Article originally published in Greek daily TO VIMA on 7 November 2021
Interview by TANIA BOZANINOU
Masooma Gholami is a familiar face in Afghanistan. For seven years she presented newscasts in Kabul. When the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban on August 15, Masooma did not return to work. She is a journalist, a woman and a Shiite- all three seen as inexcusable by the Taliban. “I received death threats even before the Taliban came”, she tells ‘TO VIMA’ when we met in an Athens hotel, last Wednesday.
Twenty-nine year old Masooma who came to Greece with her three children (12, 7 and 3 years old) knows how to deal with hardship. She says: “Women journalists in Afghanistan face a lot of troubles. My husband did not like my job, for this reason we separated. My position worsened because I was divorced with three children”.
The agony of death
When the Taliban captured Kabul her life became worse. She locked herself in the house with her children. The few times she had to go out to buy food she wore a burqa not to be recognised. She realised that Taliban supporters were all around her in Kabul keeping a low profile and only surfacing when the city fell. She was afraid any moment that one of them would point at her house and the Taliban would kill her.
In desperation she contacted the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The Federation cannot issue visas but helps Afghan journalists to contact embassies and provides lists of priority cases to governments, urging them to offer more visas to journalists at risk.
Once Masooma's personal details were confirmed, the IFJ helped her flee the country.
Sarah Turgan followed the same path. ‘TO VIMA’ met her in Athens where she stays with her husband, an engineer and their five year old daughter. Thirty-one year old Sarah from Ghazni south of Kabul was a child when the Taliban first ran Afghanistan (1996-2001). Her parents, both doctors, took their family to Pakistan. When they returned to Afghanistan Sarah studied journalism in Herat University. For ten years she worked in television, radio and newspapers, reporting Taliban crimes. Threats against her life were so many she had to resign. When the Taliban took over Kabul in August, Sarah went into hiding. The Taliban searched from house to house to find and kill her, for she had also committed a triple crime: woman, journalist, Shiite.
The fleeing odyssey
At some point Masooma as well as Sarah received the expected IFJ email, with a code and a telephone number.
Masooma wearing a burqa and her three children travelled by public bus to Mazar-e-Sharif a town in northern Afghanistan to leave the country from the city airport as it was impossible from Kabul airport. The Taliban harassed her in Mazar airport asking “where is your husband?” opened her suitcases throwing all her clothes and those of the children, allowing them to take only two pieces in a bag.
Sarah who dared to go out in a headscarf (not a burqa) to cover a demonstration after Kabul was captured in the summer, was beaten by the Taliban who broke her mobile. At some point she received the long awaited call for her to leave with her family for Mazar-e-Sharif. “We didn’t leave because we had difficulties. We struggled with troubles even before the Taliban. We left because they threatened our lives”, says Sarah. Her husband and daughter had a passport but her own had expired. She went many times to Kabul for renewal but the Taliban would send her away. One time she got lucky with an employee who had served in the previous regime and agreed to signing in order to move on. But the telephone call to leave the country came before the new passport. Sarah never understood how she managed to get on the plane to Tbilisi. Had the Taliban failed to notice her passport had expired or the visa she was granted counted more?
From Georgia the two journalists boarded another airplane to Athens with other women evacuated from Afghanistan. Both feel very sorry for all those left behind and worry for their parents and relatives remaining in Afghanistan. They do not want to stay in Greece and hope to settle in Canada or the USA.
International chain of help and solidarity
“We call on the world not to recognise the Taliban government. Afghanistan has fallen into the hands of people who know only how to destroy”, says Sarah. Her five year old daughter on her side is holding tight a pink Disney figures umbrella bought by JUADN [the greek journalists union] which is supporting the two journalists and their families for six months, until all procedures for their resettlement are concluded.
Maria Syreggela, Deputy Labour Minister in charge of family policy and gender equality, describes to ‘TO VIMA’ the difficulties in the Afghanistan evacuation operation. "The first attempt was made on the same day of the terrorist attack against Kabul airport," she said. Ultimately, by various ways and with different flights Afghan women holding leading positions whose lives were in danger were brought to Tbilisi and from there to Greece. “Among our guests are the youngest woman parliament member, the former Labour Minister, women judges persecuted by the prisoners they have put in jail, freed by the Taliban,” added Mrs. Syreggela.
An active part in the operation was held by "I Melissa", a network of immigrants in Greece. "As soon as the Taliban invaded Afghanistan, we took the initiative to ask the Foreign Minister to bring to Athens 150 women facing danger" says Nadina Christopoulou an anthropologist and co-founder of the "I Melissa" network. "We got responses that took the form of an international chain, with the participation of governments and organizations," such as Hillary Clinton in the United States and Baroness Helena Kennedy in Britain. "The effort was not just to save women in vulnerable conditions but also to save the work they have done for creating a democratic country. These women risked their lives and the international effort and solidarity for their evacuation was unprecedented ," stressed Mrs. Christopoulou.