London – In frantic phone calls and voice messages, Khalida Popal can hear the distress and tearful pleas for help.
The football players in the Afghanistan women’s national team that Popal helped establish now fear for their lives after the Taliban swept to regain control of the country after two decades.
When they call, all Popal can do is advise them to flee their homes, escape from neighbors who know them as pioneering players, and try to erase their history – particularly activism against the Taliban who are now re-establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“I have been encouraging to take down social media channels, take down photos, escape and hide themselves,” Popal told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Denmark. “That breaks my heart because of all these years we have worked to raise the visibility of women and now I’m telling my women in Afghanistan to shut up and disappear. Their lives are in danger.”
The 34-year-old Popal can barely comprehend the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government and the sense of being abandoned by Western nations who helped to topple the Taliban in 2001. Having fled with her family after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Popal returned to Afghanistan two decades ago as a teenager who had been living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. With the protection of the international community, Popal felt optimistic that women’s rights would be promoted.
“My generation had the hope of building the country, developing the situation for the next generation of women and men in the country,” she said. “So I started with other young women using football as a tool to empower women and girls.”
By 2007, there were enough players for Popal to be part of Afghanistan’s first women’s national team.
“We felt so proud of wearing the jersey,” Popal said. “It was the most beautiful, best feeling ever.”
Popal encouraged her teammates to use their platforms to speak out as escalating attacks were seeing the Taliban retake territory.
“I received so many death threats and challenges because I was quoted on the national TV,” she said. “I was calling Taliban our enemy.”
Popal stopped playing in 2011 to focus on coordinating the team as a director at the Afghanistan Football Association. But the threats continued and she was eventually forced to flee Afghanistan to seek asylum in Denmark in 2016.
“My life was in great danger,” she said.
But she never abandoned the female footballers, helping to expose physical and sexual abuse, death threats and rape that implicated the Afghanistan federation leadership. The corruption in the sport was reflective of the shaky foundations of a country that has deteriorated rapidly after the withdrawal of troops from the U.S.-led mission.
“The women of Afghanistan believed in their promise but they left because there’s no more national interest. Why did you promise?” Popal asked. “This is what my girls crying and sending voice messages are saying. Why not say you would leave like this? At least we could protect ourselves.”
An exasperated Popal sighs.
“We would not have created enemies,” Popal said. “They are crying. They are just crying … they are sad. They are just like desperate. They have so many questions. What is happening to them isn’t fair.
“They are hiding away. Most of them left their houses to go to relatives and hide because their neighbors know they are players. They are sitting, they are afraid. The Taliban is all over. They are going around creating fear.”
Popal is a world away but connected by the messages pinging into her phone of the Taliban.
“They keep taking video and photos from the window showing they are just outside the home and that is very sad,” she said.
It’s hard to even imagine Afghanistan, ranked 152nd by FIFA out of 167 women’s teams, playing again.
“It’s been very painful to witness when yesterday the government surrendered,” Popal said. “Women lost hope.”