New Zealand-born Al Jazeera journalist Charlotte Bellis witnessed history unfold on Sunday with the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban. Her remarkable reporting, and intimate contacts within the infamous fundamentalist Islamist regime, has earned her global praise. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer speaks to Bellis about being on the frontline of history.
Morning coffee and breakfast overlooking the tranquil hotel garden. A small oasis of calm.
Charlotte Bellis takes a moment, adjusts her headscarf, and heads for the lobby, ready for another big news day.
But this morning is different. The usual familiar faces are not around. Security vanished overnight. The mood has changed.
Taliban militants, in traditional garb, with colourful sneakers and dusty AK-47s, now patrol the gate. She reads the hard, lined jihadi faces.
"Good morning, how are we?" she says, ducking into the waiting car.
This is Afghanistan's new normal. And 35-year-old Bellis is determined to keep telling it to the world.
Christchurch-born Bellis, a former junior tennis star, has been coming to Afghanistan, from her permanent base in Doha, with Al Jazeera since 2017, usually for month-long deployments.
This time, she landed on July 14. It was meant to be a fortnight stint.
But over the past month, the country dissolved into a brief civil war before near-total Taliban takeover, creating some of the most heart-breaking, and no doubt enduring, images in modern history.
Even when she first arrived, just after America's sudden and dramatic pull-out from the giant Bagram airbase, leaving behind millions of dollars worth of vehicles, equipment and munitions, she was met by anxious local contacts. Things were already changing.
"It was on the radar that they [Taliban] had momentum," Bellis says.
"But the thinking and intel then was that they might take Kabul in two years. So we didn't have much concern about being in Kabul."
The Taliban had started taking far-flung outposts. Word was that they planned to take the rural gains back to the negotiation table as leverage for political haggling.
But when Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, an anthropologist who'd been in power since 2014, ignored their bargaining, they cranked up the pressure and started moving towards bigger towns and cities.
Again, Ghani wouldn't budge. The US then started doing counter airstrikes, which Bellis says forced the Taliban deep into cities, knowing that the Americans wouldn't bomb them there for fear of civilian casualties.
"And then everything just fell to pieces," Bellis recalls.
The Taliban played smartly and strategically, she says, getting elders and governors on board early, as they took over towns, districts, cities and provinces all over the country.
It took just 10 days from the first city falling to the capital Kabul succumbing to Taliban control.
Bellis was right in the thick of the action. Years of journalistic legwork was paying off.
Based in Doha, where political negotiations have been ongoing for the past three years, she's slowly become a familiar face and got to know some of the Taliban's political leadership key players, who are also headquartered in the Qatari capital.
Over time, they'd started to trust each other.
"The Taliban are painted as a bunch of brutal, medieval terrorists but at the top there are some people who are quite moderate, progressive and rational," Bellis says.
"So it's easier to have a relationship with those types of people, who are more relatable and are happy to talk and have a dynamic conversation."
She would meet them for tea, even have some around to her house, where they would have open discussions.
"I'd say, 'What's the game plan for this? How do you plan for that? In the West, that's not going to fly if you do this, and if you want progress, you won't be able to do that, people won't put up with it'.
"And they would take that and ask what I would suggest. They are actually open to conversations about trying to make Afghanistan better. That's not to say there aren't brutal, medieval killers within the organisation, there are. But it's not blanket."
On Sunday, Bellis was live on Al Jazeera reporting that the Taliban were on the outskirts of the city.
The capital was surrounded on three sides.
But she never thought the Taliban would actually enter the city of 4.5 million nervous inhabitants.
"I don't think they thought they would enter Kabul either," she says.
"They just wanted to encircle Kabul and then continue on with negotiations. And they did actually have negotiations with Ghani but he pulled the plug [and fled the country]."
That Sunday morning, in speaking with Taliban fighters, Bellis was assured they were under strict instructions from leadership in Doha that they wouldn't be entering Kabul.
She was even forwarded a voice-message from a top military commander, which had been sent to all the frontline fighters, which said: "You have no permission to enter Kabul".
And when Ghani fled, she started getting messages from the Taliban saying, "It's all falling to pieces. It's chaos. We're coming".
"Then we braced ourselves," Bellis says.
The fall of Kabul happened in a matter of hours.
Bellis filmed and watched from the rooftop of Al Jazeera's Kabul bureau.
Steady streams of huge American Chinook helicopters – the unique sound of the twin rotors, one of the soundtracks of the two-decades war in Afghanistan coming over loud and clear - were seen ferrying to and from the US Embassy, rescuers staffers and other personnel. Black Hawks and Apache helicopters were shooting heat flares overhead.
Smoke could be seen filling the air as Americans burned top-secret documents.
Bellis told viewers she could hear gunfire in the streets, then an explosion.
They were rolling live and she was on her phone trying to get a handle on what was unfolding. Rumours were swirling. Word was coming that the Taliban were at the presidential palace. It appeared the takeover was complete.
But it wasn't until she was driving home late that night that the gravity of what she'd witnessed hit her.
"Instead of police and special forces on the street, there were Taliban at the checkpoints and I realised they had infiltrated the city," Bellis says.
Is it scary?
"I don't feel scared but that's because I have good contacts with the leadership and they've told me that they'll look after me. But most other Western journalists have evacuated and they've been quite panicked. There are very few journalists left, they're mostly freelancers, who are hanging on."
She's keeping her wits about her though. And is on high alert for any danger signs.
There is still a settling-in period, and not all Taliban followers can be counted on to toe the party line.
After the Taliban takeover, the hotel security teams have vanished – replaced by Taliban militants.
The other day she said good morning to a Taliban member on the gate, who replied with a hostile stare.
"I thought, 'Okay, that's one person I'll be avoiding in the future'."
On Tuesday, Bellis and her team went to Kabul airport and were told it was too dangerous.
Shots were being fired into the air. Fighters were whipping civilians. Heavy weaponry was on display.
The streets are filled with American Humvees with Taliban fighters wielding old AK-47s.
"They've commandeered everything that Americans purchased for the Afghan security forces and are now using it all to run the city."
Bellis doesn't believe there is a top-order directive for interpreters and others who worked with foreign forces to be targeted in reprisal attacks.
She understands there is a desire for amnesty so the organisation can move on.
However, conflicts on a local level are still happening, including revenge killings.
Already in the past week, there has been a shift in attitudes on the ground, particularly towards women.
And although they're not as conservative as they were in the 1990s, when female journalists were banned, on Tuesday, Bellis got "told off" by her colleagues fearing trouble because her ankles were showing.
Another female journalist she spoke with had received a phone call from the Taliban saying she needed to cover her face – that headscarves were not enough.
Bellis, however, believes she needs to "push back" a little on the attitudes, and continue as they were before.
"If we allow them to dictate terms on how we dress at this point, it's a slippery slope," she says.
At the Taliban's first press conference since taking power, Bellis was just one of three female reporters inside.
She wore a headscarf and a dress where "you could see my calves and ankles".
"I got heat for it but I am not apologetic."
And it didn't stop her getting in the first question, asking about women's rights, attracting global press for her boldness and bravery.
Bellis is still reporting on the ground and doesn't know when how long she will stay.
Already, however, the gravity of events is not lost on her.
"It's been the most defining month of my life – easily," she says.
"When I came here, I knew it would be significant but what has played out is surreal. It has changed my life."