This time last year, Zarifa Ghafari was about to embark on a terrifying journey to secure her – and her family’s – lives.
As one of Afghanistan’s few female mayors, Ghafari, 30, says she had already faced death threats from the Taliban and ISIS – and survived three assassination attempts.
In 2019, at the age of 26, Ghafari became Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor in the conservative city of Maidan Shar. She endured constant harassment, intimidation and regular protests: crowds of angry men demonstrating outside her office, holding sticks and throwing stones.
Her father, a senior member of the Afghan army, was murdered by gunmen in 2020. Ghafari believes the Taliban was responsible. (The Taliban has not publicly commented).
As Taliban forces took hold of the capital Kabul on August 15 last year, Ghafari believed other members of her family were also in grave danger.
A few days later, Ghafari fled the country with her family. She hid in the footwell of a car to Kabul airport, ducking for cover as she passed Taliban checkpoints.
Now living in Germany, she reflects on a year since the Taliban takeover of her homeland – and on feeling like an eternal house guest in a new country.
The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
CNN: This time last year the Taliban was on the brink of taking Afghanistan – at what point did you decide to leave and how did you do it?
Ghafari: I never decided to leave my country. What happened to me was just a matter of timing – and the direct reason was my family. I had so many opportunities to leave before August 15, 2021, but when I left, it was to secure the safety of my family.
I did not want to lose another member of my family because of my work and decisions. The coffin of my dad was, and still is, enough to carry on my shoulders. I couldn’t carry anyone else’s.
I came to Germany with my entire family on August 22, 2021. It was the most horrific experience of my life. Leaving my country was harder than losing my dad.
I was never afraid of death – I’m sure the people who followed my story know I was already working in the path of death daily – so it was never just a decision about me. But my family have the right to live in peace when they have nothing to do with my work.
The day I left Afghanistan, I promised myself to return once I could safeguard the lives of my family, my younger siblings and my mom – which I did, traveling to Afghanistan in February this year as part of work with my NGO (the Assistance and Promotion for Afghan Women organization).
CNN: How did you first get into politics in Afghanistan? What role did your family play in influencing you to do so?
Ghafari: From a young age, I’d noticed the discrimination of Afghan society toward women. When I grew up, I tried to find out the root of the problem. Then I realized that all these problems in the lives of women have nothing to do with my culture, tradition and religion.
Whatever is happening to the women of this country is because of the bad policies of decision makers and governments – not only inside the country but globally.
That was the moment I decided to become a decision maker, to become a change maker and to work for the betterment of the lives of women. And this decision took me on a path that the world calls “politics” – while for me it was, and still is, always just about responsibility toward my people, and in particular the women of my country.
I am doing this with honor, honesty and faith in the power of the voice of a new generation of my country.
During this journey, my family – everyone from my dad to my fiancé – have all played a great role. They have always encouraged me to fight for what I believe. So many times, they are also the reason for what I am doing.
CNN: What reception have you received in Germany?
Ghafari: My life in Germany is more like a guest living in a guesthouse! I say it this way because while the people and government have been so nice in terms of welcoming me and my family, I still can’t feel at home here.
I don’t belong to this country and this is not my home. Here I have been busy writing my memoir – the story of the women of Afghanistan from three different generations, my grandparents, parents and mine.
I have also been remotely managing my NGO’s center located in Kabul – there are more than 10 women working at the center, which offers educational and vocational training, as well as healthcare for widowed women. I started this up by selling all of my jewelry, supported with the help of friends and some donations.
I travel all around to raise awareness, joining events as a guest speaker to talk about Afghanistan. So mostly here I am traveling, maybe because I don’t want to notice the big mess of my life, which is not being home in Afghanistan.
CNN: You went to Afghanistan in February – why and what did you find?
Ghafari: On February 24, the same day the war started in Ukraine, I decided to go back to Afghanistan, to keep the attention focused there.
When we talk about Afghanistan now, it’s always about politics, government, the Taliban. It’s never the voices of the normal people – the wives, the widows – no one hears them.
There is a need to build a bridge between local people and the international community – and if I can help build that bridge through my name and reputation, then I must give it a try.
Leaving Afghanistan was never for myself. Maybe today or tomorrow I will die. But dying for a just cause has an honorable place in history.
I left for my family. If I can give my siblings a chance to live a different life, then I must.
As for what I saw in Kabul: We have always had shocking poverty in Afghanistan, but now, even those who were middle class are struggling to survive. State employees had not received their salaries for months.
As I drove around Kabul, I saw people standing by the side of the road and selling their household possessions. Women were not allowed to go to offices but were allowed to beg in front of bakeries for just one piece of bread.
I am under no illusions about the Taliban, but I am also aware that they will now be in power in Afghanistan for some years to come. The media has mostly focused on the Taliban, and how they will govern, but I am interested in the people and I believe that we must build, rather than sever, the bridge between the people of Afghanistan and the world.
CNN: What do girls and women in Afghanistan most need right now?
Ghafari: In one sentence: They need, actually deserve, to have enough food, education, freedom and equality as per their human right.
CNN: What should the US (and international community) be doing? What is the way forward?
Ghafari: Whatever happened in Afghanistan, came to us by way of international powers – it was the US making this deal with the Taliban, bringing them back to power.
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In 2001, when they [the US and allies] came to Afghanistan, it was never to make change for the people; it was for their own reasons – and they left Afghanistan for their own reasons. So I can’t expect them to act differently now.
Now with the war in Ukraine, the international community has forgotten other war zones – Afghanistan, Syria, Palestinian territories and so many others. And this is really terrifying.