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How Feminine Afghan Governor Salima Mazari Escaped the Taliban


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

One among solely three feminine district governors in Afghanistan, and the chief of a pro-government militia, the 39-year-old had a world repute as a fearless fighter. The Guardian profiled her at size. She was interviewed by the Related Press, Agence France-Presse and different worldwide information retailers, 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 checklist. 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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“Before the collapse of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban attacked Charkint district more than 30 times from different directions,” she tells TIME.

A number of media retailers, together with People journal and Insider, reported Mazari as presumably 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 previous scores—killing a pregnant police officer, and taking pictures senior security officials—many assumed the worst.

However we are able to 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 the USA.

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 prior to now. Zakarya was primarily based in Afghanistan however capable of depart for Paris in the course of 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 an element 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 grew to become governor in 2018, Mazari was decided to deliver higher outcomes for her neighborhood, however the job was by no means straightforward.

In her early days in workplace, she organized the recruitment and coaching of native militia and authorities forces to battle 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, “large 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 have 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, mostly men 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 that they had shot 14 Hazara—12 surrendered troopers and a pair of civilians—in Daykundi province on the finish of August.

Mazari believed that dying or escape have been her solely selections.

Farshad Usyan—AFP/Getty PhotosMazari, 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 have been getting into Mazar-i-Sharif from all instructions. She remembers feeling suffocated as the truth of defeat began to sink in. There have been frantic telephone calls from militia leaders in Charkint, about 45 miles to the south, telling her that the roads to her district have been blocked and the Taliban have been planning to ambush anybody who handed via. Mazari recommended her males and advised them to face down.

“Continuing to fight would be against the interests of our people,” she says.

Azimi advised discovering a option 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 navy models additionally adopted the exodus,” Mazari says.

By the point they arrived at Hairatan, the Afghan facet of the bridge was crowded with prime 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 have been permitted into Uzbekistan. Mazari and plenty of others have been pushed again and left on the banks of the Amu, pleading in useless.

Learn extra: These Women Fought for Afghanistan’s Future. Now They Don’t Want to Leave It Behind

Understanding 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 called a chadari in Afghanistan—and made a swift sprint by automotive to a quiet freeway junction within the desert. There, different kin have 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 figuring out 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 prone 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 along with her husband and several other kin set off in a battered previous automobile.

They clutched one another’s fingers nervously as they approached every checkpoint. However luck was on their facet. “Fortunately, we were not recognized by any Taliban fighters,” Mazari tells TIME. “They let us through easily. It was the first day of the collapse of the country, and they were celebrating.”

They made it to Kabul, the place they’d start the “saddening” technique of frequently shifting from secure home to secure home to make sure they may not be tracked. Mazari was not sure 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 pals who had connections to international governments, together with these of the U.S., U.Okay., Germany, and the Netherlands.

AFGHAN escape1
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, seeking 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 advised him that she was in hiding and, with few choices remaining, despatched him the identification data 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 companion, the Canadian photojournalist Matt Reichel, had already been engaged on serving to colleagues and pals get out of Afghanistan. Reichel was in touch with everybody he knew who may presumably assist and was conscious of some U.S. officers who may 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 prepared all her documents with a cover letter explaining Salima Mazari is alive, incredibly high risk, and will likely be murdered if she is found. She has no idea what to do and is hiding in a safe house,” he says.

“Eventually, one of my friends at the State Department, who wishes to remain unnamed, but has been instrumental in helping countless vulnerable Afghans escape, was able to forward her information to the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) and a high-level figure in the Secretary of State’s office. This individual replied within hours offering help.”

Salima’s data had already been offered 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 identify pinged throughout many channels and was gaining momentum and help. Reichel’s contact helped to escalate the request for an emergency evacuation.

Dai’s good friend 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 wished to assist her. She’s a lady who’s combating, attempting so laborious to vary issues, and is usually a function 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 advised 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 ceaselessly to ensure she was secure and to supply hope and reassurance—however Mazari’s extraction wouldn’t happen with no last-minute scare.

On Aug. 24, simply after daybreak, Mazari acquired Sign messages in English, despatched by way of 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 data and the exact coordinates of her in a single day location. She adopted directions after the sender advised her to connect an image of herself making the peace signal. However when she advised Zakarya what had occurred, he grew to become alarmed as a result of, after a quick English introduction, the rescue directions have been purported to be in Dari—an Afghan dialect of the Persian language. He and Mazari suspected that Pakistani brokers have been operating interference.

“I knew that Pakistan had been cooperating with the Taliban, and that a number of 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 were scrambling to figure out if we could confirm the identity of this person,” says Reichel. “We have now an Afghan telephone quantity, and don’t know if it is a reputable operation or a lure. My good friend at State advised me to right away instruct Salima to vary her hijab, and put together to presumably change areas whereas we discovered what to do subsequent.”

Learn extra: What the U.S. Owes to Afghanistan’s People 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 advised him his quantity reached out to Salima, she gave away all her figuring out data and placement, and we have been involved.”

Fortunately, the State Division was shortly capable of verify the Military officer’s identification. “I got a call back from my friend at State saying, ‘It’s confirmed. This is a real operation, make sure she is on time at the rescue point and knows how to 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. that night, Mazari acquired a name telling her to satisfy on the rendezvous level.

She remembers scrambling to determine the situation (thankfully she had been properly versed in map studying as a navy commander) after which unexpectedly setting out on foot with all 13 of her relations, various them youngsters. 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. navy flight to Qatar, and they’re now at an undisclosed location within the U.S. awaiting resettlement.

She had made it.

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

Leaving Afghanistan saved Mazari from nearly sure dying, however it is usually, in a method, her worst nightmare. She by no means wished to depart a rustic she fought so laborious to defend—and he or she feels betrayed by her authorities.

“At Kabul airport, I witnessed the fall of a nation,” she says. “I saw families fleeing and leaving everything behind … It was difficult to see my people in that situation. Everyone I spoke to is dealing with the weight of sadness on their shoulders.”

She continues: “I have cried a lot. I have thought about all those youth who were sacrificed in the past 20 years for the evils of politics. I thought about the aspirations of a generation that are heading towards destruction. I feel a lump in my throat when thinking of my people and fellow soldiers’ struggles, sacrifices and deaths. Every time I think of these things, I feel like I am dying.”

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

The Taliban lately introduced the formation of their new authorities, and there have been no ladies or Hazaras included. Girls proceed to be turned away from their jobs throughout the nation. And the Taliban’s opponents are scattered and in shock.

“At the moment, armed fighting is no longer the solution—we need to figure out a different way to help the country,” Mazari concedes. However she stays no much less decided to assist. “My battle for the liberty and pleasure of my folks won’t ever finish.”

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Nik Popli

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