Nabilah JKT48.



“We have been working like fingers on one hand, with different roles, and we came together as a big strong punch,” says the former captain and one of the founders of the Afghanistan women’s national football team, Khalida Popal. She is talking about the small team that pulled off the mission to evacuate 100-200 Afghan athletes and a number of individuals connected to them from the Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul.

Across a two-week period those fingers worked tirelessly around the clock and across numerous time zones, tracking the real-time movements of the Taliban and military personnel on the ground to pull off what seemed completely impossible: to get a group of female football players, many teenagers, and a host of others, including family members, into the airport and on to planes.

Who is this motley, but multitalented, crew and how did they manage to get so many out where many more failed? This is their story.

Kat Craig, the human rights lawyer working for international players’ union Fifpro, does not have a Bat phone but the former US international and head coach of the Afghanistan women’s national team, Kelly Lindsey, jokes that she should have. On the day the Taliban came, the Fifpro general secretary, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, got in touch with Popal, who had been fielding distressing and desperate calls from her former teammates and had been encouraging them to burn shirts and hide evidence of them having played football.

The Afghan athletes Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli arrive at Haneda airport in Tokyo.
Afghanistan duo arrive in Tokyo for Paralympics after Kabul evacuation
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Shortly after, he looped in Lindsey and brought in Craig, who had also worked with Fifpro to support Afghanistan players with their sexual abuse case against the president of the Afghanistan FA in 2018, and the team of four swung into action. The messages from players from Popal were bleak.

“Many were really panicked. One said: ‘I took my brother’s gun, I am sitting in front of my window, watching outside and I have not slept. When the Taliban knock on my door I will shoot myself in my head because I prefer to kill myself than be caught by the Taliban.’”

The four held a first strategy meeting on Monday 16 August, three days after the Afghanistan government surrendered to the Taliban, but they had been messaging over the weekend, coming to terms with the situation and strategising. They went into their meeting knowing they had to get female players out. “We thought we had 24 to 48 hours so we were working our butts off from that moment to make things happen straight away,” says Lindsey.

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That, according to Craig, was key. “We had no idea how things would change. So we just decided to treat every 24 hours as though it was the last 24 hours and to do as much as we could,” she says. “Initially, we identified four people as the most vulnerable.

“Thanks to Khalida, we were able to get intelligence early on that there were certain players who are very public and very, very vocal women’s rights activists that would be easily traceable and were specifically at-risk. In many cases traditional factions in their neighbourhoods, even before the Taliban had retaken Kabul, were really opposed to them.

“As the Taliban get closer, you have all of these traditionalist factions that kind of start merging with the Taliban. At this point, we knew that the information, including location of individuals, would be shared. Then we got concrete confirmation that they were knocking on people’s doors.”

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Kelly Lindsey, head coach of the Afghanistan women’s football team.
Kelly Lindsey, head coach of the Afghanistan women’s football team. Photograph: Rob Harris/AP
The players had to hide and stay on the move while the remote team got going. The speed of the response was critical and “the other thing that I think was a really important strategy,” says Craig, “was not to work consecutively, but to work concurrently.

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“It was not scattergun. This is a crisis and it was an intentional tactic bearing in mind the volatility and unpredictability of the situation, where we just said: ‘OK, in circumstances where you don’t know how your opponent’s going to act, you try and find as many different alternatives as possible.’”

Then they began monitoring. They tracked everything. Craig scoured human rights and women’s equality groups and even reached out to former military personnel she had been opposite in the courtroom. Baer-Hoffmann pulled on every connection through Fifpro that he could and they all watched out for announcements from governments who were evacuating beyond their own citizens to identify countries they could focus their efforts on. The US, Canada, Belgium, Germany, the UK and Australia were all avenues they pursued as they tried to get the names of the women on as many evacuation lists as possible.

Once they had players on lists, they needed to get to the senior military and government personnel that could bump them up. “That was quite a difficult moral reflection,” Craig says. “But our priority girls were probably some of the highest-risk women in the country. Then the rest of the national team for sure were at-risk too.

Some players had to climb over an open sewer. We were getting people to fish them out
Kat Craig
“If you go back to the time that Khalida founded it, they used to have to train on a military base. In 2011 or 2012, there was a bombing at the base at the exact time that they were supposed to be playing football. After that, they never trained in the country, even before the Taliban regained power, because it was so dangerous. They’d never played a single one of their home games in the country.

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“It’s not immediately evident but they were a symbol of resistance against traditional values espoused by the Taliban, that’s why Khalida had to flee the country [in 2011],” she explains. “Then, of course, came the sexual abuse case. These cases brought changes in the Afghan criminal justice system, and changes in the public discourse. Women who had previously been blamed for being raped were saying ‘hang on a second’ because the footballers have spoken out. So they were marked women in many ways.

“Now, of course, those changes are moot, the progress made has been lost because the Taliban are back.”

The first major turning point was connecting with a group in Australia who were also working with athletes. The former Olympian and human rights lawyer Nikki Dryden, who Craig knew, and the director of Human Rights for All, Alison Battisson, grew the team. They had the former Socceroo Craig Foster, who led the campaign to save Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, on board. Through another former Olympian and member of the Australian parliament, Zali Steggall, they were able to get visa applications in for athletes.

Battisson lodged multiple immigration cases and Steggall provided a cover letter. “The idea was that as they got to the front of the gates, they would show the Zali letter and then we had a Fifpro letter and we had a letter from Fifa,” explains Craig. “Then the players could use them to show that they were legitimately at risk, but we didn’t know whether that would work.”

Players travelled to the airport with documents stuffed in their underwear, brightly coloured scarves to be used as makeshift flags if needed, and their money split up and hidden in different places on them. They were told “if the Taliban asks you at the checkpoint what you’re doing, say your husband is inside and you’re really, really worried and he’s going to get very, very angry. If you don’t get in, panic about your husband being angry at you,” says Lindsey.

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  Lehighton, PA 18235, USA    

Work Experience

fdghr755yhree  •  dertyu

August 2021 - Present

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Education

University or School

Field of study

Apr 2018 - Jan 2020

University or School

Field of study

Apr 2018 - Jan 2020

Skills


  • Competitor analysis
  • Business research

Languages


  • English — Native or Bilingual
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