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Evacuated Afghan activist dreams of going back home one day

Fearing the Taliban in power and the future of her children, Ghazaal Habibyar decided to leave, pledging to her 6-year-old son that they would come back one day.

GOLEM, Albania — Ghazaal Habibyar is in an Albanian tourist resort, safe with her husband and three children after being evacuated from Afghanistan. But her mind is not at rest, for many others she knows are still in danger from the Taliban.

Habibyar, 38, is concerned about her extended family and distraught about the over 180 people killed at Kabul airport just one hour before her chaotic takeoff.

Her family, including a 2-month-old daughter, and other human rights activists drove in a bus for 36 hours trying to find an entrance to Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport. Just before boarding the plane on Thursday, they heard “so much noise in the air” they were told the flight could be canceled. After 40 minutes, they were hustled aboard the plane, which took off in a frightening vertical way to avoid being shot at.

Thursday’s suicide bombing at the airport by an Islamic State group affiliate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

“There are times in your life when you feel guilty for being alive. That could have been us, definitely,” she told The Associated Press on Sunday. “Those people who have lost their lives, they have families, they’re very young people.”

She and her family are among 457 Afghans being housed in Albania since Friday.

Now an activist with the Open Society Foundation, Habibyar couldn’t graduate from school at home when she was young, fearing the Taliban's attitude toward women and education, so she graduated in Australia. Despite opportunities abroad, she returned to Kabul in 2006. Since then she has worked in many public positions, including being a deputy minister of mines and gasoline, “trying to make a difference, maybe small, but whatever I could to make that place a better place.”

She says Afghanistan has changed for the better in the past two decades, declaring “it’s not the Afghanistan of 1996.” But in the provinces governed by the Taliban, “girls’ schools were closed. Women were not allowed to work.”

“If that is a testimony to what is going to happen to the whole country, we had to leave,” she said.

Still, she is critical of how the U.S. and NATO left the country.

Credit: AP
Ghazaal Habibyar, one of the 457 Afghan evacuees housed in Albania, wipes her eye as she speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Franc Zhurda)

“This disaster, this human disaster that is happening right now, could have been prevented. This whole evacuation process could have been managed much better,” she said.

Habibyar is not sure of what her immediate future holds, saying it will “take a long time for us to recover psychologically, mentally, emotionally from everything that we have been through.” She misses the Afghan capital, Kabul, already, “the fruits on the side of the street I used to cross when I went to office" and the sounds of birds in the morning.

Habibyar made a pledge to her son when the plane took off. Hamza, 6, was crying and did not want to leave.

“I told him that you will make a promise to me: to study, be someone and come back," she said.