'I knew I would either survive or die': Afghan woman recounts evacuation

'I knew I would either survive or die': Afghan woman recounts evacuation

Zakira doesn’t know exactly how she got on an evacuation flight out of Afghanistan.

As a human rights activist working on policy to strengthen punishments for crimes of sexual abuse and harassment, Zakira, whose last name is being withheld by The Hill to protect her safety, feared she would be a primary target of the Taliban and other terrorist groups that she had helped put in jail but were now occupying the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

Her evacuation – she is now in Sri Lanka on a visitor visa – was made possible through an extraordinary effort by a network of internationals and high-level government officials who worked methodically amid the chaos of the last few weeks. She was also aided by luck and acts of kindness. 

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“When I arrived at the airport, I knew I would either survive or die, but I needed to be strong,” she told The Hill in an interview over Zoom from her safehouse in Sri Lanka. “I don’t know where that courage came from, I don’t know where that strength came from, but I was so furious.”

Zakira credits the kindness of Marines who approached her as the turning point in securing her evacuation. 

When the Marine approached her, Zakira was being told by Qatari contacts that she would not be able to board a flight until the next day and should travel to a hotel a few miles away for her own safety. The Qataris would then bring her back to the airport from the hotel the next day. 

When the Marine offered help, Zakira said she was about to walk a dangerous road back to the hotel.

“This U.S. soldier, I told him, ‘I need a safe exit from the airport because I’m alone and this road that I came from, there are Taliban, I need to safely get out of the airport to go to the hotel and come back tomorrow,’” Zakira recounted.

“Instead, he took me on a bus to this military base [inside the airport], where they started processing me and put me on a flight to Qatar. It was 3 a.m. when I got on the flight, and I went to Qatar.” 

“God bless the Marines,” said an Israeli woman who helped coordinate Zakira's  evacuation, who asked for anonymity to protect her work. The woman was brought into the grassroots mission to evacuate Zakira through a family connection to an organization focused on conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  

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“When they realized she was picking up her stuff and going to walk to the hotel, they told her, ‘We’ll take you somewhere where you’ll be protected, and we’ll watch over you. Don’t move from the airport, you will get on that flight,’” the woman said.

While the evacuations from Kabul’s airport were done in a frantic and chaotic situation, the woman praised the work of governments and individuals helping people evacuate, and that many were saved by the actions of U.S. Marines on the ground. 

“The way it was done, looks sloppy and no doubt it could have been done better, but so much greatness was done and at some points it was so organized – I know exactly what happened to Zakira every single minute, from the minute she left her house, and the minute she landed in Doha, and how she was saved by the Marines,” the Israeli woman added.

Zakira is just one of many Afghan women leaders that advocates are seeking to evacuate from Afghanistan given their possible persecution by the Taliban.

While the Taliban has said it will move away from its persecution of women, reports from the ground and videos on social media show nascent protests, led by women, being shut down by the Taliban, who are terrorizing protesters by whipping them, shooting their guns in the air and detaining people and further beating them. 

 

The Taliban have already announced restrictions on women in education, the workforce and banning their participation in sports. The newly formed government excludes women. 

“Now I am safe, but I am responsible for the women, every other individual who was left in the country,” Zakira told The Hill.

“It is my responsibility to work for them, and defend them and come up with ways, change strategies, to be able to help them,” she said, adding that she is keeping in touch with women on the ground who are documenting what they are seeing and experiencing.

“I can’t be suppressed now and there is nothing holding me back – unlike the challenges we faced working for reforms over the past 20 years. I am back stronger and more efficient to perform my responsibility toward the women, and every other individual in the country,” Zakira said.

Much of Zakira’s own work that had been posted online has now been taken down — for her protection and the security of other women who are part of such efforts. 

For Zakira, this includes a Facebook group for a learning center in her home province, her writing for an international social justice magazine, a community reconciliation organization and her work with the policy advocacy group.

“Everything they worked for is erased,” Nicole Bogott, director of The Philia Project, an international organization that works toward social justice and human rights, told The Hill. Bogott worked with Zakira on publications for The Philia project. 

“All of these girls, they have been exposed by all of these international organizations, because a lot of the programs wanted to show them — they speak English well, they have values,” she said. “They [the girls] also would go on the stages in Kabul or abroad, they exposed themselves as people who are educated and want to do something and inspire other Afghans to join.”

While that exposure built momentum for advancing women's rights, it also exposed activists like Zakira as targets for violence.

Prashan De Visser, president and founder of Global Unites, told The Hill their network mobilized in the effort to evacuate Zakira, who co-founded the Afghanistan chapter of the organization. They’ve since had to erase their online footprint in the country to protect their staff. 

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Global Unites is a U.S.-registered nonprofit that started as a youth movement in Sri Lanka for reconciliation and counter-radicalization but has expanded to 13 countries, including in the Middle East, Africa and south Asia. 

Zakira was considered among the group’s highest-risk people because of her work on women's rights, De Visser said. As a result, the decision was made very quickly to get her out of the country. The effort accelerated when the airport came under control of the American military.

De Visser asked Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry to secure a visa for Zakira while the country coordinator for the Israel branch of Global Unites, through their social media network, found a contact to the Qatar embassy in Kabul.

An American-Palestinian working with an international human rights and peacebuilding group also worked to connect the U.S. government, the Qataris, and the activists looking to evacuate Zakira. 

“When you see someone in need of help, you have no choice but to help. I just saw a human being that needed help and I started calling people, that’s all I did,” the American-Palestinian, who asked for his name to be withheld to protect his work, told The Hill. He explained that the efforts to put Zakira's name on a list included contacts with multiple U.S. government agencies and foreign governments.
 
“It’s not one person, but it’s a lot of people, worried people, frantically calling and pushing until we got her name on the list, and that helped a little bit to get her into the airport.”

The Qataris added Zakira to a list for evacuations and helped with her transportation and movements through Taliban checkpoints in Kabul to the gates of the airport. 

“When we looked at it, we had Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, the whole works from multiple continents, because this is our family. She’s not just a person, she’s not just a number, she’s one of our team mates on the ground that was high risk,” De Visser, of Global Unites, said in a phone call from Sri Lanka.

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“We’re pretty relieved that she’s safe,” added De Visser. Most of the key members of their Afghanistan team are out of the country except for between two and three people, all men, who are viewed as less vulnerable to violence from the Taliban. 

Zakira describes her experience on the ground as horrifying and traumatic. On the way to, and outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International airport, she faced off against Taliban soldiers blocking her path, and waited hours in heat, dust and garbage amid chaotic crowds of people begging for their lives. At times she and others cowered under gunfire. 

Zakira waited seven hours amid the crowds, making her way as close to the gates that, at the time, were being manned by British soldiers. Eventually she was brought to the other side of a barrier that was relatively calm and secure. 

“I felt even more safe, now I was on the other side of the crowd where there are only foreign troops. I waited there for another seven hours, and am in contact with the people who are helping me, until this American soldier, I don’t know how — he just came and asked what I was doing there and how he could help,” she said. 

Zakira said the smile of the Marines who helped her, and the offer of food and needed sanitary pads helped her regain her dignity and faith in humanity. 

“There were two Marines, a woman, I will never forget her. The moment I arrived at the military base, she came with this genuine smile. When I entered the military base from that place [the crowds], I felt like, now there are human beings. I was thirsty for that — for a smile, for civilized conversations, where people treat you like a human being with dignity and respect,” she said.

“At that military base, that woman, that U.S. Marine, she was the first I saw and I will never forget her.” 

Updated 4:20 p.m.