The streets of Kabul were emptied of women on Monday, the first full day of Taliban rule across Afghanistan, as Taliban gunmen patrolled in cars seized by police, confiscated guns from security guards and urged shopkeepers and government employees back to work.
Chaos unfolded at the airport, where troops used guns and helicopters to clear the runways, and several people died in frantic last-minute attempts to escape by clinging to departing planes.
But in the rest of the city people who felt they had no hope of fleeing abroad were weighing up whether they should go into hiding, or assessing the shape of their new lives under the Taliban’s hardline rule.
The change was reflected on TV, where news and soap operas from India and Turkey gave way to religious programming without advertisements, even on the leading Tolo channel which won a reputation for hosting popular shows that would be anathema to the Taliban, such as the talent competition Afghan Star.
Most businesses were shuttered, even though the Taliban had urged people to return to work and normal life, with just a few bakeries, grocery shops and restaurants open so people could feed themselves.
Fighters consolidated their hold on the city, visiting compounds to collect weapons from private security guards, and celebrating their victory by parading outside the now-abandoned US embassy.
But insurgent leaders – keen to project an image of a government-in-waiting – visited the national power company and hospitals, where they said women healthcare workers should stay in post.
They also invited the health minister Waheed Majrooh – one of the cabinet members who did not flee with President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday – to remain in his post, he said on Facebook. He appeared to have accepted, writing: “God blessed me the pride of serving in the health sector for my people and my country and I will do my best as long as I have this responsibility.”
The former president Hamid Karzai and the top peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah appeared together in a video, saying they were working for a peaceful transition.
Afghans climb on to plane during takeoff in attempt to flee Taliban – video
The Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen has urged people to stay and rebuild. “Our country needs them. This is their country, a country of all Afghans,” he said, adding that the Taliban had promised there was no threat to lives. “We are assuring them there are no risks to their lives, their property, their honour.”
But many were reluctant to trust promises from a group that even in recent weeks has committed reprisal killings and other atrocities, including massacring surrendering government soldiers.
Journalists in Kabul reported they had been visited by the Taliban already and had their houses searched.
“Nobody is supporting women journalists in Afghanistan. We are scared if the Taliban find us they will definitely kill us,” said one who was in hiding. “One more thing to mention – even if they let us live they will not let us go back to work, which is really a financial challenge for me as a women that lives alone.”
Women stayed at home in fear of being beaten for not covering up, or for going out without a male guardian. In several parts of Afghanistan reports of forced marriage to Taliban fighters have followed militant takeovers in recent weeks.
“There were no women walking on the streets, but there were women in the cars who were wearing masks and with no hair out,” said Hayat, a 24-year-old who went out to see what his city looked like under Taliban rule.
“The only positive change was that there is no traffic. But I did not feel safe and in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that they are going to shoot me now.”
Although the Taliban leadership has not laid out their new rules for Kabul residents, fighters used the loudspeakers at one mosque in the west of the city to announce that women should wear burqas or full hijab – a long abaya and a face covering – and their fighters have begun enforcement of a harsh code in other parts of the city.
One older woman who went out to get food for her family saw gunmen pushing women and sending them home for not being covered. She also saw them dragging younger women away. Most women had simply stayed home.
Many women in Kabul do not own burqas, the enveloping garment that the Taliban required women to wear in the past, and have been trying to find them.
“For me a burqa has always been a sign of slavery. You are like a bird trapped inside a cage, I had never imagined wearing that. But nowadays if I want to save my life, I think that I need to,” said Negin.
“I don’t have it, I don’t know where to buy it but many of my friends are searching for it. Women buy it because it saves lives, it removes the threats against you.”