Profile

An Afghan in Ukraine

She fled Kabul for safety in Kyiv. Now the 23-year-old is facing war again.

Masouma Tajik in Kabul on Dec. 7, 2020.
Masouma Tajik in Kabul on Dec. 7, 2020. Kiana Hayeri for Foreign Policy
By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

Putin’s War

I.

On the evening of Aug. 14, 2021, the day before the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, Masouma Tajik stepped out onto the cool white tiles of the balcony of her friend’s three-story house and looked out over Kabul. A heavy silence had settled over the Afghan capital, usually so brimming with life and noise. Her phone was pinging with messages from friends urging her to leave the country.

Tajik was just 2 years old when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban from power, bringing an end to five years of barbaric, theocratic rule and ushering in a complicated new era of conflict, insurgency, and state-building. After 20 years of war and billions of dollars of investment, it took just a few summer weeks for the militant group to cut a swath through Afghanistan as U.S. forces packed their bags and the Afghan army evaporated. The speed of the Taliban advance caught nearly everyone off guard. 

Tajik is a recent graduate of the prestigious American University of Afghanistan, where she studied software engineering and data science. She hoped that the capital would hold out for maybe three or six months, long enough for her to renew her passport and finish her application to study for a master’s degree abroad. 

I.

On the evening of Aug. 14, 2021, the day before the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, Masouma Tajik stepped out onto the cool white tiles of the balcony of her friend’s three-story house and looked out over Kabul. A heavy silence had settled over the Afghan capital, usually so brimming with life and noise. Her phone was pinging with messages from friends urging her to leave the country.

Tajik was just 2 years old when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban from power, bringing an end to five years of barbaric, theocratic rule and ushering in a complicated new era of conflict, insurgency, and state-building. After 20 years of war and billions of dollars of investment, it took just a few summer weeks for the militant group to cut a swath through Afghanistan as U.S. forces packed their bags and the Afghan army evaporated. The speed of the Taliban advance caught nearly everyone off guard. 

Tajik is a recent graduate of the prestigious American University of Afghanistan, where she studied software engineering and data science. She hoped that the capital would hold out for maybe three or six months, long enough for her to renew her passport and finish her application to study for a master’s degree abroad. 

Standing on the balcony, it became clear to Tajik that she had run out of time. 

“That night, that stillness, that silence, I completely lost my hope,” she said. Her thoughts turned to her family—for whom she is, at 23 years old, the main breadwinner—to her siblings and her sisters’ education. Educated and ethnic Hazara, a group that has been violently persecuted by the Taliban, Tajik is part of a new generation of Afghans who flourished after the Taliban were toppled. 

“In my mind, them coming was the end,” she said, speaking of the militant group.

The next morning, Tajik had breakfast—black coffee and two raw eggs—and set out to take her laptop to a repair shop. Its broken charging cable needed fixing. Her application to a scholarship program in Germany was still open in her browser. 

A chaotic scene greeted her in the street outside. Everywhere she looked, shops were being shuttered, and people were running, kicking up clouds of dust behind them. Taliban militants had reached the gates of Kabul. Terrified, Tajik skipped the repair shop and went straight to the house of another friend, a former classmate, who was midway through composing a letter resigning from her job.

A few hours later, as the Taliban made their way into the city, Tajik received a call from her boss, for whom she worked as a data management assistant, telling her to meet him in five minutes. He was working to get her evacuated alongside a group of Wall Street Journal staff and, shortly after, drove Tajik and a friend to Kabul’s airport. Over the course of the next two weeks, the airport would bear witness to one of the largest evacuation efforts in history as more than 100,000 foreign citizens and at-risk Afghans were flown to sites around the world in elephantine military planes. 

Once inside the airport, Tajik opened her computer and resumed work on her application to the DAAD scholarship program, which provides grants to students from the developing world to study in Germany, moving around the airport in search of better Wi-Fi until her laptop ran out of battery. 

Over the next several days, Tajik endured gnawing uncertainty, hunger, and thirst. At one point, as the Taliban—who had whipped her three times—entered the airport, Tajik and a friend made a pact that if the militants began rounding people up, they would approach a U.S. Marine and ask to be shot.

Six days after she first arrived at the airport, Tajik finally boarded a plane with 82 others: journalists, activists, and women. It was a Ukrainian Air Force plane, dispatched to aid with the evacuation, which, after leaving Afghanistan, touched down in Kyiv on Aug. 22. 

Tajik’s life has been repeatedly ensnared in the major tectonic shifts of this century. She left Afghanistan amid the ignominious end of America’s longest war only to arrive in Ukraine for what Western leaders have warned could be the biggest war Europe has seen since World War II. 

Before being evacuated to Ukraine, Tajik knew little of the place and nothing of its yearslong war with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region. As almost 200,000 Russian troops encircled the country like a boa constrictor, she Googled the tactics of the Russian military to see how they compared with the Taliban’s.

 

II.

Masouma Tajik takes a selfie in front of the Ukrainian Air Force plane

Tajik takes a selfie in front of the Ukrainian Air Force plane she would take to Kyiv at Kabul’s airport on Aug. 21, 2021.Shekib Noorkhail

Tajik’s parents moved from Afghanistan to Tehran in the 1990s after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Following that disastrous war, the country descended into civil strife as warlords and rival ethnic militias vied for control. The chaos would pave the way for the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996. Tajik was born in the Iranian capital three years later, in 1999, the second oldest of six siblings. “I was born an immigrant, and here I am again an immigrant,” she said in a recent interview in Kyiv.

Hazaras, like most Iranians, are largely Shiite Muslims and speak a dialect closely related to Persian. But despite the close ties, Afghans and Hazaras are routinely discriminated against in Iran. Tajik recalls how children in her school would spit the word “Afghani” like a slur. 

It was in Tehran that Tajik began to learn English, renting videotapes of American movies and closely studying the subtitles. She begged her mother for an English dictionary. “She was very supportive of my education. While she could not provide me with anything, at least she did not throw stones in my way,” Tajik said. It would take Tajik a week to watch a single movie, as she paused to look up every new word. There were sweet memories, too, mostly of ice cream. Her favorite was dollops of coconut and vanilla with sprinkles. 

When the family moved back to Afghanistan in 2006, she contemplated filling a cooler with Iranian ice cream to take to her new home in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. Herat was a historic Silk Road city that has been the subject of imperial conquest since the time of Alexander the Great. 

It wasn’t until she came to Herat that Tajik understood why she had been called “Afghani” on the playground in Tehran. “I was like, ‘Aha, this is Afghanistan, and I am Afghani,’” she said. But when she arrived in Afghanistan, she was no longer “Afghani.” “Then I was called Hazara,” she said. 

Tajik’s most prized possession—her education—is the product of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on educational programs in Afghanistan by the United States. In 2016, she was awarded a scholarship by the U.S. Embassy to study in Kabul at the American University of Afghanistan, founded in 2006 to provide an American-style liberal arts education. The school’s motto: educating tomorrow’s leaders. “And here I am, one of them, wandering in Kyiv trying to find my way because I am abandoned by those who came to me with this,” she said. Over the years, the school educated a promising new generation of Afghans—and attracted the ire of the Taliban. 

In August 2016, at the beginning of the new semester, two professors, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, were abducted from their car outside the school. A few weeks later, as evening classes were getting underway, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the campus walls. Gunmen stormed the university, killing 15 people during a 10-hour siege. Tajik lost three friends in the attack. 

“My generation and I have been fighting ignorance with our lives. Many people sacrificed their lives so that my generation can have a better future and access to a good education,” Tajik wrote in her recent application to study for a master’s degree in the United States. 

In recent years, as the United States navigated its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Islamic State stepped up its attacks on civilian sites in Kabul, targeting a maternity hospital, an education center, and Kabul University, while an unprecedented wave of assassinations, attributed to the Taliban, targeted prominent Afghans including doctors, judges, journalists, and human rights activists.

Riding in a taxi one day, stuck in Kabul’s snarled traffic, Tajik wondered who would tell her family about her death if a car bomb suddenly ripped through the street. She began to carry a slip of paper in her pocket with her family’s contact information. “If anything happens to me,” it said. 

 

III.

Masouma Tajik photographed in Lviv, Ukraine on Feb. 23.

Tajik photographed in Lviv, Ukraine, on Feb. 23. Courtesy of Masouma Tajik

When Tajik arrived in Ukraine in August 2021, she was pleasantly surprised. She had envisioned small villages and wooden houses and was instead struck by the city’s gleaming new buildings, which intermingle with gold-domed churches and brutalist Soviet-era apartment blocks, its hipsters and nice restaurants. Upon arrival, Tajik was granted a Ukrainian humanitarian visa, but it expired after 15 days, leaving her without any legal status in the country.

Having been evacuated with some of the Wall Street Journal’s Afghan staff, the newspaper’s journalists took her under their wing. A month after she arrived in Kyiv, Alan Cullison, a national security reporter with the Journal, met Tajik at the restaurant Dogs & Tails, which specializes in elaborate hot dogs. After lunch, they walked toward Kyiv’s central square, the site of the 2014 revolution that ousted the country’s corrupt, pro-Russian leader and ushered in a heady era of reform. Cullison recounted how more than 100 protesters had been shot and killed by snipers, thought to be from the Ukrainian security services. It was the first time Tajik learned of the country’s turbulent recent history. 

Now she finds herself with a profound sense of déjà vu as she races to get a student visa to the United States to escape Russia’s advance and before her passport expires in July with no way to renew it. Since the Taliban took control, Afghanistan’s overseas embassies have been left in limbo, with no government to report to and no one to pay the bills. The website for the Afghan Embassy in Kyiv has expired. “I can’t really afford to be stuck in another war. Because it’s not only about me—I’m the sole breadwinner of my family,” she said. Since she arrived in Kyiv, Tajik has been piecing together freelance coding jobs and tries to send at least $350 each month back to her family in Herat. One of her former professors has helped Tajik with rent as she has moved between Airbnbs in the Ukrainian capital.

Tajik has applied to master’s programs in computer science in the United States, Britain, and Germany, carefully studying the curriculum of each program, looking for specific courses on data science for public policy and health care. She hopes to write her thesis on how to use data to weed out corruption and maximize the efficiency of aid programs. In January, she was accepted into a master’s program at Rutgers University in New Jersey. One of the questions on the security screening section of the visa application, which all applicants have to answer, made her laugh: “Q. Have you ever been a member of the Taliban?” Tajik was able to secure an expedited appointment for a visa interview for Feb. 22. By that point, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv had been evacuated and her interview indefinitely suspended.

Tajik frequently wonders aloud about where in the world she could move to where there wouldn’t be war. In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, Ukrainians joined the country’s territorial defense forces in droves preparing to defend their country, and her Ukrainian friends have vowed to stay and fight. Tajik’s experience has taught her that nothing is worth risking your life for—except family. “I’ve been so close to death that I realized that life is always better,” she said. “It wasn’t my choice to be born Afghan. If I was British, I wouldn’t have to die. Just because I am born in a specific territory, I am obliged to sacrifice my life?”

Shortly after Foreign Policy met Tajik, she moved from Kyiv to Lviv in western Ukraine, thought to be beyond Russia’s immediate reach, where she is now trying to get a visa for Poland in order to apply for her U.S. visa in Warsaw. 

On Wednesday, as Ukraine declared a state of emergency, Tajik celebrated her 23rd birthday alone in Lviv with a small chocolate cake topped with a silver candle. “[I] wished to get a stable place soon, so that I can decorate it with shelves and books, and feel home finally,” she said in a message. Later that night, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, and by daybreak, air raid sirens wailed over Lviv.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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