From Taliban bullets to Russian bombs: war chases Afghan refugee across Europe

Fatima thought she had found safety and a new life – but six months later Putin’s invasion has forced her to flee again

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.”

Fatima: ‘This time, I will live each day as it comes.’ Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

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.

Sign up for a different view with our Global Dispatch newsletter – a roundup of our top stories from around the world, recommended reads, and thoughts from our team on key development and human rights issues, delivered to your inbox every two weeks:

Sign up for Global Dispatch – please check your spam folder for the confirmation email


Lorenzo Tondo

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘We will start again’: Afghan female MPs fight on from parliament in exile
From Greece the women are advocating for fellow refugees – and those left behind under Taliban rule

Amie Ferris-Rotman

27, Nov, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
‘Sometimes I have to pick up a gun’: the female Afghan governor resisting the Taliban
Salima Mazari, one of only three female district governors in Afghanistan, tells of her motivation to fight the militants

Zainab Pirzad of Rukhshana Media

11, Aug, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
As 1.3 million people flee, Ukraine’s refugee crisis is only just beginning
Analysis: despite the EU’s solidarity in helping those escaping war, aid agencies are overwhelmed with many people stuck at borders

Annie Kelly, Rosie Swash and Katy Fallon in Lonya

05, Mar, 2022 @4:13 PM

Article image
A Christmas far from home: Ukrainian families’ hopes and fears amid their new lives across Europe
We revisit three families first interviewed in March after fleeing Ukraine to find safety in Spain, Portugal and France

Sam Jones in Madrid, Beatriz Ramalho da Silva in Lisbon, Megan Clement in Paris

24, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘I worry my daughters will never know peace’: women flee the Taliban – again
Families fearful of what will happen to girls and young women as the Islamist militants gain ground are joining the tens of thousands of displaced Afghans

Zainab Pirzad, Atefa Alizada and Rubaba Rezai of Rukhshana Media

12, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
We fled the Taliban in chaos, shock and terror. A year later we have a new home and hope | Zahra Joya
My work as a journalist made us targets. Now we have a safe new home and I am determined to keep reporting on the bravery of Afghan women and girls

Zahra Joya

19, Aug, 2022 @6:15 AM

Article image
I have spent a year helping people flee the Taliban: failure is traumatic, success bittersweet | Ruchi Kumar
We are still trying to find ways to get visas – writing letters, appealing to governments – but the options are running out, says Ruchi Kumar

Ruchi Kumar

31, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘The Taliban don’t know how to govern’: the Afghan women shaping global policy from exile
Despite the upheaval of the Taliban takeover, the ‘group of six’ are finding ways to tackle the political and humanitarian crisis

Rosie Swash and Ruchi Kumar

25, Aug, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, Putin will come’: the 2014 Ukraine refugees forced to flee for a second time
Photojournalist Serhii Korovayny has twice uprooted his family because of Russian invasion. He talks to others with the same experience

Sergey Korovayny

06, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘I didn’t believe stories of atrocities in Ukraine. But then I saw the photos’
Based over the border in Poland, one rights activist tells of her shock at hearing accounts of rape and murder in Ukraine

Oxana Lytvynenko, as told to Weronika Strzyżyńska

06, May, 2022 @6:30 AM