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25 Aug, 2021 16:37

‘Women remain in danger’: Female footballers dodge gunfire to flee Taliban-led Afghanistan as escape organizers slam US government

‘Women remain in danger’: Female footballers dodge gunfire to flee Taliban-led Afghanistan as escape organizers slam US government

Organizers have voiced their relief after a 72-hour bid to evacuate female athletes from Afghanistan succeeded – but criticized the US government and warned that others are stranded under the new Taliban regime.

Khalida Popal, who captained the Afghan team following its formation in 2007 before seeking asylum in Denmark amid threats to her life, had warned last week that terrified female sportspeople – some of whom had actively opposed the Taliban in the belief that the group would not regain power – had sent her messages and photos documenting their increasing horror.

Players and teams from the country's relatively healthy female football scene had been advised to delete their social media profiles and do anything possible to safeguard themselves after the Taliban takeover last week – and Popal has been part of a team that has worked with six countries to arrange evacuation flights for some of them.

Former Afghanistan women's team coach Haley Carter, who was part of the daring mission, explained the ordeal the evacuees faced and was unimpressed by a message from US vice-president Kamala Harris claiming that her government had been working relentlessly to save people.

"Our players narrowly avoided gunfire, were trampled, beaten by the Taliban and waded through sewer water to get through to Hamid Karzai International Airport," said Carter, accompanying her account with shocking photos showing chaotic scenes in the Afghan capital.

"They went two days with limited supplies, camped three nights to survive. The situation on the ground is dire."

Carter said the team had used an intelligence network to "co-ordinate and share real-time information" on issues such as transport gates and "potential threats".

"I still can’t believe we managed to pull the last three-to-four days off," she admitted.

"I also don’t think I can ever describe these events in a manner that does them justice.

"The bravery and resilience of our players, working until exhaustion, constant communications challenges and location tracking. Nothing short of a miracle. Truly. So proud of every person on our team."

When Harris attempted to offer assurances about the response from president Joe Biden's administration, Carter asked whether she had a "mouse in her pocket" – a term used to suggest that others are being volunteered to take action they should not be responsible for leading.

"The service members who are on the ground, from all nations and all services, have been doing an incredible job managing a massively difficult and chaotic situation," she observed.

"We should all be proud of them and their commitment to helping others in this humanitarian crisis. God bless our service members giving everything they have to this mission for the sake of others’ safety and wellbeing.

"That said, senior US military leaders should be held accountable for their failure to adequately plan and prepare for this.

"The evacuation of American citizens and high value Afghans is happening solely because of the grit, professionalism, and compassion of those on the ground. God bless Marines and the Strategic Corporal."

Professional footballers' governing body FIFPRO thanked the Australian government for accepting a "large number" of female footballers and athletes from Afghanistan as part of a group of more than 75 people flown out of Kabul.

"These young women, both as athletes and activists, have been in a position of danger and, on behalf of their peers around the world, we thank the international community for coming to their aid," it added.

"We are grateful for the assistance of governments, military and human rights groups who are collaborating closely with us to evacuate women footballers and other athletes from Afghanistan.

"We are encouraged by recent developments. Our thoughts remain with all those still in danger."

Popal spoke of "sleepless nights" and "being on the call all the time answering questions", reporting that 75 players and "some family members" had left Afghanistan.

"[We were] handling media, motiving players to keep fighting and not give up even there were gunfires and they were beaten," she said. "It was tough. Teamwork. Work continues."

Popal is among a team of Fifpro lawyers and advisers who have worked with authorities in six countries, including Australia, the US and UK, to get athletes and their families on to evacuation lists and flights to safety.

"These past days have been an ugly reminder of the power the lottery of birth holds over all of us," said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, FIFPRO's General Secretary.

"In the middle of this humanitarian crisis, I am so grateful to everybody on this unique team who helped to get the players evacuated.

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"Two weeks full of genuine care, masterminding and incredible perseverance. We won’t stop here. Without representation these people can’t be saved."

The future of women's sport in Afghanistan looks bleak. "The work doesn’t end here, and we get back to it," pledged Carter.

"Many Afghan women and girls remain in danger and it’s vital to continue these efforts for as long as we can. All sporting bodies must continue the push to protect the women and girl athletes of Afghanistan."

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