‘Gunmen were looking for my mum’: daughter of Afghan ex-radio boss

The Guardian - Tue Jan 18 14:00

Farkhunda’s* mother has run a feminist radio station in her conservative province for the best part of 20 years, in defiance of Taliban threats. She has three children with disabilities who were forced to abandon their wheelchairs when gunmen attacked their home about two months after the Taliban takeover. They are in hiding in a city safe house, but don’t know how they will survive longer term.

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Afghanistan: the left behind

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Afghanistan: the left behind

The crowds fighting to get into Kabul airport for evacuation dispersed months ago, but while the scramble to leave Taliban-controlled Afghanistan became less visible when the last foreign troops left in August 2021, it got no less desperate.

Since then, reprisal killings have regularly been reported from across the country, including dozens detailed in a recent report from Human Rights Watch.

For those still in Afghanistan, living in hiding or in permanent fear for months now, the dangers seem to be increasing as the options for escape narrow.

The UK government has tightened rules for its ARAP visa programme for former employees.

A second scheme offering a path to safety to a wider section of Afghans at risk was heavily promoted by the government but it only began operating this month, and there are no details of how individuals can apply.

And while the Taliban have largely kept a promise to allow those with tickets and documents to fly out, Afghan passports are difficult to secure , visas are even more challenging, and flights are still prohibitively expensive.

This series features the stories of those who are trapped, in Afghanistan or in limbo as they search for safe haven, fearing for their lives from Taliban attacks or through hunger because they cannot work.

Emma Graham-Harrison

When the fighting closed in on our city in August we were moving around – one night in one place, one night in another place – staying with different relatives because my mum had received a lot of threats in the past.

She had faced some discrimination, as an ethnic minority in our region, and also the Taliban used to ask her: “Why are you, a woman, running a radio station. You should stay home and look after your family.”

When we left our home, we took nothing with us – my sister and brothers are disabled and they can’t walk. But eventually our relatives told us that even though the Taliban are in power, everything is normal and we can come back to our home.

So in October, we returned to the house after two months living with different uncles and aunts. That same evening, late at night when we were all sleeping, suddenly we heard gunshots all around the doors.

We all gathered in one room in the centre of the house that didn’t have windows, so we were able to survive. In the other rooms the windows were shot as well as the doors, there was glass all around, but they didn’t try to come in – perhaps they thought they hit us already.

We wanted to leave when the shooting stopped, but it was too late. The next morning our neighbours came and said: “Why did you come back? You should leave immediately.” They thought it was insecure because we had come back and that our family was the reason why there was gunfire at night.

We left in such a hurry that we couldn’t even take the wheelchairs – we had to carry my brothers and sisters. They are grown now. My twin brothers are 19 years old, and my sister is 18, so they are heavy.

About a week later, the neighbours called and said some gunmen were looking for my mum, so she went to a rural district and all of us split up. My dad went to one place, my brothers went to an aunt, and I took my sister to a cousin’s house.

After another month we were reunited in a big city, where we are staying in a safe house, but things are really hard. We were not able to go back for the wheelchairs, and we could only take a couple of changes of clothes, nothing else.

We don’t have money to buy anything so we are just living in a bare room with carpets on the floor. We are worried about our relatives at home being in danger because of my mum’s work.

My mother has turned off her phone now, but she was getting Taliban threat messages saying things like: “We told you for years to leave your job but you didn’t, now you have nowhere to hide.” And one saying: “We will come and kill you and burn your radio station.”

We left our home empty, we left the radio station, now there are no broadcasts or anything. My mum loved her job. She had been running the radio station since 2004, despite getting threats all these years. She only abandoned it now for our security and so she is in a very devastated mental state, she has some problems with her heart and feels sick.

We are also in a terrible economic situation, constantly worrying about where our next meal will come from. And because my brothers and sister still don’t have wheelchairs, me, my father and mother are taking care of them, carrying them on their shoulders when they need to move.

We are all in shock. We feel like we are living in a nightmare – how did we move from our old life to this situation? A friend has helped us apply to refugee programmes but we did not hear back. We don’t know if we can get out of Afghanistan, but we don’t know what we will do here.

*The name has been changed for this article.