“‘We were on the pitch training that day,” said Afghan development team player Fatemah Baratean. “We had been selected to play in the Central Asian FA Championships for women under the age of 23 in Tajikistan, then suddenly there were explosions and bomb blasts all around, 100 meters from us, smoke, people screaming, mothers running. We did not know what was going on. “
The coach told the team that it would be their last session that the Taliban had taken control and that they would have to take one last selfie together there in Herat before everything changed.
“We did not want to accept it,” said Baratean, 20. “We told the coach it was not true, it did not happen, it was not reality. But it was our last moment on our court.”
Baratean started playing football in high school. So did three teammates, 18-year-old Narges Mayeli, Sahar Chamran (19) and captain Sabreyah Nowrozi, 24, who also spoke to the Guardian from temporary accommodation in the UK, where they arrived on 18 November. While the majority of the Afghan women’s senior national team reached some of the last planes to leave Kabul before the Taliban halted evacuation flights, with visas to Australia secured, the development team was stuck.
“We were not prepared,” says Nowrozi. “We had not estimated that they would suddenly take power. The last 20 years for women and girls in Afghanistan have been enormous; we had many women actively participating in society – we had doctors, lawyers, judges. Much of the development that had happened to women meant that we did not even think about what would happen if the country collapsed. We did not think the country would just give up without a fight. “
Despite the Taliban’s attempts to paint itself as an altered force for the Sevens, players say the impact was immediate. “Everything stopped,” says Baratean. “Education, jobs, too many girls stopped. We were athletes, we were afraid of our future. For the first time, we saw the Taliban in the streets. It was really scary.”
Baratean says it was not common for girls to play football in schools, that even the female teachers did not approve of it, and “because they were against our participation in football, it had a negative impact on our grades”, but they had kept out.
“For the first two weeks, we started playing outside,” says Nowrozi, looking back on his school days, “and we received threats from the Taliban. There was a message from the Taliban that if the people who supported us by playing, continued to support us, if anything happened to us then they would be responsible.We did not give up, we managed to find a safe and hidden place to continue our game.We moved from being out in a place to a school, which was more surrounded. ”
The four went to different schools, but were first selected to play on a regional team in Herat, then on the national development team. “When we moved from the school to the stadium, it was timed so no men were allowed to enter and the doors were locked,” Nowrozi says. “When we left the stadium, the men who knew we were football players were very insulting – there was a lot of verbal harassment, a lot of insults. We ignored it. We could not fight back because there was a risk that they might attack us. “
Nowrozi’s father was supportive, but the pressure to stop came from a wider family. Her father was branded as “not a real man” and as “no honor” because he allowed his daughter to play football. Nowrozi was described as a “bad woman”, as having been “westernized” and even worse.
“For me, it was the same,” Mayeli says. “First, families were against us, they would not let us play football, they told us that society would not accept that you are a girl and play football. People would talk about you, people would quarrel with you, they would call you names . “
Buying sports equipment in stores was not an option. They relied on coaches and male relatives to take their money and buy equipment. Why did they navigate in these extraordinary circumstances to play? “We had no other social happiness or freedom,” Baratean says.
Nowrozi agrees: “Through football we have managed to inspire others, we have managed to show women as strong women to society and to families. We have been able to tell them that you can still be covered and follow the religion and play It’s a positive message. “
When the Taliban took over, the players headed towards Kabul airport after contacting Khalida Popal, one of the founders of the women’s national team, who helped players get out. It took 20 hours for the team and their families to reach the capital, with a driver relative of one of the players paid to organize transportation. He saved their documents and ID cards and they were divided into smaller groups.
“We were undercover,” Nowrozi says. “Wearing big burqas, hijab and masks and lots of clothes to hide our identities. On the road it was so scary to see cars explode, Taliban checkpoints, many accidents. At every Taliban checkpoint we were stopped and we had to work hard not to be identified. “
When they left their home, they felt that their chances of getting out were slim and it was intensified upon arrival outside Kabul airport. “We were beaten by the Taliban and pushed and forced back, surrounded by gunfire,” Nowrozi said. “But then we had a hope when there was a bus to get us into the airport. We sat in the bus waiting to go, very happy, then there was the explosion [at Abbey Gate which killed more than 180 people] and we were going to get off the bus. We lost all hope.
“I was so tired that I had no idea what was next. We were surrounded by family members who asked us what was going on. I had no answer. I stood there and felt so helpless.”
Getting out through the airport became impossible as troops sealed the entrances. The development team and their families were forced to jump from hostel to hostel in the capital, trying to avoid warning while waiting for help from Popal and organizations and individuals who had offered help.
Chamran says the hardest thing had been convincing their families to leave everything and “trust us as their daughters”. Stuck in Kabul, the families faltered, Nowrozi recounts: “Some were really scared and frustrated and could not cope with the stress. They started putting a lot of pressure on us to come back and told us that we could live in the home without liberties, and that “would be OK. They wanted us to go home and give up this hopeless struggle. We fought to keep our families with us.”
Eventually, they were told that they had temporary visas from Pakistan, but they had to reach the border and cross. It took seven hours to reach via numerous Taliban checkpoints.
“The Taliban had leashes and beat people,” Baratean said of their experience at the border. “They forced women to cover their faces; if their scarf was a little bit down, they beat us with string. The weather was so hot and it was hard to breathe among the audience. They separated men and women. They split us, they hit us, there was a moment where they saw a letter from the football association and started screaming at us and asking if we were football players.
“We did not know what to do, what to answer. We were scared, we said we were, and they started shouting, ‘You have been thrown out of our government, we will never accept you, you are not “Muslims, there is no place for you in our territories. If you can not get out of here, you will be killed. There is no way for you to be alive here, we do not accept you, you have no place in our government.” “We were so scared that we were stuck in the crowd with a direct threat. We pushed ourselves against the gate.”
It was hard to cross the border. Some family members got through faster than the players, but in the end, there was relief for everyone in Pakistan. “We felt like a bird that had escaped its cage,” Nowrozi says. “But it was only 50% relief because we did not know what was next for us, what the future would look like. We did not have a final destination.”
It was not safe in Pakistan, where the Taliban were also present and they only had short-term visas, but eventually Britain agreed to host the entire development team with their families, 130 people in total.
“The feeling, especially when we landed and we saw the sign that said ‘Welcome to the UK’, was a feeling of freedom,” says Nowrozi. “We felt like we were newborns, that we could breathe for the first time. When we got to the residence, we felt like we were living the first days of our lives.”
However, the feelings are mixed. “It is our country, our homeland, where we had many dreams and desires. We left everything behind. But we have this mission and promise ourselves that we will invest in ourselves, study, work, participate actively and inspire women and girls and be an example to others. We lost everything, but we want to empower others and send a message to other women in Afghanistan. “
Leeds United owner and chairman Andrea Radrizzani helped bring the players and their families out, and on December 1, the team was invited to train at the club’s academy.
“It was like a child who was separated from his mother for several months and found them again,” says Nowrozi. “We did not want to be separated from the ball. We ran up and down like crazy on the court. Just seeing the court and having the ball with us, we did not want any distractions. After training, they brought food, pizza and water, and we said, ‘We do not want that.’ We just wanted to play football, we just wanted to stay on the pitch longer. It’s hard to describe it: the best feeling ever. “
Now begins the greater journey, the rebuilding of their lives. Those who support them have launched a fundraiser to help their resettlement. It is important that the players do not want the bereaved women to be forgotten.
“Someone has to sacrifice themselves to make change happen, and that’s what women in Afghanistan do,” Nowrozi said. “We will do our part outside of Afghanistan to continue to fight and support them. We did it when we were in our country and we will continue to do it afterwards.”