Faizabad, AfghanistanHafiza Omari was sleepless and in constant conversation with God as the 20-year war in Afghanistan was coming to an end. The 71-year-old walked restlessly back and forth in her courtyard at night as the Taliban moved into this city in northern Afghanistan in early August 2021. From her house on a rocky hillside, she could see the insurgents fighting their way over the mountains toward the city below.
"It was very stressful to think that there is a war,” Hafiza, who was featured in National Geographic's 2021: Year in Pictures, recounts during a visit at her home—from her seat near a window overlooking the valley. “And worst of all, your sons are fighting against each other." A cluster of Hafiza’s grandchildren surround her; ask how many she has, and she says she can hardly count them.
A year ago, Hafiza would peek through the same window to get a glimpse of the insurgents as they moved closer. The Taliban took control of the city on August 11, 2021—and four days later they reached Kabul, the capital, sending shockwaves through the Western countries that had fought for two decades to defeat the group.
The final nine months of the war is captured in a new documentary, Retrograde, which will be available to stream on Disney+ beginning on December 9. Released by National Geographic Documentary Films, the documentary by Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman offers a cinematic and historic window of America’s longest war and the costs endured for those most intimately involved.
The war divided Afghanistan, literally pitting brother against brother: One of Hafiza’s sons joined the Taliban, while three of his brothers fought with the government forces backed by the United States.
For years, Hafiza feared finding their bodies on her doorstep one day. More than 64,000 Afghan security forces and 52,000 insurgents were killed in the course of the war, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University. After both her daughters fell ill and died, Hafiza’s sorrow surfaced in an unusual way: a wound developed on her throat. Doctors and a mullah said it was caused by grief, stress, and pain.
The war ended when the U.S. and NATO withdrew from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021— two weeks after the Taliban regained control of the presidential palace in Kabul and consolidated its victory over the world's most significant military power. More than 46,000 civilians also had been killed since the start of the war in 2001, according to Brown University, and many more were maimed or forced into a life as refugees. Americans too paid a high price: more than 2,400 soldiers and civilian workers were killed, according to U.S. Department of Defense data, and more than 1,100 soldiers from allied forces lost their lives.
Although fighting on Afghanistan’s frontlines ended a year ago, many people across the country still don’t live at peace. It is difficult to heal when new battlefields have emerged: Millions of Afghans go to bed hungry, and human rights, especially for women and girls, have been sharply curtailed.
Hafiza pulls at her scarf to reveal the raw spot on her throat. Her pulse pumps behind the pink, paper-thin skin. It is less painful now, Hafiza says, but the wound is still there.
Deuling brothers reunite
In the village of Palang Darah, a three-hour drive northeast from Hafiza's current home, three of her six sons prepare for breakfast in the same house where she gave birth to them. Hafiza moved to Faizabad during the war and rarely visits Palang Darah now. It is a full day's travel by donkey, which Hafiza prefers over cars because she gets carsick.
The three sons reunite at this summer gathering, where plates of fresh cream and bread are placed on a plastic sheet. Noorullah Anwari and Rahmanullah Nazari relax on the pillows on the floor while Hamidullah Hamidi serves green tea. A little more than a year ago, they still were divided by wartime allegiances: Hamidullah was with a pro-government militia, Rahmanullah with the Afghan security forces, and Noorullah with the Taliban insurgents who are now in charge.
When the Taliban rolled into Faizabad and seized control, Rahmanullah, a special forces soldier since 2005, was at home recovering after being injured in battle. He watched in fear as the fighting came closer, worried that Taliban fighters would hunt him down to take revenge.
“Considering the armored vehicles and the army we had, I didn’t believe that the Taliban would take over the country,” says Rahmanullah, 34. And yet, as he watched the Afghan security forces’ defense crumble, Rahmanullah’s fear and disbelief mixed with a feeling of relief: “I was happy that the war was coming to an end.”
The day after the Taliban took control of Faizabad, the family organized a big reunion. It was the first time in three years the brothers had come together, the defeated soldiers in the same room as their victorious Talib brother, Noorullah, 42. Everybody hugged and cried.
“It felt like we had come freshly into this world,” says Hamidullah, 46, the eldest of the brothers, who had joined a pro-government militia five years before.
At the reunion, Noorullah teased his siblings about the salaries they each had received as soldiers. As a commando, Rahmanullah had been paid a monthly salary of 23,700 Afghani—roughly $270 per month—while Noorullah and the other insurgents in the mountains got no compensation. “Now you can live off your savings for the next couple of years,” Noorullah had joked, making his brothers chuckle.
Rahmanullah had joined in the laughter at his brother’s joke a year ago. But for him the loss of salary is not all that is now gone; so too are his dreams for a better Afghanistan.
Life under the Taliban
After the breakfast gathering this summer, the brothers go for a stroll through the valley surrounded by green mountains. A few tents dot the hills where new gold mines have been dug.
This is where their mother grew up and got married, and where they played as children along the river before the war broke up the family. While Noorullah and Hamidullah chat, Rahmanullah hangs back a bit. Scars from the shrapnel that wounded him still mark his left hand like purple branches.
Hamidullah joined a pro-government militia because he needed the job, but Rahmanullah says he believed he was fighting for more than the salary: freedom, democracy, and a prosperous future. “I wanted to witness the freedom of our country,” he says. “I mean freedom for both men and women.”
Afghanistan has spiraled into a humanitarian and economic crisis since the Taliban came to power and rights—including freedom of the press and the right to education—have been crushed. Even before the Taliban retook control, experts regularly deemed Afghanistan as one of the most difficult countries to be a woman, and it is now the only nation in the world where girls are banned from getting a secondary education. Although the Taliban has declared a general amnesty for members of the former security forces, the United Nations has found that in the past year, members of the Taliban have been responsible for 160 extrajudicial killings and even more arbitrary arrests of former members of the security forces and the previous government.
Due to the human rights violations, no country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government. Rahmanullah thinks they are right not to do so. "Taliban might claim they have a government, but that alone does not work," he says as the brothers walk through the valley.
From firing bullets to digging for gold
They shake hands with a stream of men passing in the opposite direction toward the top of a mountain. One was an intelligence officer under the previous government, another is a local Talib, and they are all going to the same place: the gold mines. Rahmanullah and Hamidullah now work there too.
According to the UN, half a million Afghans lost their jobs in the first months after the Taliban came to power. More than one million men and women working in the public administration were affected as well, such as midwives and teachers who went without salary for months.
“From a security point of view, the situation is calm and better now, but there is famine and hunger all over the country,” says Hamidullah, who has nine children. “Everything has become expensive."
He has been struggling to make ends meet since the collapse of the former government and the security forces he was part of. Hamidullah started digging for gold a month ago and has now reached 15 meters deep into the rock and found nothing. It’s dangerous labor, and untrained miners must figure out how to dig as they go. Still, the lack of work pushes unemployed men to travel long distances hoping to find a bit of luck in the ground to feed their families.
The international community has been scrambling to find ways to send help to the Afghan people without inadvertently propping up the Islamist regime. The Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban calls its de facto government, allows NGOs and UN agencies to work in the country, but often tries to influence who receives the aid, how and where.
"The Islamic Emirate is doing everything to solve their own problems, but the poor nation is squeezed," Hamidullah says.
Rahmanullah agrees: "If a girl can’t go to school, there is no peace in the country. And if the prices at the market are not under control, then what is the meaning of this government?"
Education under Taliban rule
Before he joined the Taliban, Noorullah was a teacher at the local school, a collection of white UNICEF tents. He doesn't like to talk about why he joined the insurgency, but other family members believe he was pressured and that the Taliban took issue with him because of his job. Noorullah says he joined voluntarily and that doing so provided a level of security.
The end of the war allowed him to return to what he calls his “dream job,” and he is now the school’s principal. When Noorullah passes by during the summer afternoon stroll with his brothers, the school tents are empty of furniture, blackboards, and students. There had been a rainstorm in the morning, so the teachers ended classes early. Only the elderly caretaker sits outside under a sky now clear and blue as children, miners, and donkeys pass through the valley and up toward the mountains. By working in education, Noorullah wants to make up for the sufferings of war.
"I want to serve the nation," he says. "I always felt bad about war because it brings grief and misery. War never gives happiness."
There are 570 students in the school, boys and girls, but as in public schools across the country, girls can’t study beyond 6th grade. Noorullah, who has four daughters, doesn't understand this mandate and says he believes it’s an ongoing discussion within the Taliban.
The villagers want their children to go to school, he says: "People understand that school and education are the only ways to steer people toward goodness and to ensure a sound community and future.”
Some of Hafiza's grandchildren also don't understand the Taliban's decisions. She and Hamidullah’s family live under the same roof in her house on the outskirts of Faizabad. One morning, Hafiza is baking bread with her daughter-in-law and other women from the village. Smoke rises from the open tandoor in a corner past walls stained with soot. Outside, 15-year-old Hajira, Hamidullah's oldest daughter, babysits her younger siblings and cousins. She is paying the price of her father, uncles, and grandmother's peace.
The Taliban closed the school where she attended the 10th grade and she hasn’t had a single class for the past year.
"They should allow us to go to school,” Hajira says, “because we are the future of the country."
Taliban representatives have said they are not against girls' education but that the proper Islamic conditions must be established before girls in 7th grade and above can return to school. The group said the same thing during their first rule more than 20 years ago. Back then, the de facto ban on girls’ education lasted the entire time the Taliban was in power, from 1996 to 2001.
Hajira doesn't understand why it would be a problem for the Taliban if she went back to school and got an education. Two of her best friends have gotten married since the school closed; Hajira hasn’t seen them for a year.
Staying home all day without plans, purpose, or friends is a heavy psychological burden and Hajira realizes it has changed her mood and personality.
“Since the school closed, I become very angry at everything when I’m sad,” she says. “I shout at the children, and I feel upset. I feel angry thinking that I can’t do anything at all.”
Hajira wants to become a tailor but expects that she, too, will get married, start a family, and be a stay-at-home mom like her friends. That’s how people do things here, she says.
Her grandmother, Hafiza, listens quietly. She had hoped that her granddaughters would get the basic education she never received. But the power is now in the hands of the Taliban, and no one can do anything but follow their rules, Hafiza concludes. Still, she prefers peace over a war that pitched her sons against each other.
"During the war, we had to carry our lives in our palms," Hafiza says. "The salaries from the government were more before, but the risk of being killed was very high. What is the use of such money? It is better to have less income, and they are safe. It is worth it."
With war over and the wound on her neck less painful, Hafiza is able to sleep at night now. But she hasn’t stopped worrying for her family.
"Have they eaten something? Are they working in the sun? These are my everlasting worries," Hafiza says. "They tell me not to worry for them anymore. But I am a mother.”