Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Sara Baaser '23 returns to Afghanistan almost every other summer to visit family. The 21-year-old arrived in Kabul on July 25 for what was initially a trip like any other. But just a night away from heading back to the U.S., Baaser was now embroiled in an international crisis.

October 21, 2021

‘I’m Living History’: A Student’s Journey Out of Kabul as It Fell

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As the United States declared an end to its two-decade war in Afghanistan this past August, and the capital, Kabul, along with the rest of the country, toppled to Taliban rule, Sara Baaser ’23 found herself caught in the impending crisis: Her flight back to Cornell was canceled. 

With all commercial departures canceled out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, Baaser and her family scrambled to find a way out. She waited alongside the panicked masses outside the airport walls, negotiated with the Taliban to gain access to an international compound, and, ultimately, secured safe passage on one of the last flights out of Afghanistan.

Baaser, who was born in Kabul and lived in Pakistan, Sudan and Jordan prior to New York, her current residence, returns to Afghanistan almost every other summer to visit family. The 21-year-old arrived in Kabul on July 25 for what was initially a trip like any other.

“Things were pretty normal — everything was pretty calm, I wasn’t really paying attention to the news,” Baaser told The Sun. 

Although she had heard reports that President Joe Biden planned to adhere to his administration’s Aug. 31 deadline for a complete military withdrawal, she said she was trying to enjoy time with family before returning to Ithaca for her junior year at Cornell. She had last been back to Afghanistan in the summer of 2017.

Even as the Taliban seized control of provincial cities across the country during her visit, Baaser said she did not think their resurgence presaged the total collapse of Afghan security forces — or any conflict with her trip back to college for the fall.

Courtesy of Sara Baaser

“When I was hearing the news, I was just like, ‘OK, this is pretty far [from Kabul], it’s not getting too serious,’” Baaser told The Sun. “Maybe this is just small wins [for the Taliban] happening.”

But the Taliban were gaining ground faster than Baaser — and most Americans, including top U.S. government officials — were led to believe

In 2001, a year after Baaser was born, the Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion. After 20 years of American military intervention and trillions of dollars of investment, the Taliban’s re-emergence leaves lingering, fundamental questions about the true costs of war.

“In a time when ‘what our government spends for what purposes’ is an issue in the United States, we spent over $2 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, in an interview with The Sun. “Imagine what we could do with that money that some people claim we can’t afford.”

U.S. intelligence officials had estimated in early August that Kabul could hold out against the Taliban without U.S. military backing for three months. 

But on Aug. 14, just days before Baaser was scheduled to return to the United States, the Taliban took over Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad, the third and fourth largest cities in Afghanistan. Baaser, glued to the television in her family’s apartment, was in disbelief.

Baaser feared that Kabul, the capital and seat of government, was the next, and final, target in the stunningly rapid takeover. On Aug. 15, then-President Ashraf Ghani left the country. Yet Baaser, once cautiously optimistic that a peace negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban would secure Kabul, said she still remained calm — she was pretty used to the turmoil. 

“I go to Kabul every year and there’s always something happening. I was born there. This is my country. I was kind of used to seeing these kinds of things,” she said. But that moment in August, she recounted, “This is like I’m living history, I’m witnessing it in front of my eyes.” 

She had been right that Kabul would be next: Soon after Ghani fled, armed Taliban motorcyclists blitzed the city — they had taken over the capital.

Just a night away from heading back to the U.S., Baaser was now embroiled in an international crisis. 

Courtesy of Sara Baaser

With commercial flights canceled, Baaser worried about her next course of action, a concern that grew with the drone of military planes and helicopters outside her window that evening. And she wasn’t the only one: An exodus ranging from top Afghan government officials widely believed to be likely targets of Taliban torture to ordinary Afghan citizens as well as foreigners, all flocked to the airport. Images of an overcrowded tarmac — and of individuals running beside and hanging onto the wings of airplanes taking off — gripped the world, a stunning conclusion to the longest war in American history. 

And Baaser was trapped in the middle of it. The streets of Kabul, usually bustling with the Hindu Kush mountain range in the backdrop, were eerie and barren. “People were scared,” said Baaser. She didn’t step outside her family’s apartment for days until the U.S. Embassy in Kabul notified her and her family that they should go to the airport. 

In agreeing to be identified by The Sun, Baaser requested that some additional identifying details be withheld for the protection of her family. 

She and her family left for the airport with just one backpack each. The scene there, as Baaser described, was a “hot mess.” 

“You see children, mothers, families, they’re all walking towards the airport, with large luggages,” she said “And you see the Taliban trying to contain the chaos. But the thing is, they’re the ones that caused the chaos.”

Kathryn Stamm / Sun Editor in Chief

Stuck behind a throng of distressed evacuees choking the entryway, Baaser and her family were shut out from the terminal doors. Eventually, they were directed to go to the compound of an international organization that would transport them to the airport. But while Taliban guards there let her father and brother into the compound, they told Baaser, her mother, and her two sisters that they could not enter. It was the first time she ever interacted face-to-face with the Taliban.

The Taliban did not want women entering the compound, prompting a contentious hour-long negotiation. Finally, an agreement was reached — Baaser and her family were granted access. They waited three more days at the compound. 

Then, in the early hours of Aug. 21 — five days after Baaser’s original flight to the U.S. and five days before classes would start at Cornell — the Taliban escorted a convoy of evacuees from the compound to the airport in a bulletproof car, including Baaser and her family. 

When they arrived around 6 a.m., Baaser said the airport was in complete tatters.

“There’s this moment where I finally get to the entrance of the airport, and you just see everything is broken,” she said. “The airport has a picture of the president. His picture is slashed. There’s also some very historical, political figures. Their pictures are slashed. You see their flag, the Taliban flag, hanging.” 

Because the Taliban and United States both agreed to control different sides of the airport, there was a tense standoff. 

“I see the Taliban [on the right] and on the left I see international forces. And for me, it was a moment that I was thinking like two parts of myself,” Baaser said. “I’m an Afghan, like this is my country. I’m not talking about the Taliban, but you see, Afghanistan.” 

“And then on the left you see the American forces, which is like, being a Cornell student growing up internationally in all these different countries, and you just see both of me, two of my sides just like pointing at each other,” she said.

That afternoon, Baaser made it safely out of the conflict zone and back to the United States, where she’s had a green card for the past decade. Ultimately, she arrived in Virginia on Aug. 23. Just a day later, she headed to Cornell for the start of the semester — the culmination of a 6,688-mile journey. 

Courtesy of Sara Baaser

By Aug. 26, Baaser was sitting in her global and public health sciences classes in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, back to the grind of a pre-medical student. That day, an ISIL-affiliated suicide bombing targeted the crowd at Kabul’s airport, killing over 160 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. servicemembers. 

“It was just so surreal that now I’m in class, studying about Newton’s law, when really like days ago, I was like, in a military compound in a war-torn country, going through an emergency evacuation,” Baaser said.

Since mid-August, more than 75,000 people have evacuated Afghanistan and relocated to the U.S., according to data from the Department of Homeland Security shared with The Sun. With this influx, a number of colleges and universities across the United States have offered scholarships, positions and several forms of assistance to Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover.

At Cornell Law School, chapter members of The National Lawyers Guild and the International Refugee Assistance Project and dozens of other law students have been volunteering to help Afghans at risk, preparing clients, drafting affidavits, and completing applications for urgent humanitarian parole in the United States. 

Immigration attorney and Prof. Steven Yale-Loehr, law, expressed pride in the work of his law students in a statement to The Sun.

“We now are doing over 50 humanitarian parole applications for Afghans at risk, and are starting a formal clinic spring semester to continue this work,” Yale-Loehr said. “It is heartwarming to see the enthusiasm and energy of the many law students volunteering their time and talent to help get people out of Afghanistan.”

In a interview with The Sun, Prof. Sabrina Karim, government, said that while it’s the jurisdiction of the State Department to allocate where people are going to go, she “would love to see Cornell try to offer visiting fellowships or positions to Afghan academics and researchers.”

Currently, Cornell is working to provide support for Afghans whose academic careers are now in jeopardy. This includes Global Cornell, who is coordinating to host a number of Afghan women, currently undergraduate students at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, as short-term research interns as well as supporting three Afghan scholars in exile and situating their arrival in Ithaca.

Baaser said she was looking forward to welcoming other Afghan students to Cornell. And despite the fog that cloaks her home country’s uncertain future, Baaser is hopeful she will return soon.

“Afghanistan will still be there as it has existed for thousands of years and it will be resilient,” Baaser said. “Our people have seen all these types of things … Afghans in general are very strong. So I feel like whatever comes their way, they will always overcome it.”