A week ago, Fatima* found herself running for her life for the second time in six months. Evacuated from Kabul after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, she was now fleeing another country in another continent, this time to escape Russian bombs and bullets.
The 23-year-old says the shock and trauma of finding herself in another war zone has shaken her sense of reality.
“Sometimes, when I close my eyes, everything seems surreal,” she says, from the Polish capital Warsaw where she has finally found a place of relative safety. “When I was on my way to the Polish border from Lviv, I saw scenes which took me back to my evacuation in Kabul. Every time I saw these scenes, I felt deja vu. I had the feeling I had lived through this before. I couldn’t believe that. I left my family and friends in Afghanistan a few months before, and I was now leaving my friends in Ukraine.”
War and conflict have followed her since birth. She was born a refugee in Tehran, after her family, who are Hazara, an ethnic minority persecuted in Afghanistan, were forced to leave their home. After the family returned, and despite all the obstacles stacked against her because of her gender and ethnicity, she managed to win a scholarship to the American University of Afghanistan and became one of the top students in her class.
Last August, Fatima was studying and living in Kabul when the Taliban arrived at the gates of the city on 14 August. Within 24 hours, thousands of Afghans who once felt protected by the Afghan National Army and the US military found themselves living under Taliban law.
As a Hazara and a professional woman, Fatima was a target. “My boss called me to tell me that I had to leave the city and that he had found a way to get us out,” she says. Along with thousands of other desperate Afghans she managed to make it to Kabul airport where a chaotic evacuation effort was under way.
“When we entered the airport, the situation was getting worse. The case was dire, with the Taliban beating people on the run. I was whipped by a group of Taliban. I was terrified.”
After days of waiting, on 21 August, Fatima, carrying only a backpack containing a laptop and Elif Shafak’s book The Forty Rules of Love, managed to find a seat on a plane bound for Kyiv.
Alone in a strange city with a different language and living as a refugee, she began to try to rebuild her life. “After a few months, I found myself jobless because the company I worked for was closing down,” she says. “But I didn’t give up and got another remote job as a data analyst for a Serbian company.”
Six months later, as Fatima was starting to make friends, her life imploded without warning, once more. On 24 February, Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine and head for Kyiv, which was hit by the first airstrikes soon after. For Fatima, it was time to escape again.
“I started to think, is there any country where there is no war, so I can go there?” says Fatima, with tears running down her face. “And why, among all the people in the world, why me? Why can’t I just have a normal life like that of any other 23-year-old girl in Europe?”
Fatima managed to reach Lviv where she got in touch with a group of Polish volunteers on Facebook, who crossed the border into Ukraine to bring her to safety in Poland.
“Before leaving, I wasn’t eating and drinking just to save the little money I had – in order to save myself,” she says.
Fatima arrived in Warsaw last Thursday and was reunited with an Afghan friend from Kabul who has been living in Poland since the Taliban takeover. She now faces the prospect of having to start her life over again for the third time.
“This time, I will live each day as it comes,” she says. “Because if I have learned one thing from life in these six months, it is that we really do not know what tomorrow has in store for us.”
* Not her real name
• This article was amended on 23 March 2022 to remove some personal personal information.
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