Young people who have spoken against Taliban rule in Afghanistan or who adopted lifestyles that don't fit the fundamentalist regime say they fear for their livelihoods and lives as the insurgent group gains more territory.
"We live in very critical and dangerous circumstances right now," said Murtaza Ahmadi, a writer, part-time teacher and government employee.
"The Afghan government is losing power and authority across the country while the Taliban are gaining," he said. "Thousands of people are leaving Afghanistan because they think the Taliban are slowly gaining power all over the country and they don't trust the Afghan government."
Since international troops started withdrawing from Afghanistan earlier this year, Taliban insurgents have increased attacks against Afghan forces, capturing nearly half of the country's roughly 420 districts. The U.S. military is slated to conclude its mission to Afghanistan by August 31.
The Afghan government insists its forces will retake lost territory. Peace talks between the warring parties have been stalled.
From the start of 2021 to July, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 270,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes, and more than 3.5 million people internally displaced.
"If the Taliban gain power," he said, "I will be one of the first people to get beheaded because I spoke out about their brutality in my book, The Dream Seller: Bakhshinda Roya."
Ahmadi was in Kabul when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001, and remembers it well, he said. He wrote his book because "I wanted the present generation to be aware of how brutal life was under the Taliban," he said. "Women had to wear burqas, could not leave the house without a man, or go to work, or get an education. Men had to grow beards."
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen claimed that under any Taliban government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf.
Still, many young Afghans say they are considering leaving their country as 20 years of U.S. military intervention draws down, and the Taliban advances across the countryside.
Thousands of Afghans who may be targets of Taliban violence due to U.S. affiliations but are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees in the United States, the State Department said Monday.
"When you live in Afghanistan you do not know what will happen to you within an hour," said Bakhteyar Atify, a makeup artist in Kabul whose trade is forbidden under the Taliban's Islamic law. "We always worry and stress about our tomorrow: losing our job, dying of hunger, or stepping into an explosion and dying or becoming disabled," he described. "Almost everyone has depression and mental illness. It is all because of hopelessness for their futures."
Atify, based in the capital city of Kabul, has been working for TOLO TV for the past decade. He said he doesn't see a future for his work or lifestyle if the Taliban takes full control of Kabul and Afghanistan.
"For the past 15 years, I worked so hard to become a great makeup artist by watching other makeup artists, taking their tutorials, following them on social media, and learning online," he said. "They will all be destroyed if the Taliban with its harsh policies come to Kabul."
Atify said he does makeup for women announcers, actors and singers.
"My photos are all over social media. I will be the first to be beheaded by the Taliban because my work is forbidden by them."
After four decades of war, more than 70% of Afghanistan's population is younger than 25.
Mustafa Shirzad, who works in the Afghan Ministry of Finance in Kabul, says that he has lost hope and motivation for his future.
"If the Taliban gain power, their ideology is very different from mine, and I don't think I can work under the Taliban regime because I studied abroad and I have different expectations. If this happens, I will leave," he said. "Our bright and working people will leave if they take control. If I know that they are taking control of Kabul, and I am in danger, I won't think for a minute to leave."
Fatima Airan also works in Kabul in the Ministry of Finance, and like Shirzad, she studied abroad.
"Working women are scared that they might not be able to continue with their education and jobs," she stated. "Everyone is trying to find a way to leave the country, especially people who spoke against the Taliban and talk about their brutalities."
Since the violence increased across the country in May and June 2021 — when the United States and NATO allies began their troop withdrawal — 783 civilians have been killed and 1,609 others wounded, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan stated.