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People in Afghanistan who spoke with The Globe say the extremist regime has destroyed their livelihoods, sent them into hiding and denied women their rights

A girl sits with Afghan women waiting to receive bread in Kabul this past January. Under Taliban rule, women are punished if they aren't fully covered in public.Ali Khara/Reuters

Women who used to work for the Afghan government wake at night, startled by the sound of footsteps outside their homes, afraid the Taliban has come for them. On the outskirts of cities, men who once commanded hundreds of soldiers cower in hiding. Those who worked for foreign governments hope to be rescued.

A lot has changed since the Taliban took control of the country six months ago. The extremist rulers have sent scores of people – fearful of retribution, and afraid they will be killed – into the shadows.

Former members of the Afghan army, former government employees and women’s rights activists all change their locations regularly to avoid detection. They can’t work, and as the country plunges into a worsening food crisis, with more than half the population facing acute food insecurity, they can barely feed their families.

Women are a constant target of Taliban cruelty. Their movements and freedoms have been restricted, and they can’t travel without a mahram – a close family relative. They are told they must always be fully covered in public. Secondary schools have been closed to girls. They have watched their hopes for the future vanish.

In the immediate days after their takeover of the country, the Taliban promised to be moderate. They vowed to respect women’s rights and forgive those who fought against them, offering amnesty to people who worked for Western governments.

Protesters in Kabul on Feb. 15 denounce the Biden administration's decision to divide frozen Afghan assets.Hussein Malla/The Associated Press

Their promises were meant to appeal to the international community, particularly because the United States and other Western countries had frozen $10-billion in Afghan assets in August.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an order releasing $7-billion in Afghan assets held in the U.S., portioning the money between humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and to 9/11 victims. The decision to divide the money has angered many Afghans, with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai calling it “an atrocity against Afghan people.”

Western countries have insisted they will not recognize the Taliban as government unless the new rulers restored rights for Afghan women and girls, and shared power with the country’s ethnic and religious minority groups. So far, that hasn’t happened, but Taliban rulers have told the Associated Press that girls will be able to return to school in March.

The Globe and Mail spoke with more than a dozen Afghans, including women and men who worked for the previous government, former military members and private citizens about how life has changed since Aug. 15.

They all feel desperate and scared. The Globe is only identifying individuals by either their first or last name, or is not identifying them at all, because they fear for their safety.

At top, a Taliban fighter directs traffic alongside a Kabul street vendor selling heart-shaped balloons for Valentine's Day; at bottom, a woman shouts and begs for alms as children sleep in a Kabul market area.Hussein Malla/AP; MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations said recently that it received “credible allegations” that more than 100 members of the former Afghan government, its security forces and those who worked with international troops have been killed since the Taliban took control of the country. More than two-thirds of the deaths were alleged to have resulted from extrajudicial killings by the Taliban or affiliates, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report. This is despite the Taliban’s announcement of general amnesty for those affiliated with the former government and coalition forces.

In the past six months, Soghra, 26, has moved homes more than five times, fearful that her former job at the government’s defence ministry has put her at risk of Taliban reprisals.

Now living in a sparse apartment with her two-year-old son, the single mother is struggling under extremist rules. Her husband was killed when his vehicle hit a landmine two years ago. Because she doesn’t have a man to accompany her, she can’t go on long trips, and she is worried that eventually, she won’t be able to venture outside at all.

The scariest part, she said, is that people know she lives on her own. Soghra told The Globe she gets many salacious and threatening phone calls every night from men demanding her to engage in illegal sexual acts.

She had been propositioned before the Taliban took over, but her previous job offered her protection – predators feared she would report them. She no longer has that cover. She tries to block the numbers, but the calls keep coming. She can’t report them to the Taliban because she is scared that men on the other end of the line could be Taliban members as well. “Maybe they will kill me, maybe they will capture me,” she said.

Meanwhile, she is fighting to survive. To buy food, she sold her belongings – their refrigerator, a cooler, their television, a gold necklace. She and her son only eat twice a day, usually rice or potatoes. Now that she has nothing left to sell, she will have to move again, she said, to a cheaper house. The stress is making her hair fall out.

Another woman who worked for the same ministry also routinely changes her location to avoid detection by the Taliban. The 23-year-old said she is scared the extremists will force her into marriage or kill her.

In the months after the takeover, she couldn’t sleep. And when she finally did drift off, she had nightmares of being kidnapped and transported to their base. Now, she sleeps lightly, waking when she hears footsteps outside.

She has had two encounters with the Taliban so far.

The first time it happened, she was wearing a dress – completely covered, apart from her face and hands. The Taliban stopped her in the street and reprimanded her, telling her this wasn’t enough, and it would be her last warning. Now, she doesn’t leave home without wearing a burka. Another time, she saw Taliban force a group of people on the street into their vehicle and drive off with them. She fears one day that will be her, and she will disappear. Like Soghra, she doesn’t have any men in her life, so she has no one to travel with. She lives with her younger siblings and aging parents, and they’re struggling to survive. They eat bread for every meal, she said.

Every day, the young woman said, the Taliban are issuing strong rules against women and the international community is not doing anything about it.

Women are like dead bodies moving, she said.

In Herat, a woman in a burqa walks down the street and mannequins at a clothing store are headless after the Taliban told retailers representations of the human form are against Islamic law.AFP via Getty Images

Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights for Human Rights Watch, said the situation is particularly difficult for the younger women who had wanted to chase opportunities that previous generations didn’t have. “To have that ripped away again – in the same way, by the same people – it’s too much. … People have become prisoners in their own homes, and it’s because they don’t have a job to go to, they don’t have a school to go to, they don’t feel safe going outside,” she said.

Ms. Barr said women don’t feel like they can go for a walk, even in places where Taliban are not enforcing a mahram be present. “People are becoming really depressed and claustrophobic and hopeless.”

“You’ve got all these … specific harms to women and girls, but then you’ve also got this vanishing of free speech and space for activism and space for organizing, and you’ve got the sort of total dissolution of local media,” Ms. Barr said. “So you don’t even have a way to talk about these things any more.”

The situation is bleak for journalists. A male Afghan journalist told The Globe that they can’t ask questions about women or human rights, and that they are accused of being spies. He said Taliban members have asked him and his colleagues why they don’t have beards or wear turbans.

Journalists show their injuries last September after they say the Taliban beat them for covering a protest in Kabul.Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

In the mountains, former members of Afghanistan’s army are now hiding from the Taliban they once fought against. Dorani, a former tank driver of a commando unit, said his family members have become “like soldiers.” He said every person must be awake and on the lookout for Taliban. At night, his father and brothers walk to the end of the road to keep watch, rotating every two hours.

He said he was on duty in Kandahar when the city collapsed, and he fled to Kabul and then Jalalabad, where he was captured by Taliban. He was thrown in jail for 12 days, he said, and while there, he was in the company of many ex-government members, former police and former soldiers.

The Taliban asked him if he was a member of the commandos and he denied it, insisting he was a “simple man,” even after they beat him. After they took his fingerprints, photo and name, they let him go, but they warned him that if they found proof that he worked as a commando, they would kill him.

Every minute of the day is difficult, he said, and it feels like he is waiting for the Taliban to find and kill him. He said many former government members, particularly special forces and commando members, have been taken by the Taliban. The friends he once worked with have disappeared.

He shared a photo of his two young daughters, who are 2 and 5, sitting closely together on layered carpets. His family is living like animals, he said, in tents. It’s cold and his daughters cry every night. They don’t have enough food, jackets or blankets.

Niazi, another commander, who said he was in charge of a special forces group of almost 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan, is also living in the mountains, far from his home and away from his family.

He has been hiding for months, because it’s too dangerous to stay with his wife and children. When they can’t reach him by phone, they cry and panic, assuming something has happened to him. Many men who worked for him have been captured by the Taliban, he said, and some have been killed. Others are still hiding.

The former commander said he and his forces were trained by the U.S. military and now feel abandoned.

At top, a Taliban fighter looks out at a market in Kabul; at bottom, more fighters in the capital buy the new Afghan national flag.Hussein Malla/The Associated Press

After the Taliban took control, Afghan soldiers fanned out across the country, said Abdulrahimzai, a former deputy commander who said he led thousands of people before the Taliban took over. Since then, hundreds have disappeared, and he doesn’t know if they are alive.

Abdulrahimzai said that a month ago, the Taliban raided his home at night, trying to capture him. As they shot at him, he fled, making it to his neighbours’ house, and then he kept going. He’s now far from his home, he said. “No one knows where I am.”

Former employees of Western governments, including many who worked for Canada, are also laying low as they wait to be evacuated. Some have been sheltering in safe houses set up by Aman Lara, a Canadian non-profit that has been working around the clock to help evacuate people.

One major hurdle to getting out of the country is that you must have a passport, and Afghans destined for Canada have been arrested and detained by the Taliban for attempting to pick up their travel documents.

Many people who have been approved to come to Canada have told The Globe that the wait is stressful, and they are desperate to escape.

Afghanistan has become a country of people in hiding, especially for those who dedicated their working lives to making their country a better place.

Brekhna, 49, used to run a women’s magazine and is a former social deputy governor of a province The Globe is choosing not to identify. She said the Taliban accused her magazine of promoting non-Muslim ideas and she had to shut it down. The once vocal activist hides in a single room with her family.

She and her husband stay inside, sending their children out only for groceries. They heard the Taliban looted their former home, as they have reportedly done to many abandoned properties. Her family has nothing now, she said. Brekhna is worried about her children – their future has been destroyed, she said, and they are eating just enough to survive.

She said being a woman is a big obstacle. She wants the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to accept women – to let them go to school and work, and to allow ex-government workers to have a normal life. She said countries should not recognize the Taliban until those demands are met.

Sohila, another prominent women’s activist, was a women’s affairs director and, later, a provincial council member. She said she helped women who were having disputes with their husbands or family members, or who wanted to file for divorce. Now she is fearful the men, including extremist fighters, will come after their own ex-wives – and after her. “Our responsibilities were to give the message to the women: you are part of society, and you have equal rights with men. But unfortunately, we came back to zero,” she said. “Everything in the last 20 years, we did for nothing.”

With reports from the Associated Press


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