Hossien Rezaye arrived in Amsterdam on one of the final flights out of Kabul. A combination of timing and luck allowed him a narrow escape from the Taliban as the extremists encroached on Afghanistan's capital. He was evacuated to the Netherlands with help from The Cartoon Movement – an Amsterdam-based NGO – and the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
In August 2021, the world looked on in disbelief as the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, and the US-coalition troops made a hurried exit, ending 20 years of occupation.
While the government was falling, many civilians were trying to flee to neighboring countries. Cartoonist Hossien Rezaye was on one of the last planes to leave Afghanistan for the Netherlands.
A few days before, as the Taliban moved in on the Afghan capital, Rezaye had begun frantically throwing away books, emptying bottles of alcohol and smashing them into pieces, erasing anything that could be potentially incriminating.
Late one night, the Dutch crisis team called -- this was his chance to be evacuated. He grabbed some clothes, his drawing tablet and headed toward the airport. "It was 10 pm," he recalls, "and the Taliban had checkpoints all over the city I wondered whether it was too dangerous to take my tablet, because it contains all my artwork etc. But then I thought, no, I need to take it."
His drawing tablet, one of his only remaining possessions, would play a key role in saving his life.
An Afghan in Iran
Rezaye had spent the previous 10 years in Kabul, gradually building a life and career there. While growing up in Iran, close to the Afghan border, Rezaye always feared being forced to return to the country he had never known. "I even remember as a child at school praying that they wouldn't kick me out."
His family, who are part of the Hazara ethnic minority, emigrated to Iran over four decades ago. Many Afghans live in Iran, for the Taliban can't reach them there and there are more economic opportunities. Yet they face discrimination and often live in segregated communities with few opportunities and the constant threat of deportation.
People would tell me that art is something for the Westerner, for people who live in Europe and take life for granted. You are an Afghan in Iran and you have to do something that allows you to earn your living.
In high school he loved art, but his friends and family were concerned about art as a career choice.
After earning a degree in architecture, with his Iranian visa about to expire and no legal way to stay in Iran, Rezaye decided to return to Kabul, which at the time was in a period of relative stability.
Building a new Afghanistan
There were other young people who had also returned, hoping to be part of building a new Afghanistan. He began teaching at Kabul University, set up a company and got his own apartment. "I was born and raised in Iran but I soon realized I’m an outsider. When I got to Afghanistan I knew: 'OK, this is where I belong.'"
Life in Kabul was not always easy and serves as a strong contrast to life in the Netherlands. Here, he says "they have enough confidence and are sure enough of their security that they can plan a dinner a month and a half in advance".
In Afghanistan, we could say I'll see you tomorrow, but then if an explosion happens who knows. You are walking and a suicide attack happens and then you are not.
It was on his return to Kabul that he began to draw cartoons, as a way of dealing with the reality he witnessed in Afghanistan. Drawing something beautiful seemed like it was "not enough," he says. "In Afghanistan I feel I need to speak on behalf of some people, or maybe sometimes a lot of emotions need to be released and that was a good way to do that."
Hossien's art depicts the complexities of Afghan society, bullets flying towards an Afghan soldier, spoons trying to feed from an empty plate, a child escaping from the cage of a burka. "I needed to show what was happening, if you want to say something, then say it. it doesn't have to be beautiful."
When asked to explain his drawings he says 'I draw because I don't want to explain, so because I don't want to talk, I draw it.'
Due to the political situation in Afghanistan, he was unable to publish his cartoons in the national press. Instead, he published his work abroad, winning the Excellence Award at the 10th International Cartoon Contest in Urziceni, Romania in 2016 and participating in the 5th International Cartoon Gathering in Cairo in 2018.
In June and July of 2021, people started discussing the possibility of a change in government. By August Rezaye began shutting down his social media and tried to further minimize his online presence and his published work.
In a matter of days, the situation turned into an emergency. It came as a shock to both the Afghan population and the international community. As soon as Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan, was taken over by the Taliban, Rezaye became increasingly concerned.
It was a huge shock. Everyone was expecting the rural areas to be taken by the Taliban. But we thought the cities would stay under the control of the army.
Hossien wrote an email to Tjeerd Royaards, the editor-in-chief of the Cartoon Movement -- an international organization that represents and supports cartoonists across the globe -- asking if there was any way they could help him. At this point he was shooting in the dark, barely expecting a response. He thought his best hope would be a visa to Iran. But the visa never came.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a number of events were to shift in Hossien's favor. On the day the email was sent, the Dutch parliament had made the decision to be lenient in its policy of evacuating individuals who have assisted the Dutch government. Hossien's work with the Cartoon Movement had previously been funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry. This connection provided a crucial and direct link to the government.
Royaards was able to get in touch with the Dutch crisis team, who then contacted Rezaye to coordinate his evacuation. Within a few days, Hossien was on the evacuation list and awaiting instructions in Kabul.
Leaving everything behind
On the evening he left for the airport, fortunately he was not stopped at any checkpoints. After spending several hours trying to find the right military gate at the airport, he had to get past thousands of people crowding the area in front of the Netherlands gate, having his phone stolen in the process. In more ways than one, it was his tablet that kept him alive -- without his phone he was able to use it to communicate with the crisis team.
Rezaye describes the scene at the airport as extremely chaotic and distressing. "People were passing a baby above their heads but the baby didn't cry. I believe it was dead." He adds: "I need to draw something about that."
He spent hours getting through the crowd to reach the Dutch soldiers who would then identify him. After failing to get their attention, he jumped into the sewer canal. From there he was able to get to the right meeting point and was taken in by the soldiers.
"We all went downstairs and sat in the dark. There was firing happening all around us. You could smell fear." Two days later, a big explosion ripped through the crowd in exactly the place he had been standing.
Later, when the military aeroplane took off, he remembers the flight vividly.
Everyone sat on the ground because there were no seats. I was sitting there watching people’s faces. Some of them were happy, some were confused, some were exhausted.
Starting over once again
Rezaye is now living in a refugee camp in the Netherlands and the reality of starting a new life from scratch is beginning to set in. "To be honest, it is still kind of a dream to me. I cannot believe that two and a half months ago I had my job, my company and within a week the Taliban took control of the four big cities and everything fell apart. Within two or three days I was evacuated by the Dutch army and I'm in the Netherlands."
As time goes by, it is becoming harder to forget what he has lost. "It took 10 years to build up a life in Afghanistan, friendships, my home, my career, suddenly everything changed. Now I’m here and I left everything behind."
I drew a cartoon several years ago of a man with a handle on his back. A person who is like a bag. I am that bag, I belong to nowhere.
"How can I build my life for the third time?", he says to me as we take the ferry to North Amsterdam, surrounded by busy Dutch commuters and their bicycles. He later says in our interview: "Can I call myself a Dutch guy in the near future, maybe in 10 years from now. Maybe not, I don’t know."
The theme of feeling uprooted is very evident in his art. "When I draw cartoons it's often about my feelings. I feel like I am a man without a country, without the feeling of loving your land."
Dreaming of Bamiyan
However, he still has hope. He plans to study conservation of architectural heritage so he can do something for the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by extremists. "I felt a connection in Bamiyan... I do not feel things in my heart, I feel them in my stomach. When I left Afghanistan I felt like my stomach was empty."
The Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan which is known for its giant Buddhas carved into the rock in the sixth century. The statues are central to the Hazara culture, who although being majority Muslim, have their own mythology concerning the statues unrelated to Buddhism.
According to the legend, the statues are of star-crossed lovers Salsal and Shahmama, whose doomed love ends tragically and they remain forever separated, petrified in stone, looking across the Bamiyan valley. These historical monuments were destroyed by the Taliban in early 2001.
While he may paint a disturbing image of the country he left behind, he describes it as a cathartic practice which allows him to process the difficult scenes he has witnessed.
Since his arrival he has also continued to draw on his tablet -- despite moving countries, this remains a constant in his life. "If I don’t draw for a few weeks or longer, I feel like I've lost a part of myself."