The Storm Before The Hurricane: A Personal Essay On Afghanistan

Sahar Fetrat, a student at King’s College London, reflects on her firsthand experience of life under the Taliban in Afghanistan, as she implores the international community not to turn away

By Sahar Fetrat

26 August 2021

ahar Fetrat was born in Afghanistan but she and her family were forced to flee the country when she was one-years-old because of the war there. They returned when Sahar was 10-years-old. Sahar stayed in Afghanistan until she graduated from the American University where she studied Business Administration, before moving to Budapest, to pursue her first Masters in Critical Gender Studies at Central European University, then to London to do her second Masters degree in War Studies at King's College London, where she is currently a student.

"Seeing the images this week of Kabul Airport crammed with people, packed with desperate families trying to escape, it’s as though my nightmare has become a reality."

What haunts me most from the images and video footage that have emerged from Afghanistan this past week is the clip of two young boys tying themselves to one of the US evacuation planes. When the plane took off, the lives that mattered rose, while the lives that didn’t fell.

Now, every time I close my eyes, I see that image as though it has been pasted to the inside of my mind. I imagine those boys growing wings and flying off into the sky, high above the plane they had somehow hoped would carry them to safety.

That same day, an American female TV journalist in Kabul made headlines because of the way she’d chosen to dress for a piece to camera - in full black hijab. All of a sudden, the world’s attention was diverted from the Afghan people, from Afghan women and those two young boys, and switched to her. It was symbolic to many of us Afghan women of what we call “a Western woman’s mockery of Afghan women’s resistance.” That same day, I saw images of Afghan women walking the streets of Afghanistan without the hijab - they were fearful, but defiant, refusing to cow to the Taliban’s orders.

There are quite a few Western female journalists in Afghanistan who have dressed according to the Taliban’s wishes. We find that problematic because every inch of a hijab is political. When a Western woman who is not expected, or asked, to wear hijab wears it, it mocks the fight Afghan women have against mandatory hijab.

I understand that some people are cautious regarding hijab issues because they don’t want to align with Islamophobic politics. I salute them for that in the West, but we don’t have Islamophobia in Afghanistan. There the Burqa is a symbol of oppression that the Taliban enforced on Afghan women, through which they control their bodies and mobility.

There are many ways you can contribute to injustice; this is one of them. In the words of Hannah Arendt, “The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did.”

“What many people don’t realise is that leaving can be as painful as staying is unsafe.”

Bearing The Stamp Of A Refugee

Today, my heart feels the weight of all the injustice in the world. It sits heavy in my chest because I know what’s waiting for Afghan women.

I had just been born when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. When the war started in 2001, my family was forced to flee the country.

Growing up, my parents had both been deprived of an education because of war instability, and they didn’t want that for us.

While leaving Afghanistan was, as my parents saw it, the best decision for our family, for me it meant growing up in countries that refused to accept us. For the first 10 years of my life it was as though someone had stamped ‘refugee’ on my forehead. We moved first to Iran and then to Pakistan, and in both places the word ‘Afghan' was more of a slur than an identity. I felt as though I was living with identity dysmorphia. This is an effect of war that people seldom talk about.

When I was 10-years-old we moved back to Afghanistan, the country to which I have remained deeply connected ever since. But returning ‘home’ meant once again experiencing first-hand the atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban. In 2016, they attacked my university, the American University of Afghanistan, and while I was lucky enough to survive, my best friend, alongside numerous other young and talented students, did not.

The world has witnessed the Taliban attack schools, hospitals, mosques, and more, many times over. They have taken so many innocent lives. So now I urge the global community: do not look away. Please. When you see images of women in public spaces being literally painted over - as we did a few days ago when pictures of women on the front of a beauty salon in Kabul were painted over - what you are seeing is a powerful metaphor for the fate that soon awaits those Afghan women who are not evacuated, those who are left behind. Patriarchy and Talibanism feed each other.

This is the storm before the hurricane.

My Recurring Nightmare

I remember in late 2011 when talks of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan first began. My family, friends and I felt so afraid of when that day would finally come and what this withdrawal would mean for us and for the people of Afghanistan. From that moment on a seed of fear was planted in all our minds, fear of what life would look like when the Taliban returned to power, as we knew they would as soon as the U.S. troops were gone.

Since then, I’ve had a recurring nightmare in which I’m stuck in Kabul Airport as I try to flee the Taliban again. Seeing the images this week of Kabul Airport crammed with people, packed with desperate families trying to escape, it’s as though my nightmare has become a reality.

While many in the international community seem to be holding out a naive hope that the Taliban will be “different this time around”, that they might respect women’s rights, for example, those who have experienced firsthand what they are capable of know better.

“The Taliban will never change. The trauma they have imprinted on our generation will never be forgotten, and nor should it be forgiven.”

The Taliban will never change. The fear they have inflicted on the Afghan people lives in our bones, in our minds, and in our hearts. The trauma they have imprinted on our generation will never be forgotten, and nor should it be forgiven.

The Implications Of Evacuation…

In the past seven days, I have found myself stumbling over the word ‘evacuation’ and its meanings.

In one sense, evacuation is a privilege for the ‘lucky’ few who manage to escape. To be evacuated is to count, to be given an opportunity to be resettled.

But at the scale we’re seeing now, evacuation represents the mass uprooting of the next generation - of journalists, artists, singers, and activists - who may have been the very levers of change Afghanistan so desperately needs.

Meanwhile, those who left behind are burdened with the feeling that they were somehow not worthy of rescue.

What many people don’t realise is that leaving can be as painful as staying is unsafe. Every human evacuated leaves behind family, friends, memories, dreams, hopes. They are departing from a homeland to which they know they may never return.

It is all devastating.

The Short Stack

The international community must not turn a blind eye on the Afghan people when the allied forces finally leave at the end of the month. We know what the Taliban are capable of and we must not let them get away with it.

By Sahar Fetrat

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