'The Taliban will hunt us down': Couple stuck in Herat as city falls to Taliban

This video screengrab from AFPTV shows Afghan special forces patrolling the streets of Herat as the Taliban continue a series of offensives against urban areas in Afghanistan on August 3, 2021.
This video screengrab from AFPTV shows Afghan special forces patrolling the streets of Herat as the Taliban continue a series of offensives against urban areas in Afghanistan on August 3, 2021. © AFP - AREF KARIMI

Hours before the Taliban captured Herat, Afghanistan’s third-biggest city, a couple told the FRANCE 24 Observers they could hear the gunfire getting closer to their home and feared they had lost their last chance to get out. Well-known in the city, they worry the Taliban will come looking for them. 

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(Note: This article was updated at 1700 GMT after news of the Taliban capturing Herat.) 

A government security source in Herat told the AFP Thursday that Afghan forces had retreated from the city. "We had to leave the city in order to prevent further destruction," he said.

Islamist Taliban forces now control more than 65 percent of Afghan territory, including 12 of 34 provincial capitals. Before the announcement of the US troop withdrawal in April, Herat, with its population of more than 500,000, was considered a calm oasis in the volatile country. 

Although Afghan forces and local militias were able to push back an initial Taliban offensive in late July, the insurgents continued to make gains.

Taliban militia executed this young woman in Balkh after the occupation. She was charged with being in the street without a male relative and wearing tight jeans.
Taliban militia executed this young woman in Balkh after the occupation. She was charged with being in the street without a male relative and wearing tight jeans. © .

'We don’t have a plan B'

The Observers team exchanged messages on August 12 with a couple in Herat who believe the Taliban could capture the city within days. They are afraid their prominence in the city will make them a target for the insurgents if they are unable to get out.

There is no safe place in Herat anymore. The fighting was about 10 kilometres from the city yesterday [Wednesday, August 11]. Today the fighting is about 2 kilometres from our house in the city centre. 

The Taliban are advancing so fast toward the centre of Herat that we’re afraid they might capture the city as early as tomorrow. Until yesterday, the war was a vague noise far away, but now all we hear is gunfire and explosions. I check our alley once in a while to see if the Afghan defense forces are still here or if the Taliban have gotten into the city.

The Taliban arrested, tortured and killed Khasha, a famous Afghan comedian, after they occupied Kandahar. Video published on July 27, 2021.

The only effective line of defense between the residents of Herat and the Taliban is Ismail Khan’s militia  [Ismail Khan is an Afghan politician and warlord known as the “Lion of Herat” whose militia fighters are playing a major role in the city's defense against the Taliban]. The Afghan army have lost their morale and will surrender with little resistance as they have in other cities.

We were supposed to take a flight today but all of the flights were canceled. They have promised another one tomorrow. That’s our Plan A. We only have one shot. There is no Plan B. We just hope that the defense forces can hold until we get a plane and get out of here. Our activities are well-known in Herat. If they capture the city, the Taliban will hunt us down. We cannot act like other people and just lie low and live under the Taliban.

Video published on July 29.

They will simply kill us. I don’t know what will happen to our child. The only thing I can think of right now is that if this 2-kilometre distance between us and the Taliban turns to zero, what will happen to our child? Our child is terrified by the sound of gunfire, and asks: “Why aren’t we leaving? Are the Taliban coming for us? What do they look like?” Our child imagines the Taliban look like zombies.

Our only hope is for the international community to do something, the same countries who irresponsibly left us alone, who left us behind to deal with the Taliban.

We just heard a massive explosion. It was very close. I’m sorry, my wife doesn’t feel good. She’s crying. The sound was horrible, horrible. We’re going to take refuge in the basement. Sorry, I can’t talk right now. We’ll continue later ok? Later...

That was the last message the couple sent before news of the Taliban’s capture of the city.

The Taliban are currently about 130 kilometers away from Kabul, the capital. However, a US defence official told Reuters: “Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan’s capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90."