Afghan women in burqas walk on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rahmat Gul

‘We need your support,’ pleads female Afghan activist once helped by Canada

OTTAWA — The morning after Canada’s military withdrew from Kabul, when dozens of Afghans and 13 American military personnel died in the terrorist attack on the city’s airport, a woman named Najiba pondered the darkening future.

“My message to the Canadian government is not to leave women, girls in Afghanistan alone. This is a time that we need your support. I know that you have been supporting Afghanistan for the last 20 years,” Najiba, an Afghan human rights activist, told The Canadian Press on Friday.

“But unfortunately, our politicians, they didn’t care about the people of Afghanistan. … But it is not the fault of the ordinary people of Afghanistan. It is not the fault of women, girls and children,” said Najiba, whose full name is being withheld to protect her safety.

Canadian taxpayer dollars have funded various projects that she has worked on that were designed to raise the rights of women and girls over the last 20 years.

The swift return to power of the Taliban earlier this month brings fear that the clock is about to be turned back two decades to when women and girls were stripped of basic freedoms, including the right to work or go to school, Najiba said.

The end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan has left an unknown number of Canadians and their families trapped in the country, as well as vulnerable Afghans exposing them to Taliban reprisals.

But it also left behind scores of women and girls that Canada helped transform into parliamentarians, judges, prosecutors, activists and others, said Corey Levine, a Canadian specializing in women’s rights for two decades with international organizations in Afghanistan.

“There was a whole generation that benefited from international engagement in Afghanistan, and my heart goes out to them,” said Levine, who returned from a seven-month stint in Afghanistan earlier this summer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday Canada would continue to work with its international partners “to pressure the Taliban to not reverse the tremendous progress specifically made for women and girls in Afghanistan because of Canadians and other allies’ efforts over the past two decades.”

International Development Minister Karina Gould also emphasized that Canada has not turned its back on those women and girls, and they will be part of Canadian efforts to resettle Afghans.

“We remain in very close contact with many of the women who we have been working with in Afghanistan and partners here in Canada that are working very diligently to find safe ways for them to get out of the country,” said Gould.

But for Najiba, there were no signs of escape routes on the horizon. Instead, women are girding for a return to a dark past.

“When Canada and the U.S. are withdrawing from Afghanistan, it would put people at greater risk,” she said. “Women, the human rights activists will not be allowed to raise their voices to criticize the government. So, the future is very, very uncertain. And it is very dangerous.”

Some of her fellow Afghans are weighing the risks of trying to flee, which includes running the gauntlet of the Kabul airport despite Thursday’s horrific attack by an Afghan chapter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a faction also known as ISIS-K, she said.

“Today was another awful day in my life, full of tension and stress. The images from the airport are still in my mind,” Najiba said. “It is a very terrible day that I will never forget in my life. I feel as if I’m also dead because I can’t help my poor people.”

The airport as an escape option diminished Friday as White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that as the Aug. 31 deadline draws nearer, the number of evacuations is likely to decline as the military ramps up its own “retrograde” withdrawal of troops and equipment, while ensuring it can do so safely.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said 500 more Canadians were flown out of Kabul on an American flight Thursday after Canada’s military mission ended as part of the staged withdrawal plan by the U.S.

Najiba said women, for the most part, remain locked at home in Kabul.

“They’re not allowed to go to work because Taliban has announced that women still can stay at home until the new procedures within Islamic law, within Islamic Shariah is developed,” said Najiba, who believes the new Taliban edicts will dictate to “women how to dress, where to go, whether they can work the within the environment with men together.”

The Canadian-funded projects she worked on produced “incredible results” that made women economically independent, and removed old restrictions on social, economic and political life. The loss of that is only one aspect of the misery now engulfing her country, she said.

“On the other side, people are starving, no work opportunities, banks are closed and no money transactions. Costs for products have increased so much in the market, and unaffordable for many people. I have no idea if the situation continues like this in Afghanistan, everyone will die out of hunger,” she said.

Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries are in talks with the Taliban to reopen the Kabul airport to keep humanitarian aid flowing and to allow people to travel in and out, said Garneau, but added nobody knows if or when that will occur.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the government for not doing enough and said it should work with allies to establish “more longer-term corridors” with neighbouring countries to allow refugees to flee.

Trudeau said the speed at which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan was a widespread surprise.

“I think politicians and leaders around the world, I think Afghans themselves, were surprised at just how fast the Taliban were able to take over in Afghanistan,” Trudeau said Friday.

Levine said friends and colleagues in Kabul she had contact with just days before the Taliban victory weren’t expecting the country to fall so quickly. No one seemed to be packing or making evacuation plans.

“I think even the Taliban themselves did not envision the lightning speed at which they were able to achieve this.”