'Don't let them take me away alive. Just shoot me': Afghan star recalls Kabul escape

By: AFP      Published: 02:50 PM, 11 Sep, 2021
'Don't let them take me away alive. Just shoot me': Afghan star recalls Kabul escape
Aryana Sayeed

Afghan pop star Aryana Sayeed recalls asking her fiance one thing as they snuck into Kabul's chaotic airport after the Taliban moved in: "Don't let them take me away alive".

Aryana, who brags of 1.4 million Instagram followers and is often likened to US megastar Kim Kardashian, had drawn the religious conservatives' ire for her women's rights activism and figure-hugging clothes.

A singer and former judge of a popular Afghan music talent show, the 36-year-old could not walk down the streets of Kabul without attracting a gawking crowd of selfie-snapping fans.

This made her escape from the city she loved that much more surreal.

Her first attempt on August 15 -- the day the Islamists entered Kabul while US forces scrambled to evacuate foreigners and some Afghans after 20 years of war -- failed because the plane never took off.

The stakes could hardly be higher when she made her second attempt the following day, with Kalashnikov-toting fighters surrounding the airport and allied forces trying to control the desperate crowds at its gates.

Her fiance and manager, Hasib Sayed, was communicating with her by walkie-talkie in a second car.

"I said to him, you know Hasib... if I am about to be taken away alive, just shoot me. Just shoot me in the head," she told AFP at her swank Istanbul apartment.

"That was the only thing I was scared of. I wasn't scared of dying or anything."

- 'Women were fainting' -

Aryana knew she was taking a risk when she launched her own fashion brand in Kabul just as US forces were speeding up their withdrawal and the Taliban were retaking huge swathes of the country in July.

"I always wanted to give hope to the future, so I decided to invest," she recalled.

Those dreams were a distant memory when she found herself with a little boy she did not even know sitting on her lap, her face veiled, trying to pass off as a normal family as they passed Taliban checkpoints en route to the airport.

"We made up a story as well. I remember we told this little kid if we get stopped, you have to tell them I am your mum and my name is not Aryana. It's Freshta," she said.

Her fiance reached the gate first, pushing through the crowds.

"People were pushing each other, there were children, little babies, the women were fainting because of a lack of oxygen and space," she said.

US soldiers initially refused to let them through, giving priority to American citizens, but a translator recognised Hasib and told the soldiers that he was the fiance of a big star whose life was in jeopardy. 

- 'Not the new Taliban' -

The couple made their way to Doha, Kuwait and the US, eventually returning to the flat they had in Istanbul.

The women she has left behind, Aryana says with bittersweet pride, are more educated and self-aware than those the Taliban forced out of school and work when they last ruled Afghanistan in 1996-2001.

"The women of Afghanistan are not the same women they were 20 years ago," she said.

"They are definitely not going to accept this," she said of fundamentalist Islam.

Just as important now, Aryana said, was for governments to understand that the Taliban today were the same as those who ruled before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks led to the US-led invasion.

"I hope the world realises this is not the changed or the new Taliban," she said. 

- 'Thirsty for my blood'-

Aryana has dedicated more than half her music to Afghan women. But the risk to her own life was simply too great to stay behind.

Even before Kabul fell, she said she felt "like a prisoner" because fundamentalists viewed her as a threat.

"If the Taliban are around, there is definitely no space for me because the Taliban are thirsty for my blood," she said. 

But while inspired by global pop icons such as Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce, Aryana draws a line at direct comparisons.

"Imagine being a judge on a musical show and you have to wear an armoured jacket not to be killed. I don't think any of them has lived that," she said.

"I think I have had a very different life from them," she mused. "I wish I could have a life like them, but how can you blame your fortune for being born in a war-torn country like Afghanistan?"

Unaccompanied evacuee children in Qatar limbo

The daily life of unaccompanied Afghan refugee children in Qatar is punctuated by recurring questions, "where are we going?" and "can I have some chips".

About 200 uprooted young Afghans arrived in Doha aboard flights from Kabul in recent weeks and are being hosted at a reception centre, where they grapple with the trauma of their ordeals.

They are now being cared for by Qatar Charity, a humanitarian organisation that has sought to protect them from prying eyes and keep them out of the reaches of people traffickers.

Officials are picking a path for the future of the children who have adopted new routines, playing football, exercising and enjoying arts and crafts.

"It's very hard to imagine the trauma that they've been through," said an aid worker based in the Middle East who declined to be named.

"All of them are in a state of shock and trauma, similar to what we've seen in places like Iraq or Syria with kids who have lived in (Islamic State group) areas."

The Taliban's shock takeover rekindled fears among Afghanistan's people of a return to the hardline rule between 1996 and 2001 which was marked by public executions, floggings and amputations for misdemeanours. 

Many fled, including the youngsters, some of whom cannot recall the circumstances of their abrupt departure from their homeland, while others give contradictory accounts of how they came to be in Qatar.

According to the UN children's agency UNICEF, around 300 unaccompanied children were evacuated from Afghanistan to Qatar, Germany and other countries after August 14.

- Desperate scramble -

Questions are swirling about how they came to be at Kabul's airport and then embark on planes bound for Qatar, and drastically different lives, but answers are in short supply.

The US Embassy in Doha did not comment on the specifics of the children's case.

A French police officer who was present at the Kabul airport gates described seeing a woman "desperately throw her baby into the barbed wire towards the French special forces who recovered and handed the child to American medics".

"The baby was treated and evacuated to Doha. He was really tiny. His mother just disappeared into the crowd," he added.

The officer witnessed other dramatic scenes.

"One man arrived at the gate with three young children who he passed off as his own. They were orphans, he probably used them to get the gate open, but they were also evacuated.

"Stories like that highlight the chaos. They'll be part of the history of this fiasco."

Qatar Charity and other agencies are now taking care of the group who are mostly aged between eight and 17 years old, with the youngest housed at a separate facility.

In Doha, children were settled at accommodations, to which AFP was not granted access, and grouped by age or family group if they arrived together.

As far as possible they were also grouped according to the friendships and bonds forged during their respective journeys. 

- 'Safe community' -

"They can get attached to other children very quickly. They feel things stronger than anyone," Fatima-Zahra Bakkari, a Moroccan in charge of international cooperation for Qatar Charity. 

She singled out two children aged 12 and 13 who had become inseparable in just over a week.

When the older child learnt that they were soon to move on, he offered to move out of the younger child's bedroom so they could prepare for possibly never seeing one another again.

"We all cry a lot," Bakkari said about the aid workers. "We laugh a lot too," she added recounting the occasional child waking up to "steal" a packet of crisps.

Despite their homely surroundings, the youngsters still face uncertainty. 

"We tell them the time will come, we don't know when but it will come," for them to move on, said Bakkari.

Children separated from their parents are "among the most vulnerable children in the world", according to Henrietta Fore, head of UNICEF.

"It is vital that they are quickly identified and kept safe during family tracing and reunification processes."

Qatar has provided shelter, physical and psychological care, food and emotional attention.

"Then comes the delicate part," said the humanitarian official who requested anonymity.

"The-best case scenario is we manage to find first-degree relatives, a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle. But in many cases we might not be able to do that."

Qatar Charity has set up a hotline for the children to call their relatives, but for those with no one to call their carers will need to ensure they are looked after in the long-term.

"Then eventually the child can integrate in a safe community so they are equipped with the things they need to become a normal adult," the aid worker added.