Former soccer captain helps Afghanistan's junior women's team escape to Pakistan

·3 min read
Members of Afghanistan's national junior women's soccer team arrive at the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in Lahore on September 15. They fled the country after the Taliban retook power, and banned women from playing all sports.  (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
Members of Afghanistan's national junior women's soccer team arrive at the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in Lahore on September 15. They fled the country after the Taliban retook power, and banned women from playing all sports. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

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Khalida Popal said that she told members of Afghanistan's national junior women's soccer team that if they wanted to stay alive they'd have to flee the country.

Popal is the former national team captain, who was forced to seek asylum in Denmark in 2016 after threats to her life. At the end of August, she helped many national team members get flights out of the country.

Popal said she had been working non-stop for three weeks to try to find a way to help more female soccer players, including those on the junior national team and other youth teams, escape with their families from Afghanistan.

"I was very worried for them and I was nearly hopeless," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

On Twitter, Popal posted that more than 79 people, the young female players and their family members, had escaped to Pakistan. They're now in Lahore, and another 34 people are expected to join them on Thursday, a Pakistan football official told the BBC.

As the players were waiting for the chance to escape, some of their fathers and brothers were captured by the Taliban, said Popal.

"I don't see any other reason like why they would take [them] because especially like knowing their background, that they are not part of any governmental work or not even in military or police or something," she said.

She said the men would be targeted because the Taliban would see them as failing to keep their family in line.

"They say like, 'You're the the leader or the owner of the family. And you supported this culture. You let this woman, your woman, to go. So you are not a real man,'" she said.

Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

'If you want to be alive, just leave'

Popal said that as a result, the teenagers had a big decision to wrestle with, and she told them the best thing to do was get out.

"If you want to have freedom and if you want to be alive, just leave," she said she told them. "Staying in Afghanistan will not help you."

Popal told the players as they prepared to leave to cross the border, that if they were stopped by Taliban they should say they wanted to go to Pakistan for medical treatment.

"Don't talk about anything about football or anything about sports," she warned them.

On Tuesday night, half of the team got stuck at a Taliban checkpoint, she said.

"They were beaten. They were violated," said Popal. "The face[d] violence and harassment in the crowd."

But the players managed to get through to safety.

She said it was a "wonderful feeling" when she heard they had finally made it.

"I feel happy and I feel more relief," she said.

Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

'Take down your photos'

After Afghanistan fell suddenly to the Taliban in August, many of the soccer team members went into hiding.

When Popal spoke with As It Happens a month ago, she told guest host Helen Mann that she was advising the girls to do anything they could to conceal their identities, the opposite of what they had been doing in building their profiles as players.

"Take down your photo, remove your photos, take down your social media channels, remove your names, try to hide," she recounted the advice she had given at the time, adding she told the players to wear burqas.

"They were they were covering themselves. They were trying to do the best to not [be] recognised by the Taliban," she said.

Last week, the Taliban announced that women in the country would be banned from playing any sports.

And for Popal, that means her efforts to help the women escape were worth it.

"Any person who follows a different mindset than Taliban mindset ... will not have any future in that country," she said.

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Intervew produced by Chris Harbord.

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