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How an Afghan soccer player escaped the Taliban and started a new life

One day in August, Fati was working in the women’s football department of the Afghanistan Football Federation when an employee from the president’s office burst in, shouting that the Taliban were closing in on Kabul. Gather all the documents you can find, he said, and put the paperwork in a pile. They needed to destroy anything the Taliban could use to attack the athletes.

“Hurry!” the man said. “Let’s burn it all down.”

Fati said she and a half-dozen other workers began opening drawers, grabbing as many papers as they could, sometimes piling them up to their chins as they led them away.

Registration forms. girls photos. Uniform order forms. Travel documents. The entire history of the women’s national team program, which began in 2007, was soon left in an unusual heap.

When Fati and his co-workers finished, they stopped to take a breather. They realized: their lives were really in danger.

Before leaving, Fati grabbed some passports and identity documents that the players had forgotten and put them in his backpack. He knew those girls would be stranded in Afghanistan without them.

Three days later, Fati was on his way to one last soccer practice at his local club when his phone started ringing and frantic messages appeared in the team’s group chat.

“Go home, training is cancelled.”

“Don’t go out, girls.”

Bahara, her former high school classmate turned defender for the national team, shared a video she had made of the Taliban arriving in one of Kabul’s squares. She was on her way to dental school when she saw trucks flying white Taliban flags, with soldiers honking horns and firing guns.

“It’s real, girls,” Bahara wrote in Dari, the players’ native language. “They are here.”

The city became almost uninhabitable, especially for women.

Stores and schools closed. The women lock themselves in their houses. The Taliban roamed the streets with cans of paint to cover up any evidence of shops like beauty salons.

Every day on Facebook, Fati reads about murders and more murders. It was impossible to know what was true. Social media posts showed bloody images stamped 24 hours ago. And then an hour ago. And then a minute ago.

Fati and his teammates knew they needed to get out of Afghanistan.

“Just be united and let’s see how we can get out of here and find a way,” Fati said in a text message to his team. “Inshallah, there will be a way.”

One night, the team received a text message from a veteran player named Nilab. She was a team captain known for speaking out about women’s rights.

He had received an anonymous text message: Somehow, if we see you, we’ll capture you and tie you up like a dog and not let you go. We will kill you.

Nilab warned the group: Girls, you already know that athletes are going to be killed. They will kill them and hang them from the goal of the Olympic Stadium, just as the Taliban did with the people before.

Fati, who was at home, felt a chill run through her body as her family slept in the next room. Nilab sounded scared. And Nilab, who had been kidnapped and beaten several times by militants trying to silence her, who was never scared.

Seeking help, Nilab tried to contact the leaders of the Afghan Football Federation and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, but they did not respond.

Finally, a breakthrough. Perhaps the only hope of the team.

Nilab received a text message from Khalida Popal, a former captain of the Afghan women’s national team who had fled the country due to death threats prompted by her activism. In 2018, she had exposed a sexual abuse scandal involving Afghan soccer officials abusing members of the senior team, which was at Fati’s level at the time.

“I am a bit worried about you,” Popal wrote to Nilab in Dari. “Are you okay?”

Nilab responded with a heartbreaking voicemail: “No, Khalida, I swear to God, we are locked in the house. You know the enemies are on every side of our house.”

He ended by saying, “We have no way of escaping. If you can do anything for us, please help us.”

Within hours, Popal was added to the group chat and introduced himself.

I feel sorry for you girls who can’t play soccer anymore. I am in contact with you from Denmark. I’m going to try to find a way to get you out of Afghanistan. I’m trying to get you out.

And wherever you end up, in the US or wherever, after that you can help your family.

But not now.

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