I was 9 years old when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred. I was sitting in my fourth-grade classroom completing my daily reading assignment when I began to sense that something was very wrong. The teachers in our hallway were moving from doorway to doorway whispering to each other with glistening eyes and partially concealed expressions of panic. I thought this was strange but chalked it up to the likelihood of malfunctioning plumbing, a kid vomiting in a hallway, or even someone stapling their finger to the bulletin board again (surprisingly this happened a lot at my school).
Next came the early departures of my classmates. Before we were even able to go to lunch, half of my class had been picked up by relatives and guardians to go home early. No one would tell us what was going on even though it was glaringly obvious at this point that something had happened. It was finally my turn when my mother showed up at our classroom with my 5-year-old sister in tow. She would not say why we were leaving early or what had all my teachers, classmates, and their families in such a state of distress. All she said was, “your dad is waiting at home. We will explain when we get there.”
The 3-minute ride home had never felt longer. My parents were not particularly affectionate, so I was driven even further into confusion and, now panic, when my parents embraced like they had not seen each other in months. When they finally parted with teary eyes, I got my first glimpse of the Twin Towers engulfed in smoke on our living room TV.
We sat together on the couch watching the live coverage for hours. I remember very little of the specifics (we millennials have a knack for repressed childhood memories) apart from one image that has remained with me for 20 years. I watched with absolute horror as people began to jump from the upper floors of the towers. I was young, privileged, and sheltered. I had never witnessed that level of human desperation, let alone experienced it firsthand. My entire world view shifted drastically that day, and I now realize that the events of 9/11 set me on a round-about path to where I am today.
20 years have passed, and I am now working on international development projects in Afghanistan for the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and Development. I have worked both in-country and remotely alongside several of our Afghan Allies striving to improve quality of life for as many people as possible. I have spent time working on the development of best agricultural practices, improved access to school for women and girls, strengthened market systems, and a few other subjects. I can have basic conversations with my colleagues in Dari and I would eat Kabuli Pulao and Bolani every day if I had any talent for the culinary arts. I have grown to appreciate and love what I’ve experienced of Afghanistan over the last 3 years. I have spent time working in a few other disciplines, and while the work was enjoyable and interesting, no job has ever felt as impactful as this one.
I was in Kabul in May and June of this year when the Taliban ramped up their campaign to retake Afghanistan. I had a gut feeling that I was experiencing my last trip to Kabul for the foreseeable future, but the optimist in me had hope that Afghan and NATO forces would prevent that from coming to fruition. Sure enough, Kabul fell just two months after my departure.
I was 29 years old when the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15, 2021. I was sitting on my couch at home reading a book when the outpouring of WhatsApp messages and news alerts came in. In that moment, I felt 9 years old again, but this time, I was old enough to fully understand what was unfolding. I was old enough to understand that thousands, perhaps more, were likely going to be subject to actions that rob people of their innocence, their youth, their happiness, and their lives. I was old enough to understand that my colleagues, friends, and allies were experiencing something that I could not claim to understand, no matter how painful it felt to bear witness to it. I was old enough to understand that I could never understand.
As humanitarians, we are very familiar with what the lack of humanity looks like. Our very existence is brought about by the mercilessness of others. However, it must be acknowledged that many of us (myself included) come from situations which have not personally exposed us to the cruelties and atrocities that our peers have. We can empathize as much as possible, but we cannot relate or understand.
I could talk about the days that followed August 15th. I could talk about how my colleagues and I spent every waking hour following any possible lead that would result in our Afghan Allies being placed on evacuation flights. I could talk about the photos and videos sent to me by colleagues on WhatsApp that I felt should be censored. I believe that in time, my brain will lock those days up in a box where I can’t easily reach them, just like it did to those days following 9/11. One image from this time will forever be seared into my brain alongside its companion from 2001: Afghans so terrified and desperate to escape persecution by the Taliban that they were willing to climb onto a C-17 while it was taking off, knowing they would likely die trying, is not something I can ever forget.
The parallels between people jumping from the World Trade Center towers and Afghans clinging to a C-17 mid take off, only to fall hundreds of feet to their deaths are enigmatic. The two images are linked in my brain and led to a lot of personal reflection and introspection into my experiences over the past 20 years. I realize that my ability to reflect on the parallels of these two events is a privilege. I was safe in the United States watching this unfold from afar. I did not personally lose anyone in the 9/11 attacks, nor did I have to experience being in Kabul after August 15, and that is a privilege I must acknowledge. It is also a privilege for me to travel and to work globally thanks to my citizenship and the gold seal embossed on the front of my passport. Most of our Afghan Allies who remain in Afghanistan and now face an uncertain future do not have passports or travel visas and documentation that would enable them to escape to safety. And, as of now, we do not have answers or solutions to provide to these allies and their families.
It is always the innocent who pay the highest price in conflict. Innocent people have served as collateral damage for violent discordance for as long as we can remember. Innocent people died on September 11, 2001, and innocent people have been dying in Afghanistan for decades at the hands of terrorists and extremists, but also at the hands of those sworn to protect them. I am young. I am privileged. I am still hopeful, and I still believe in the faith of humanity. Some people call it naivety, and maybe they’re right, but I refuse to give up hope that one day, humans can be humane to each other.
Today is September 11, 2021. It has been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks led to the declaration of the War on Terror. It has been 20 years since service members, aid workers, humanitarians, peace workers, and millions of brave people headed the call and chose to serve others. It has been 20 years since countless numbers of innocent people had their lives and more taken from them by this conflict. It has been 20 years since 2,977 people were killed by Al-Qaeda hijackers aiming to bring the U.S. to its knees on the geopolitical stage. What a shame that the audience is filled with casualties, but the stage remains intact.
While this conflict has been a devastating and immensely complicated one, I have witnessed incredible resilience and determination in the Afghan people. I have hope that they, and my peers in the international development community, will continue to pursue good work that benefits the livelihoods of others. After all, humanitarian work thrives in times of peace, not war.