— When the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1997, Latifa was a 16-year-old teenager, listening to Elvis and dreaming of going to college. The Taliban's harsh rule transformed her life for the next four years. Following is an excerpt from her book, My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban — A Young Woman's Story, which she wrote in exile after fleeing the Taliban regime in 2001.
The White Flag Over the Mosque
9 A.M., September 27, 1996.
Someone knocks violently on our door. My whole family has been on edge since dawn, and now we all start in alarm. My father jumps up to see who it is while my mother looks on anxiously, haggard with exhaustion after a sleepless night. None of us got any sleep: The rocket fire around the city didn't let up until two in the morning. My sister Soraya and I kept whispering in the dark; even after things quieted down, we couldn't fall asleep. And yet here in Kabul, we're used to being the target of rocket fire. I'm only sixteen years old, but I feel as though I've been hearing that din all my life. The city has been surrounded and bombarded for so long, the smoke and flames of the murderous fighting have terrified us so often, sometimes even sending us rushing down to the basement, that another night in this racket is just part of our daily routine!
Until this morning.
Papa returns to the kitchen, followed by Farad, our young cousin, who is pale and breathless. He seems to be shaking inside, and his face is taut with fear. He can hardly speak, stammering out words in a series of strange gasps.
"I came...to find out how you were. Are you all right? You haven't seen anything? You don't know? But they're here! They've taken Kabul! The Taliban are in Kabul. They haven't come to your place yet? They haven't demanded that you hand over any weapons?"
"No, no one's been here, but we saw the white flag waving over the mosque-Daoud spotted it a few hours ago. We were afraid the worst had happened..."
This morning, around five o'clock, my young brother Daoud went downstairs as usual to fetch some water from the tap in the courtyard of our building, but came hurrying back up with the basin still empty.
"I saw a white flag over the mosque and another one over the school." The flag of the Taliban. It had never before flown over Kabul. I had seen it only on television or in newspaper photographs.
We knew the Taliban were not far away; people in the city kept saying they were five or ten miles from the capital, but no one truly believed they would manage to enter Kabul. When we quickly turn on the radio and the television to hear some news, there is still nothing, the same dreadful nothing — no sound or picture, nothing since six o'clock yesterday afternoon. This morning my father also tried to reach the rest of the family in Kabul, but the telephone is still dead as well.
I fiddle nervously with the dial of our battery-powered radio, searching through the static. No trace of our local station, Radio Kabul, or the BBC, or the Voice of America, which I try looking for at that unlikely hour, just on the off chance...If Farad hadn't risked racing over a mile on his bike from his neighborhood to ours, we wouldn't have had any information, nothing but the undeniable presence of those white flags.
What Farad has seen is so frightening, so appalling, that he blurts it out all at once.