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19 Sep 2021 17:41
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  •   Home > News > International

    Women's rights activist shares her family's harrowing escape from the Taliban to Australia

    A family who escaped from Afghanistan with the help of a former British soldier share their harrowing experience of crossing over to Pakistan and their confrontation with Taliban.

    In an Islamabad hotel room surrounded by her family, Shafiqa Sadat packed her bags for Australia.

    Having fled her home in Kabul, it was the first reprieve she'd had in weeks. 

    When the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan last month, the prominent women's rights activist feared for her life.

    "The Taliban said all the civil society workers, the women's activists, we have their pictures, and if we can identify them, then they will be killed," she told the ABC.  

    The last direct evacuation flights from Kabul to countries like the US and Australia took off from Afghanistan at the end of August. 

    Tens of thousands left the country on those planes, but many Afghans holding visas to Western countries – and whose activism, political views or work for foreign entities makes them fear retribution from the Taliban – have still tried to flee the country since then. 

    Among them were Shafiqa and almost two dozen members of her family.  

    The ABC followed their hazardous overland journey out of Afghanistan into neighbouring Pakistan, where they were picked up by an Australian military plane and taken to Dubai. 

    From there, the family boarded a Qantas flight and arrived at Darwin's Howard Springs quarantine centre. 

    Their story is a powerful illustration of the forces that continue to propel many Afghans to seek refuge overseas, and the dangerous paths they have to trace to reach safety.  

    Crossing into Pakistan

    Shafiqa spent much of the past five years advocating for the rights of women, taking their concerns to the highest levels of government.

    Her prominence, her advocacy and her perceived closeness to the government of former President Ashraf Ghani made her a target. 

    She and her adult daughters knew they had to get out of Afghanistan. 

    With their young families in tow, they tried desperately to reach the airport, but couldn't get through the violent crush. 

    They were camped out near the airport on the day two Islamic State suicide bombers detonated, killing more than 180 people. 

    Shafiqa said militants started to target her extended family – burning down one of their houses in Kabul.

    Their journey was a dangerous one — Shafiqa said her son's hand was injured by bullets as they fled, and she injured her foot. 

    Seeking another escape route, the family joined a larger group of Afghans also trying to reach the Pakistani border, led by former British soldier Ben Slater. 

    Shafiqa's son-in-law Rasheed remembers braving Taliban checkpoints. 

    "It was very scary because there was Taliban and they know who I am and where I go," he said. 

    Meanwhile, back in Australia, a group of advocates and supporters who had been working around the clock to help the family reach safety scored a crucial victory – convincing the federal government to grant the family emergency visas. 

    One of those advocates, Susan Hutchinson, told the ABC the family was in terrible danger and the group in Australia was on tenterhooks tracking the family's passage out of the country. 

    "It was incredibly stressful and at no point were we certain that they were going to be safe," Ms Hutchinson said. 

    Men rounded up by Taliban

    After reaching a border town the family took refuge in an abandoned shop, curled up together in a huddle of bodies on the floor.

    But one night, local Taliban forces swept into the room, rounding up the men and separating the family.

    Shafiqa's voice trembled as she described the incident, suppressing the panic that must have coursed through the entire family that night. 

    "We put our hands up in prayer, saying 'God save us, do not send us back,'" she said.  

    The larger group of Afghans they had travelled with quickly scattered as panic set in. 

    But Shafiqa’s family held their nerve and managed to hold together. The men were freed and the family reunited. 

    Eventually – after four tense and fearful days of waiting and wrangling with officials – they were let past the border gates and into Pakistan. 

    "We waited all day and then God blessed us … we were given permission to pass," Shafiqa said. 

    When they reached Islamabad, Australian officials put them up in a hotel. 

    The family said their fears subsided for the first time, and they began to let themselves dream about life in Australia.

    When the ABC visited their hotel in Islamabad the night before their flight, palpable excitement ran through the room as they packed their modest belongings into bags and small backpacks.

    Rasheed, 25, said his dream was to study engineering. 

    "Afghanistan was not good for knowledge and for study, because there was a lot of war [and] damage," he said.

    "My future life, I hope we should study a lot. And I [would] be a perfect man in my future."

    He said fleeing the Taliban and the journey into Pakistan was a frightening ordeal.

    But now he's looking forward to taking up a truly Aussie pastime.

    "Cricket is my favourite sport – I love the Australian team. One of my dreams is I shall take a photo with David Warner ... my favourite player," he said.

    "If I can, 100 per cent I will join a cricket team."

    The activists who helped the family reach safety in Australia are elated, but are not resting easy. 

    The family’s visas are not permanent, and while there’s no prospect of them being sent back to Afghanistan, advocates are pressing the government to grant them asylum rather than putting them on temporary protection visas.  

    As the whole family now sit in quiet isolation in Darwin, they know a lot remains uncertain. But they are still optimistic about what Australia holds for them. 

    In videos sent from his small quarantine unit, Rasheed looked more tired than when he first landed.

    There were signs the harrowing journey – and the finality of his break from life in Afghanistan – might be starting to take a toll.

    But his eyes still lit up when asked how it felt when the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac in Australia’s far north.

    "I was so excited, so excited – I could not believe I had arrived in Australia," he said. 

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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