After burying their trophies, burning their jerseys and being turned away by family out of fear of the Taliban's threat, members from Afghanistan's Women's National Soccer Team were desperately left stranded in Kabul — bracing for an incoming militia that would punish them for partaking in athletics.
Like the hundreds of Afghan citizens seen storming the gates of the Hamid Kurzai airport, girls as young as 16 belonging to the national team were forced to pick between staying in Kabul and facing punishment, or finding a way into the airport to escape the Taliban.
The women's cries for help from outside Hamid Kurzai reached Khalida Popal, a former captain of the national team that had been forced to escape the country over a decade ago due to her contributions to the women's team.
Popal, currently taking refuge in Copenhagen, began receiving dozens of messages when the insurgents' raid of the Afghan capital city broke into the news on Aug. 14. The female athletes were reaching out to Popal, begging for an escape and uncertain on how to reach ally forces.
In a harrowing report from the Washington Post, Popal detailed her attempts to lead the women to safety at the airport. Popal's support came thousands of miles and without reliable connection to the panicked women in Kabul hoping for a way inside Hamid Kurzai.
Popal attempted to send audio messages of instructions in response to the frantic sounds delivered from within Kabul. The retired captain desperately attempted to maneuver the women to safety, also trying to maintain composure in the midst of crisis.
“You need to focus. You need to help each other. We’re not giving up. There is one more step to the gate," read one of the transcripts from Popal's messages.
Members of the Afghan Women's National Team even contemplated suicide out of fear of being captured by the Taliban. One player, 19, reached out to Popal and was seen in a video message holding a weapon.
“If they come I will shoot myself in the head. I prefer to die than getting caught by them,” said the young girl.
Popal's communication coordinated an escape for a number of the women to get into Hamid Kurzai; instructing them to traverse through sewage and Taliban check points. Some were fortunate to make their way in, while others remained helpless. The women were famished, dehydrated, sleep deprived, some captured and sexually harassed along the route. Leaving their families behind in the process, a number of the women ultimately managed to reached Swedish support on behalf of Popal's coordination.
However, Popal was not alone in the endeavor. United States Lance Corporal Kareeem Nikoui, one of the casualties from the suicide bombing outside Hamid Kurzai, discovered some of the women in communication with Popal and escorted nearly 86 Afghan players and their family members to safety. The amount of stranded members still left in Kabul remains uncertain.
With stories of the tormented Afghan women reaching the International spotlight, the United States' National Women's Soccer Team reached out with a letter of support, calling on the U.S. government to assist with the extraction of the women.
An excerpt from their letter read:
"The women of Afghanistan's National Soccer Team are being hunted, their lives threatened, all for being involved in the sport we love. They have fled their homes and were forced to erase all evidence of their lives and athletic progress because of their brave decision to promote gender equality through sports. While the U.S. continues to 'stand with those who stood with ,' throughout this time, we hope that the protection of these women will be a priority.
"These women are in Kabul and in the process of finishing their paperwork waiting on approval and transport to the United States. Despite the complications with the evacuation process, we ask that you grant humanitarian parole and immediate protection to the Afghan women soccer players that are in grave danger."
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