Eventually, however, 86 Afghan athletes, officials and family members were airlifted to safety. Their successful evacuation was the result of an internationally coordinated effort involving six countries, but even those who’d scrambled to get them out had to concede that it was still “nothing short of a miracle.”
But what those women had experienced was almost unspeakable, and the people who had worked so tirelessly to save them are now experiencing profound feelings of guilt that they couldn’t help any more.
Empowerment through sport
Haley Carter knows all about stressful work environments — she spent nearly eight years in the US Marine Corps, deploying to Fallujah and Al Asad Air Base in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 37-year-old American also played Division I college soccer as a goalkeeper and signed for the Houston Dash, before moving to the sidelines to become a coach.
But over the last few days, her two career paths have converged in a critical way.
It was in April 2016 that Carter joined the Afghanistan National Women’s team as an assistant coach. It was a fledgling team with a limited history, formed only in 2007 and which was only made possible by a more tolerant approach to equality and human rights.
In a country where previously girls and women were barely allowed out of the house, let alone provided an education or the chance to work in positions of authority, Carter knew that the potential of the team was to score more than just a few goals on the field.
“We made it our mission to empower those women,” she told CNN Sport. “We wanted to create a football team that could compete at the international level. But we all knew that this effort was something much, much bigger than football. We gave them the opportunity to use sport to get out of the house, to get an education.”
The ultimate realization of their power also meant the end of Carter’s involvement with the team.
In 2018, the players accused several male members of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) of sexual, physical, and mental abuse. At the time, the AFF rejected the allegations and said it had a “zero tolerance approach” to abuse.
Nonetheless, the players’ brave stance, for which any of them could have been killed, set in motion a chain of seismic events. “They fundamentally changed the criminal justice system for sexual assault victims in Afghanistan,” said Carter. “They inspired other women. Not only were these women playing sport, they were truly game changers in society.”
An unbreakable bond
Carter now coaches the Antigua and Barbuda team and is no longer professionally involved with the Afghan women’s team, but she says the relationships she forged with them are unbreakable. “Those players will always be our players,” she said. “There is a bond that we have developed, a trust. Some of those girls are like family to me.”
Recalling trips to India and Jordan, she smiles at the memories. “They built us a Christmas tree with all sorts of decorations, anything they could find around the hotel. We had private dance parties, players only, an opportunity to be themselves and enjoy themselves.
“I think my happiest times were when we were able to bring women who were refugees or children of refugees outside Afghanistan together with the players in Kabul, to share experiences and to recognize that it doesn’t matter where they live — they’re all part of the Afghan diaspora.”
Those relationships certainly weren’t forgotten when the Taliban effortlessly took control of Afghanistan in the middle of August. Those who had enjoyed freedom and opportunity over the last two decades quickly realized that their lives were about to dramatically change.
So: Popal and Carter helped form an emergency coalition to try to evacuate them to safety.
Human rights advocates Kat Craig and Alison Battisson, plus former Afghanistan women’s football coach Kelly Lindsey and the Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden completed the “ragtag” group of six. “Never underestimate the power of a group of women with smart phones,” Carter quipped.
Alongside former Australian football captain Craig Foster and global players’ union FIFPRO, they left no stone unturned. “NGOs, state entities, military and non-military,” Carter explained. “We have a team that’s working 24 hours, taking tactical naps to tag out for each other. Last night, I got three-and-a-half hours sleep and I feel like it was the best sleep I’ve gotten in days.”
There wasn’t a moment to spare, as soon as the security situation began to deteriorate, visa applications and evacuation lists were hurriedly drawn up. Weighing on Carter and her team was the knowledge that the atmosphere at the airport in Kabul was unraveling and danger lurked around every corner.
Speaking before the evacuation, Carter told CNN, “What’s happening at the airport is highly dangerous, highly volatile. They’re (the Taliban) setting up checkpoints, they’re beating people, they’re stealing their phones, going through their phones.”
“You’re going to have to fight,” she would communicate to the players. “You’re going to have to fight, and you’re going to have to be smart about what you’re doing. Be prepared and really take care of yourself. You’re going to have to put yourself in some situations that you’re not going to feel comfortable with in order to get through this.”
Once the players had been airlifted to safety, Carter revealed more details of what they had endured: two days with limited supplies, camping three nights to survive. “The things that the players had to endure is just, it’s unbelievable. I got voice memos from some of them once they had made it inside the terminal and they couldn’t even describe how horrible it was. They couldn’t even find the words to describe how horrible their experience was, trying to get in. They couldn’t even process it yet.”
When she received visual confirmation of their safety at three o’clock in the morning — a photograph of some of the women on board a flight to Australia — Carter described a wave of emotions. “I’ve never cried tears of relief like I cried when I got the last pic,” she wrote on Twitter. “We’ll all come out of this incredibly thankful for what we accomplished and utterly heartbroken for what we did not.”
In a statement, FIFPRO confirmed the success of the mission, “We are grateful to the Australian government for evacuating a large number of women footballers and athletes from Afghanistan. These young women, both as athletes and activists, have been in a position of danger and on behalf of their peers around the world we thank the international community for coming to their aid.”
Football’s world governing body, FIFA, is also following the situation closely, a spokesman told CNN in part, “FIFA’s leadership is personally involved in negotiating the complex evacuation of footballers and other athletes. This is an extremely challenging environment.”
The players might be out of immediate danger, but, as refugees, their future is inevitably uncertain. FIFPRO said, “There remains much work to do to support and settle these young women and we urge the international community to make sure that they receive all the help they need.” The fate of their project — the Afghanistan National Women’s Football team — is certainly unclear, not that the game of football even matters right now.
‘They made very hard decisions’
“They made very hard decisions to leave their families,” Carter explained, “and everything that they knew. And those individuals are still at home in Kabul, they’re still at risk. Everyone needs to understand the trauma that these women have endured over the last 96 hours. Our team isn’t even there, and we’re all struggling to process what is happening.”
The only thing for sure is that one day the players will be reunited with their guardian angels on the other side of the world. “Wherever these women go, wherever they wind up, we’re going,” said Carter, before she knew for sure that they’d even be safe.
“I will be on the next flight to wherever we can get them to for many, many, many reasons. That is the kind of family that the Afghanistan Women’s National Football team is. I assure you, everybody will be getting on a plane.”
In the meantime, Carter herself must process the emotional magnitude events of the last few days and her own involvement in trying to make the world a better place.
“I feel accountable, and I feel responsible for our strategy of Western nation-building and democratization,” she said. “When we take on strategic initiatives like that, we inherently fight to empower women and minorities. And now we’re just abandoning them and hoping that things work out. That’s soul crushing.”
More pressing right now, though, is the emotional pressure of wondering if they did enough.
“Being in a position to put people on a list and get them out, there’s this guilt that accompanies that because you are essentially choosing who lives and who could potentially die. That’s a very heavy feeling.
“My therapist is going to be working overtime.”