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The Great Escape

by Sumeera Riaz

The Afghan women footballers upon their arrival to Pakistan. Photo courtesy Rokit Foundation

For a group of young Afghan women and their families, Pakistan serves as doorway to a future free of their country’s new government

In the days leading up to the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, hundreds of Afghans—dreading a return to the brutal Taliban regime of the 1990s—gathered at the Kabul airport in hopes of securing limited spots on evacuation flights. Among this throng were members of Afghanistan’s girls’ development youth football team, most of them in their teens, who had been left behind when the national women and girls’ squads were evacuated from the war-torn state.

Unlike a majority of the Afghans gathered at the airport, the young football players and their families had been assured evacuation to Doha with the support of the Qatari government. Their hopes for safety, however, were dashed when a suicide bomber affiliated with the ISIS-K militant group targeted the airport entrance, leaving over 183 people dead, and prompted the U.S. to close all gates to the facility. With little recourse left, the team bunkered down in Kabul for another 10 days, pleading with foreign groups to help them escape Afghanistan before any potential backlash.

“Their association with women’s football in Afghanistan and their participation in national public football tournaments” places them at great risk, read a letter the campaigners sent to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Enter Sardar Naveed Haider. A former executive member of the Pakistan Football Federation and ambassador for NGO Football for Peace, he was contacted by Khalida Popalzai, a former captain of the Afghanistan women’s team, to help evacuate the stranded athletes. Women footballers from across Afghanistan sought Khalida’s help, Haider tells Newsweek; she had earlier helped convince Australia and Portugal to evacuate the national squad and grant asylum to two girls’ teams, respectively.

“She responded quickly and compiled their verification data and engaged international organizations,” said Haider, adding that three organizations—Football for Peace; the Leeds United Football Club, and the Rokit Foundation—had come forward to help the development squad. A key role was also played by P.M. Khan, who personally intervened to expedite their visas. “We are thankful to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who showed sportsman’s spirit, and the ministries of interior and foreign affairs, for granting visas,” he said, adding that Malik Amir Dogar—an adviser to the P.M. and vice-president of the Pakistan Football Federation—had rendered tremendous support to the players and their families during their stay in Pakistan.

According to Haider, the group currently being hosted in Lahore consists of 123 people, comprising players, their families and coaches. He said most of them belonged to Afghanistan’s Helmand, Herat and Kandahar provinces. “There are 36 players, 14 senior players other than coaches and their families. There are also three doctors—a gynecologist, an ENT specialist, a general practitioner—who have helped ease the burden of some of the unwell guests,” he said. “One of the players is an orphan; she had been living in an orphanage in Afghanistan [prior to her evacuation],” he added.

Planning logistics

While the government played a key role in granting the young women permission to enter Pakistan, it was Haider who coordinated their travel, accommodations and security. He says that he worked with the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul to arrange buses that transported the group to Jalalabad. From there, they crossed into Pakistan through the Torkham border, where they were received by the Pakistan Football Federation and brought to Lahore.

“With the approval of Khalida Popalzai and foreign sponsors, a hotel was booked for their stay here,” he told Newsweek. “They are enjoying all the facilities of a five-star hotel; they go to the gym, play table tennis, and have WiFi and TVs in their rooms,” he said, explaining that did not lack for anything.

On the issue of their security, Haider stressed that it was being handled by police and related agencies and the Army was not playing any role in it.

No place for women

In the two-and-a-half months that the Taliban have been in control of Afghanistan, multiple reports have emerged of persistent human rights abuses. Especially concerning is an ongoing ban on education for female high school and university students, a direct violation of their basic rights. While proponents of the Taliban maintain they should be given more time to fulfill their commitments to the global community, the victims of their dithering see little light at the end of this tunnel.

“I don’t see any future for Afghan women,” says Popalzai of the prevailing situation in her homeland. “There is darkness, hopelessness where women can’t go out, study and even protect their basic rights. The situation has worsened for women where they have become victims of the unstoppable war in Afghanistan,” she added.

Acknowledging that even prior to the Taliban’s return, women and children in Afghanistan had faced several social and cultural challenges, she emphasized that the difference now was the end of hope. “We could go out and access our basic rights and needs. We were still hopeful that things would become better,” she said of the West-backed government.

“I want to ask the Taliban, for how many years you want to fight, you want to kill and you want to die. You are killing your own brothers, blowing up mosques. What are your values? What are your objectives? Do you want to protect Islam? You are killing Muslims. Denying right to education is not something which Islam says,” Popalzai said, adding that killing innocent people was no ticket to heaven. “Why do you want to be God on Earth?” she said in a question directed to the Taliban.

Despite pressure, both internally and internationally, the Taliban do not appear very willing to budge on the rights they have already designated for women. “The policy is that women can have access to education and work but regarding sports, a policy is going to be framed in light of our rules,” Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman and Kabul’s nominated permanent representative to the U.N., told Newsweek.

“Women have the right to work, but as an Afghan Muslim woman, they would have to observe hijab and comply with rules and current ground realities,” he said, claiming that the new Taliban regime had a “lenient” stance on women and respected them. “However, since we are an Islamic society, they should observe Islamic hijab,” he added.

Shaheen also reiterated his criticism of Afghans fleeing their country following the Taliban’s takeover, questioning why they did not wish to live in an “independent” nation. “We granted them general amnesty but why are they doing so [leaving]? Just to malign their newly independent country? What a pity!” he said.

Contrary to his claims, however, the athletes currently in Lahore have largely avoided the media spotlight, fearing backlash for family still in Afghanistan. “Some of them started speaking to the media on their arrival and got their identities exposed,” says Haider. “And when they are exposed, the information travels across the border and it directly threatened the lives of their families—sisters, brothers and parents,” he said, adding that further interviews were discouraged to ensure the security of the athletes as well as their families. “We do not want any negative impact of the whole goodwill and humanitarian exercise that we have done,” he noted.

Hopeful future

In Lahore, the evacuated girls are excited about their own future, but regret the loss to Afghanistan of young, educated Afghans who had hoped to build a better country for future generations.

“We feel sorry for the thousands of women who will now have to return to waiting for their brothers, their fathers, their husbands to provide their basic needs,” one player, Zoya Malik, told Newsweek. “They are stuck, they are again locked up in their homes,” she said, adding that she believed her new mission was to lend her voice to the voiceless left back home.

Another player, Nafeesa, said fears persisted over the uncertainty of the future awaiting families and friends still in Afghanistan. “It’s painful to leave home not knowing when you can return; it’s painful to leave home when you are forced to, and you don’t have any option or choice,” she said. “We thank the Pakistan government for giving us a second chance to live and breathe,” she added.

For now, the girls are awaiting the processing of visas so they can travel to Yorkshire County in the U.K., where the Leeds United Football Club has pledged to sponsor and finance their integration into British society. “Leeds United has provided them a great opportunity in the shape of an academy where they will continue to play football and complete their education,” says Haider, adding that the adults in the group had been promised employment according to their experience and education.

Despite the harsh circumstances that have brought them to this juncture, it is a mark of pride for Haider that the Pakistan government cooperated with so many international sports organizations to ensure a better future for the young girls in his charge. “It’s a window of opportunity; the world is open to them now. We never know … we might be giving a chance to future world champions.”

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