Afghans Describe Fear and Looming Future After Taliban Takeover: 'We Thought We Had More Time,' Dad-of-3 Says
Who will be able to leave? What comes next for those who won't get the chance?
And what will life be like under modern Taliban rule?
Chaos and confusion spread through Afghanistan's capital over the weekend and into the week as the national government collapsed. The U.S., caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban's offensive during the military's planned withdrawal, pivoted to ferrying away the citizens and allies who remain in the country.
The military has since secured the capital's airport with thousands of additional troops temporarily deployed to Kabul, the U.S. says.
The Biden administration is working to evacuate more people after drawing outcries of mismanagement and the president insisted he will continue to aid those seeking refuge.
Many Afghans, meanwhile, have been sent scrambling into hiding or limbo hoping to either escape the Taliban's notice or somehow manage to escape the country altogether.
An Afghan man living in Kabul (who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of reprisal) told PEOPLE this week that he and his family have lost both their livelihoods and a general feeling of security due to the American exit.
"We are afraid to go outside now. Everyone is scared and hiding. Unless you are with the Taliban, it is not safe inside Afghanistan," the man says. "I myself, and people in my family, we worked with the Afghan government. We were government workers. Now we are unemployed. I have no income. I have to live off of what money I already have. Our family wants to go to America. We thought we had more time."
The man — who told PEOPLE he has a wife, three children, one brother and his parents — says his family "didn't expect this to happen so quickly."
"It came as a complete shock. We thought we had a year to make plans. Now we don't know if it's too late. We don't know where we would go. That was one thing we were looking into: trying to find out where we would go and what our lives would be when we got there," he says. "This dream of going to America may never happen. The dream has changed."
At the Kabul airport on Sunday and Monday, throngs of people could be seen crowding together hoping for transport, scaling concrete walls and racing across the tarmac in an attempt to board international flights.
One man who works at the airport and who also could not give his name told PEOPLE there was widespread disarray and desperation.
"So many people are trying to get out," he said, adding, "They climbed the fences into the airport. Big concrete walls and there is barbed wire. People climbed up the concrete walls in between where the concrete is. I saw people on the airport side of the wall after they landed. Some were hurt."
According to the Associated Press, officials said that at least seven people had died in the maelstrom at the airport. Among those were some people who fell from the outside of a U.S. military plane after clinging to it as it took off.
Video circulated widely on social media that seemed to show several bodies fall from the plane as it rose into the sky.
"There was so much running and fear. Everyone wanted to get to a plane," the Afghan airport worker told PEOPLE. "They didn't have tickets I don't think. They did not come in through the boarding gates like normal. They just ran. They ran to the planes, hoping to get on any way they could. Just push their way on. Then there was confusion and the sound of gunfire. People ran even faster. They knocked each other down. There were so many running at one time."
They ran so fast, the worker added, that they paid no attention to the shoes on their feet or any belongings they may have had with them.
"People dropped the things they had with them," he said. "So much of their lives, dropped on the ground at the airport. Pieces of lives are scattered on the ground like so much trash."
Like those attempting to leave Kabul, the airport worker said he, too, feared the Taliban even as the insurgents seek to downplay their history of brutality in a bid for international acceptance.
"They are not the kind of people you can reason with. If you do something they don't like, you are dead. Just like that. No discussion, only death," the man said.
For those who can't get out of Kabul, the future looms. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they did so by ruling harshly. Public executions were held routinely; women and girls were banned from school; television and music were forbidden.
Some 20 years after being toppled in a U.S.-led invasion, the group — which has been negotiating with America to allow for the removal of diplomats and other personnel — has publicly announced changes, such as saying it will allow girls to attend school.
Under the Trump-era agreement that led to the U.S. withdrawal this summer, the Taliban also said it would break ties with al-Qaida.
Still, those announcements have been met with skepticism by foreign policy experts.
As the man who lives in Kabul explained to PEOPLE, he and his family worried when they saw those from other regions of the country living in a park in the capital.
"We thought, How terrible that was for people to flee their homes so fast when they have nowhere to go. They have to live in the park, with their children sleeping on the ground," the man says. "That will be us. If we ever get anywhere, we will be the ones living in a park."
Though he says he would feel "lucky" to be alive no matter where he ended up, the man hedged his gratitude with an acknowledgement that those who get out might be luckiest of all.
"They will be able to start new lives. Here in Afghanistan, we don't know if we are going to survive another day."