Editor’s note: In another special report for Deadline, veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author Hollie McKay is back in Kabul to cover the nation’s return to Taliban rule, almost 20 years after American forces ejected the fundamentalist group from power. One in a series of Deadline stories tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Gul lies on blood-stained sheets inside a small hospital for the war wounded in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, his grey face softening into a contorted smile as he stares down at the stump where both his legs used to be.
Gul isn’t quite sure how old he is, maybe 14 or maybe 18. But it’s clear the painfully thin boy, from an impoverished farming family in Logar province, wasn’t even born when al-Qaeda terrorists rammed planes into New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Yet he is one of many who continue to become a casualty of the attacks that changed the Manhattan skylines and all our lives forever. But just days ago, Gul stepped on a landmine – likely planted by the Taliban or another insurgency fighting Afghan security forces and the U.S.-led occupation.
It is a searing reminder of what it is to go to war, to not chose to go to war, and how the war doesn’t really end even when we as Americans soar off into the distance amid a frazzled departure.
Like all of us, the memory of what we were doing and what we were thinking when we heard about the 9/11 attacks is planted in our graveyard of memories. Twenty years ago, I was a high school student cocooned by books and ballet classes and boyfriends, watching my tiny television in fear that the whole world was crashing. Still, I did not know then what impact Afghanistan — the land on the edges of the earth where the horrible plot was brought to life by al-Qaeda — would come to have on my life, not just personally but professionally too.
I started going to Afghanistan as a young and budding war reporter years ago, in addition to many other blood-spattered places on the planet. But I never fell for a place the way I fell for Afghanistan.
But in the elastic years after the 2001 attacks, after U.S. forces usurped the Taliban regime from power, it was hard for me to process how and why the list of lost limbs and lives from that day kept piling up. Gul is one of many.
“They are bombing al-Qaeda,” a weeping woman once said to me after losing her husband in an attack in the eastern edges of the country. “But they are bombing my people too.”
Every Afghan has a war story, even though almost all of them never chose to go to war.
Even now, Afghanistan’s younger generation — who know nothing but conflict — aren’t entirely sure what it has all been about. The day before the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the place where the U.S. first entered in the 9/11 aftermath, fell to Taliban control last month, college students looked at me quizzically when I asked if they knew about Osama bin Laden.
“No,” one 22-year-old said, cocking his head and staring at me strangely. “Who is this?”
I could never have imagined that over the ensuing weeks, the Taliban would come to conquer almost all the country, plunging it back to the more medieval existence of two decades ago.
Much of the nation is now cloaked in a veil of sadness. The laughter and vibrancy that once rang through the Kabul streets has given way to a muted existence and quest to survive. Most people you ask don’t really understand September 11, they don’t know why it impacts their lives; they are trying to feed their hungry families and live to see another day.
Yet I cannot say that, 20 years on, bringing U.S. boots to the ground of the attack origins was a total waste of blood and treasure across all sides.
Many Afghans, especially women, tasted the freedom that the Stars and Stripes brought. They emerged from their dank basements and threw away their blue burqas. They went to school and university, and they learned to love Justin Bieber and Days of Our Lives. But perhaps most of all, they learned what it meant to not only have a voice but to use it. They learned that true freedom cannot be given to them, but they must earn it and fight for it incessantly.
Almost every day this week, I have seen hundreds of men and women storm the Kabul streets waving signs that screech freedom in the face of the Taliban takeover. They have been met with a hail of dispersal bullets, they have been arrested and beaten and had their prized cameras and signs burned and destroyed.
Yet they keep going. Those who want the freedoms that weeks ago still existed will fight with words and not weapons, and they will not be silenced.
On the eve of September 11, I see a young woman preparing a protest sign in the back of a quiet cafe.
“Don’t give up on Afghanistan,” she whispers, with a two-finger salute.