21 MAY 2022
HOW WE ESCAPED THE TALIBAN
After the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, a daring plan was made to get some of the most vulnerable female students to safety in the West
Photo: DANIAL SHAH
Marzia, 14, was at school when she heard the news. “I didn’t believe it,” she says in her near-perfect English. “We knew the Taliban had taken over other cities; I never thought they would reach Kabul so quickly.” But when she went home that evening her elder sister, Najma, 28, who had just tried and failed to withdraw her life savings from the bank, confirmed it.Najma, old enough to remember the last brutal era of Taliban rule in the late Nineties – the public stonings, the beheadings, the severing of hands – knew they would have to leave immediately. Not only were the family ethnic Hazaran (infidels in the eyes of the Taliban), Marzia was known via YouTube as a talented singer, a grave offence under sharia.“The first thing we did was burn all our documents,” Marzia continues, absently picking at the edge of her chador. “We even burnt all my father’s clothes, because even though he had passed away, he was known to have worked with westerners.” Within 48 hours, with just one small backpack apiece, the family had left their home in western Kabul for good. “I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to my friends,” she says, her ashen, preternaturally adult composure suddenly faltering at the memory.
I am with my colleague, the author Bella Pollen and we are sitting in a bleak, high-ceilinged room in a safe house on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, with the dusty afternoon sun streaming through a cracked window. In one corner, at right angles, are two tattered, pancake-thin mattresses; in the middle of the floor, there’s hot tea in glasses and a bowl of hard caramels to use, Afghan-style, as a sweetener.
Marzia is part of a 179-strong community of schoolgirls, human rights activists and advocates of female education who collectively made the perilous overland journey between Afghanistan and Pakistan last August. Like most of the girls, she had been a pupil of Marefat, a school that my mother, Frances D’Souza, co-founded in 2002 in a poverty-stricken district of western Kabul after the end of the last Taliban occupation. The brainchild of Aziz Royesh, whose dream had always been to teach his fellow Hazaras the tenets of democracy, Marefat started out as a bombed-out, roofless shelter with just 30 pupils. By the time Kabul fell in August 2021, it had 4,000 pupils, more than half of whom were girls. Many of them would go on to university in the UK and the US.
It was in 2009 when I first visited. (Reluctantly, because my beat back then as a writer for Vogue was more handbags and hairdressers than war zones.) Instantly beguiled by Royesh’s irrepressible optimism and the bold curiosity of the girls, I wrote about it for this magazine as soon as I came back, compelled to spread the message of hope. Having always regarded my mum’s work (heading up human rights organisations such as Article 19, the International Relief and Development Institute and so forth) with studied disinterest, something had clicked for me on that first visit. I suddenly got why she did what she did. Or rather, the elastic band I’d pulled on so hard over the years to separate myself from her and her worthiness slackened. What I am trying to say is that, if it weren’t for my mum, I wouldn’t be here. It is almost as though I owe it to her, campaigning to help get these girls to safety. The baton, as it were, has been passed on.
The “mission” to help the girls escape took shape last June when Royesh emailed to say he was in trouble. Only weeks earlier, a neighbouring school in Dashti Barchi, a stone’s throw from Marefat, had been bombed, brutally massacring more than 100 Hazaran pupils, most of whom were girls. The Taliban had started sending him detailed death threats, promising that he and his family were next. If Marefat wanted to stay standing, clearly Royesh, who had become such a prominent figure not just in the community but around the world, had to leave. Did I know anyone who could help?
In the interim, his eldest son, Abuzar, whom I’d first met when he was a shy teenager at Marefat, but who was now a tech entrepreneur in Palo Alto, had consulted his fellow Stanford graduate and entrepreneur, Justin Hefter, to see if he had any ideas. Abuzar also contacted his friend Jeff Stern, the author of the New York Times bestseller The Last Thousand, about Marefat. He was in touch too with my friend Bella, who first visited Kabul with me in 2014 and has been a firm supporter ever since.
After we all got on that first Zoom call together, four more people joined: Abuzar’s wife, the journalist Tahera Hedayati; Afghan documentary-maker Mohammad Behroozian and his wife, Manizhe, a women’s rights advocate, both based in Chicago; and Jennifer Selendy, a friend of Abuzar’s who headed her own law firm in New York. Thus the 30 Birds Foundation, as we called ourselves, was formed, and we joined the scramble of NGOs, alt-right buccaneers and disparate rookie groups like ourselves to “extract” as many desperate Afghans out of the country as we could.
Royesh and his family (thanks mostly to Hefter and Stern’s contacts in the US State Department and a group of former Marines) made it out of Kabul on a US airlift to Qatar in early September last year (they are now resettled in Washington DC). But what about the girls and their families?
It was a painful task, choosing who got to go and who didn’t. Finally they whittled down their Excel spreadsheet to 450, those from the Marefat community who they believed to be in most danger if they stayed, and divided it, for the sake of logistics, into two groups. After narrowly escaping the bomb attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in late August that killed more than 180 people – Hefter and Abuzar had managed to get the first group on to a US evacuation flight bound either for Qatar or Albania – the troop, more than 200 strong, formed a loose caravan and made the journey north from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif, where we hoped to fly them out to a neighbouring “lily pad” (which one, we didn’t yet know) as soon as the Taliban opened the airport there.
When it became clear the Taliban weren’t going to let the Kam Air flight we had raised money to charter to leave the tarmac, we decided the only way out was overland to neighbouring Pakistan. With the help of a human rights organisation in Toronto and the Prince’s Trust in London, the Canadian government agreed to resettle the group. With temporary visas issued through Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they reached the Torkham Pass on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in early October. Less than four weeks later, they arrived in Canada, with Selendy and Hefter (along with a staff sergeant of the Saskatoon Police Service, who had served in Afghanistan) at the airport to welcome them.
The second half of the group have not been so lucky. Delayed in transit, their visa applications were submitted later, and eight long months after making it to the border, they are stuck in seemingly endless limbo in Islamabad while they wait to see if they too will be accepted by Canada (last year, President Trudeau committed to accepting 40,000 Afghan refugees under its immigration and humanitarian resettlement programmes). Unlike the first batch, who were given government assistance, this second group, we were told by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada department, had to be privately sponsored.
In order to do this, we needed to raise C$3.6 million, more than £2 million (the cost of supporting the group for a year). Miraculously, we raised the amount in just five weeks. But clearly we still need to raise more. While the long and arduous process of vetting their visa applications takes place, the group need to be fed and sheltered. Medical bills have to be paid – the last time I was here, one of the group had to be rushed to hospital to give birth. There is no guarantee that visas will be granted, nor how long it will take. We’ve been assured by Canada that those fleeing the war in Ukraine (1.4 million Canadians identify as being of Ukrainian heritage) fall into a different visa bracket. But Afghans are used to being at the bottom of the pile and patience is what every refugee has to learn.
Numbering 150 and predominantly female, this second group includes footballers, martial artists, performers, human rights activists, even skateboarders, all of whose lives would be at risk under Taliban rule. Forty-nine of them between the ages of 18 and 23 have had to travel alone, forced to leave their families behind.
Among them is Dyana, 23 – a pretty, bespectacled medical student who acts as an unofficial “mother hen” to the girls. When Kabul fell she had been interning in the emergency department of the city’s main hospital while she continued her degree in anaesthesiology. She tells how her father had insisted, when the news broke, that she stay, despite her desire to get out in order to continue studying. “He said it was my duty with my medical knowledge to serve my people,” she says. “But then something changed his mind.”
One night, while she was working late, four Taliban soldiers strode in unannounced and made their way to an operating theatre where a team of foreign national doctors were about to perform a procedure. “It happened so quickly the first thing I thought was, why aren’t these people wearing surgical masks and protective uniforms? The second thing I thought was to remove any trace of lipstick I was wearing.”
Hiding behind a cabinet of medical supplies she watched as they beat up the foreign doctors on duty, enraged by the sight of men and women working side by side. “After that, my father told me, ‘OK, you have to go. It is not safe for you to be here any more.’ ”
As the morning wears on, more women and girls shyly throng the room to relate their stories to me and Selendy, until they are spilling out into the corridor. Daanya, 28, here with her two younger sisters, fled after being forced into marriage with her cousin; Nek Bakht, 16, here with her mother and siblings, explains how they had to leave her elder sister behind, not even having time to tell her they were going. Later, her mother approaches me with Nek Bakht’s kohl-ed younger sister in her arms, attempting, in halting English, to ask if there is any chance of helping her eldest daughter and her husband escape. Neither of us can bring ourselves to tell her the truth, which is no. Hope, even the faintest sliver of it, is what keeps so many of the group going.
Malika, 19, has brought the burqa she had to wear for the crossing in order to go through all the Taliban checkpoints unnoticed. A harsh reminder of what her country has descended back into, and also a memento that ultimately saved her life.
Najma tells of the perilous journey from Kabul to the border – all the girls having to carry their backpacks under their burqas and hide their phones down their underwear where the Taliban would never check. “A soldier stopped our bus and wanted to know why we were all leaving. I told him the first thing that came to mind – that everybody was sick. ‘How can you all be sick?’ he said. He was right! How could we be? I was crying with relief when he finally waved us on.”
Shakila tells me how, on reaching the border and holding up her documents for inspection, a soldier beat her back for accidently exposing the flesh of her forearm. “The Taliban do not even consider us human,” shrugs Saaleha, 22, an engineering student who looks like a movie star with her slanting Hazaran features and meticulously made-up eyes.
When I had been in Islamabad six weeks earlier – Bella Pollen was with me for this trip – everyone was huddling around two-bar heaters, bought in the local market and used, in the absence of working stoves, to heat saucepans of water. This time around it is sweltering, the rickety fans above us doing nothing to circulate the stale, heavy air. It is the third hostel they have moved into since they arrived.
The neighbourhood is Pashtun and deeply conservative (like much of the area immediately outside the city of Islamabad) and the locals have made it clear the group are not welcome. Mirwais, 28, the chief community coordinator, who forfeited his chance to go to Canada with the first batch in order to see the second one to safety, tells how the girls have rocks thrown at their windows and laser torches shone into their rooms at night. In order to lay low, he has reluctantly advised them to wear burqas whenever they leave the hostel. A journalist whose outspoken views on female rights had made him a target back home, he hated having to suggest this. Wasn’t that why they risked their lives to come here? But he knows they have no choice. “We are Afghan refugees. Most of us are Hazaran. Here we don’t have any voice.” In a gesture of solidarity, he and the men have said they will substitute T-shirts for traditional dress.
Meanwhile, with the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, the plight of Afghan women goes from bad to worse. Not only have the “Taliban 2.0” reneged on their deal to allow girls back to school, they have enforced segregation in public parks and forbidden women to get on flights without a male chaperone. Three suicide bombs went off at nearby schools last month. Two weeks ago, the Taliban decreed that all women must wear the burqa in public (most already wear a veil, but many cover only their hair), and made their male “guardians” the enforcers – if women’s faces are seen in public, the men will now be fined and jailed. The order suggested that, if possible, women should not leave their homes at all.
As the country ricochets back into the Stone Age, 14 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation and families that were once comfortably off are being forced to sell their daughters in order to eat.
“If I had stayed, I would have been forced to marry an older man with money,” says Marzia. “Many girls I know had to do that.”
Despite the welcoming smiles, a collective dejectedness has set in since I was last here. Some look unwell. As a deathly pale Nek Bakht suddenly excuses herself from the room, her hand clutched to her mouth, Dyana matter-of-factly explains how quite a few of the group have been hospitalised because of the contaminated water. Eczema is rife, especially among the girls whose exposure to the outdoors is limited.
It is their mental health, though, that is most worrying. Particularly among the girls who had to come here alone. One, who has asked for her name not to be revealed, has been hospitalised twice for attempting suicide. Most corrosive to the general spirit, it feels, is not so much the grimness of the surroundings, or the very real threats to their safety from the locals, as the sense of rootlessness, the lack of any place to call their own.
“I feel a little like a bird trying to find a tree for a nest,” explains Najma, pale just like her younger sister, but gaunter than I remember. “However, each time I find one, it gets burnt down and I have to find another tree, and then another. Where do we call home any more? Where?”
“It’s hard for human beings not to belong anywhere,” adds Marzia, “and sometimes we cannot help losing hope.”
We really need someone from the team permanently on the ground here, but all of us have jobs and families who are already resentful about the amount of time we are spending on this. Not for the first time I feel bad about the guilt trip my sister and I laid on our mum for not being around more when we were growing up. It didn’t occur to us as teenagers that all the political prisoners and earthquake survivors she was always off helping might have needs greater than ours.
On our last day, we sit in a circle with a couple of boxes of gulab jamun sweets and pistachio-studded halwa and talk more about their ambitions and what they want to do if and when they reach Canada.
Sadaf, a budding entrepreneur, tells how she is following the reality TV show Shark Tank on her phone to learn how to write up a business proposal. Humaira, 21, a tall elegant girl – and a survivor of that school bombing last year that killed several of her friends – wants to study fashion. Malika wants to be a journalist. Shirin, 18, whose china doll features belie her footballing skills (she was on the verge of being picked for the national team just before Kabul fell), is desperate just to be able to go outside and play football again. Dyana wants to continue her master’s degree and qualify as an anaesthesiologist. Most of all, though, she dreams of makingher own choices.
“It is up to me whom I marry, when I get married, when I get pregnant. It is up to me whether I get married at all. We need to be the decision-makers in our lives.”
To help the students with a donation, go to 30birdsfoundation.org
Some names have been changed.
Since Christa D’Souza filed her report, 13 applications to travel to Canada have been successfully submitted. The foundation is still working on more than 170 others.