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Story Publication logo August 18, 2021

‘Just Watching With Horror’: A Photographer in Afghanistan on the Eve of Collapse



America may be ending its ‘endless’ war, but the way it is leaving Afghanistan will certainly mean...

National Army soldiers in Afghanistan
June 28, 2021: Afghan National Army soldiers with the 209th Shaheen Corps train in Mazar-e-Sharif. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.

How things have changed. I got to Afghanistan June 14, and left exactly two months later. My first focus was on stories that dealt with the inevitable U.S. pullout. I covered everything from coronavirus to a girls’ school that opened after an almost two-month Covid break to the Afghan military training up in Mazar-e-Sharif.

In the last few weeks, it just started happening at such a fast pace. It was very, very hard to keep up with it. We started getting the IDPs (internally displaced persons) and the fallout from the fighting and the takeover of the provinces in the north. So I began covering the IDPs who fled to Kabul. Most recently, along with covering the displaced people, I was covering the Special Immigrant Visa story, the more desperate the situation became.

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The chaos, and people freaking out, really happened when former President Ashraf Ghani left office and fled to Tajikistan. That panic of people rushing to the airport, et cetera, only happened after Ghani left. It just wasn’t happening before. It was the trigger. A news story shifts at such a pace — that’s when the chaos happened in my mind.

The story was moving really, really fast. We’re all watching — I say “we,” the media, both foreign and local — just watching with horror. Everything is going viral from Kabul. Everybody has a phone with a camera. And every step of the way, this disaster unfolding is being documented. The war today is run by social media — the war many years ago was not. Today, the Taliban wanted to show when they came to the gates of Mazar-e-Sharif. And that was shared by many, many Afghans. Every step of the way was getting tweeted out just like wildfire.

When I left, I knew there’d be a lot of traffic going towards the airport. We went through a lot of back roads. I was surprised that the airport was very, very manageable. There was no chaos. It was only ticketed passengers. The domestic airport was quiet because no flights were taking off for domestic cities. It was not the scenes we’ve seen over the last couple of days. I was lucky, because the chaos that happened in those last 24 hours didn’t happen a day earlier.

I have been in the United States barely more than 24 hours. I’ve been getting message after message: “I know you left, but please help me.” “We can’t go to the airport.” “We’re waiting to hear from the United States,” or “Canada is taking 20,000.” They’re all like, how do we do this? How do we know when to go to the airport? It’s one thing for the U.S. to send 5,000 troops, but it’s quite another to have coordination on the ground. There’s been none of that.

Being a photojournalist, you are connected with your subject — I don’t care if it’s a family, if it’s a place, it’s a culture that you want to understand. My first trip into Afghanistan was in December 2001. It really became my beat. What I covered since 2001 was just Afghans living against the backdrop of war. That’s what I wanted to show the world.

A man stands in front of group of men with a gun
June 27, 2021: Abbas Ibrahimzada, a militia leader who serves in Afghanistan's parliament, wields a weapon at a checkpoint outside Mazar-e Sharif. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
a solider points a gun
June 28, 2021: Afghan National Army soldiers train with the 209th Shaheen corps in Mazar-e Sharif. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
an empty military base in Afghanistan<br />
July 5, 2021: A view of a largely empty Bagram airbase, days after the U.S. military handed it over to Afghan forces. The U.S. departure from the massive base was a huge milestone. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
a man walks through a crowded market in Kabul
July 10, 2021: A man walks through a crowded market in Kabul. Image by Paula Bronstein, Afghanistan.
View of Kabul
July 11, 2021: Afghanistan's flag flies over Kabul about a month before the capital city was infiltrated by Taliban fighters. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
U.S. Military general shakes hand with Afghan official
July 12, 2021: Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller shakes hands with an Afghan official at a ceremony marking the official handover of command. Shortly after the ceremony, Miller departed Afghanistan. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2021.
A young woman sits with her children in their apartment
July 16, 2021: Hasina Aimak, 28, with her children, Daneen, 3, and Danial, 7, at their apartment in Kabul. Aimak previously worked at a bakery that was supported by a loan from USAID. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2021.
man lays on ground in crowded area
July 18, 2021: A group of men in Kabul can be seen using drugs while others sleep. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
a man prays outside a jewelry shop
July 18, 2021: A man prays outside a jewelry shop in downtown Kabul. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
man stands in front of destroyed building
August 4, 2021: A man surveys the aftermath of a car bomb explosion that targeted the home of Afghanistan's Acting Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi. Image by Paula Bronstein, Afghanistan.
A group of people pose with documents
August 4, 2021: Afghans seeking Special Immigrant Visas show their documents at a park in Kabul. Image by Paula Bronstein, Afghanistan.
Soldiers stand in front of neighborhood while man bikes by
August 6, 2021: Afghan military police guard a neighborhood in Kabul. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.
young girl sits atop luggage suitcases at airport
August 14, 2021: Safa, 5, sits on luggage as her family checks into their flight to Los Angeles at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan, 2021.
View of Kabul from plane
August 14, 2021: The view above Kabul from photographer Paula Bronstein's plane shortly before the Taliban swept into the capital. Image by Paula Bronstein. Afghanistan.


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