A female Afghan pilot recalls her last days in Afghanistan and worries for her family left behind
Rukhsar (not her real name), a pilot in the Afghan Airforce, on her last flight.
Rukhsar, not her real name, is a pilot in the Afghan Airforce. Last year, she piloted her last flight to Kunduz. As she soared towards the northern province, she had no idea this would be her last flight as a pilot in Afghanistan.
As Taliban fighters made rapid advances in August last year, Rukhsar tells Afghan Witness (AW) how it became increasingly dangerous to fly to provinces left under the government's control.
She thought that the situation would be temporary, though its severity became clear when she received orders to refrain from going home or to the airport due to the threat of attack. Whenever headed home, Rukhsar would change her route, sometimes even her home address: "I did not have the enjoyment of walking freely, going for shopping or meeting friends because it was risky for me,” she explains.
On August 14th, 2021 Rukhsar was preparing to fly to Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of the Balkh province, but found out that it was no longer safe. Rukhsar found her wings, quite literally, cut: she could no longer fly – at least not as a pilot.
A day later, Rukhsar learned of the Taliban seizure of Kabul. Her Afghan Airforce colleagues had already began flying out to neighbouring countries, while she waited anxiously with remaining colleagues for their own evacuation. Unfortunately, the Afghan Airforce planes never returned to evacuate the remaining staff.
"I stayed with some of my colleagues at the airport. We spent the night waiting to be evacuated, but our planes never returned,” she remembers. “We saw American planes land in Kabul – they started evacuating their staff. We said to ourselves that if we could not leave tonight, it would be our last night of being alive.”
Rukhsar recalls huge crowds heading towards the airport. Chaos erupted: Americans and the Taliban started shooting. The panic was widespread, and she feared for her life. “It was hell in front of my eyes," she adds.
Struggling through the crowds of people just as desperate as she was – some of whom even attempted to cling to the aircraft – Rukhsar tried relentlessly to make it to the evacuation planes, but failed every time. After making contact with some of her foreign colleagues, on August 21st, Rukhsar finally flew out of Afghanistan.
But this journey was different: this time she was not a pilot, but an evacuee. Forced to leave her family behind in Kabul, she worries for their safety under the Taliban regime. She worries especially for her sister – a famous Afghan sportswoman – as women’s rights are under serious threat now.
Today, Rukhsar is still waiting, this time not for a plane, but for a home. She is currently in a refugee shelter in Doha, Qatar, awaiting resettlement. Her focus, however, is not on her own future but on the fate of her sister and family:
"Let us think that all of the people in sports, civil society, and women who worked in the army left the country,” she says. “Other women and girls who [remain]; what would then happen to women in Afghanistan? What about their rights? What about the education they received? What [does] the future look like to them? Who is responsible for all of this?”
Interview with Afghan Witness