Afghanistan's Taliban government on Tuesday marked the second anniversary of their return to power, with supporters celebrating as critics denounced ever-tightening restrictions on women's rights.
Flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the Taliban's formal name for the country — fluttered across the capital Kabul, which fell on August 15, 2021, after the U.S.-backed government collapsed and its leaders fled into exile.
In the two years since, Taliban authorities have imposed their strict interpretation of Islam, with women bearing the brunt of laws the United Nations has termed "gender apartheid".
A statement from the authorities hailed a victory that was able to "pave the way for the establishment of the Islamic system in Afghanistan".
"The conquest of Kabul proved once again that no one can control the proud nation of Afghanistan" and that "no invader will be allowed to threaten the independence and freedom" of the country, it said.
Hundreds of Taliban supporters, from elderly men to young boys, gathered near the abandoned U.S. embassy building, one of the many that now stands empty — the Taliban government is still not formally recognised by any other country.
U.S.-made military vehicles, claimed by the new Taliban rulers when they were left behind by international forces after a weeks-long chaotic withdrawal, rolled past the ajar gates of the fortified embassy walls.
In the city of Herat in the west, a crowd of Taliban supporters chanted: "Death to the Europeans, death to the Westerners, long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, death to the Americans."
In Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban movement and from where reclusive Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada rules by decree, a military parade was cancelled and then moved to a military compound, officials told journalists.
Kandahar resident Agha Sahib praised Akhundzada's leadership, saying he had unified the country.
"When he issues a decree from (Kandahar), it is accepted... all over the 34 provinces of Afghanistan," said the 24-year-old who works for the interior ministry.
The decrees have not been welcomed equally by all Afghans, however, nor by the international community, which is divided over whether to engage with the Taliban authorities.
Restrictions on the rights of women — squeezed from public spaces, employment and education — have been key obstacles to recognition and aid, which was slashed as foreign nations were wary of dealing with Kabul's new rulers.
The country's economic and humanitarian crisis is a stark worry for many Afghans, even if, like Herat rickshaw driver Abdulwase Qadri, they express relief at the end of the fighting.
"Security has been provided in these two years," the 35-year-old said. "But the work environment is not favourable for young people."
Women in particular have seen avenues to work closed, most recently with the shuttering of thousands of beauty parlours across the country.
Non-governmental groups have marked the anniversary by again denouncing the Taliban authorities' treatment of women.
"We strongly condemn ongoing and escalating gross human rights violations by the Taliban especially against women and girls and the lack of an effective response from the international community," said a joint statement from 10 rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Zholia Parsi, one of those who joined in the rare and brief demonstrations by women against Taliban rule ahead of the anniversary, urged more action from the international community.
"Afghanistan has fallen into a pit of darkness, and nobody is paying attention to it," she said.
On Tuesday, in the capital of neighbouring Pakistan, more than 100 Afghan women protested, carrying a poster that read: "15 August Black Day in Afghanistan".
For Kabul resident Farah, who had to abandon her medical studies under new laws, the anniversary was also a grim reminder.
"I am facing an unknown future and deprived of the right to an education, and at the same time I see the Taliban celebrating their victory today," she told AFP. "I see a dark future for myself."
But it was a bright day for her male peer, 21-year-old Mortaza Khairi, who is still studying medicine and attended a celebration at Kabul University on Tuesday hosted by the ministry of higher education.
"We need to celebrate today," he said. "Today marks the end of the occupation in our country."