The Untold Story of How Afghanistan’s Combating Feminine Governor Salima Mazari Escaped the Taliban

September 15, 2021 by No Comments

For the previous few weeks, the world has believed Salima Mazari to be a prisoner of the Taliban—and probably lifeless.

One in every of solely three feminine district governors in Afghanistan, and the chief of a pro-government militia, the 39-year-old had a world popularity as a fearless fighter. The Guardian profiled her at size. She was interviewed by the Related Press, Agence France-Presse and different worldwide information shops, fascinated by her braveness within the protection of her district, Charkint, which lies about 230 miles north of Kabul.

Mazari had survived a number of ambushes and believed herself to be on a Taliban hit listing. When the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, fell to the Taliban in mid-August, she went lacking within the commotion and didn’t floor within the days following. The combating in Charkint had been fierce.

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“Earlier than the collapse of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban attacked Charkint district greater than 30 instances from totally different instructions,” she tells TIME.

A number of media shops, together with Individuals journal and Insider, reported Mazari as probably captured. On Twitter, supporters worldwide adopted the hashtag #FreeSalima in a marketing campaign demanding her launch. Some started to marvel if she was even alive. As tales started to filter in of the Taliban settling outdated scores—killing a pregnant police officer, and capturing senior safety officers—many assumed the worst.

However we will report that Mazari is alive. She was by no means captured. After a harrowing escape from Afghanistan, she is now at an undisclosed location in america.

We all know this as a result of one of many authors of this piece was concerned in her escape.

We’re two journalists—Zakarya is an Afghan and Robyn a Canadian—who’ve reported from the strife-torn nation previously. Zakarya was primarily based in Afghanistan however capable of depart for Paris through the evacuation. He stored in contact with Mazari after the Taliban seized energy and he or she went into hiding. Collectively in a joint rescue effort by Afghans, People and Canadians, he helped to play a component in getting her to security.

That is what occurred.

The autumn of Mazar-i-Sharif

With a inhabitants of round 32,000, Charkint is a mountainous space of small hilltop villages and grazing lands in Balkh province, close to the border with Uzbekistan. When she turned governor in 2018, Mazari was decided to convey higher outcomes for her group, however the job was by no means simple.

In her early days in workplace, she organized the recruitment and coaching of native militia and authorities forces to combat in opposition to the Taliban. When battle broke out, she picked up a gun and joined her males on the entrance line, incomes respect as a staunch, outspoken commander. In 2020, she fearlessly negotiated the give up of over 100 Taliban insurgents.

Because the Taliban marketing campaign intensified over the summer time, Mazari and her militia held out—inflicting, she says, “giant numbers of casualties” on the enemy. However when Mazar-i-Sharif—Afghanistan’s fourth largest metropolis—fell on Aug. 14, and the Afghan Nationwide Military surrendered Balkh to the Taliban, pro-government fighters had been compelled to face the inevitable.

For Mazari, the capitulation marked each a devastating finish to life as she knew it, and the unwelcome begin of a brand new one.

She belongs to the Hazara, an ethnic minority persecuted for its Shia religion and Eurasian ancestry by Afghanistan’s majority Sunni inhabitants. The final time the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, in 1998, the insurgents massacred some 2,000 Hazara, principally males and boys.

It appeared that nothing a lot had modified within the intervening years. Amnesty Worldwide reported that the Taliban tortured and killed 9 Hazara males in Ghazni province, about 90 miles southwest of Kabul, in July. It was additionally reported that they’d shot 14 Hazara—12 surrendered troopers and a couple of civilians—in Daykundi province on the finish of August.

Mazari believed that demise or escape had been her solely selections.

Farshad Usyan—AFP/Getty PicturesMazari, heart, on July 14.

On the run from the Taliban

When the information of Balkh’s give up broke, Mazari was within the workplace of Mohammad Farhad Azimi, the provincial governor. His guards bumped into the workplace shouting that authorities forces had surrendered, and the Taliban had been getting into Mazar-i-Sharif from all instructions. She recollects feeling suffocated as the fact of defeat began to sink in. There have been frantic cellphone calls from militia leaders in Charkint, about 45 miles to the south, telling her that the roads to her district had been blocked and the Taliban had been planning to ambush anybody who handed via. Mazari recommended her males and informed them to face down.

“Persevering with to combat can be in opposition to the pursuits of our folks,” she says.

Azimi instructed discovering a solution to the border with Uzbekistan and the city of Hairatan, a 75-minute drive from Mazar-i-Sharif. From there, the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, spanning the Amu River, may take them to security.

“We set off in a convoy along with my husband and guards. A number of high-profile leaders, together with former vice-president and warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and former Balkh governor and mujahideen commander Atta Mohammad Noor, joined us on the way in which. Many Afghan army models additionally adopted the exodus,” Mazari says.

By the point they arrived at Hairatan, the Afghan facet of the bridge was crowded with high officers. Everybody was in a panic. To her despair, Mazari was not allowed to make the crossing. Solely Azimi, Dostum, Noor and a few legislators had been permitted into Uzbekistan. Mazari and plenty of others had been pushed again and left on the banks of the Amu, pleading in useless.

Learn extra: These Ladies Fought for Afghanistan’s Future. Now They Don’t Wish to Depart It Behind

Figuring out the Taliban would quickly arrive in Hairatan, too, Mazari says she briefly sought refuge at a relative’s home within the city. Then she donned a burqa—often known as a chadari in Afghanistan—and made a swift sprint by automobile to a quiet freeway junction within the desert. There, different kin had been ready to smuggle her again to Mazar-i-Sharif.

“We hid for 2 days in kin’ homes within the metropolis, then determined to make a run for Kabul,” she says. There was no realizing what would occur on the street, however reaching the Afghan capital’s airport, and boarding an evacuation flight, was her solely hope. Mazari says she had heard from others crossing the nation that the Taliban was much less more likely to query bigger teams of civilians at checkpoints, particularly if there have been many chadari-clad ladies current. She slipped the garment on once more, and collectively together with her husband and several other kin set off in a battered outdated car.

They clutched one another’s palms nervously as they approached every checkpoint. However luck was on their facet. “Thankfully, we weren’t acknowledged by any Taliban fighters,” Mazari tells TIME. “They allow us to via simply. It was the primary day of the collapse of the nation, they usually had been celebrating.”

They made it to Kabul, the place they might start the “saddening” means of frequently shifting from secure home to secure home to make sure they might not be tracked. Mazari was uncertain what to do subsequent and who to belief. She knew she was too excessive profile to make an open sprint for an embassy or the airport, so she despatched her paperwork to mates who had connections to international governments, together with these of the U.S., U.Okay., Germany, and the Netherlands.

Map by Lon Tweeten for TIME

Organizing Mazari’s rescue

One of many folks Mazari despatched her paperwork to was Zakarya.

On Aug. 20, Zakarya, who had been had been airlifted to Paris earlier that week, despatched a textual content message to Mazari, trying to verify whether or not or not she was alive. We had been engaged on a narrative collectively about Afghan ladies, together with Mazari, and Zakarya had given his quantity to her when he interviewed the governor in July. “I’m fearful—please let me know the place you might be,” he wrote.

Fearing traps, Mazari had not been responding to messages from unfamiliar numbers, however she acknowledged Zakarya’s. She informed him that she was in hiding and, with few choices remaining, despatched him the identification info of all her relations and requested for assist.

Zakarya instantly relayed the information to Robyn: “I simply heard from Salima Mazari. She is in Kabul.”

Robyn’s accomplice, the Canadian photojournalist Matt Reichel, had already been engaged on serving to colleagues and mates get out of Afghanistan. Reichel was in touch with everybody he knew who may probably assist and was conscious of some U.S. officers who would possibly have a look at Mazari’s case. He fired off a number of pleas to contacts within the State Division and Division of Protection, hoping one would work.

“We ready all her paperwork with a canopy letter explaining Salima Mazari is alive, extremely excessive danger, and can doubtless be murdered if she is discovered. She has no thought what to do and is hiding in a secure home,” he says.

“Ultimately, certainly one of my mates on the State Division, who needs to stay unnamed, however has been instrumental in serving to numerous susceptible Afghans escape, was capable of ahead her info to the Joint Interagency Process Drive (JIATF) and a high-level determine within the Secretary of State’s workplace. This particular person replied inside hours providing assist.”

Salima’s info had already been supplied to JIATF via one other connection, Khadim Dai, a Hazara filmmaker in Los Angeles who had been operating a parallel operation via his personal State division contact. Her title pinged throughout many channels and was gaining momentum and help. Reichel’s contact helped to escalate the request for an emergency evacuation.

Dai’s buddy in London, the British Hazara activist Homira Rezai, additionally shared information of Mazari’s standing and requested him for assist. “I didn’t know her personally, however knew of her story and needed to assist her. She’s a lady who’s combating, making an attempt so onerous to alter issues, and is usually a position mannequin for our era of Hazaras rising up within the West,” explains Dai.

The day earlier than the rescue, his personal contact on the State Division informed him “one thing will occur quickly.”

Escape from Kabul

Mazari was afraid that the Taliban would shut in on her location in a matter of days, however she adopted Zakarya’s recommendation and waited. He was checking in on her incessantly to verify she was secure and to supply hope and reassurance—however Mazari’s extraction wouldn’t happen with no last-minute scare.

On Aug. 23, simply after daybreak, Mazari acquired Sign messages in English, despatched through an unknown Afghan quantity, claiming to be from an American rescue coordination cell. In a lapse of anxious pleasure, she says she shared all her household info and the exact coordinates of her in a single day location. She adopted directions after the sender informed her to connect an image of herself making the peace signal. However when she informed Zakarya what had occurred, he turned alarmed as a result of, after a short English introduction, the rescue directions had been presupposed to be in Dari—an Afghan dialect of the Persian language. He and Mazari suspected that Pakistani brokers had been operating interference.

“I knew that Pakistan had been cooperating with the Taliban, and that among the group’s most well-known management councils are primarily based in Pakistan. I fearful that it may very well be the Taliban or ISI [Pakistani intelligence] accessing our chat,” Zakarya says.

“We had been scrambling to determine if we may verify the identification of this individual,” says Reichel. “We’ve got an Afghan cellphone quantity, and don’t know if this can be a reputable operation or a lure. My buddy at State informed me to instantly instruct Salima to alter her hijab, and put together to probably change places whereas we discovered what to do subsequent.”

Learn extra: What the U.S. Owes to Afghanistan’s Individuals Has No Expiry Date

Reichel determined to name the quantity on Sign. Nobody picked up, however Robyn observed the consumer additionally had a WhatsApp account, and that the app was exhibiting them as being on-line. Reichel dialed once more on WhatsApp. This time, the decision was answered. It was a U.S. Military main. A number of People may very well be heard speaking energetically within the background.

“Naturally, he was confused as to why a random quantity from Canada was calling him,” says Reichel. “He requested who I used to be. I launched myself as a journalist and Salima’s level of contact. I informed him his quantity reached out to Salima, she gave away all her figuring out info and placement, and we had been involved.”

Fortunately, the State Division was shortly capable of verify the Military officer’s identification. “I acquired a name again from my buddy at State saying, ‘It’s confirmed. This can be a actual operation, be sure she is on time on the rescue level and is aware of how one can get there.’”

The plan was to extract Mazari and her household by helicopter, after which chopper them into Hamid Karzai Worldwide Airport. At 7:00 p.m. on Aug. 24, Mazari acquired a name telling her to satisfy on the rendezvous level.

She remembers scrambling to determine the situation (luckily she had been effectively versed in map studying as a army commander) after which unexpectedly setting out on foot with all 13 of her relations, quite a lot of them kids. Zakarya was ready in tense anticipation for information. She messaged him at 7:22 pm minutes later to say that she was at Kabul airport.

The subsequent day, Mazari and her household boarded a U.S. army flight to Qatar, and they’re now at an undisclosed location within the U.S. awaiting resettlement.

She had made it.

Salima Mazari’s combat ‘won’t ever finish’

Leaving Afghanistan saved Mazari from virtually sure demise, however it is usually, in a approach, her worst nightmare. She by no means needed to go away a rustic she fought so onerous to defend—and he or she feels betrayed by her authorities.

“At Kabul airport, I witnessed the autumn of a nation,” she says. “I noticed households fleeing and leaving every part behind … It was troublesome to see my folks in that scenario. Everybody I spoke to is coping with the burden of disappointment on their shoulders.”

She continues: “I’ve cried lots. I’ve considered all these youth who had been sacrificed previously 20 years for the evils of politics. I assumed in regards to the aspirations of a era which are heading in direction of destruction. I really feel a lump in my throat when pondering of my folks and fellow troopers’ struggles, sacrifices and deaths. Each time I consider this stuff, I really feel like I’m dying.”

Immediately, the outlook for girls in Afghanistan is especially bleak. Whereas a Taliban spokesperson has communicated that ladies can proceed to work in authorities, they don’t seem to be permitted to carry cupboard or different senior positions.

The Taliban not too long ago introduced the formation of their new authorities, and there have been no ladies or Hazaras included. Ladies proceed to be turned away from their jobs throughout the nation. And the Taliban’s opponents are scattered and in shock.

“In the intervening time, armed combating is not the answer—we have to work out a special approach to assist the nation,” Mazari concedes. However she stays no much less decided to assist. “My combat for the liberty and delight of my folks won’t ever finish.”

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Nik Popli

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