‘I’m So Scared’: Women on the Front Lines of the New Afghanistan | conflict

This was not the story we set out to tell.

We have been investigating the killing of women in Afghanistan since the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020.

And these killings are increasing, with record numbers documented by the United Nations: 219 women were killed in the first six months of the current year, compared to 138 during the same period in 2020.

But it seems that very few people have been held accountable for these murders.

In July, we spent two weeks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, learning about the lives of those who were killed, talking to women living in fear and trying to get answers from the authorities.

But as we pieced our story together, the country collapsed, the Afghan president fled, and the Taliban took control of the presidential palace.

A woman with her granddaughter at the Shahari Qambar camp for internally displaced people in Kabul in 2015 [File: Sat Nandlall/Al Jazeera]

Messages from friends began arriving on the morning of Sunday 15 August.

“The Taliban has taken over our area.”

“They are in our mosque and they ask us to wear the hijab if we go out.”

“I’m home. I can hear gunfire. We’re just praying.”

Their despair was palpable. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders were officially assuring the world that there would be a peaceful transition.

Women responsible for their own destiny

I was first introduced to Afghanistan in 2006, joining the Canadian Forces in Kandahar five years after NATO was deployed there. I’ve always wanted to know how the women were, as the war was sold to us with a shining promise to “liberate” them from brutal Taliban rule.

Over the years, I’ve watched reluctant girls I met grow into assertive young women, assertive young women mature into confident professionals – women who knew they were in control of their own destiny.

She visited the schools and reported on the obstacles that still existed for the girls and how they would overcome them. I watched women players playing soccer in a stadium once used by the Taliban to execute women for “moral crimes”.

I met amazing women I’m proud to call my girlfriends now; Politicians are calling for laws to better protect other women, police officers who have served as community leaders, and journalists who have never stopped holding their government accountable.

Girls at a school in Kabul in 2013 [File: Mellissa Fung/Al Jazeera]

For those who believe that 20 years and billions of dollars have been lost after the Taliban returned to power last week, remember that a generation of women has learned and matured believing that they are free to pursue their dreams.

But then, they started killing. More than 70 girls were bombed on their way home from school in Kabul in May 2021. Two judges shot in Kabul in January 2021. A journalist was shot in Jalalabad on her way to work in December 2020. The list kept growing. There were few reports of investigations and arrests of officials.

This was the story we set out to tell.

But not long after filming was finished and we left Kabul, last month, the Taliban swept across the country.

The provinces fell with little resistance. The Taliban captured the main cities: Herat, with its beautiful Blue Mosque. Kandahar, the birthplace of the group; and Mazar-i-Sharif, the former stronghold of the anti-Taliban military alliance, the Northern Alliance. Suddenly they are on the doorstep of Kabul. They made it seem shockingly easy.

On the day the Taliban captured Kabul, an image of a man painting over images of women decorating the city’s clothing stores went viral – literally obliterating them. I remember driving pictures last month with smiles on the faces of beautiful Afghan women in wedding dresses. I thought the Taliban would never be able to subdue women again.

The picture of those faces that I painted over it broke me. It was erased again. Now I fear that the progress women have worked so hard to achieve over the past two decades can easily be erased.

‘pray for us’

The Taliban now says it will govern comprehensively, invite women to join its government, and pledge it can continue to be part of the workforce as long as it is “compliant with Islamic law”.

But many Afghan women are not convinced. They remember the Taliban who subjected women to public beatings, forced them to wear the burqa, and who refused to allow them to go to school.

So the messages keep coming.

“I don’t know what will happen to me.”

“pray for us.”

“I’m very scared.”

I photographed women on a street in Kabul in 2007 [File: Mellissa Fung /Al Jazeera]

It’s a special kind of fear when women talk to me about the Taliban. It is the fear of going back to a dark time of oppression and imprisonment. Fear of losing control of his destiny. Fear of not being able to dream.

Most of the women I know are in hiding, afraid the Taliban will find them, asking if I can help them leave the country. Some have already left, not knowing if they can return.

For those who stayed, a sense of desperation is growing among strong women who now feel they are in grave danger.

A woman who once told me she would never leave Afghanistan sent me this email: “I am so scared of what might happen. I don’t want my daughter to grow up here. The situation is getting worse.”

My heart is broken for all of them, for all they might lose – their homes, their dreams, their future.

And my heart is broken for the country that I have come to love. When I left Kabul last month, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go back to the same place. Now I know it won’t be the same.

This was the story I didn’t want to tell.

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