An Afghan Woman On The Run In Kabul
An Afghan Woman On The Run In Kabul
Nilofar Ayoubi knew her name was on the Taliban’s list by Wednesday. She’d heard the news from a friend — the same friend who had told her on Sunday that the Taliban were going door-to-door across neighborhoods looking for women like her, the same friend who now advised her to go into hiding. The women on the list included journalists, politicians, pilots, and business owners; what they all had in common was that they had been vocal and persistent about the rights of Afghan women, both online and in person, for years.
Ayoubi is one of thousands of Afghan women who have built thriving, prosperous lives for themselves over the last two decades, but their success and outspokenness have come back to haunt them with the fall of Kabul. Though the US had long insisted that Afghan women’s rights would be a cornerstone of any peace deal with the Taliban, that promise is now in tatters. Ayoubi and other women’s rights activists have been left to fend for themselves as the Taliban imposes their will on the capital city.
Ayoubi, 28, had driven the young women who worked for her fashion brands to their homes from various points throughout the city earlier that day, Aug. 18. It was safer for the women to travel in groups, accompanied by male coworkers who now served as de facto bodyguards.
The bad news was relentless for Ayoubi, one of Afghanistan’s first and youngest women to establish her own furniture manufacturing company; her network of friends and fellow activists constantly pinged one another with locations where the Taliban had set up checkpoints. She said she received word 72 hours after Kabul fell that her home and offices had been raided four times by armed men who asked the staff and neighbors about her family’s whereabouts and belongings.
Ayoubi was initially hesitant to leave behind everything she had built — her thriving business, her home, and her family. But, in recent days, she has become desperate to get her three children to safety, away from the Taliban’s clutches.
“They’re all over the place,” she told BuzzFeed News. “They found out about us through social media and the media, particularly those of us who spoke out against terrorism during the Doha peace talks.”
Despite the danger to her life, Ayoubi insisted on speaking on the record. “I have spoken up enough times to be on a hit list, so speaking now will make no difference,” she explained. “I want to inform the rest of the world about the current situation.”
Ayoubi was on the roof of her building just a few weeks ago, before the Taliban captured Kabul, singing with her neighbors and tweeting #AfghanLivesMatter. She was quoted in the French newspaper Le Monde at the time as saying, “If the Taliban come to Kabul, they will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years.” As I look around, I wonder what I could possibly bring with me. My three children, and possibly some clothing.”
Women like Ayoubi have been left scrambling to find a way out with their families since the fall of the capital. Some of her friends have escaped Afghanistan. Women on the Taliban’s list, on the other hand, are walking a tightrope where a single misstep could mean death. During the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women and girls were barred from attending school and were required to wear a burqa outside the home. They couldn’t work or even leave the house unless they had a male chaperone. Violations of this code resulted in punishments ranging from public floggings to executions.
A document has circulated on social media and in group chats for people attempting to leave the country. The author, who stated that they work as an adviser to a government in the region and requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, stated that the document compiles publicly available information on visa processes as well as advice on security and travel logistics obtained from diplomats and other contacts in the country.
“People can submit tips, and I will verify their accuracy before posting them,” the document’s author told BuzzFeed News. “Most of this information is available, but it is buried. Access to information is a significant barrier.”
However, the document, which BuzzFeed News reviewed, also paints a vivid picture of what it is like for Afghans simply trying to get to Kabul’s international airport to navigate the maze of bureaucratic, logistical, and personal challenges.
The document states, “You should bring as few belongings as possible, and no pets.” “Only one piece of small hand luggage (e.g. a handbag) is permitted, and this is subject to space limitations; on occasion, no hand luggage has been boarded.”
It’s not easy to get to the airport. The document advises passengers to arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport before the Taliban’s curfew begins at 9 p.m.; however, because evacuation staffers work around the clock, a passenger’s scheduled departure time may fall during curfew hours. According to the document, there are currently no flights out of Afghanistan from anywhere other than Kabul.
“The United States government has confirmed that they cannot guarantee safe passage to the airport: you must make your own arrangements,” it states.
Because entering the airport necessitates presenting certain paperwork that people frequently store on their phone, the document recommends that people print out those necessary files and carry an external phone charger. According to the document, “your Airport Access Pass is your lifeline.”
However, it warns that some of the information it provides may not be reliable, particularly the collection of names and organizations offering to help people flee.
“I have provided some contact information below, but cannot guarantee the authenticity of these projects,” the author wrote. “I do not recommend relying on these benefactors for any high-risk Afghans: remember that anyone, including the Taliban, can set up these projects and use them to phish your data.”
Ayoubi stated that she does not know when she will attempt to flee.
She was hiding in a low-income neighborhood with her children, mother, cousins, and friends as “loyal employees” from her company guarded the door and brought them food as of Friday, she said. These men had previously worked for Ayoubi at Niko Design, a boutique store that sold ornate living room furniture, bunk beds for children, lawn furniture, and designer clothing from Ayoubi’s brands — Maria Clothing, Maria Bride, and Maria Carpet, which ships handwoven Afghan rugs all over the world. They are now her last line of defense against the Taliban.
Ayoubi’s days are a blur of checking Twitter for updates, venting online, looking for the most up-to-date information on safe routes out of the country, and then disconnecting from the internet and contemplating “our low chance of survival,” she said. She is unable to plan for the future for the time being, but hopes to leave Afghanistan someday.
“This is the polar opposite of the life my children and I had,” Ayoubi explained. “I built my life from the ground up, and now we’re back at square one.”