(Reuters) – When 20-year-old Salgy found out last week that she had topped some 200,000 students who took Afghanistan’s university entrance exam this year, she was elated.
For months, she had locked herself away in her room in the capital Kabul to study, sometimes forgetting to eat. With her family crowding round their solar-powered TV as the results came in, she realised her hard work had paid off.
“That was a moment when I felt someone gifted me the whole world,” Salgy, who like many in the country goes by one name, told Reuters. “My mother cried out of happiness and I cried with her.”
That feeling turned almost immediately to worry when she remembered the events of the previous weeks.
Following the withdrawal of the bulk of the remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban began a lightning advance across the country, culminating in the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15.
“We are faced with a very uncertain future, thinking what will happen next,” Salgy told Reuters. “I think I am the luckiest and unluckiest person.”
Almost two third of Afghans are under the age of 25, and an entire generation cannot even remember the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was toppled by Western-backed militia in 2001.
During that time they enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, banning girls from school, women from work and carrying out public executions. Since 2001, the militants fought an insurgency in which thousands of Afghans died.
Since re-taking power, the group has been quick to reassure students that their education would not be disrupted, also saying it would respect the rights of women and urging talented professionals not to leave the country.
But used to a life with cellphones, pop music and mixing of genders, Afghanistan’s “Generation Z” – born roughly in the decade around the turn of the millennium – now fears some freedoms will be taken away, according to interviews with half a dozen Afghan students and young professionals.
“I made such big plans, I had all these high reaching goals for myself that stretched to the next 10 years,” said Sosan Nabi, a 21-year-old graduate.
“We had a hope for life, a hope for change. But in just one week, they took over the country and in 24 hours they took all our hopes, dreams snatched from in front of our eyes. It was all for nothing.”
A Taliban spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions for this article.
On the morning of Aug. 15, as the Taliban neared Kabul, 26-year-old Javid rushed home from the university where he worked after graduating. He declined to give his full name out of fear of reprisals.
He deleted all emails and social media messages he had shared with foreign organizations and governments, especially the United States.
He took hard copies of certificates given by U.S.-funded development programs to the backyard of his house and set them on fire. He broke a glass trophy received for that work against the floor.
Many Afghans working for overseas organisations have tried to flee the country in the last two weeks.
With little to go on but stories from parents about the Taliban, some young people said they were afraid, whatever the reality of the situation on the ground.
The first time many of them ever saw members of the group was patrolling streets after their conquest of Kabul.
Besides safety, young people Reuters spoke to said they worried other hard-won freedoms could be taken away.
Secondary school enrolment rose from 12% in 2001 to 55% in 2018, according to the World Bank.
From a time when a single state-owned radio station broadcast mainly calls to prayer and religious teachings, Afghanistan now has an estimated 170 radio stations, over 100 newspapers and dozens of TV stations.
That’s not to mention smartphones and the Internet – non-existent under Taliban rule – giving young people access to events beyond Afghanistan’s borders, said Elaha Tamim, an 18-year-old who also just passed her university entrance exam.
“It is something we all use at all times,” she said. “We use it for entertainment when we want to relax, it’s our way of discovering what’s happening in the rest of the world. I don’t want to lose that.”
Some young women are particularly concerned by the Taliban’s victory.
The number of girls in primary school rose from effectively zero under the Taliban to over 80%, according the World Bank.
The Taliban has said it will respect the rights of girls to go to school this time around, though Javid said many female students at his university had stopped coming to class out of fear.
“I grew up in an environment where we were free, we could go to school, we could go out and about,” Tamim said. “My mother tells stories of her bitter time (under the Taliban). Those stories are frightening.”
Ammar Yasir, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, personally congratulated Salgy – the student who topped the university entrance exams – on Twitter for her results, and for gaining admission to medical school.
She now hopes to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, despite the uncertainty.
“If the Taliban allow girls access to higher education and they don’t create barriers for them then that is good, otherwise my whole life’s struggle is at risk,” she said.
Despite the assurances, some people Reuters spoke to said they were desperate to leave, but didn’t know how.
“If I thought me staying here would bring any hope of a positive change then I would be ready, like the thousands of other young people, to give up my life for it,” Naby said. “But we all know that isn’t a reality.”
(Reporting by Islamabad bureau, Parniyan Zemaryalai in London and Zeba Siddiqui in New Delhi; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Mike Collett-White)