Afghan woman in Dublin tells of confusion in homeland amid Taliban advance

People ‘don’t know what is going to happen’ or what form government is going to take

Soraya Afzali said her main aim at the moment is to help persuade the Government to allow emergency visas for Afghan people currently trying to flee that country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Soraya Afzali said her main aim at the moment is to help persuade the Government to allow emergency visas for Afghan people currently trying to flee that country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Soraya Afzali (28) is from the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, which was taken over by the Taliban on Saturday. She is a PhD student and has been in Dublin since June.

Most of her family have left Afghanistan in recent days but a brother and his family, as well as many friends, remain in the city. She has been in regular contact with people there over recent days, mainly through social media.

With a population of more than half a million people, everything in Mazar-e-Sharif is in suspension at the moment as people wait to see what is going to happen. “Everyone, family and friends, is sitting at home. They don’t know what is going to happen or what form of government is going to take shape,” she said. “People are not going out.”

So far, where women are concerned, “there has been no insistence on [wearing] the burka and there has been no statement from the Taliban about the veil,” she said.

However, “already, at the University of Herat [in western Afghanistan], women students there have been told to go home for now with their place to be taken by a man,” she said.

Elsewhere, the Taliban “have been going house to house looking for [human rights] activists,” she said. This was particularly the case in Kabul, where activists at the American University “are destroying hard drives and records,” she said.

There were no clashes between the Taliban and government forces at Mazar-e-Sharif on Saturday, she said. The Taliban disarmed government forces on the outskirts of the city. “They took their guns and ammunition but they [government soldiers] were not imprisoned,” she said.

However, the woman governor of a local district, Salima Mazari, is being held by the Taliban. “Nobody knows what has happened to her and everyone is worried about her safety,” Ms Afzali said.

Salima Mazari had been governor of the Hazaras district of Chaharkint, in the Balkh province of which Mazar-e-Sharif is capital.

Hazaras minority

Ms Afzali’s family belong to the Hazaras minority, the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and a Muslim people who have been subjected to attempted genocide by the Taliban, who massacred as many as 20,000 Hazaras at Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, according to some estimates.

Her family fled to Iran then. She was too young to recall details and her parents kept no records as both were illiterate. When the Taliban were defeated “we returned in 2002 and started again and built the house,” she said.

Her father is dead. Her mother was evacuated on Monday to the United States, where her brother and his family have lived for years. Her sister, who worked with the United Nations in Afghanistan, was also evacuated on Monday, while another brother, who had worked with the German armed forces there, was evacuated a week ago.

She herself studied at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and was due to graduate in 2017 but this was delayed when the campus was besieged by three gunmen who opened fire and detonated explosives.

“The attack, on August 24th, 2016, began at 6pm and last until 4am. It was a horrible day,” she said.

The gunmen killed 13 people, including seven students, a policeman, three security guards, one professor and a guard from a nearby school, before being killed themselves by Kabul’s police authorities. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ms Afzali graduated in 2018, then studied for a master’s degree at the Central European University in Budapest before coming to Ireland. Based at Trinity College’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, she is taking part in a European-wide research project, involving 10 European universities, on hate and hate speech, particularly as it relates to immigration.

Her main aim at the moment is to help persuade the Irish Government to allow emergency visas for Afghan people currently trying to flee that country. “In particular, we are afraid of people falling between the cracks, particularly single or widowed women,” she said.