Lisbon, Sept. 22 (BNA): The girls of the Afghanistan national football team were worried. For weeks, they have been moving around the country, waiting for word that they can leave.
One wants to become a doctor, the other a film producer, and the other wants to become an engineer. Everyone dreams of growing up to be professional soccer players.
The message finally arrived early Sunday: a chartered plane was taking the girls and their families from Afghanistan — to where they don’t know. The Associated Press reported that buses that would take them to the airport were already on their way.
“They have left their homes and left everything behind,” Farkhunda Mohajj, the captain of the Afghan women’s national team, who has spent the past few weeks from her home in Canada reaching out to the girls and working to help arrange their rescue, told The Associated Press. . “They cannot understand that they are outside Afghanistan.”
Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan, girls aged 14-16 and their families have been trying to leave in fear of what their lives might look like under the Taliban – not just because women and girls are forbidden from playing sports, but because they have been girls’ advocates and active members of the their communities.
Late on Sunday, they landed in Lisbon, Portugal.
In interviews with the Associated Press this week, a protester, members of the soccer team, some of their family members and FA staff spoke about their last days in Afghanistan, international efforts to save them and the promise of new freedom.
Nick McKinley, a veteran of the CIA and Air Force, said the rescue mission, called Operation Soccer Balls, was coordinated with the Taliban through an international coalition of former US military and intelligence officials, US Senator Chris Coons, US allies, and humanitarian groups. . He founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a non-profit organization that provides housing for 50 Afghan families.
“This all had to happen very, very quickly. Contacts on the ground told us we had a window of about three hours,” McKinley said. “Time was of the essence.”
Operation Soccer Balls suffered a number of setbacks, including several failed rescue attempts, and a suicide bombing by ISIS fighters, opponents of the Taliban, at Kabul airport that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American soldiers. That bombing came during a horrific airlift in which the US military admitted that it was coordinating to some extent with the Taliban.
The complexity of the rescue effort was the size of the group – 80 people, including the 26 members of the youth team as well as adults and other children, including infants.
Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush who worked with Special Forces in Afghanistan and helped lead efforts to rescue the girls’ national soccer team, said Portugal had given the girls and their families asylum.
“The world has come together to help these girls and their families,” McCreary said. “These girls are truly a symbol of light for the world and for humanity.”
The Taliban tried to present a new image, promised amnesty for former opponents and said it would form an inclusive government. Many Afghans do not trust these promises, fearing that the Taliban will quickly resort to the brutal tactics of their 1996-2001 rule, including preventing girls and women from schools and jobs.
This week, the Taliban created a ministry to “promote virtue and prevent vice” in the building that once housed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in the latest indication that it is restricting women’s rights.
As the girls moved from the safe house to the safe house, Needy, who is also a teacher, said she helped them keep their cool through virtual exercises and yoga sessions and by assigning them homework, including writing resumes.
She said she could not share details about the rescue mission with the girls or their families and asked them to “blindly” believe in her and others.
Their mental state was deteriorating. Many of them were homesick. “Many of them miss their friends in Kabul,” said a needy. “They had unconditional faith. They sometimes took their souls.”
Some of the girls spoke to the Associated Press through an interpreter. They said they wanted to continue playing football – something they were urged not to do while in hiding – and hoped to meet football star Cristiano Ronaldo, the Manchester United striker and a Portugal national.
Wada Zimarai, a goalkeeper and coach for Afghanistan’s women’s national soccer team who moved to Sweden after the Taliban came to power in 1996, said the girls were affected after they were rescued.
“They can dream now,” Zamary said. “They can keep playing.”