As captain of Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team and a women’s rights activist, Nilofar Bayat fled for her life when the Taliban took over, seeking safety in Spain where she hopes to soon be back on the court.
Speaking to reporters in the northern city of Bilbao just days after arriving on a Spanish military plane, this 28-year-old athlete spoke of her shock at how quickly the Taliban swept into the capital Kabul and of her struggle to get out.
“I really want the UN and all countries to help Afghanistan.. because the Taliban are the same as they were 20 years ago,” she said.
“If you see Afghanistan now, it’s all men, there are no women because they don’t accept woman as part of society.”
After a nerve-wracking escape, she and her husband Ramesh, who plays for Afghanistan’s national basketball team, landed at an airbase just outside Madrid on Friday and are now starting a new life in Bilbao.
“When the Taliban came and I saw them around my home, I was scared and I started to think about myself and my family,” said Bayat after the insurgents swept into the capital on August 15.
“I’ve been in too many videos and spoken about the Taliban, about all I’ve done in basketball and working for women’s rights in Afghanistan. There can be a big case for the Taliban to kill me and my family.”
With the help of the Spanish embassy she managed to secure a seat on a plane, and set off for the airport where she found scenes of chaos with the Taliban shooting and beating people to stop them reaching the airport.
“It was a really difficult day.. I’ve never seen this much danger in my country. I cried a lot, not because they beat me or my husband, but because of who had taken control of the country,” explained this former law student.
– ‘Others are still there’ –
Nilofar Bayat and her husband Ramish in Bilbao
With the help of several German soldiers, they managed to get in but spent two days there in the blazing Kabul sun with “nothing to sleep on.. and not enough food” before finally being flown out on a Spanish military plane.
But she’s acutely aware that in getting away, she was one of the lucky ones.
“I’m luckier than other Afghan people in that I’ve left and am here and can start a new life. But I’m just one person, others are still there,” she said.
When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, a rocket hit Bayat’s family home when she was just two-years-old. In the attack, her brother was killed, her father was injured and she lost a leg.
“They changed my life forever, they caused pain and something that I’ll carry forever in my life,” said Bayat.
“I am the best proof of how dangerous the Taliban are.. and how living in Afghanistan is hard and difficult: there is no future and no hope.”
In a country where many people have been left with disabilities due to the attacks or polio, Bayat became interested in wheelchair basketball after seeing the men play and went on to play a key role in setting up an Afghan women’s team.
“When I’m in the gym and playing basketball, I forget what’s happening in my country and also that I have a disability,” she said.
She came to Spain with the help of a Spanish journalist friend and has received “many offers” to play with wheelchair basketball teams, including one from Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, with whom she hopes to start playing “as soon as possible”.
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