On August 29, 2019, exactly two years ago, a shy, serious 19-year-old named Mursal fled Afghanistan with her parents and two little sisters because the Taliban had threatened to kill them all. Now she is awaiting asylum in Greece as she watches her country collapse from afar. The speed with which the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan seems to have surprised many, especially those who see the country only through the lens of Kabul, but it is no surprise to her. She knows, firsthand, how effectively the Taliban has been terrorizing Afghans into silence and complicity for years.
Mursal is now 21 and supporting her entire family by working as an interpreter for Doctors Without Borders in Athens. The irony is that her father, a doctor himself, used to work for the same organization in Afghanistan. Now, because he speaks neither English nor Greek, he must depend on his daughter and NGOs to survive.
Mursal began telling me her story when we met at an outdoor café in Athens this past May, and we have been talking ever since. Small and slight, with a wide forehead, deep brown eyes, and straight brown hair parted in the middle and hanging to her shoulders, she was dressed immaculately that day in jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved shirt, completed by a dashing red leather backpack. Young as she is, she brims with intelligence, her expression open yet watchful.
In many ways, Mursal’s life has traced both the defeat and the rise of the Taliban. She was born on November 25, 1999, only two years before the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban, which had been in power since 1996, lost to the US-backed government in Kabul. While she was growing up, the Taliban continued to wage war against that government, steadily gaining ground. By 2019, when her family fled, the Taliban had grown to some 85,000 full-time fighters who were controlling a fifth of the country. Now, while its spokesmen are telling Western journalists that the Taliban is no longer interested in persecuting women—the same line it trotted out when signing the supposed peace agreement with the Trump administration in 2020—its actions belie every word, as Mursal knows only too well.
The trouble began for her family when they left their city of Mazar e Sharif in 2019 to move to the northern village of Langar Khana, unaware that the village was controlled by the Taliban. When strange men began showing up at their house at all hours of the night, demanding that Mursal’s father tend to their wounds, he quickly understood who they were; and once they demanded that he become a Taliban doctor, he refused.
“My mom and dad are very open-minded,” she told me. “They see boys and girls as equal, as having the same rights. My dad always told me, before you get married, you should stand on your own legs. And my mom said you should achieve your dreams before you marry because, once you do, you will feel like your hands are tied.”
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Above all, her parents believed in educating their three daughters, and indeed Mursal loved school. She read constantly, took 11 subjects, including chemistry, science, and languages, and was always top of her class. She was also fascinated by her father’s anatomy books. “My goal as a child was to be a doctor like him. When I washed his white coat, I wanted one day to have a coat like that, to have my notes here, my pen there. I wanted to know how it feels to sit in a chair listening to a patient, helping them. Now I want to be a lawyer to help refugees like me.”
Their liberal values at home only made the family’s move to the village more of a shock. “Nobody could go outside after eight o’clock. Men could only wear perahan tunban, the traditional clothes, and long beards and hats. Small girls had to wear long shirts over loose trousers, and the older girls and women, we had to wear chadri, which covered our faces as well as our whole bodies. If we wore jeans and T-shirts, people in the village looked at us as if we had killed someone, and the Taliban would arrest us. My mom made us change our clothes but it was really difficult for me and my sisters.”
But the greatest shock was the school, for even though the Taliban claimed it allowed girls to attend the small local girls’ school if they wore a burqa, this claim turned out to be a sham. “Twice they said they would bomb the school if the teachers did not close it, so some days we had no teachers at all. The chief of school continued to keep it open but the parents were afraid. They said, ‘These are our children; we don’t want them to die just for education!’”
Because of the danger, only four or five girls would show up to class. Mursal was the only student who went every day. “But I was afraid, too, and so was my mom because sometimes the Taliban drove around the school in their cars with guns sticking out.” Then one day a Taliban fighter stormed into the school. “They took my teacher by the scarf and said, ‘If you are here tomorrow, we will come and cut your throat.’ Then he looked at us students and said, ‘If I see her tomorrow, I will do this to all of you, too.’ After that I never went to the school again.”
Three times, her father told the police about the Taliban asking him to work for them, but the police only demanded proof in form of videos and pictures. “But how can you take a picture of the Taliban?” Mursal asked rhetorically. “It’s a joke. They will shoot you that second.”
Once her father had refused the Taliban job, the persecution grew dire. “We had many bad moments at that time,” Mursal said. “We were still alive, but we felt that this is not a life. Some nights they pulled a car into our driveway and started shooting, shouting that they are coming to get us. We were afraid to go out and buy food, so often we went to bed hungry. They wanted to make us afraid all the time.”
One night, several fighters burst into the house and told Mursal’s father that if he continued to refuse to work for them, they would shoot him and his whole family. When he refused again, they beat him so badly with a gun that he couldn’t walk for a week.
“My grandmother, my mom’s mother, she was also there. She spoke in Pashto with the Taliban, begging them to please stop. So they beat her as well—an old lady! When my mother saw this, she tried to stop them. So they beat her, too. And they slapped me and my sister.” Her mother took her grandmother to the hospital, but between her aging heart and the beating, she could not survive. “My mom lost her mother this way. Right in front of her eyes.”
This is when Mursal’s parents knew they had to flee. “Not only to stay alive,” she said, “but also for the future of my sisters and me because the rules of our culture will not let us be who we want.”
Now, Mursal and her family are watching what is happening at home in horror. “Did you see the news?” she wrote to me on August 14, the day the Taliban took over her home city. “The Taliban just announced that they will be married to girls of 14 years old!”
After a few minutes she wrote again. “I am thinking of all the mothers in Afghanistan, the mothers of girls. They have lost their tears because of the Taliban.”
They will need those tears, for more weeping is to come.