Since the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, girls aged 14 to 16 and their families have been trying to leave, fearing what their lives could become under the Taliban – not only because it is forbidden for women and girls to play sports, but because they were advocates for girls and active members of their communities.
Late Sunday, they landed in Lisbon, Portugal.
In talks with the PA this week, Muhtaj, members of the soccer team, some family members and soccer federation staff spoke of their final days in Afghanistan, the international effort for them. save and the promise of their newfound freedom.
The rescue mission, called Operation Soccer Balls, was coordinated with the Taliban through an international coalition of former U.S. military and intelligence officials, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, U.S. allies and humanitarian groups, said Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a non-profit organization that has found housing for 50 Afghan families.
“This had to happen very, very quickly. Our ground contact told us we had a window of about three hours,” McKinley said. “The weather was very important.”
Operation Soccer Balls suffered a number of setbacks, including several unsuccessful rescue attempts and a suicide bombing by Islamic State militants, rivals of the Taliban, at Kabul airport that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. This bombing took place during a heartbreaking airlift in which the US military admitted it was coordinating to some extent with the Taliban.
The size of the group, 80 people, including the 26 members of the youth team as well as adults and other children, including infants, complicated the rescue effort.
Robert McCreary, former Congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush who worked with special forces in Afghanistan and helped lead efforts to save the national women’s football team, said that Portugal had granted asylum to girls and their families.
“The world has come together to help these girls and their families,” McCreary said. “These girls are truly a symbol of light to the world and to humanity.”
The Taliban tried to present a new image, promising amnesty to former opponents and saying they would form an inclusive government. Many Afghans do not trust these promises, fearing that the Taliban will quickly resort to the brutal tactics of their 1996-2001 regime, including denying girls and women access to school and work.
This week, the Taliban set up a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice” in the building that once housed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the latest sign that it is restricting women’s rights.
As the girls moved from shelter to shelter, Muhtaj, who is also a teacher, said she helped them stay calm through virtual exercises and yoga sessions and by giving them homework, including writing papers. autobiographies.
She said she couldn’t share the details of the rescue mission with the girls or their families and asked them to believe in her and others “blindly”.
“Their mental state was deteriorating. Many of them were homesick. Many of them were missed by their friends in Kabul,” Muhtaj said. “They had unconditional faith. We rekindled their spirits.”
Some of the girls spoke to the AP through an interpreter. They said they wanted to keep playing football – which they were told not to do while in hiding – and hope to meet football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United striker and originally from Portugal.
Wida Zemarai, goalkeeper and coach of the Afghanistan women’s national football team who moved to Sweden after the Taliban came to power in 1996, said the girls were emotional after their rescue.
“They can dream now,” Zemarai said. “They can continue to play.”