An attack on Kabul airport in August 2021 delayed the student's evacuation, and she has since had issues renewing her passport.
Photograph: "Study" by sobriquet.net
Afghan Witness changed the name of the individual interviewed.
As a young girl in Afghanistan, Hora, not her real name, dreamed of becoming a parliamentarian or a government minister. “You can help your people and country when you get into those positions – that's what I believe,” she says.
Hora’s father encouraged her to study hard to build a future for herself, and she gained a scholarship to a prestigious high school. However, in 11th grade, her life changed when her father passed away from heart disease.
“When I looked at my younger siblings, my focus shifted immediately to supporting them by studying and working hard – not for myself this time, but for them,” she tells Afghan Witness (AW). “I didn't want my siblings to feel the absence of our father.”
Hora competed with thousands of applicants to gain a full scholarship to study at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul. In her last semester, she secured a place on a competitive internship, then moved on to work at a consultancy firm. It was her third month at the new job when the Former Government of Afghanistan fell in August 2021.
“You see yourself destroyed with your own eyes - not just you, but a whole generation,” she says.
Hora had always imagined her future in Afghanistan, but the Taliban takeover meant she had to reassess her plans. “With the return of the Taliban, my mind has changed [about remaining] - my life is in danger now,” she says. “Although the Taliban announced a general amnesty for those who worked with foreign governments or the former government of Afghanistan - we witness that it is a lie.”
A recent investigation by The New York Times reveals that nearly 500 former government officials and members of the Afghan security forces were ‘killed or forcibly disappeared during the Taliban’s first six months in power.’ While only a student at AUAF, Hora and her family were still concerned for her safety. "I went to live with my uncle for a few days until I got emails from the university that they'll evacuate us,” she explains.
“Everything becomes dark”
In late August, Hora says she received a call asking her to attend a meeting point where she would then be escorted to the airport and evacuated. According to Hora, she said goodbye to her family and took a seat on the evacuation bus, only to receive emails from the AUAF’s management, who said the airport was under serious threat and that the students should avoid coming. At the time, the New York Times also reported on how hundreds of students and their relatives were asked to return home due to security threats at the airport gates.
On August 26, a bomb attack struck Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport as desperate civilians attempted to flee. At least 95 people were killed and 150 others wounded. Hora hadn’t been at the airport, but instead found herself stuck in Kabul after the emergency evacuation and US withdrawal deadline at the end of August.
She was also faced with another obstacle: her passport had expired, and the passport office was closed.
“I had never been so anxious and stressed,” she remembers. “It's like when everything becomes dark, and you can only see a small bright dot of hope – you can't get there quickly, and, in the process, it tortures you.”
When the passport office eventually reopened, after waiting in line for a whole day, Hora says a Taliban fighter took her documents and “tore them apart in front of [her] eyes”. She tried a second time, this time arriving at 11 o’clock at night and sleeping in front of the passport department.
“Every hour, hundreds of people were queuing there in the middle of the night. It was cold and dark,” Hora recalls. She tells AW that a Taliban fighter requested her documents and asked her to follow him. “I saw him going outside rather than inside the department - I realised he tricked me. He sent me back to the end of the queue and humiliated me,” Hora explains.
It was only when she went to the office a third time - equipped with the knowledge of her previous experiences - that she was successful in getting a new passport issued. “I was thrilled - finally, I had a new passport,” Hora says. But after emailing the university to notify them, she received no response. “The spring semester has begun, but I still haven’t heard from the evacuating team.”
“I felt betrayed”
Hora was due to graduate from the university when she heard AUAF were evacuating their current students only. Despite emailing them multiple times, Hora says she only received excuses, one being that Kyrgyzstan - where many students were initially evacuated - were refusing to issue visas for students from Afghanistan.
“They were not honest with me and made me extremely hopeless - I felt betrayed,” she says.
It appears that Hora is not alone in her experience - other AUAF students and alumni have taken to social media to voice their concerns. There is even a dedicated Twitter account which has been created to campaign for their evacuation.
Hora remains in Afghanistan, and says she is unable to work due to the Taliban’s restrictions. “My family's economic situation worsens each day as we run out of our savings,” she says. “Maybe this was my fate.”
While Hora has always faced challenges and prejudice as a woman in Afghanistan, the barriers facing her seem tenfold now: girls cannot attend school, and women are restricted from working.
“Each day, new restrictions emerge from the Taliban and all of them are targeted at women,” she says. “I studied Islamic teachings and rules – what the Taliban are doing is contrary to what Islam teaches.”
Even if Hora finds a way out of Afghanistan and is able to be evacuated, she feels that the Taliban’s restrictions are increasingly working against her. In December, the Taliban issued a directive stating that women travelling for more than 45 miles (72km) should be accompanied by a close male family member.
But the hardest thing for Hora is watching the Taliban’s restrictions impact her younger sister, who is in grade seven and can no longer go to school. “My little sister was waiting every day to go to school - she was wearing her school uniform and just walked around [in it],” she says.
Hora remembers how the night before girls’ high schools were due to reopen on March 23, her younger sister stayed up late ironing her uniform and preparing her school bag, only to learn of the Taliban’s U-turn the next morning. “I tried to console her, but the pain was visible on her face,” she says.
Hora spends time helping her sister study - it keeps the two of them occupied. “Her [Hora’s sister] dream was to become a doctor,” she says. Whether Hora’s younger sister will return to school, and whether Hora will get to leave Afghanistan, remains to be seen. Like many other women and girls in the country, they feel their aspirations have been put on hold.
Interview by Afghan Witness