A year ago today, journalist Fatema Hosseini was crouched near a Taliban checkpoint at the Kabul airport, covered head to toe in a burqa, sweaty, dizzy and scared.
The Taliban had taken over Afghanistan's capital city four days earlier and masses of Afghans swarmed the airport, desperate for flights out. The Taliban guarding the gates said they would shoot anyone who stood. So Hosseini was duckwalking, trying to stay low but trying to push forward.
A tear gas canister landed in front of her. Tears filled her eyes; her head felt heavy. She was trapped in the middle of a large family. When people started running and pushing from the gas, she stood, too, and a man reached around and grabbed her between her legs. She froze. Bullets zipped over her head. A woman smacked her on the back and said: “Sit down! They’re going to shoot you!”
Instead she stood taller and shouted, “I want to get out!”
She would get out. First to Kyiv, Ukraine, and then to the United States.
Today, she's a college student and an emerging U.S. journalist. She and her family are safely out of reach of the Taliban. But she is not at rest.
"I still have nightmares of seeing myself in Afghanistan," she told me. "I still have dreams of being chased by the Taliban."
Hosseini is out, but she's not free.
Hosseini had worked for a leading Afghan news agency during the long American presence in Afghanistan. She understood what would happen to women like her under Taliban rule.
In Kabul, at age 27, Hosseini was an educated journalist who spoke out against corruption and treatment of women. She was also a freelancer for USA TODAY.
After America's chaotic departure last year, the Taliban returned to power, and she became a target.
"I never imagined myself getting evacuated in a very scary way," she says during a meeting last week in USA TODAY's Washington, D.C., bureau. "At the airport ... being lashed by the Taliban, being sexually harassed."
The week of Hosseini's escape, at least 20 people died at the airport.
She's sure if she was still there she would be in prison, chased and tortured or forced into marriage.
"Maybe these nightmares come from daily news that I read or contacting my friends back in Afghanistan and my relatives," she says. "Usually I dream of being in Afghanistan."
In May, the Taliban ordered that women in public be covered from head to toe, only their eyes exposed. Women aren't allowed to work except in critical jobs that cannot be done by men. Girls can no longer attend secondary school. Young girls are forced to marry Taliban soldiers.
"Daughters, like as young as maybe 10 or 11, they cannot walk out on the street in many provinces," Hosseini says. "Many still do not want to cover their faces. So they go out without having that burqa on. The Taliban observe them. And if they like them, they chase them and they find out where they live and they force their parents to get their daughters married to the Taliban.
"They're afraid of women's empowerment," she says. "They're afraid that women get to the position of being independent and say no to men."
And the women are desperate.
As violence against girls and women rises, the centers and support that used to help them have been shut down by the Taliban. Some people turn to self-immolation, setting themselves on fire, a final act of escape.
"There's so much mental pressures," Hosseini says. "What's going to happen the next day? Is there a future? Does hope exist for Afghan women?
"When I talk about these very basic rights of how to dress, to get an education, to get access to health care, these are really basic human rights, right?"
And when women do speak up, or even just walk outside without a man, they can end up in prison. When they get out, Hosseini said, their families often disavow them, ashamed that they broke the rules. They become outcasts from their own families and communities.
"They literally have no place to go," she says. And, "God knows what happened to them in the prison."
Amnesty International investigated the treatment of women in Afghanistan from September 2021 to June 2022, interviewing 90 Afghan women and 11 girls between the ages of 14 and 74. Its report was released last month.
One protester imprisoned for several days in 2022 told researchers, “[The Taliban guards] kept coming to my room and showing me pictures of my family. They kept repeating … ‘We can kill them, all of them, and you won’t be able to do anything. … Don’t cry, don’t make a scene. After protesting, you should have expected days like this.’”
The protester was also beaten: “They locked the door. They started screaming at me. … [One Taliban member] said, ‘You nasty woman. … America is not giving us the money because of you bitches.’ … Then he kicked me. It was so strong that my back was injured, and he kicked my chin too. … I still feel the pain in my mouth. It hurts whenever I want to talk.”
After women began posting pictures of their injuries on social media, the Taliban began beating them between their breasts and between their legs so they wouldn't share images, the Amnesty report said.
Poverty and hunger add to the domestic violence.
Afghanistan's economy has collapsed and more than 90% of the country doesn't have enough food. Among families headed by females, 98% go hungry.
"So there are families who have no other ways of surviving, except for marrying their daughters off," Hosseini says. "They get a very small amount of money, unfortunately."
Also, if a man loses his job and can't afford food, "then he gets so much pressure and he can do nothing else except for punishing his wife, punishing his daughter," she says.
Hosseini is now in graduate school at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.
She misses her room back in Kabul and laughing at cafes with friends. She misses her parents, 18-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister, who evacuated to Canada.
But she's got a goal: Lift up the voices of women in Afghanistan, tell the stories of those who've escaped. She wants to understand what went wrong over the last 20 years in her country. And then, "I'm gonna find out that what I'm gonna do with the Taliban."
When Hosseini fled Kabul, she reached the U.S. at a remarkable moment. Her plane touched down at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on the morning of Sept. 11, 2021. It had been 20 years – almost to the minute – since al-Qaida terrorists based in Afghanistan had launched their attack. In the time since then, the Taliban had fallen, and risen again.
"(The trauma) is going to stay with me for the rest of my life," she says. "I cannot do anything about it. There are friends of mine who ask me to go and visit the therapist. Maybe they could help with my sleeping. Maybe they could help me to move on. They think that, OK, now my family is out safe. They think that I am safe so that I can start a new life, start from scratch. And move on. But so far it has not helped me.
"And I think it won't help me until I reach the point that I can do something against the Taliban. I can raise the voices of women out there."
So today, one year since bullets whizzed over her head, she's doing just that – speaking out against the Taliban, sharing the stories of Afghan women, reminding the world of the suffering of her people.
Here's hoping that with every story she tells, with every voice she lifts, the nightmare recedes – and her dreams grow.
To help Hosseini with her college costs, you can donate here.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and president of the Gannett news division. The Backstory offers insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here. Reach Carroll at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter: @nicole_carroll. Thank you for supporting our journalism. Subscribe here.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan one year later: Journalist Fatema Hosseini escaped Taliban