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Female Afghan Mountain Climbers Struggling To Flee Taliban

Photo Courtesy of Ascend

TPR’s Jerry Clayton spoke on Sunday to Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a former NPR international correspondent now living in Berlin, who is involved in getting a group of female mountain climbers out of Afghanistan

Jerry Clayton:Last week, we reported on an American NGO operating in Afghanistan called Ascend. It's mission for the past six years had been to train Afghan girls to become mountain climbers. Now, it's trying to get these girls and women out of Afghanistan as the Taliban retakes control of the country. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is working tirelessly on this effort. She's a former NPR correspondent and Kabul bureau chief and is writing a book about the Ascent mountain climbers. She joins us from Berlin. Thanks for being here.

 Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Thanks, Jerry. Really appreciate being on.

Clayton: Soraya, can you start by telling our listeners how you became involved with Ascend?

Nelson: Well back in 2015, I was at NPR — in fact I was there for 13 years total. I was reporting about these girls and about the Ascend NGO, which was formed at that point by somebody that I had met in Afghanistan, who is Marina Karpinsky LeGree. She still runs that organization. And she's obviously the most actively involved in getting the girls out.

Clayton: You've been in close contact with the NGOs leadership and some of the girls over the past few days. What can you tell us now?

Nelson: Well, it's really difficult. I was comparing this on Twitter, actually, to sitting in the front row and watching the Titanic sink because that's what Afghanistan is right now. And these young women, they're going to the airport, which is really the only way out. But they can't get into the airport because the Western troops — U.S., Danish, what have you — the people that are there that are trying to organize this very badly organized evacuation won't let them in, even if they have the proper documents. And what's happening on the outside is that very frantic people are trampling each other to death. Then you have the Taliban firing guns into the air. And these girls have literally, this is no exaggeration to say, that they've been in mortal danger — and have had to go to the airport back and forth a number of times now. A number of them have gotten through the gate. I can't really talk about the details about how they got in, but there are some that are being processed for flights out, but then others who are still on the outside. It's very much a Solomons choice, if you will. And it's just heartbreaking to watch how absolutely disorganized this is in a situation that's life and death for not just these girls, but other female athletes and other young Afghans who've done things that the Taliban don't approve of.

Clayton: We specifically heard from a 17 -year-old mountain climber named Habiba earlier this week

(Audio-Habiba): "Please ask them to come! Because we are dying! The people are so cruel....they're about to kill us!"

Clayton: She told Texas Public Radio how scared she is and how her family are doing everything they can to escape. Can you give us any update on Habiba and her family?

Nelson: My understanding is that Habiba may have made it within the airport perimeter. But I don't know exactly and I can't say much about this because, again, it's sort of ongoing operations and we don't want to put anybody's life in danger. But I think the news may be good for her.

Clayton: The Taliban has said they intend to treat women differently this time around than they did 20 years ago. Do you believe that?

Nelson: Well, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence for that. And I think it's important to remember that the Taliban are not a monolith. I mean, the leaders may say one thing, but what's happening on the ground is very much something different. I do have to say what the Taliban may find different this time is that they have women who are very assertive and independent and educated and trained.

And I was very heartened to see a video this morning on Twitter of two Afghan women who try to go to work and they weren't allowed in. And the Taliban are like, “We can't look at you, we can't talk to you. It's not allowed under our version of Islam,” which is not not how most people practice Islam. And they basically got in their face and said, “Why not?”

You know, and you said we could work and we're not. And they got on Twitter — being on social media right now is a very dangerous proposition for Afghans who are not, let's say, embracing the Taliban return — they got on there and said, you know, this may have been the case 20 years ago, but we're different as women 20 years on. And and so I think the Taliban may not find it so easy to just dismiss women the way they have in the past.

Clayton: Soraya, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.

Nelson: You're welcome. Thanks so much, Jerry.

Clayton: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is a former NPR international correspondent. She's currently writing a book on the Ascend Mountain Climbers. She's also the host of the podcast Common Ground. She spoke to us from Berlin.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.