Lent by Afghanistan National Institute of Music
After weeks of unsuccessful attempts to flee the Taliban, members of the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and the Zohra Orchestra have finally been released. On Sunday, 101 students, teachers and musicians were aired to Doha in Qatar.
“One hundred lives have been saved. One hundred dreams have been saved,” says an emotional Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, Director and Founder of ANIM.
The Taliban forbid artistic self-expression. Even listening to music is forbidden. For weeks now, the international community, including members of Congress and leading musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, have been trying to help the musicians and students of ANIM escape. In September, members of the all-female Zohra Orchestra reached it within meters of the airport, but were turned away when Taliban guards reportedly refused to wake a sleeping commander at Kabul airport.
Sarmast, who spoke to NPR from Australia, where he is visiting family, says this evacuation was successful due to “a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations”, highlighting “the contribution of our friends on the ground from the Qatari embassy and also foreign ministers in Qatar. ” He says he cried when he found out that their plane had taken off from Kabul.
“I was still afraid that something might happen. There might be some problem,” he says.
ANIM was founded by Sarmast in 2010 and was hailed as a great success story in its efforts to renew cultural and artistic life in Afghanistan. Boys and girls studied music and academics side by side. Ensembles from the school, including the all-female Zohra Orchestra, performed around the world. But their existence still posed a danger. During one of ANIM’s concerts in 2014, a suicide bomber sitting behind Sarmast detonated an explosive. Sarmast lost his hearing for a while and had surgery to remove shrapnel from his head and body.
The Taliban’s recent takeover was made clear to Sarmast when he saw “painful images” of ANIM students and faculty waiting to board the plane in Kabul. He says the men had “long unshaven beards” and the girls were dressed in long black dresses, “just the two eyes were seen.” When he talked to some of the men after their trip, he joked with them that they looked “amazing” in their long beards. Sarmast says they told him when they had their first shower in Doha, “probably everyone was busy shaving.”
Sarmast and his allies on the ground are now trying to secure the evacuation of more than 180 members of the ANIM community, including students, faculty and family members left behind.