By Laila Yousufy
For nearly ten years, Major Sama* worked in the former Ministry of Defense in the Afghan capital Kabul, without her classmates and relatives knowing about her job. On August 15, when the Taliban took over Kabul, she lost everything overnight: her career, income, and security.
On that Sunday, when she fled her workplace and rushed home, she was frightened. The first thing she did was destroy her two cell phone sim cards, fearing the Taliban might use them to track her down.
Her colleagues who didn’t change their sim cards received threatening phone calls, along with video footage filmed in their office. It was sent with a chilling message: “We are in your office, and we will find you,” Sama said her colleagues shared the story in a chat group.
In the past five months, she had rarely left home, constantly in fear for her life. “We can’t even go out, like other women and ask for our rights because the Taliban can identify us,” she told Rukhshana Media.
“I am changing my hideout twice a month because my address and identifying information was in the database of the former government,” she told Rukhshana Media.
In 2010, when Sama brought home an enrollment application form to join the Afghan national army, her elder brother warned her.
“He said, don’t join the military. Because it will put your life in danger and also because society has a negative view of women who work in the military,” Sama said, adding that she was proud of serving in uniform.
In the conservative society of Afghanistan, where women struggle to access basic rights, the women in uniform who joined the security forces were often seen as “prostitutes,” rejected and sidelined by society. It is one of the reasons the US-supported Afghan government never met its target for recruiting enough women in the Afghan security forces.
“It was the US and NATO that encouraged us to stand up to our family, relatives to work in the army. It was tough for us, but we did it,” said Mursal*, who worked in the Afghan air force for three years, while none of her relatives knew about her job with the military. She told them she was working with an NGO.
Since the Taliban took over, Maryam*, a former senior officer in the Afghan air force, became a fugitive, running for her life.
“I am terrified; to hide my identity, when I go out, I don’t carry my phone. I always carry sewing material, to say I am a tailor,” Maryam told Rukhshana Media.
“We know that high profile women are at particular risk. We know people who were in the security forces are especially at risk, and there have been many assassinations of people who were in the police, military, and intelligence services,” Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, told Rukhshana Media.
“In an environment where so many people are experiencing risk, [the women in uniform] still stand out as being particularly at risk and particularly deserving of assistance from the countries that urge them to step forward and take these positions,“ she added.
Barr explains that the US and other countries “made a big push to recruit women into the security forces, and did a lot of boasting about the women they had been able to recruit. But now [these countries] seem to have completely forgotten these women and don’t seem to pay any attention to the ways in which their actions put these women directly in harm’s way.”
Despite the amnesty announced by the Taliban leaders for the former government employees, in a report released on November 30, the Human Rights Watch documented the killings and the forceful disappearance of security personnel in four provinces. “Taliban forces in Afghanistan have summarily executed or forcibly disappeared more than 100 former police and intelligence officers in just four provinces since taking over the country,” the report said.
Since August, some women who worked in the Afghan security forces have disappeared. Others are hiding, and almost every one of them is desperately looking for ways to safety. But there is no guarantee of protection for those who worked with the Afghan security forces, even outside Afghanistan’s borders.
First Lieutenant Zahra* left Kabul for Pakistan a week after the collapse of Kabul. Zahra, who couldn’t afford to rent a place in Pakistan, lived in the houses of friends and relatives. But she was forced to return when one of her relatives was arrested, a day after she left their home in Quetta, the provincial capital of the Pakistani province of Balochistan. According to Zahra, the Pakistani security forces took her relative for “questioning” to check whether he had any connections with the former Afghan government. She thinks he was arrested for sheltering a former Afghan security personal in his house.
Several Afghan media outlets reported that Pakistani security forces are hunting down former members of the Afghan security personnel. These reports say that many Afghan forces, who crossed the border into Pakistan to take refuge, have suspiciously disappeared. Some have been arrested by Pakistani forces and taken to unknown locations.
After that incident, Zahra couldn’t feel safe in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan. Now, she continues to live in hiding.
“The way they encouraged us to stand up to our families, the same way they must help us to get out of this dungeon,” Sama said.
“What we are doing right now is not living. Our days are filled with a sense of dread, and our nights are gone in nightmares,” she added.
*The names in the story are changed to protect their identity.