‘Do not forget the women and girls of Afghanistan’: Zahra Atayee’s story

She went against the norm to take up cycling in Afghanistan and help rid her province of landmines. Then the Taliban came.

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Zahra Atayee describes August 15, 2021 as “the saddest and darkest moment of our country.” That morning, the then-23-year-old got ready and headed to her job as part of an all-female demining group, working to eradicate their province, Bamiyan, of landmines – the aftermath of nearly three decades of armed conflict in the country. 

It was work that Zahra was proud of and passionate about. Through her role, she wanted to show that women, too, could take on these challenges and contribute to society in a meaningful way. 

“Our team was the first female team who decided to work in this field,” she told CyclingTips over the phone, translated by her fiancé who is still in Afghanistan and whom she has not seen for almost a year. “But before us, this was solely considered to be a kind of masculine job in our society.” 

It was not the first gender barrier that Zahra had broken. In 2014, before taking up her demining role, she and two friends started a cycling club in their home province of Bamiyan. The girls were met with hostility from certain members of their community who believed that women had no place riding bikes. 

Zahra cycling with Shannon Galpin and her friend Zakia in Afghanistan.

“Cycling in the beginning for me was not something [that was] very easy,” Zahra said. “It was full of challenges [and] problems and I had to be very strong in order to fight for what I really love to do.

“When I made the decision for the first time no one supported me except my family. Only they wanted me to do what I like but others strongly disagreed with my obsession.”  

Young boys would throw stones at Zahra and her friends and others would throw insults, but their determination to “open the door of opportunity for other girls, who later on after us came and started cycling in Bamiyan,” never wavered. 

It was that same commitment to blazing a trail for the women in her community and showing what they are capable of that led Zahra to join the demining team. 

“I was feeling as if I am removing obstacles for [the] presence of other women in our society,” she said. “I felt that I am making this something common that every woman can take part in: [the] betterment and development of our country like our men and brothers.”  

In 2019, after more than 27 million square metres of contaminated land was cleared, Bamiyan province was declared mine-free – the first region of Afghanistan to be so – and Zahra’s group of 24 women were nominated for the Arms Control Award in recognition of their work. 

The demining group at work.

On that day in August 2021, however, when Zahra arrived ready to work, she found herself alone. Confused, she called one of her colleagues who explained to her that “today Taliban are taking the control of the province” – words that Zahra had feared.  “It is very hard to explain how painful the moment was for me,” she said.

For Zahra and her colleagues, Taliban rule meant women who had been vocal advocates for equality and took part in sports were endangered under the Taliban’s strict fundamentalist laws. As Hazaras – a group that was targeted and massacred under the Taliban in the 1990s – Zahra and her neighbours and friends were even further threatened.  

After rushing home to her mother, who was equally distraught, Zahra received a phone call from her aunt who worked in the capital, Kabul. 

Fearing that she may put her whole family in danger, her aunt told her to gather essentials and head to a village 90 km away, in Yakawlang. 

“When I reached our village, it was in the middle of the night, and I knew no one there. I didn’t know what to do. There was no internet connection. I was extremely hopeless,” Zahra recalled. 

She climbed a hill to find phone reception and called her sister, who lives in Germany, and asked her to help find those who were assisting evacuations and send her documents to them so she could escape to safety. 

However it would be two months before Zahra successfully contacted Shannon Galpin, who was working to evacuate the cyclists of Bamyan with whom she had worked some years prior. Galpin told her that she had been trying to reach her, and that her name was on the list for prioritised evacuation. “This was the moment when I didn’t know how to express my happiness,” she recalls. “I was flying.”

Zahra spoke with her family who agreed that it was the right thing for Zahra to leave Afghanistan for Pakistan, where she would await the approval of a visa to allow her to start a new life in Italy.

“When I sat in the car and that was the time for me to say goodbye to my fiancé, I didn’t know whether I should be happy or sad at this moment,” she said. “The reason for my happiness could be going for the sake of an opportunity for a better future away from Taliban and sad because … I had to leave all my family members in Afghanistan and travel alone.” 

Zahra has spent eight months in Pakistan while waiting for her Italian visa. “Everything was good but I had some questions in my mind,” she explained. “What is going to happen? What may happen to all who have been left behind in Afghanistan? Other woman social activists, athletes, my family members and many other people.”  

Now that she has made it to Italy, Zahra is more optimistic about both her own future and the future of her loved ones. “This could not have been possible without the support of Shannon, her teammates and [the] Italian government,” she said. “I’m very happy for that. And I have so many dreams and hopes for my future.

“Whenever I talk to my family, I just want to have them with me here. They ask me, is there any hope that we can all be together? So I always promised them that. ‘Don’t worry a lot. People around me; they’re going to help me. I will bring you all to me one day.’”

Despite experiencing trauma and turmoil on an unimaginable scale, Zahra now finds herself in a position to continue chasing the dreams she once had in Afghanistan. While the pain of being separated from her family and friends is still there, her hope for the future prevails.

“If I speak about my wishes and dreams for my future, I have so many in my mind,” she explained. “The first thing is my cycling and education. I want to continue cycling one day; I want to be a champion.

“I want to find a way to Olympics and continue my education; to get my PhD, though I started studying at university in Afghanistan but I couldn’t complete because of what happened. But I wait. I hope that I could do all these things in [my] host country.” 

With her niece and nephew in Rome.

Now that she is living in Italy Zahra is safe and feels part of the community. “People are very hospitable,” she said. “Those who are living in our neighbourhood, people are very kind, I feel as if I am in my own province.”

Importantly, she is back enjoying cycling, the sport for which she has sacrificed so much: “And the most important thing for me is having the opportunity to go back to cycling. I feel alive after a long time.”

She also recently met up with her sister who lives in Germany who came to Italy so they could spend the day in Rome. “Meeting my sister and her children after five years – it was an imaginary situation for me, and I cannot express by words … it is hard for me to express my happiness,” she said.  

After telling her story, Zahra was keen to convey her gratitude to those who helped to bring her from a place of fear to a place of hope. 

“I want to thank from the deepest part of my heart [those] who helped me in this because without them none of this could be possible,” she said. “Now, I feel that I have a future and I’m very thankful to the people who helped me.”

She also had a message:  “I have something to say to the people who are going to read this story. Please do not forget the women and girls of Afghanistan. Those who have worked for a long time for the sake of a better future, but now they are forgotten. They have been left behind. So please, let’s stand together and help them.” 

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