I first met Sayed at an economics conference for South Asian students. I worked with him on a research paper for six months. Throughout that entire period, Sayed always seemed like a spirited soul, always optimistic about his future and the prospects of our research.
So, his grim presentation of the reality in Afghanistan sounded quite out-of-character to me.
"I think a dark future is waiting for the Afghan people, especially for the youth and the women. We are scared for our future," Sayed said.
Sayed's concerns echoed louder in Fatima's voice as she enunciated her frustration with the current situation.
"I am experiencing the darkest time of my life since the Taliban came back. I have no hope of continuing my education. I am even afraid to go out. Although they (The Taliban) have promised they wouldn't hurt us if we wore Islamic hijab, still I am scared. Would they let us breathe or is this just another empty promise?" Fatima said.
"Everyone just keeps saying that girls are no longer safe in Afghanistan. Most of my relatives have sent their girls somewhere safe," she added.
On the flipside, My old friend Bakht had a bit more optimistic tone. Although not overjoyed, he was glad that the US had left and that the war was over.
"We cannot predict the future exactly, but they (The Taliban) appear to be better than before. They do not care about how people roam in bazaars or public, nor are they hurting people. So we hope that they will keep their promises in the coming days as well," Bakht said.
Was he in denial or genuinely optimistic? I didn't know.
After all, the Taliban did spearhead at least 76 attacks across 26 Afghan provinces and reportedly launched an assassination campaign targeting government officials, journalists and civil society members since their deal with the Trump administration. Just last May, they beheaded an Afghan interpreter for the US army. But the final nail in the coffin was struck when the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country.
But is it all doom and gloom? Will the Taliban really keep their promises? What about women's rights? Is there no silver lining?
I had to know. But the analytical pieces hardly do justice to the genuine emotions of the Afghan citizens. In an attempt to distinguish facts from fiction, they often reduce the experiences of real human beings to mere statistics. I was not eager to do so and my friends were there to help.
I met both Bakht (Bakhtyalai Ahmadzai) and Sayed (Sayed Masih Sadat) during an economics conference for South Asian students. Both of them were undergraduate economics students at Kabul University. Fatima (pseudonym) is a friend of Bakht and she is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the Kabul Polytechnic University.
Their worlds were thrown upside-down when the Taliban regained control of Kabul. For those in the dark, the Taliban are notorious for their suppression of dissent, mistreatment of women and rigid ideological stance.
So when the news of the Taliban's triumph broke out, it was absolute pandemonium in Kabul. Panic-stricken and desperate Afghan citizens are making their last-ditch attempts to leave the country, often risking their lives. Afghan sportspeople and celebrities are pleading with the international community to intervene and take their people in as refugees.
But the Taliban repeatedly promised that they had changed. They promised not to provide shelter to extremists and to enter peace negotiations with the Afghan government according to their deal with the US. But Sayed did not seem to have much faith in them.
"Most of the people are pessimistic about the future. 20 years ago, the Taliban regime was ruling the country and resorted to violence now and then. So, it's difficult for people to know whether they have changed or will continue to do the same," Sayed said.
Fatima was much more cynical. She hardly had any faith in the Taliban's promise.
"It is not clear how much they respect the promise and we can not trust them. When I think about the Taliban, what comes to my mind are their attacks on Kabul university, exploding themselves in schools and academic centres etc. And I do not believe that they have changed," Fatima argued with conviction.
But the US invasion was no better either. The 20-year-long US misadventure cost trillions of dollars and took thousands of innocent Afghan lives. Despite being fearful of the Taliban, both Sayed and Bakht seemed happy at the prospect of the US finally leaving their country alone.
Sayed felt that the US invasion had permanently scarred his country, while Bakht believed there was no other way to end the war.
"The Taliban were fighting for the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. If they (the US) stayed, the war would still be ongoing and many more would have died. So there was no other way to end the war except withdrawing their troops," said Bakht.
Even with the supposed withdrawal of US troops from the fabled 'grave of the empires', the most crucial question revolved around the rights of women in Afghanistan.
During the Taliban regime, women practically had no rights. More often than not, they were deprived of their right to education and employment and would be subjected to severe punishments if they attempted to disobey the orders.
Bakht argued that women were allowed to go to school and to work. He believed that the Taliban and the Afghanistan government would be able to work something out. But Sayed was more sceptical.
"If the past has anything to teach us, the Taliban will be strict and will impose restrictions on women's activities. If the negotiations between other parties and Taliban with the intervention of the United Nations reach a settlement then we can be hopeful for a good future. If it doesn't happen, the situation will become more complicated and the war will destroy the country again, taking the lives of innocents and injuring many more," Sayed said.
Fatima, on the other hand, ended the interview on a much grimmer note.
"My future is really unclear now. I have no idea how we girls will be treated when they (The Taliban) officially run the government. I am worried about my future and as a girl living here I have no assurance about my life," Fatima said.
I generally end articles with a message of hope or some recommendations. This time around, I would just ask for a bit of empathy and probably, lots of prayers to all the innocent souls in Afghanistan. The Afghan people deserve, at least, this much.