistan remained at a precarious junction as the intra-Afghan peace talks dragged on in Doha and the future of the country after the U.S. withdrawal remained inconclusive. As U.S. President Joe Biden’s declared withdrawal date of Sept. 11 approached—selected largely for its symbolic appeal in the United States with little regard for the situation on the ground—the Taliban prepared for war. Days before the fall of Kabul, after key provincial capitals around the country fell, thousands of Afghans started seeking safety in Kabul after the Taliban intensified their military campaign to take control of the country.

In the past year, every such dream and every plan seemed tentative as Afghanistan remained at a precarious junction as the intra-Afghan peace talks dragged on.

Some young people came together to raise funds to help the displaced people with food, medicine, and other essential supplies. Zaki joined them and became intensely involved with raising money and buying and cooking food for his displaced compatriots. A few days before the Taliban took Kabul, Zaki emptied his cupboard of most of his clothes, telling his mother and Zaker “these don’t fit me anymore,” and filled a plastic bag. “He went and distributed his clothes among the displaced families,” Zaker said.

One day, Zaki and his friends were checking if anyone needed medicine. An elderly displaced woman told him, “I neither know the name of my illness nor the name of the medicine I need, son. Bring whatever medicine you have.” A couple of days before Kabul fell, Zaki had a question for Zaker: “I have 12,000 afghani [about $140] on me. Should I buy blankets for the displaced or something else?” Zaker asked him to wait a few days. He wanted to cobble together some money of his own. “We can buy something useful for them together. Blankets are a good idea.” Zaki followed his brother’s advice and kept his $140 on him.

On Aug. 15, Zaker was at his brother Zekaria’s store when he heard the Taliban had entered their city and had gathered near Sarai Shamali in northern Kabul. He called Zaki, who was on his way to the store. “I asked him to return home,” where Zaker joined him. By the evening, rumors floated around Kabul that various foreign countries were evacuating Afghans. In the morning, Zekaria, the eldest brother, visited them.

He thought Nasir, the brother who worked in the Gulf and had a valid passport, had an opportunity to get out of the country on one of the evacuation flights. A quick decision was made: Nasir packed. Zekaria would drive Nasir in his car to Kabul’s airport. They asked Zaki to come along to keep an eye on the car. Zaki was wearing a green perahan tunban—a traditional, loose, long shirt and pants, Zaker recalled. “He put on some perfume and grabbed my gray vest as he was leaving.”

Afghans try to ask U.S. soldiers to let them into the Kabul airport.

Afghans try to ask U.S. soldiers to let them into the east gate of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25.MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images

The road to Kabul’s airport was a chaotic, crowded highway of desperate people trying to leave. After driving for about three hours, crossing a Taliban checkpoint and a U.S. Army checkpoint outside the airport, Nasir and Zekaria set out on foot and asked Zaki to wait inside the car. Around 11 a.m. Kabul time, Zaker, who had stepped out for an errand, got a call from Zaki. “Zaker jan, I just entered the airport through the wall. I am near an airplane. They are registering names. Once I get into the plane, the phone might not work. They don’t allow phones inside. I might have to either switch it off or throw it away,” he said.

Zaker shouted at him and demanded he return to the car.

“Where is Nasir?” Zaker asked.

“He is already in a plane,” Zaki replied.

“Why did you go there? Come back, Zaki.”

“Don’t worry,” Zaki replied. “Just pray.” He hung up.

Zaker reached home in about 15 minutes. Zaki called their mother. “Bibi Haji jan, give me your blessings. I am near the plane. Inshallah, I am going to enter the plane.” Their mother beseeched him to return home, but Zaki ended the call. She called him back and pleaded. “Zaki jan, come back. Don’t do this. You don’t have a passport. You don’t have a visa! Come back, son! They will not let you in. Come back home.”

Soon after, the call dropped.

An air crew prepares to load evacuees in Kabul.

An air crew prepares to load evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 21.Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Around 15 to 20 minutes later, the family got another call from Zaki’s phone on Zaker’s number. One of their sisters took the call. “Yes, Zaki jan, where are you?”

The caller was a stranger. “How are you related to Zaki?” he asked.

“I am his sister,” she replied.

“Your brother is dead.”

The phone fell from her hand.

Zaker, his sisters, and their mother started shouting and crying. He picked up the phone and shouted at the caller: “It is not true. You are lying.” He stepped out of the house and called back. The caller had identified Zaki from his national identity card and found his watch, purse, ring, and other belongings. “I gave them to a security guy. You should come and take his body.”

In grief and rage, Zaker shouted at the caller. He then called his brothers. Zekaria was on his way back. Nasir took the call from inside another evacuation plane and disembarked on hearing of Zaki’s death.

Zaker headed for the airport. He stopped a taxi; the driver asked for 1,200 afghani ($14) instead of the normal rate of 150 afghani ($1.75). He called a friend instead, who arrived within minutes with a car. His friend dropped him near the airport, where tens of thousands of Afghans had gathered. A group of Taliban fighters were standing at an intersection, pushing people back, firing in the air. He rushed past them. They fired a few bullets, which missed him. A Taliban fighter grabbed him and hit him on his neck, his back, his feet. He pushed the Taliban fighter and continued running inside the airport complex—oblivious to his pain. “I had to find my brother,” he said. “I was hoping the news of death was indeed a lie.”

The airport terminal was a chaotic mess. He asked everyone he saw about Zaki. “A thin boy in a gray vest and a green perahan tunban!” several people replied, providing precise details of the clothing his dead brother wore. He continued walking and reached a group of U.S. soldiers. His leg was bleeding. His throat was dry. He tried to speak in English, a language he is comfortable with, but couldn’t remember any English words. After a long moment, Zaker told a U.S. soldier, “My brother, my brother is at the terminal.” The soldier let him pass.

Zaker looked everywhere, running, turning, like a man possessed. Some people told him the bodies had been taken to the airport mosque and pointed him in the right direction. A bald man approached him near the mosque and asked, “are you looking for the body of a relative?” The man had taken photos of the people who fell from the plane. He showed him the first photograph, and Zaker swelled with relief. “Thank God! It is not him.” The man showed him the second photograph. “I recognized my brother in a moment,” he recalled. Zaki’s face had been disfigured by the fall, but Zaker recognized the clothes he wore.

He fainted.

“For us, the Taliban was a scary story like horror fiction. I think Zaki got terrified after seeing the Taliban and the desperate crowds at the airport.”

Several minutes later, when Zaker gained consciousness, he was told his brother’s body had been taken to Charsad Bestar Hospital in the city. He ran toward the airport gate. Taliban fighters were still stopping people from leaving, shouting at them and snatching their laptops, phones, and earphones. He somehow got into a taxi and drove to the hospital. The brothers met at the hospital, which was being guarded by Taliban fighters. Zekaria made him wait outside while he checked several corpses. But he couldn’t find Zaki.

Zaker understood his brother was not able to recognize Zaki given the damage to his face. He hadn’t told his older brother about the photo of the body he had seen at the airport and couldn’t bring himself to share it with his family when they returned home.

The rest of the family still hoped Zaki had found a spot on the plane. Around 11 p.m. at night, Ariana News, a local television network, showed Zaki’s photo in a report. His face was covered by a white cloth. “My sister recognized him.” They replayed the video of the news report on the internet a few times. They knew it was his body. The Anwaris prepared for the funeral. In the morning, they brought Zaki’s body home. While they were burying him, strangers joined the funeral prayers and cried. The sky turned dark, and it started to rain.

According to his siblings, Zaki had never shown any signs of desperation, nor any great desire to leave Afghanistan except speaking about getting a passport and eventually going to college abroad or playing soccer in an international tournament. Zaki and Zaker had no memory of the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s.

“For us, the Taliban was a scary story like horror fiction. I think Zaki got terrified after seeing the Taliban and the desperate crowds at the airport.”

His last words to his mother from the runway before the call dropped were: “Just pray. This is a chance.”

Laila Rasekh is an Afghan student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India. Twitter: @laila2130013

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