Written by Staff Writer, Dahr Jamail
Hassan Omar, a former goalkeeper of the Afghan Football Federation, who was raised in Pakistan, narrates the story of a beautiful woman and her struggle to survive as a refugee in modern-day Afghanistan. Hassan Omar served as the director of the Ministry of Youth Affairs of Pakistan prior to his departure from the country in 2011.
Khalida Popal – secretary general, Taliban Youth, Afghanistan – remembers leaving Afghanistan in 2004 in the middle of the night in a hurry in an unlit vehicle. It was a cold autumn night, she recalled, and in a region where she had never ventured before. In her 20s at the time, she was a walking contradiction, speaking no Pashto, and going to school in English in order to keep pace with her peers.
She was at first looking forward to taking her newly acquired four-year university degree of English literature, but was also beginning to consider life as a young, single woman, who was constantly at risk of threats, beating, and acid attacks. The country she had settled into as a second home was unlike anything she had experienced before.
In Afghanistan her name, Khalida Popal, was forever tarnished when, in 2006, she had come to be labeled a Taliban supporter in Pakistan. That version of her was an instant sensation among men, who had little faith in the ability of the Afghan people to form their own political system.
“Everything with us at the time was devastating,” Popal recalls, “Afghanistan had been neglected and we felt isolated from our own government.” Her interviews and writings were censored or rejected; her photos were never allowed into circulation.
But even more damaging were the threats against her family. She vividly remembers the night her uncle invited her and her father to visit him. Two young men stood outside his home, clearly unimpressed. “If you don’t come back with me in three days,” one of them said, “I will kill your father.”
Afghanistan was in that dark place at the end of the 1990s, when the Taliban wrested power from the traditional ruling system of the Mehsud tribal elites. They got control by effectively using religion to introduce an Islamic interpretation of the state and society. As the decade of hardline rule came to an end, Popal has written a definitive account of those times.
Her conversation is filled with illustrations of everything from crumbling homes and rural villages, and the prevalence of opium for the country’s economic survival, to the destruction of public buildings that might have been used by Kabul women to raise awareness of their rights in the new democratic era. The emergence of basketball and the rise of the pro-football league were all signs of progress in her eyes, as were the women who attended schools for the first time, in all religious and ethnic backgrounds.