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'Secret Gate' saved lives during the fall of Afghanistan. A new book tells its story

"The Secret Gate" cover. (Courtesy of Random House)
"The Secret Gate" cover. (Courtesy of Random House)

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with author and Boston University journalism professor Mitch Zuckoff about his new book “The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan.” The book tells the stories of an Afghan women’s rights advocate and the American junior diplomat who helps her escape Afghanistan.

Book excerpt: ‘The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan

By Mitch Zuckoff

Homeira

One bright summer morning in 2021, Homeira Qaderi hurried her eight-year-old son, Siawash, out the door of their Kabul apartment. To speed their exit, she made him a promise that set his heart racing: tonight, after school, we’ll fight the Taliban.

The electricity was out again in the middle-class Fourth District near Kabul University, so Homeira ignored the elevator and followed Siawash down ten flights of stairs.

The temperature hovered around eighty degrees Fahrenheit when they stepped outside at 7 a.m. that Tuesday, August 3. Mother and son turned a corner into a cobblestone alley where a van waited to take him to a private international school that taught classes in English. As Siawash scrambled inside, Homeira heard him boast to his friends about her daring battle plan.

Homeira watched the van drive off, praying as always that a suicide attack wouldn’t kill him.

She returned to the apartment building where she’d remade her life. Where she regained her balance after Siawash’s father divorced her for challenging his decision to take a second wife. Where, after a forced separation, she was raising Siawash to be an enlightened Afghan man. Where she earned fame, fans, and deadly enemies as an author and activist. And where she intended to spend the rest of her days writing more books and campaigning for women’s equality in a city she loved for its beauty and its possibilities, despite its dangers and its flaws.

Kabul-jan, she called it, using the Farsi term of endearment for “my dear Kabul.”

Homeira breathed heavily as she scaled the last of more than a hundred steps in her headscarf and long-sleeved blouse. Inside her apartment, she moved with a dancer’s grace, unwrapping her shawl to reveal a cascade of thick brown hair that fell to her waist. Homeira was thirty-eight but looked younger, with high cheekbones, full lips, and large brown eyes that expressed her every volcanic emotion. A shade taller than five feet, she typically wore three-inch heels, which she removed to climb the stairs. She remained barefoot inside her four-bedroom sanctuary.

The sunny apartment reflected a life that would have been unimaginable for a single mother in Afghanistan even a few years earlier. She purchased it with earnings from her first book published in English, an acclaimed memoir of her girlhood during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and under the Taliban’s vicious rule in the 1990s. The book doubled as a love letter to Siawash during their three painful years apart. The title alone made her a heroine to progressives and an infidel to extremists: Dancing in the Mosque.

Every detail of Homeira’s home delighted her: shiny wood floors with hand-knotted rugs; a tufted white couch where Siawash did his homework while she read; a high-ceilinged office with a desk fit for a prime minister; an old-fashioned gramophone to play dance music when no men were nearby; an exercise room that served as home to Siawash’s pet turtle; shelves brimming with books, honors, and diplomas; a plant-filled balcony; and windows that faced north to the blue domes of a Shiite shrine and, four miles beyond, to Kabul International Airport.

Homeira went to the kitchen for a handful of grapes and a large cup of sheer chai, tea with boiled milk, to kick-start her day. As she poured the pink tea, the room filled with scents of rosemary and eucalyptus. She carried the steaming cup to her office, where a silver MacBook laptop on her desk connected her to a world spinning out of control.

The previous night, Homeira spoke by phone with her father, Wakil Ahmad. They were ethnically Pashtun, the same tribe that spawned the Taliban, but the family scorned the fundamentalist insurgents and their repressive, misogynistic interpretation of Islam. Wakil Ahmad was his celebrity daughter’s biggest supporter. He lived with his wife, Homeira’s mother Ansari, and four of Homeira’s five younger siblings in Herat, an oasis city near the border with Iran, five hundred miles west of Kabul. During the war with the Russians that consumed much of Homeira’s childhood, her father and several uncles fought among the militants known as mujahideen. Since then, Wakil Ahmad made a threadbare living teaching literature, with a special fondness for Russian novels.

Internet phone service was spotty in Herat, so Wakil Ahmad had climbed to his roof to speak with Homeira. The call broke up repeatedly, but each time they connected Homeira heard gunshots from nearby clashes between the Afghan Army and the Taliban. Unconfirmed reports circulated that the Taliban had laid siege to Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, as its fighters sought to expand recent gains in rural areas, with an eye toward provincial capitals and Kabul.

The call with her father confirmed Homeira’s fears: the suicide bombers, as she called them, were approaching her family’s door.

Homeira’s worries about her family and her country were rooted in a tortured history that long predated the chaotic summer of 2021.

An abbreviated account begins in late 2001, when American troops invaded Afghanistan to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks and to topple the Taliban government that sheltered them. Within weeks the Taliban fled Kabul. Al-Qaeda leaders were killed or forced into hiding. But that was just the start. For nearly two decades, the United States and its close allies remained in Afghanistan to prevent the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while working to create democracy, build the economy, combat endemic corruption, and champion women’s rights. The Taliban, meanwhile, returned to its guerrilla origins to battle Afghan, U.S., and NATO troops.

As years passed, Americans’ support for the war faded. So did hope for a stable, prosperous, modern Afghanistan. One U.S. president after another struggled to find a path to victory or a dignified exit. In February 2020, President Donald J. Trump approved a deal with the Taliban to withdraw the last U.S. forces. In exchange, the Taliban promised “to prevent the use of Afghan soil” by terrorists. In April 2021, President Joe Biden agreed to follow through on that bargain, but delayed the departure date by four months, to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The Taliban treated the impending American withdrawal as an invitation to try to overthrow the democratically elected Afghan government and seize power.

Initially, Homeira felt confident that the Afghan Army, some three hundred thousand soldiers strong, trained and equipped by the United States and NATO, would crush the ragtag Taliban militia, which had perhaps a quarter as many men. She dreaded the deaths of Afghan troops and the collateral killings of civilians, and she even regretted the loss of individual Talib lives. But she hoped the post-American war between the Taliban and the Afghan military would be like a monsoon, passing quickly and leaving her country’s new democratic foundations intact.

Lately, though, as the withdrawal deadline approached and the Taliban steadily gained ground, doubts crept in. After the phone call with her father, Homeira posted on social media, where she had more than a half-million followers across several platforms: “What is going on in Herat?”

Within minutes, two high-ranking government officials sent her similar messages. Both claimed reports of Taliban forces sweeping into Herat and other provincial capitals—including Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south—were false rumors spread by troublemakers. The officials’ messages alarmed Homeira more. They were either lying or oblivious.

At her desk in the morning light, with the electricity restored and her internet connection strong, Homeira scrolled through news and social media sites. She recoiled at photos of women and children fleeing Herat ahead of oncoming Taliban fighters. Homeira understood the impulse: the long, hard memories of Afghan women had again set them in motion.

While ruling Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban had cruelly imposed its interpretation of seventh-century Islamic sharia law. Among other harsh decrees, women and girls were excluded from workplaces and schools, stripped of civil and legal rights, and banished from public life unless shrouded by burqas and escorted by male relatives. Punishments were swift, without limit or appeal. Stonings, public executions, and amputations were Taliban specialties.

Homeira’s tea grew cold as she stared at the images from Herat. She realized her family’s neighbors, some of whom she likely knew, had already been transformed into refugees of war. A shiver passed through her, though she resolved not to show or express fear publicly.

Homeira spent the lonely hours of Siawash’s school day fretting about her family and her country. She struggled to concentrate, unable to add a single sentence to the short story she was writing. She fretted about her finances, which had dwindled as she went without a full-time job while working on her next book. Her savings had eroded further from countless days in court trying to force her ex-husband to provide financial support, a colossal long shot. Even in the new, more moderate Afghan republic, divorced women were shunned, stigmatized as “unclean,” and ignored by judges. A disturbing number considered suicide by self-immolation to be a viable alternative to the dishonor of divorce.

Excerpted from “The Secret Gate” by Mitchell Zuckoff Copyright © 2023 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.