Escaping the Taliban - the story of a young female Afghan peace acitivist
How does a mother feel when she regrets her youngest daughter’s and her sons’ achievements just because she wants all of them to survive Taliban’s target?
It was August 15, 2021, a desperate, scared, heartbroken and lonely Afghan young woman found herself stuck in a chaotic road of Western Kabul from where the Afghan National Army vehicles began to escape the Taliban’s arrival in the city.
It was early morning of the same day when I left home with fear and desperation since the majority of the provinces were taken over by the Taliban, and Kabul was expected to be next. As usual I had my face mask and sunglasses on my face as a security measure not to be recognized by the terrorist groups who started targeting journalists and activists in 2020. Taking different routes to the office and other places and changing the vehicles and timing on a daily basis was another alternative to keep myself alive. Although I was cautious of my safety and my family’s security, I figured that I made an unwise decision that morning to leave home. I was receiving phone calls and messages from my family members, colleagues and friends who were advising me to take a secure route to return home safely as the Taliban's arrival to Kabul was circulating on media channels. I was fully lost and panicked where and how to escape. As many people were rushing towards public transport, I unconsciously followed them and got to a bus which luckily crossed the street I was living in. When I took off the bus I forgot to pay bus fare to the driver assistant as my mind was stuck with my activism journey that could make me a potentil direct target to the Taliban. It was not only my activism that could legitimize the Taliban’s target, but it was also my gender, my ethnicity as a Hazara Shia, the community that has been tortured and harassed since 1996. The level and tactics of targeting Hazaras have become more violent and ever present in the last few years as girl schools, sport centers, masjids, hospitals, wedding halls and other public gatherings have been targeted by the Taliban and ISIS.
I turned my face when the driver assistant aggressively yelled at me why I did not pay him. I ran to him fast to pay while my hands and my whole body were trembling out of fear. As I rushed to the entrance door of my home, I realized that I received an email and text message advising me to hide, to tear, delete and burn all my documents that could threaten me even more. As my hands were shaking, I was tearing the photo I had with H.E. the former First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani. My colleague took a photo of us together as a memory when I joined her office in early 2018. We all were tearing the photos hanging on the walls which were part of our memories of our achievements. Then I searched for my American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) student ID - the university was attacked in 2016 by the Taliban, and I was one of the survivors. As education has always been close to my heart, I was hesitant to damage my student card, so I asked my mother to hide it somewhere where nobody can be suspicious of. Then I gave my office ID card to my mother to hide it too as I was emotionally so close to my job in one of the biggest peacebuilding INGOs. While my mother, sister and I were destroying all hard and soft copies of my academic and career achievements, I was feeling more desperate than ever. The same mother who was proud of me as her youngest daughter who fulfilled her dreams and was doing good for society was burying her lovely daughters’ gains and achievements.
How does it really feel to find such a desperate mother to bury her children’s achievements just to save their lives? How does a mother feel when she is forced to bury her son’s favourite colourful socks when he used to wear them for his official visits? My mother buried my older brother’s collection of socks, who is a well-known journalist working for one of the biggest American newspaper. She was worried because when the Taliban searches our house and finds the socks, they might suspect that an official was living there. It took us hours to clear the house from any documents that could make the Taliban suspicious of our identity as a family who raised activists and journalists.
How does a mother feel when she regrets her youngest daughter and her sons’ achievements just because she wants all of them to survive being the Taliban’s target?
Removing the documents was not a full guarantee for our safety as some reports by the local people and few media organizations confirmed the Taliban’s intention to start searching homes for former government officials, activists and journalists. Therefore, I was stuck at home as a young Talib was monitoring our street for any suspicious movements. Also, I was advised not to go out and deactivate all my social media accounts, except for my email and WhatsApp. Social media was an easy source for the Taliban to track their targets. Since I appeared on multiple media platforms for my advocacy and peacebuilding efforts as part of my women rights mission, it was easy for the Taliban to recognize me.
It took me ten days to be evacuated as the process by the different sources started immediately after the fall of Kabul. I cannot even describe how I could go through those darkest days of my life. Since everything was getting worse and worse day by day as promises made by the Taliban during the first few days of their takeover turned only into lies, the chaos at the airport, and lack of management to evacuate people at risk, I was overstressed, traumatized and desperate. These all led me to experience sleep deprivation, lack of willingness to eat food, intense hair loose and losing weight. I could rarely sleep for more than two hours, but when I did, it was full of nightmares. Reading one of my favourite novels, which was the only book left in my room as the other books we buried were political and critiquing the Taliban authored by foreign writers, this one book of mine was the only way to distract myself from the hell I was going through. Also, there were many good friends of mine from European countries, the US, and different parts of the world who were constantly checking in on me and were trying to make my evacuation happen. I am whole-heartedly grateful to all those individuals whom I met and worked with in international conferences in Helsinki, Brussels and Vienna when I was invited there to represent my fellow young women. I am also thankful to the amazing people I was connected with and met virtually in online conferences and events.
There were many attempts to help me get out of the country through the evacuation process based on my affiliation with European countries. It was August 24th late afternoon when I received a notification from the European Union staff who has been coordinating the evacuation of many Afghans, and they announced I could travel to a specific place. At that time, I was working on a project that was funded by the EU. My trip from home to the airport was one of the biggest challenges because a Talib soldier was monitoring our street, and a few meters away there was a police station that was guarded by some young Talib members. The weather got dark by the time we figured out how to get me out of home safely. In order to ensure my safe travel to the evacuation meeting point, my mother decided to accompany me. She also quietly asked my young male cousin to accompany us since it was not safe for women to get out of their houses on their own when it is getting dark. My mother and I covered our faces pretending it was part of our hijab and we both wore long black dresses. My mother, who has always been my greatest support, coordinated the scenario because I was not mentally stable enough to even think about it. She asked me not to take a suitcase or backpack which could have been a sign of travelling to the Taliban, so she only packed my small hand bag with only a single cloth of mine and some dry fruits. I turned off my phone and put that in my trousers pocket and we all left home when the Talib soldier left our street for a short break. Before we left home, my mother advised my cousin to tell the Taliban soldiers that we would take her to hospital in case they’d ask us where we were going. She took her medicine with herself as proof. So we took a taxi to one of my friends’ house that was in the neighbourhood of a hospital. We went to my friend’s home and then after a few hours, we took another car to the spot where we were asked to go. My mother’s security advice worked and I reached the destination safely.
How lucky I am to have such a strong mother! Or how lucky I am to have a mother who pretended she was strong enough to send her youngest daughter alone to another continent to stay alive. This example of her resilience reminded me of the lessons I learned from her in my childhood. Back in Pakistan, during my summer holidays, I was helping my mother with her tailoring. She was a very talented tailor and sometimes we doubted if she was illiterate because she learned reading numbers from tape measure on her own. Since many parties were taking place during the summers, my mother would sometimes work till midnight and would not have enough sleep. This encouraged me to be curious of her talent in tailoring and seek ways to learn it from her to help. So, I voluntarily started helping her with some basic tasks, like ironing and buttoning the dresses though she always encouraged me to focus on my studies even if it was holidays. She was not only a mother to me, but she was a good teacher and friend. Whenever I did something wrong, she would tell me that making mistakes is the beginning of a learning journey. She also taught me how it really feels to be financially independent. She used to always reward me. She would pay me a little amount of money per week just to inform me that my assistance mattered to her more than I could imagine. For the first few weeks, she did not tell me how I could/should spend it because she wanted to see how I could manage as a little girl. I was spending half of it for my school stuff and was saving the rest. She admired my finance management and promised to buy me a tiny gold necklace. She bought it in order to remind me of my financial achievement as a child, and investing my savings on gold/jewelleries. Wearing the necklace was not only part of my fashion, but it also reminded me of my financial capability in my earliest age. I shared my feelings with her, and she told me how she always felt to be financially independent as a woman. It was one of the best lessons I learned from my mother. To be financially independent as a young woman in male-dominated society has always given me extra confidence. But this time, she taught me where and when to be strong enough. She hugged me and wished me all the best with the toughest journey I was taking, but I was struggling between leaving my mother and sister behind and surviving on my own. It was not my first time travelling alone, but it was one the very first unusual and the toughest trip I have ever had.
It was midnight August 25th that people whose names were in the evacuees' list got inside the buses. I was the only female member who was alone and it was disturbing that people over there were repeatedly asking me why I was alone - it is unusual for an Afghan young woman to travel alone. It was only me sitting on a double seat alone, when a woman came to me and asked if she could sit next to me. I nodded and she sat. Then she kept asking me why I did not take any of my family members, how my family allowed me to travel alone as a young woman, and if I was single. Her questions were making my mental status worse and worse when I was already traumatized and stressed. We all spent more than 13 hours inside the buses with no sleep; food and washroom since some roads towards the airport were blocked and the driver was changing the route. When we were approaching the airport, we were facing many young Taliban soldiers who were firing guns in the air to threaten people outside of the airport and to discourage them from reaching the main gate. It was a total nightmare since there was no guarantee that the Taliban could not attack or open fire onto our buses. During those 13 hours of travel, I pulled the bus curtain open once and I saw from the tiny corner of the window a very young Talib soldier who was yelling and pointing a gun at a crowd outside the airport. Although it took me only five seconds to see him, I remember how young he was. He looked seventeen or eighteen years old. Seeing a very young Talib holding a gun reminded me of the compromises young people have been making on both sides when it comes to conflict-zone situations. He was a young man who gave up on his life to become a terrorist just to take the lives of hundreds of innocent Afghans. While I was a young woman who gave up on her homeland just to keep herself alive. How heart-breaking of a scene it was, and this is only one of dozens.
It was noon August 25th when we got inside the airport. And it took us a good few hours to get into a military plane that landed in the Islamabad airport. We spent a night there and then took commercial flights to Madrid.
Once a journalist during an interview asked me what I got with myself as a memory from my country. It reminded me of my mother’s beautiful white headscarf which I wore to the interview to feel the smell of my mother. This white beautiful scarf is the only memory I have from my family, and writing my story makes me miss what I left in my country where I was dreaming of big dreams. How does it feel leaving your country is the only option you have to stay alive?