Women's rights advocate Zahra Nazari has described how a US soldier pulled her from a sewage-filled canal at Kabul airport minutes before a suicide bomber attacked.
Hours after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the 20-year-old businesswoman had told the Mirror how she was hiding in a hotel room with her mum and sister.
She made a plea for help to escape the extremists who had vowed to kill them.
Following our report, the US Embassy granted Zahra and her family a place on an evacuation flight.
During the next week they tried to reach the airport gates, witnessing people crushed to death, women and children dying of dehydration and atrocities by Taliban soldiers.
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Today Zahra, her mother Bilquis, 39, and sister Fatima, 18, are safely in the US – but only after they missed by minutes the airport bomb that killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 US troops.
She describes her escape as “the most terrible experience of my life”.
“It’s only because of a miracle we’re here,” she says. “We should have been killed with all those other people at the airport.
“We were there for two days and if it had taken 30 minutes longer we’d have been dead too.
“I’m alive but my heart died there. When the plane took off everyone inside was crying, for the Afghan people, and US soldiers, who had just died. It was so terrible.
“God helped us escape. We’ve lost everything but can start again and live without the Taliban and without fear. I’m so grateful.”
Zahra and her family lived in Bamiyan, a city 100 miles west of Kabul, and are from the minority Hazara group hated by the Taliban.
Her father Karim died of a heart attack when she was four after four of her uncles and a half-sister were killed in a Taliban attack.
After Western forces invaded the country, her mother became the first woman in their city to open a shop, selling handicrafts, carpets and clothes.
While she was still at school Zahra took over the running of the shop, while her mum opened a hair salon.
The teenager employed 15 women, and in 2017 and 2018 was named best businesswoman and entrepreneur and chaired the Bamiyan Businesswomen Association. Meanwhile, her younger sister Fatima became Afghanistan’s first woman professional skier.
Their activities, and Zahra’s activism for women and girls, angered the Taliban who once blew up a bomb outside the family shop and this year sent a death threat to the family.
When Taliban forces attacked Bamiyan a month ago, the three women fled to the mountains, hiding for 10 days in caves without food or water.
Then they fled by car to the Afghan capital, but arrived just as Taliban fighters were entering the city too.
They hid in a hotel for days, until on August 18, terrified, hungry and with only a few days’ money left, they made a plea to the Mirror. After receiving their US airport pass, Zahra and her family, wearing burkas, headed to the airport.
She says: “We arrived at the airport, the Taliban started firing on people. As we were running the Taliban were beating people.
“We tried to enter into the airport from every gate but couldn’t, we tried for nights and days.”
They finally made it to the Abbey Gate entrance. Zahra says: “There was a river full of sewage. Women were going in there with their babies and waiting for hours until the US military lifted them out.
“It was so crowded. Men trampled on my mother and we barely saved her. Other women and children died, crushed. We entered the sludge for hours.
“The US military were trying to control the crowd using tear gas and sound bombs. Finally a US soldier pulled us out of the sewage. He was so kind and young, he asked where we were from.
“I told him and he said, ‘I hope Afghanistan is free from the Taliban one day and you can show me this beautiful and historical place’.
“He was from Virginia. We were so hungry so he gave us his food and water. I keep thinking about him. All the American soldiers were working so hard trying to help people.”
Thirty minutes later, as Zahra, Bilquis and Fatima were walking towards the plane that would airlift them to safety, the bomb exploded –where they had been waiting.
She recalls: “We heard a huge blast, we could hear people screaming, we were so afraid and cried so much.
“We entered the airplane but our hearts were outside. All those people, the women and children, they were there to be rescued from the Taliban.”
The women arrived in Germany, where Zahra spent eight days and volunteered as a translator. They were then taken to the US, to a camp at the Dulles Expo Center in Virginia.
Image:Courtesy of Omar Haidiri/AFP via)
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A week later, they were moved to another camp in Indiana where they will have to stay for up to six months while their asylum case goes through.
While thrilled to have escaped, Zahra says: “At night there are so many women crying for their families and for the lives they’ve lost.
“I’ve been trying to keep myself busy, looking after the children and teaching English to girls. My bed has become a classroom!”
She fears for women she knows back home who own businesses or campaign for human rights.
“I helped the Americans process hundreds of women, but they were all housewives, there were no other activists like me. I kept thinking, where are the activists? They must all be hiding in Afghanistan. I haven’t heard from so many other women I know, and the women who worked in our factory.
“I know some people have tried to go to Pakistan and Tajikistan as stowaways. I heard my friend’s mother and brother were killed by Iranian soldiers firing from the border.
“This morning I received a message from my cousin, she says she’s so afraid, and there’s nothing I can do.”
Zahra adds: “I’m confused about my future but I have a lot of plans. I will never give up fighting.
“I love helping people. I want to keep advocating for Afghan women and girls. I want to make the most of this chance I’ve been given.”Read More Read More