Friba Rezayee: The collapse of freedom

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      By Friba Rezayee

      I was up at 3:30 a.m. Pacific time watching Al Jazeera broadcasting live the collapse of Afghanistan’s central government. The U.S. military helicopters were flying over the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Smoke from the U.S. embassy arose in the air as the staff were burning the sensitive documents—they didn’t want to leave any documents behind for the Taliban to use against them or for their propaganda.

      A few hours later, social media in Afghanistan reported that our president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country—he went to the neighboring nation of Tajikistan.

      As the central government collapsed, so did our rights and freedoms. The shocking news took a toll on me immediately—I could barely stand up so I sat down on my sofa. It felt like Afghanistan was hit by a giant meteorite—it sat us 20 years back.

      My heart was racing, my head was spinning thinking about all those Afghan women’s gains and achievements in the past two decades. What is going to happen to all-girls’ schools? Women’s businesses? How about women MPs in the parliament? How about the female journalists? How about the female athletes? What is going to happen to our dojos—the dojo where I practised and prepared for the 2004 Olympic Games?

      Morover, as an ethnic Hazara, my heart sank knowing the imminent danger my people were in as a persecuted minority that has already been exposed to genocide several times throughout the history of contemporary Afghanistan. The images of thousands of massacred Hazara bodies raced through my mind, the vivid imagery of the 1998 Mazar-i-Sharif genocide where the Taliban killed nearly 10,000 Hazaras in a matter of weeks, not allowing families to collect the bodies of their dead as they piled on the streets, often dragged through the back alleys of Mazar, left for the stray dogs to eat.

      Hazaras face systemic and institutional marginalization that have made it an unwritten rule for my ethnic group to not hold positions of significant decision making or leadership roles. This was evident in the last 20 years of democracy building. This was evident when quotas for seats in public universities covertly marginalized Hazaras, and it was glaring when the government did not formally investigate the horrific successive massacres of elementary schoolchildren in the Hazara-dominated Dasht-i-Barchi neighbourhood of western Kabul.

      In 2004, I was selected to compete on behalf of Afghanistan as the first Afghan woman in the history of the Olympics. I competed in the sport of Judo.

      I boldly defied cultural and societal norms by competing in 2004.

      How about the National Olympic Committee? All these thoughts were racing in my head, and my phone and laptop wouldn’t stop ringing and beeping.

      Friba Rezayee was the first Afghan woman to compete in the Olympics when she took part in the judo competition.

      My phone began to ring nonstop. I started receiving text messages on whatsApp, Messenger, Signal, and emails. A lot of people were asking me for help to get them out the country immediately.

      They asked me to write a letter to state their affiliation with our organization, Women Leaders of Tomorrow, as well as with the Judo Club and the Afghan Judo Federation.

      These people were the head of the federation, coaches, athletes, and the students of the WLOT’s English-language program—everyone was begging me to save their lives.

      I was glued to the news—I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the screen that was reporting from Afghanistan.

      A massive exodus was taking place at Hamid Karzai International Airport. A sea of people fleeing the country to escape the Taliban.

      The Taliban representative consistently said to the local and international media that “they won’t harm the people”, also that “they won’t harm women." But that didn’t help people calm down and want to remain in the country.