LONDON (AP) – In frantic phone calls and voicemails, Khalida Popal can hear distress and tearful calls for help.
The footballers of the Afghanistan Women’s National Team that Popal helped establish now fear for their lives after the Taliban swept the country to regain control of the country after two decades.
When they call, all Popal can do is advise them to flee their homes, flee their neighbors who know them as pioneer players, and try to erase their history – especially the activism against them. Taliban who are now reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“I encouraged to delete social media, delete photos, escape and hide,” Popal told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Denmark. “It breaks my heart because for all these years we have worked to increase the visibility of women and now I am telling my women in Afghanistan to shut up and disappear. Their lives are in danger.
Popal, 34, can barely understand the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government and the feeling of being abandoned by the Western nations who helped topple the Taliban in 2001. Having fled with his family after Kabul was taken by Taliban in 1996, Popal returned to Afghanistan two decades ago as a teenager living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. With the protection of the international community, Popal was optimistic about promoting women’s rights.
“My generation had the hope of building the country, of developing the situation for the next generation of women and men in the country,” she said. “So I started with other young women using football as a tool to empower women and girls.”
In 2007, there were enough players for Popal to be part of Afghanistan’s first women’s national team.
“We were so proud to wear the jersey,” said Popal. “It was the most beautiful, the best feeling ever.”
Popal encouraged his teammates to use their platforms to express themselves as mounting attacks saw the Taliban retake territory.
“I have received so many death threats and challenges because I have been quoted on national television,” she said. “I called the Taliban our enemy.
Popal quit playing in 2011 to focus on coordinating the team as director of the Afghan Football Association. But threats continued and she was eventually forced to flee Afghanistan to seek asylum in Denmark in 2016.
“My life was in great danger,” she said.
But she never gave up on female footballers, helping to expose the physical and sexual abuse, death threats and rape that involved the leadership of the Afghan federation. Corruption in sport reflected the fragile foundations of a country that rapidly deteriorated after the troops withdrew from the US-led mission.
“The Afghan women believed in their promise but left because there is no longer any national interest. Why did you promise? Popal asked. “That’s what my daughters say when they cry and send voice messages. Why not say that you would leave like this? At least we could protect ourselves.
An exasperated Popal sighs.
“We wouldn’t have created enemies,” Popal said. ” They are crying. They’re just crying… they’re sad. They are like desperate. They have so many questions. What is happening to them is not fair.
” They’re hiding. Most of them have left their homes to go to relatives and go into hiding because their neighbors know they are gamblers. They are seated, they are afraid. The Taliban are everywhere. They walk around creating fear.
Popal is a world apart but connected by pinging her Taliban phone.
“They keep taking videos and photos from the window showing that they are just outside the house and it’s very sad,” she said.
It’s even hard to imagine Afghanistan, ranked 152nd by FIFA out of 167 women’s teams, playing again.
“It was very painful to watch the government surrender yesterday,” Popal said. “The women have lost hope.
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