Another young leader taken. Afghans ask: how many more?


KABUL, Afghanistan: Fatima Khalil, who landed a job at the Afghan human rights commission at age 24, had come a long way from being a refugee girl who was barely able to make it at birth, with the midwife leaving before she even cut the umbilical cord.

He spoke six languages, had a strong foundation in religious studies, and graduated from the American University of Central Asia with two majors. But what friends remember most is a young woman, deeply confident but sensitive, who was completely in love with life. She was wearing bright colors, an orange dress for her birthday, and she surpassed everyone on the dance floor, but she was afraid of the dark.

When Ms. Khalil and a driver, Ahmad Jawid Folad, 41, were killed on Saturday in another of the overly ubiquitous explosions targeting civilians in Kabul, there was a sense of deflation throughout the Afghan capital. In a moment deeply uncertain for the country, when an endless war often still claims more than 50 lives in many days, it embodies the brilliant promise of an entire generation that is being destroyed in blood.

In the violent 18 years since the Taliban regime was ousted from power, a generation of young Afghans has grown up with freedoms and opportunities that now feel threatened by the prospect of insurgents returning to government. The United States is already withdrawing troops under an agreement reached this year with the Taliban.

But even before the power-sharing negotiations between the government and the Taliban begin, the bleeding has intensified. Many of those targeted are elements of the new life that has taken hold since 2001: moderate religious journalists and scholars, cultural figures and activists, and women in public office.

“As an Afghan woman, from a patriarchal society, being Fatima took guts, very hard. Just knowing your mind: as a woman they tell you every day that you don’t have a mind, you don’t have an opinion. She had an opinion on everything, “said Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.” To raise a Fatima, it takes many different factors, many of them luckily, to raise someone like that. And then, just like that, it disappeared.

Ms. Khalil was born in Pakistan to a refugee family who had fled an earlier chapter in 40 years of violence in Afghanistan, the sixth child of two former teachers. His father started a grocery store in Quetta, Pakistan, earning just enough to survive; His sister Lima said the midwife left in the middle of Fatima’s birth, furious that the family was unable to pay him the full fee.

“She didn’t even cut the umbilical cord, my mother did it herself,” said Lima, now a doctoral student in the United States who was unable to arrive in time for her sister’s funeral due to coronavirus travel restrictions. “We always make fun of her, that the doctor ran away when you were half-born.”

Although the family was evicted several times, Fatima excelled at school. She began her education at a refugee school in Pakistan founded by a Saudi charity. After the family returned to Afghanistan, she graduated from high school in Kabul at a competitive Turkish international school, which she had attended on a scholarship.

When he graduated from the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, with a double major in anthropology and human rights studies, he was fluent in Arabic, Urdu, English, Russian, and the Afghani languages ​​Pashto and Farsi (also known like Dari)

Her friends and family called her Natasha, the nickname her mother gave her, and she had hugs and nicknames for everyone. She was sure of herself, even forceful, but in heated discussions about politics and ideas, she defused the conflict with humor and charm: “Easy, easy, slow down, sister!” or “Patient, patient, patient!”

Her disgust and frustration at women’s place in society and politics, and people’s concern about women’s appearance and clothing, are clear in her posts on social media.

But she also found energy in that fight. She idolized Afghanistan’s first ambassador to the United Nations. She increasingly assisted her boss with more substantive projects on international human rights mechanisms.

“She tried to live life freely, free from the constraints of society and traditions,” said Khaleda Saleh, who met her when they were assigned as roommates at the Turkish school and stayed as friends for life. “Sometimes people judged her for that. Calmly, patiently, I would return to them, that a piece of cloth does not define someone’s personality and heart. “

At the international university, she was part of a generation of young Afghan women who developed confidence and arrogance, leaving aside the identity of the victim. She attended her classes, and then partied with such excitement that she didn’t betray the sense of where she had come from. She loved Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” so much (“Does my anger bother you?“) That she repeatedly begged her friends to join her for tattoos.

“She believed that the poem told the story of each of our lives in one way,” said Benazir Noorzad, who overlapped with her at the university.

After graduating last year, Ms. Khalil was considering going straight to a master’s program. Her sister Lima encouraged her to gain work experience first.

“She said: ‘I am going somewhere else, I will not return to Afghanistan,'” Lima recalled. It reminded Fatima of how her father had been urged to return his family to Afghanistan. “Please, you come back too,” she said to her sister. “It takes people like you.”

When she arrived at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to apply for the post of international aid coordinator, she had interviewed several national and international organizations, including the United Nations. Ms. Akbar, 32, had just assumed the commission’s chairmanship and was reviewing it in an effort to improve its funding and consolidate its leadership.

Mrs Akbar sincerely explained it to Mrs Khalil: the commission was a disaster, her relationship with donors was a struggle. You may be able to give her your job, but she may not be able to pay you a salary for a couple of months. Ms. Khalil took the job.

“I have had many interviews, and the interviewers showed their organizations as the best in the country,” she wrote in an email to Ms. Akbar. “You were the only person who expressed that the commission faces many challenges. So I feel it could be more useful. “

When Ms. Khalil’s body was taken to one of Kabul’s old cemeteries on Saturday, her colleagues and friends cried when her father recalled her dedication.

“This was not just my daughter, she was fighting for the country,” she said at her grave. “In history, there has always been war. But this war of murder, this war of suicide bombings, this is the dirtiest war, the most condemned. “

On his small desk at the commission on Sunday were archives of unfinished projects, and a miniature replica of the explosive walls that saturated Kabul turned into a work of art: painted on it was a rock star, microphone in hand, balanced on the barrel of a tank. On her wall was a painting of a girl in a sparkling lime dress on a swing. The printer was covered in sticky notes.

Ms. Akbar said the most difficult part of all was not knowing who was behind the explosion that killed Ms. Khalil.

“To survive all of that, to get to a place, to fight, to study, then to serve, and then to be killed and we may never know who the killer was.

“That’s when you think: OK, I tell all these people to take risks, but will things improve?” she added, dying. “Are they going to improve?”

Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

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