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Escaping from Afghanistan, as Taliban returns

Oct/28/2021 / by ABHIJIT MASIH

Two Afghan women were forced to flee their motherland when the Taliban overtook the country in August this year. Ayeda Shadab and Roya Heydari are not related, but are united by fate and the threat of a grim future – futures they now need to build again from scratch.

Before that fateful day in August when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, these young women had busy professional and social lives. They had carved out a career for themselves in professions not exactly permitted by the Taliban, perhaps even frowned upon by the Islamic group now in control of the country after the exit of U.S. forces.

The threat of the Taliban had loomed in the distance earlier, too, but these two women had  continued working in careers unimaginable under the Taliban prior to 2001.

Shadab is a filmmaker and a photographer, and Heydari a model and a designer. These courageous Afghan women had thousands of followers on social media.

Shadab and Heydari shared their stories about living in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over the country, and the death threats that led them to flee their country.

Till a few weeks back, Shadab spent her time posting pictures and videos on her social media platforms. She is one of the most popular influencers in Afghanistan, her Instagram following exceeding that of the former president of the country on the platform. She also used Ayeda, which is also the name of her clothing brand, to promote her clothing line and boutique in the heart of Kabul, not too far from the now infamous airport.

SEEMA reached out to these women using the form of medium they know best – Instagram. Both promptly responded, seeking to speak about their ordeal. That may have been a result of their desperation to find a safe haven for themselves and their families which, for Ayeda, consists of only women – a very threatened group in Afghanistan today.

Shadab has always been aware of the shadow the Taliban casts. In 2018, they killed her father, who was the deputy governor of Logar province in Afghanistan. When she opened her store, the Taliban would visit, and warn her about the clothes that she stocked, which they felt did not conform to their religious dictates.

Ayeda Shadab, social media influencer, filmmaker and photographer

About a month back, three bulletproof vehicles stopped in front of her store and inquired about Shadab and her sister, also a model and an active social media influencer. They were not there, but the Taliban left a chilling message with the staff – “If we find Ayeda and her sister, we will burn them.” Taking the threat seriously, Shadab and her sister left the country, not knowing if they could ever return.

Shadab is still trying to get asylum in other countries for her mother and four younger sisters, who are still in Kabul.

She recalls her experience with the rule of the Taliban when she was a kid. When she once went with her mother to the market, the Taliban beat her mother with sticks because she was a woman walking unaccompanied by her husband.

For Shadab, Heydari and other Afghans, while the last 20 years were not normal, they also offered some hope. People could work, immaterial of whether they were male or female. They were able to improve their lives and support their families. 

“Now, there is no peace, no hope and probably no life,”


Ayeda Shadab, social media influencer, filmmaker and photographer

Through their social media presence, both Shadab and Heydari wanted to change the image of the Afghan women across the world. They said progress had been made in the last 20 years. For instance, Shadab studied in Malaysia and China and started her own apparel business. These women represent are educated, informed, and thus changing the perception of Afghan women as being always hidden behind the abaya (veil). They feel it is time for them to do something for these women and their country. 

But for the moment the women left behind are fighting for a passage out of their country, to escape the Taliban rule they have once endured, and may have to suffer again.

Roya Heydari, traditionally dressed, taking in the beauty of her motherland
Roya Heydari, traditionally dressed, taking in the beauty of her motherland

Heydari, unlike Shadab, was born in exile but returned to Afghanistan when she was 10 years old. She considers herself a simple artist who loves and worships photography. She worked as a news photographer with many foreign and domestic media outlets in Afghanistan.

Recalling her life in Afghanistan, she says “For me, Afghanistan was a challenging home where I found and built myself. All the efforts I made to establish my identity are unforgettable. Traveling to different provinces of Afghanistan, talking to people and writing their stories, and all the days I have been in my homeland are valuable and unforgettable for me.”

Heydari was still in Kabul when the Taliban took control of the city, She managed to get out of the country towards the end of August. Her heartbreaking post on twitter from Kabul airport went viral where she painfully mentioned leaving, carrying only the camera and her dead soul. 

“I do not have a specific word or phrase to describe the feeling of leaving the country. I can only say that I have collapsed like a building, and I am in pain. So much pain.”

Roya Heydari, model and designer sharing her anguish

Both Heydari and Shadab find their lives upturned, but still live in hope. They may be lost in the dark now but continue to seek some light. 

“I have not lost hope, and I try to concentrate and strengthen myself to be a loud voice for my people,” Heydari says, with some optimism. 

People and journalists from around the world are getting in touch with the two women, seeking interviews, and for a sense of the situation in Afghanistan. But no one is asking them if they need help. As news from Afghanistan goes to the background, and the new dispensation’s ways get accepted and probably normalized, the prospects of getting their families out of the country becomes bleaker.

Slowly, the fear, if not the certainty, of not seeing their family ever again  begins sinking in. It is poor recompense for a life challenging a system.

IMAGES OF HOPE BELIED

Photographer John Isaac took these images of Afghanistan in the uncertain period before the Taliban took over the country.

John Isaac is a renowned photographer and author best known for his work as a photojournalist for the United Nations. He started his career as a musician, which got him a stint as a UN singing messenger. He eventually became a darkroom attendant.

Taliban
A young girl carries water in the village of Bahrain near Kabul

Isaac has bagged numerous international awards, but it was his first, the Photokina Gold Medal, that he won while he was still a darkroom technician, that drew his bosses’ attention. They promoted him, and sent him off to learn documentation from famed photographer Ansel Adams, and later to cover the Lebanese Israel conflict. Among Isaac’s many achievements is a famous photograph of Audrey Hepburn with a child in Africa, which the legendary actor chose as one of her all-time favorites. He was a good friend, knowing her well enough for her to detail her troubled relationship with her absent father, long enough for her to host Isaac and his wife on their 20th anniversary. He was also the official photographer for Michael Jackson’s HIStory tour, and Pavarotti.

Bahrain,Kabul, Taliban
Young women and children in the village of Bahrain near Kabul

Isaac covered many of the world’s most shameful moments – in war and disaster –until he had a breakdown after covering the Rwandan genocide that caused him to quit his job. He remembered how one of the refugee children had told him that he look like the his father. As much for the famous pictures he is taken, Isaac is also known for the pictures he declined to take – such as one of a minor victim of rape who he found looking into the water. Instead, he brought over some Catholic nuns to take care of her. His colleagues back in New York laughed at him for being a softie.

A group of women attend literacy class at Basic Service Center for Women. Afghanistan.

Isaac has authored many books, including a series of four books called “Children in Crisis.” He was also featured in a book called “Photojournalist in the Middle of Disaster,” about his photography while at the UN. John Isaac’s travel across the world also took him to Afghanistan where he captured these images in 1992, when the country could scarcely imagine the darkness ahead.

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