Zubaida Akbar is an Afghan human rights activist living in Washington, D.C. She is desperately trying to get vulnerable people out of the country, including a group of female journalists who are almost certainly marked for execution by the Taliban.

We kick off discussing what she is hearing from her friends in Kabul as people attempt to flee the Taliban’s retribution.  We then have a very heavy conversation about the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan.

By and large there is a dearth of Afghan voices in western media right now – and I am very thankful to Zubaida Akbar for coming on the show to offer her perspective.  I’ll admit that I had a giant lump in my throat at the end of this conversation, but I think it is important that we in the media give voice to those who can bear witness to what is going on right now in Afghanistan.

 

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Zubaida Akbar [00:01:52] I am just going to start by saying how everything that has happened so rapidly in Afghanistan has shattered our hopes and dreams that we had as long as three, four weeks ago. We never imagined things going down like this. I traveled to Kabul in mid-July because I wanted to see the situation for myself. And in my five-day stay in Kabul, I saw many people trying to leave the country. But then I also saw many other people holding the fort and staying behind because they truly believed that things were going to work out and that Afghanistan would survive and stand and that there were good things for us in the future that these difficulties would pass. That is the kind of hope that Afghans have had for Afghanistan during the past 20 years. The past 20 years were extremely difficult for Afghans. We lost our friends and loved ones every day but we got up and we continued moving forward. And we continue to keep our hopes up and we continue to believe that better days were to come for us. What’s happening right now in Afghanistan is seeing all of those hopes and dreams shattered, people feeling abandoned, people feeling lost, people have lost all hopes and trying to find their way for survival. In Kabul, people are trying to leave by hundreds, by thousands each day. And these people were not even imagining leaving their homes behind, like even a month ago. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:50] Do you have friends or family in that circumstance whose story you might be able to share? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:03:58] I have many friends who are in Kabul and who are the product of these past 20 years. They were educated and raised during the past 20 years. They were connected to the world. They know what’s possible and they tried their very best. And now they are trying really hard to find their way to the other side of the airport gates and to get out of Afghanistan so that they can survive- so that they can live because they know that living under the rule of the Taliban will not be possible for them. 

[00:04:35] First and foremost, their lives are at risk that the Taliban will go after them and kill them and that even if they stay in Afghanistan and if they are safe in one way or the or the other, they will not be able to live their lives the way they want because the Taliban regime is an oppressive regime. We have had the experience of living under this regime 20 years ago, and they continued to implement their oppressive laws on the people of Afghanistan where they have they had control. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:15] So, are you saying that your friends, by virtue of the fact that they are more educated, a little more worldly, that they kind of grew up in this mostly post-Taliban era over the last 20 years, went to university, got educated- that that makes them a target? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:05:34] Certainly. It certainly makes them a target. The Taliban are talking to the media and telling the world that they have forgiven the people of Afghanistan and that they will not harm anyone and then they are inviting people to stay behind. I think the fact that they come out and say, we have forgiven the people of Afghanistan speaks to how unaccountable they are. The people of Afghanistan are the ones who should choose if they forgive the Taliban or not. For the past 20 years, the Taliban have killed the people of Afghanistan. It hasn’t been the other way around. They attacked our young generation in universities. They attacked our girls in schools. They attacked our unborn children. They attacked our media people. They attacked our human rights activists. They killed women in targeted attacks. And now, they think they are in a position where they have to forgive people- I think that speaks to how impossible it is to trust this group of people and to stay in Afghanistan and to believe that you’re safe. So, yes, every single Afghan who has contributed to the progress of Afghanistan in the past 20 years is at risk of losing their lives to an oppressive regime under the Taliban. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:05] Do you know anyone who in this sort of recent crush at the airport, has actually been able to make it out of Afghanistan? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:07:15] I have a few friends who were able to get out of Afghanistan in the past few days. It was extremely difficult for them too because a lot of things happened within the span of two or three days for them. They lost their country. They felt unsafe and they had to rush to the airport, go through the crowds and go through an extremely mismanaged process to only save their lives at this point. A friend called me after being behind the airport doors for two days and inside the airport for the whole night as she was getting into the plane and she was crying. She said, this is not the way I wanted to leave Afghanistan behind. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:59] And how was it that she was able to get out as opposed to the thousands of others? I mean, at some point this seems almost like random- Who is able to get out, and who isn’t? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:08:10] People who are able to get out- they stayed behind the airport gates for days and they pushed through the crowd, risking their lives. This is how it happens. It’s out of luck. If you manage to go through the crowds, if you are not knocked over and walked over, and if someone lets you in- if you have the proper documents and someone from the other side lets you in to the airport, you make it out. But that’s very few, very few who have been able to do that. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:43] And where is your friend now? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:08:48] I believe she is in Bahrain 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:52] At the US Airbase in, pardon me, the naval base is in Bahrain, I presume. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:08:58] Yes, she is in some sort of a military facility. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:01] And do you have a sense of where she might go from there or do you have a sense of where people who are currently at these now overcrowding US military bases in the Middle East, where they might end up? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:09:13] The people that I know, including this friend, have been there for days now with very clear answers in terms of what’s going to happen to them. From my understanding, the US is prioritizing relocating people who had an SIV process that was moving forward or have green cards. Everyone else will need to wait for an uncertain amount of time until they have their paperwork sorted out. And this is happening in a situation where more and more people are being brought to these different bases. And the situation that from what I hear, the situations in some of these places are very inhumane. It’s overcrowded, it’s hot, people don’t have access to basic facilities. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:07] And on the other side of the equation, do you have friends or have you heard stories of people who have tried to make it at the airport? But, you know, given the danger and the uncertainty of that situation have given up and are basically sheltering at home- have given up trying to flee. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:10:26] These days, I’m in contact with a group of woman female journalists who travel to Kabul from Balkh. When Balkh province fell into the hands of the Taliban, they didn’t expect Kabul to fall as quickly. So they found refuge in a guest house. We have been supporting these women with their accommodation, but also with daily costs and filling out multiple visa forms and enrolling them in different schemes. Some of these women have received papers that they can come to the airport. At least one family among these women has been to the airport three times now with their four children, husband, and the female journalist that I know. And all four times they have been turned back because they didn’t receive clear communication as to which gate they should go to, who will be able to help them get inside the airport from the other side, and what is the correct way to access the airport? So this basic information is not being provided even to people who receive the correct paperwork to go to the airport. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:40] And these are female journalists, people who have been deliberately targeted by the Taliban for assassination over the last 20 years. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:11:48] Exactly. Exactly. That province fell into the hands of the Taliban before Kabul fell. Now, their offices have been taken over by the Taliban. They have access to all of the information in relation to these women. They have their they have their personal information, information about their families. They have all the HR files for these women. And in the past three or four days, the guesthouse they are staying then has been locked by the Taliban a few times because they are curious as to who is being taken care of in this case. So they are facing imminent danger. Not all of them have received responses from the different evacuation schemes we have applied them for. But the ones that they have received have failed to get into the airport despite trying many times. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:41] And you know, that horrible anecdote reminds me of something I heard from a former diplomat who had worked in Afghanistan, you know, that they’re hearing rumors that the Taliban, as they take over offices, like you said, are creating these basic databases where they are marking people for execution. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:13:02] Yes, yes, this information is going around. In the past week, I have been in touch with people from different parts of the country, mostly women who are trying to find a way to leave the country because their lives are at risk. And the information that comes through these women is horrifying. We don’t hear it on the news because some of these things are not happening in Kabul, but in remote parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban knows the world is not watching. They are being exactly who they were 20 years ago. They are lashing woman. They are killing women. Look, they are going house to house looking for women activists, for women journalists, for government workers, for NGO workers, as they are trying to identify these people. They are arresting some. I know a journalist who has been arrested for a week or more now and we haven’t heard about him. I have heard that they killed a woman in Jalalabad for leaving her house without a male company. I have heard from a school headmaster in the north that he was called and he told he could open the school only if girls were taught by female teachers and the girls would wear the full hijab, like the full coverage, their face, their entire body covered. And they could come and they could write their exams for this term. And then they will let them know what happens in terms of the next steps for them. So all of this goes to say, that the Taliban do not believe in girls’ education, do not believe in human rights issues, do not believe in freedom of speech. They will go after the people who promote these values, who have worked for these values, and who stand for these values, and they will kill them. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:54] What you say seems to speak against this almost emerging narrative that the Taliban are changed, this is a different Taliban now that they have the responsibility of running a government, they won’t revert to those bad old ways. But as you say, outside the sort of spotlight of Kabul and other places, they’re the same old Taliban. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:15:21] Yes, and this is not a new narrative. This narrative started emerging when the US decided to sign a peace deal with the Taliban, with the support of the US and the peace deal that they signed with the Taliban. The Taliban were legitimized. They were provided various media platforms to rebrand themselves and to strengthen this narrative that they have changed. While they were doing that, the Afghan people continue to say that they had zero trust towards the Taliban, that they were scared of the Taliban, and that the Taliban had not changed because even after they signed a peace agreement with the US, they continued to kill Afghans. They attacked the university in Kabul, they attacked the school in Kabul, and they intensified their targeted killings where they killed many journalists. So there were days that we woke up every day losing a member of our community who was a journalist, who was a human rights activist, who was a lawyer, who was an attorney- this continued to happen for months after that, after the Taliban signed that peace deal with the US. 

[00:16:33] I think the world stood with this narrative of the changed Taliban and with this narrative of the rebranded Taliban because it made it easier for them to be unaccountable towards their people and towards the Afghan people and to walk away because they were just tired. They just didn’t want to fight anymore. And it was naive of them. And the Afghan people warned them. We continue to warn them. We asked the US government to ensure that there is space for the Afghan people, for the marginalized, for the families of the victims around negotiation tables. So the people of Afghanistan, despite having lost so much to the Taliban, despite their wounds being so fresh and having so much trauma and so much injustice, they were willing to talk to the Taliban. They were willing to negotiate with them so that our voices are heard- despite the peace process being initiated by the US without zero consultation with the Afghan people. No inclusivity. We were ready to talk to the Taliban. We were ready to negotiate with them. But none of that happened because the Taliban, once the US announced that they are what they are going to withdraw and the date for withdrawal was clear, we had zero leverage to bring the Taliban to speak to us. They had all the power and we had nothing, and as a result of that, this is where we are right now. They wanted everything, they got everything, and they will lead Afghanistan even if Afghanistan is a graveyard of the young, educated generation of Afghanistan. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:23] You’ve done a number of interviews in the media, and I know you consume American media. What is American media missing right now about what’s going on in Afghanistan based on what you’re hearing from your friends and family? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:18:40] They are missing our side of the story. And our side of the story is that this was not our war to begin with. It was not our lack of will to fight that that that brought us to this situation. And it was not a lack of our resilience. This is not fair to the Afghans. I think what’s missing is that the biggest sacrifices were made by the Afghan people in the 20 years of war led by the United States in Afghanistan. We went and voted at the cost of our fingers being chopped off. We lost our friends in suicide attacks. In the morning we got up, we went back to work and we continued fighting so that we could continue that path. I lost 10 friends and one day in one attack in Kabul. 10 journalist friends that I was talking to on a daily basis. The next day, I woke up and I went back to work and I continued because I believed in Afghanistan and I believed that my resilience would fix this. So there was no lack of resilience and lack of will to fight. What happened was that we were left alone, that we were abandoned. We made the biggest sacrifices in a war that was not started by us in the first place. And now the world is walking away blaming us for it. And this is not fair. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:16] Going forward in the next days or even weeks, what will you be looking towards that will suggest to you how bad things could get, frankly? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:20:36] I want to be able to see a future for Afghanistan, but it’s extremely difficult right now. I am focusing all of my energy on helping evacuate as many people as possible, because I think if there is a day that we can all go back to Afghanistan and work and change things, all of these people will need to be alive and right now their lives are at stake. The current situation of Afghanistan and the people who are now put in power cannot grant safety for my friends, for my family, for the young generation of Afghanistan who was raised during the past 20 years. Now we are hearing horrifying accounts of human rights violations by the Taliban from remote areas of Afghanistan. As soon as the Taliban get their recognition from the world. This will escalate. We will see these horrifying things happening to people in Kabul and bigger cities. There will be no turning back from that. So I am focusing on helping people leave right now because I don’t see that the Taliban would stand by what they say. They have never stood by what they say, by what they have said. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:56] So I don’t usually do this, but I’m just really profoundly moved by everything that you’ve said, and I want to ask you, you know what we what listeners of the show who are also so moved, as I presume they would be- what can we do to help -to help you? 

Zubaida Akbar [00:22:18] There are many ways that Afghans can be helped right now, but these days, when I talk to anyone in Afghanistan or any Afghan in any part of the world, the biggest feeling they’re going through is abandonment. They think they have been left behind and that they have zero power and telling their story the way it has to be told. I hope that so many Afghans’ lives lost and American lives lost- and people, other people, just people who came with good intentions in Afghanistan to help the country and lost their lives. All of these sacrifices are a lesson to us.  That our politicians will start these wars in different countries in the name of bringing democracy in the name of fighting extremism. But what we see end up happening is extremism getting empowered and security getting increased and people losing their lives. And this is not good for any of us. Politicians are politicians, but we are all people. There are so many families who have- in the United States and around the world- who have lost their loved ones to this war. And I feel like the way we feel that our sacrifices were not honored by how the story of Afghanistan ended, the way it did- they feel the same way. And in that sense, I’m with them. And I hope that this is a lesson for all of us that we don’t let this happen again. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:50] Well, Zubaida, thank you so much for your time, and I just wish you all the best in your work and your efforts in rescuing the lives of your friends and family who are stuck. 

Zubaida Akbar [00:24:05] Thank you so much for talking to me. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:11] All right, well, thank you so much to Zubaida Akbar for speaking with me. I’m going to follow up with with her in a few weeks and check on the status of these Afghan female journalists currently in hiding in Kabul. Everything just seems so uncertain right now and just so awful and tragic in so many ways. Anyway, thank you for being a listener to this show. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:40] We’ll see you later, bye. 

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