‘We lost everything’: Afghan wheelchair basketball team captain speaks out

Nilofar Bayat begins rebuilding her life in Spain after days of fear for her life under Taliban rule

When the Taliban entered Kabul, Nilofar Bayat, the captain of Afghanistan’s female national wheelchair basketball team, knew she had to get out.

“There were so many videos of me playing basketball. I had been active in calling for women’s rights and the rights of women with disabilities,” she said. “If the Taliban found out all of this about me, I knew they would kill me.”

She confessed her fears to a Spanish journalist she had befriended years earlier. He posted her story on social media, prompting an outpouring of support and a promise from Spanish officials to try to evacuate her to Spain.

On Friday, Bayat and her husband, Ramesh, arrived in Spain, alongside more than 250 Afghan evacuees who had worked with Spain’s military and civilian operations over the years.

Spain has also been acting as an entry point for Afghans who have collaborated with EU institutions. On Sunday, the Spanish government said it had also agreed to use two military bases in southern Spain to temporarily receive Afghans who have worked for the US government until onward travel can be arranged.

Bayat’s arrival in Spain came after days of fear. “There were thousands of us at the airport who wanted to get out of there, to escape from the Taliban,” she told the Guardian. “I had never been through anything like that in my life.”

The wait to enter the airport lasted nine agonising hours. They were surrounded by Taliban who at times fired shots into the air. “The airport was in chaos,” said the 28-year-old.

Still, the couple felt they had no other option. “The Taliban had begun going door-to-door to identify people,” said Bayat, who also worked at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “It’s a catastrophe, a 20-year step backwards.”

Bayat was a toddler when her family home in Kabul was hit by a rocket during the Taliban regime. Her brother was killed and Bayat spent a year in the hospital after pieces of shrapnel injured her spinal cord and burned her back.

Years later she played her first game of wheelchair basketball and was swiftly hooked. The team, which started competing internationally in 2017, soon became a potent symbol of how women’s lives had been transformed in the country.

At the helm of the team, Bayat became a prominent advocate for women with disabilities. “Being a woman in Afghanistan and living with a disability is almost a double curse,” she told the Guardian in 2019.

The Taliban’s power grab instantly erased all of it. “I was the captain of the wheelchair basketball team. I had a nice job helping people with disabilities. I studied law. I worked hard for all of that,” she said. “And then the Taliban came and took all of that away in a moment.”

The dizzying events of the past few days have been punctuated with constant concern over the families left behind. “We saved our lives, but what about our families that are there? We are very nervous and very worried about all of them.”

She and her husband had arrived in the city of Bilbao on Saturday, where she was selected to join the city’s wheelchair basketball team. Her husband, who played for Afghanistan’s men’s national wheelchair basketball team, has also been offered a place on the team.

It’s a welcome stepping stone as the couple slowly begins rebuilding their lives. “When we were in the Kabul airport, the Taliban wouldn’t let us take our luggage,” she said. “Can you believe that we’ve been wearing the same clothes for five days? We lost everything, we have nothing.”

Contributor

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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