Khalida Popal: Former Afghan football captain speaks out on her country’s fall to the Taliban

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With foreign governments sending their citizens first, they offer little hope to the Afghan people who many believe owe protection for helping them in the 20-year conflict.

“I feel heavy in my chest. I’m sad. I’m not sleepy and it hurts,” former Afghan footballer Popal told Amanda Davies of CNN Sport.

“I just want my phone to be away so I can feel the freedom in my brain, but I can’t. I’ve been stuck with my phone for the past few weeks, watching the country crumble, watching our enemies,” she adds.

“It’s traumatic for me”

This is not the first memory that Popal has of his country threatened by a foreign invasion and guerrilla groups.

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, having invaded and occupied the country for 10 years.

Seven years later, when Popal was nine, the newly formed Taliban captured Kabul and ruled Afghanistan for the next half decade.

“It’s traumatic for me and […] my generation, “she said.” Our childhood repeats itself again, and history repeats itself again. “

Popal grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban's first reign from 1996 to 2001 and calls it a
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During their rule, the Taliban declared the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, imposing strict laws on women – forced head-to-toe blankets, bans from going to school or working in outside the house and the ban on traveling alone.

“It was a very dark and scary time. I remember my childhood at the age of eight, nine, when the Taliban took over the country, when they started […] murder […] and put people in jail, ”Popal says.

She said that since her family had been beaten by the Taliban – some “shot down” – they would live in fear, “being so scared, sitting at home” and “waiting for the door to be knocked at any time and they will be taken. ”

“I remember asking the questions because I had so many questions about it that all the other children, without understanding […] politics. Asking a lot of questions, “Father, why don’t they let me go to school?” And if i want […] play soccer outside, if I want to meet my friends in the street? Why? Why is my mother not allowed to go to work? ”Popal explains to Davies.

In the shadow of the Taliban

Popal says that after the Taliban began losing their main strongholds with the invasion of US and coalition forces in 2001, she didn’t expect them to return to power.

“We were never prepared,” she says. “The whole Afghan community, everyone is shocked.

“Of course the Taliban have […] has always existed. They have been fighting for so long around the borders, in the rural areas of Afghanistan. There was always a threat. “

When Popal was 16 a few years later, she started playing football in the shadow of the Taliban, who had banned women from playing sports or going to stadiums.

Even though the group had been removed from power, they continued to wage war against coalition forces and the US-backed Afghan government, and thus had socio-political influence in parts of the country.
In 2007, she founded the Afghan National Women’s Football Team and became their team captain, eventually becoming the first woman to be employed by the Afghan Football Federation.

However, as Popal continued to speak out, his global presence increased, as did threats against him.

In 2010, she decided to leave Kabul to go to Pakistan and India, before finally finding asylum in Denmark.

“We had to escape,” she said. “I remember loving this scary and dangerous path […] in a safe place to seek protection and live as a refugee in Pakistan.

“Our players are totally helpless”

Since then, Popal has continued to use sport as a platform for activism, launching the Girl Power Organization in 2014 to support refugees and migrants and advocating for women’s rights at several conferences for organizations such as FIFA. , UEFA and the United Nations.

“We have made so many sacrifices in the last 20 years of our lives […] to achieve this collective, the pride of representing our country, the appropriation of representing the national team of Afghanistan, ”she said.

“We used football […] defend our rights as women […] but also to be the voice of the voiceless sisters that they still lived under the Taliban regime “, adds Popal.” We followed the news, how they were stoned, how they were beaten, how they were beaten to death . “

“We stood up. We said, no matter if you lock our sister there, no matter how many of us are killed, we will stand together. We are stronger. We will not give up because we trusted . “

Popal uses its sports platform to defend women's rights.

Now it seems the pride Popal felt in representing Afghanistan on the world stage is just a fading memory.

Instead, her mind is occupied with the thoughts of the footballers who are still stranded in Afghanistan.

“Our players are totally helpless,” said Popal. “We really fought so hard to earn the name […] on the jersey and the badge on our chest and wear the national team uniform and represent our country internationally. “

“What hurts me the most is when I’ve been there the last few days, I called them up and told them to burn your uniform, try to take everything you have off the squad. national so that they do not identify if they come to you. Delete your social networks, try to remain silent, try to hide your identity, delete your identity “, she adds.

“We must not forget them like that”

For Popal, one of the biggest emotional setbacks of the past decades was entering the new millennium “with great hope for the future”, only to feel rejected by the global community.

“This time I was a teenager and my generation and the new generation did everything to actively participate in […] build the country […] the community, the society, and also by being grateful, by showing the international committee, that your time is not wasted in our country, ”she said.

“Everything has been forgotten,” continues Popal. ” The international community […] entered our country with the words, with big sentences, words defending the rights of Afghan women, we will no longer let Afghan women live in the darkness of the Taliban. “

“We have done everything to be part of the growth and progress to also represent the new image of Afghanistan […] of the strong woman of Afghanistan, but now the world [has] forgot about us.

“Thinking of every person I have worked with – I know them, my friends, my family and all of these amazing women who have been a part of growing and progressing are in the hands of [the] enemy, and without any protection. “

Despite his emotional turmoil, Popal remains true to his country and to the promise of a better future.

“My message to all […] to individuals, organizations and governments is that, remember the Afghan women, they did nothing wrong and they should not be forgotten like that, and they need support, they need protection, ”she said.

“Please be their voice, be the voice of these voiceless and defenseless women in the land.”

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