The Taliban flag flies on one side of the border. On the other is the Pakistani military — and hope for freedom for terrified Afghans.
Mursal and Manisha, two teenage sisters from Kandahar, Afghanistan, smiled with relief after they got through to Pakistan earlier this week.
“Girls were not allowed to go to school. There was no place for girls to get an education,” Mursal said in English after she emerged from the dusty, crowded border crossing.
Hundreds of people were lined up on the Afghan side of the border, tunnel-like and lined with barbed wire, where Taliban militants stood guard sporting what appeared to be brand-new military fatigues and holding AK rifle variants and other military-grade weapons.
The fighters checked to see if people had the correct paperwork, like valid passports and visas, and then passed them along to the Pakistani officials for the final hurdle to freedom.
For those seeking to escape Taliban rule who were left behind by the international evacuation effort, the best hope of a way out has been into Pakistan and thus at the end of a treacherous journey some 140 miles from Kabul across Taliban-controlled territory.
The girls, who declined to provide their last names as they rushed to a waiting taxi, said they felt compelled to leave their country because there was no future for them there.
Thousands of others are desperate to leave too, afraid of Taliban repression and ballooning economic uncertainty.
“You should stay at home and when you become 16 years old, you should marry,” Mursal said about one of the recent Taliban proclamations.
The all-male, all-Taliban interim government announced by the militant group earlier this week has promised to be more tolerant and inclusive, but some say there are already signs of women’s rights being curbed.
Several journalists who covered a women’s rights protest earlier this week were arrested, according to The Associated Press. And two journalists working for the Etilaatroz newspaper said they were beaten by militants after they were arrested while covering the event.
Elsewhere, teachers and students at universities in Kabul and other major cities told Reuters male and female students were being taught separately or separated by curtains in classrooms.
Asked if they felt compelled to leave, the girls immediately replied “yes” in unison.
While some refugees will settle in Pakistan, for Mursal and Manisha it is just the first stop on their journey to a new life.
They have Canadian visas and are headed for Ottawa. “It’s an imaginary life,” they said anxiously, not knowing what to expect.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News the militant group would not stand in the way of anyone looking to leave Afghanistan as long as they have valid travel documents, but many feel stuck in a country with a bleak future.
The U.S. helped evacuate as many as 124,000 people, including at-risk Afghans, but the Biden administration acknowledged it was not able to get “everybody out that we wanted to get out.”
The first international passenger flight to leave the Afghan capital, Kabul, since the U.S. completed its withdrawal only left Thursday.