KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban on Monday marked a year since they seized the Afghan capital in a rapid takeover that triggered a hasty escape of the nation's Western-backed leaders, sent the economy into a tailspin and fundamentally transformed the country.
Bearded Taliban fighters, some hoisting rifles or the white banners of their movement, staged victory parades on foot, bicycles and motorcycles in the streets of Kabul. One group marched past the former US Embassy, chanting "Long live Islam" and "Death to America."
A year after the dramatic day, much has changed in Afghanistan. The former insurgents struggle to govern and remain internationally isolated. The economic downturn has driven millions more Afghans into poverty and even hunger, as the flow of foreign aid slowed to a trickle.
The UN humanitarian chief for Afghanistan warned that unless donors provide $2.6 billion very soon the country faces "pure catastrophe" over the coming winter with millions of lives at stake.
Ramiz Alakbarov told a virtual news conference from Kabul that the UN's $4.4 billion humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan this year has received only about $1.8 billion, leaving a $2.6 billion gap in funding for desperately needed food and other aid.
He said over 90 million people in Afghanistan are "food insecure," around 35 million are living in poverty, and 6.6 million are classified in the emergency level just one step from famine.
Alakbarov said he just visited several hospitals and saw "heartbreaking scenes" of malnourished children who will not survive the winter without additional support.
While the Afghan people are known for their resilience and ability to survive, he said, unfortunately "negative coping strategies" including the selling of organs and the selling of children will be seen again "if support is not provided."
Meanwhile, hard-liners appear to hold sway in the Taliban-led government, which imposed severe restrictions on access to education and jobs for girls and women, despite initial promises to the contrary. A year on, teenage girls are still barred from school and women are required to cover themselves head-to-toe in public, with only the eyes showing.
Some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women and underground schools in homes have sprung up.
Natalia Kanem, executive director of the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency, said in a statement that Afghan females must not be forgotten.
"As the world faces multiple, overlapping crises, we must not forget the women and girls of Afghanistan. When women's and girls' basic rights are denied, we are all diminished," she said.
A year ago, thousands of Afghans had rushed to Kabul International Airport to flee the Taliban amid the US military's chaotic withdrawal from Kabul after 20 years of war _ America's longest conflict.
Some flights resumed relatively quickly after those chaotic days. On Monday, a handful of commercial flights were scheduled to land and take off from a runway that last summer saw Afghan men clinging to the wheels of planes taking off, some falling to their death.
Schoolyards stood empty Monday as the Taliban announced a public holiday to mark the day, which they refer to as "The Proud Day of Aug. 15" and the "First Anniversary of the Return to Power."
"Reliance on God and the support of the people brought this great victory and freedom to the country," wrote Abdul Wahid Rayan, the head of the Taliban-run Bakhtar News Agency. "Today, Aug. 15, marks the victory of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan against America and its allies occupation of Afghanistan."
During a gathering to mark the anniversary, the Taliban deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, offered congratulations to "the entire nation on the day of the conquest of Kabul, which was the beginning of the complete end of the occupation."
In remarks broadcast live by state radio and TV, he boasted of what he described as "great achievements" under the Taliban, such as an alleged end of corruption, improved security and banned poppy cultivation.
On the eve of the anniversary, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani defended what he said was a split-second decision to flee, saying he wanted to avoid the humiliation of surrender to the insurgents. He told CNN that on the morning of Aug. 15, 2021, with the Taliban at the gates of Kabul, he was the last one at the presidential palace after his guards had disappeared.
Tomas Niklasson, the European Union's special envoy to Afghanistan, said the bloc of nations remains committed to the Afghan people and to "stability, prosperity and sustainable peace in Afghanistan and the region."
"This will require an inclusive political process with full, equal and meaningful participation of all Afghan men and women and respect for human rights," Niklasson wrote. (AP)