Jerry Clayton of TPR spoke on Sunday with Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a former NPR international correspondent now living in Berlin, who deals with bringing a group of mountaineers out of Afghanistan.
Jerry Clayton: Last week we reported on an American NGO operating in Afghanistan called Ascend. Her mission over the past six years has been to train Afghan girls to become mountaineers. Now he is trying to get these girls and women out of Afghanistan as the Taliban regain control of the country. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson works tirelessly on this effort. She is a former NPR correspondent and Kabul bureau chief and writes a book on the Ascent climbers. She joins us from Berlin. Thanks to be here.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Thanks, Jerry. I really appreciate being turned on.
Clayton: Soraya, can you start by telling our listeners how you got involved with Ascend?
Nelson: Well, in 2015 I was at NPR – in fact, I was there for 13 years in total. I was doing a report on these girls and on the NGO Ascend, which was formed at that time by someone I had met in Afghanistan, who is Marina Karpinsky LeGree. She still runs this organization. And she is obviously the most actively involved in the release of the girls.
Clayton: You have been in close contact with the leadership of the NGOs and some of the girls over the past few days. What can you tell us now?
Nelson: Well, it is really difficult. I was comparing that on Twitter, in fact, to sitting in the front row and watching the Titanic sink because that’s what Afghanistan is like right now. And these young women, they go to the airport, which is really the only way out. But they can’t get into the airport because the Western troops – American, Danish, what – the people who are there trying to organize this very poorly organized evacuation won’t let them in, even if they have. the documents. And what’s going on outside is that some very frantic people are trampling each other to death. Then you have the Taliban firing in the air. And these girls have literally, it’s no exaggeration to say, that they have been in danger of death – and have had to make several trips to the airport now. A number of them walked through the door. I can’t really speak to the details of how they got in, but some are being processed for departing flights, but others are still outside. It really is a choice of the Solomons, if you will. And it’s just heartbreaking how absolutely disorganized this is in a situation that is life and death not only for these girls, but for other female athletes and other young Afghans who have done things that the Taliban do not approve.
Clayton: We specifically heard from a 17-year-old climber named Habiba earlier this week
(Audio Habiba): “Please ask them to come! Because we are dying! People are so cruelâ¦ they are about to kill us!”
Clayton: She told Texas Public Radio how scared she was and that her family was doing everything they could to escape. Can you give us some information about Habiba and his family?
Nelson: From what I understand, Habiba may have reached the perimeter of the airport. But I don’t know exactly and I can’t say much about it because, again, this is kind of an ongoing operation and we don’t want to put anyone’s life in danger. But I think the news can be good for her.
Clayton: The Taliban have said they intend to treat women differently this time around than 20 years ago. Do you believe it?
Nelson: Well, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for this. And I think it’s important to remember that the Taliban are not a monolith. I mean, leaders can say one thing, but what’s happening on the pitch is very different. I have to say, what the Taliban may find different this time around is that they have very assertive and independent, educated and trained women.
And I was very encouraged to see a video this morning on Twitter of two Afghan women trying to go to work and they were not allowed in. And the Taliban say, âWe can’t look at you, we can’t talk to you. It is not allowed in our version of Islam, âwhich is not the way most people practice Islam. And basically they just stood in front of them and said, âWhy not? “
You know, and you said we can work and we don’t. And they took to Twitter – being on social media right now is a very dangerous proposition for the Afghans who, say, don’t accept the Taliban coming back – they went over there and said, you know, that maybe 20 years ago, but we are different as women 20 years later. And so I think the Taliban may not find it so easy to just dismiss women as they have in the past.
Clayton: Soraya, thank you very much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate this.
Nelson: You’re welcome. Thanks a lot, Jerry.
Clayton: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is a former international correspondent for NPR. She is currently writing a book on Ascend Mountain Climbers. She is also the host of the Common Ground podcast. She told us about Berlin.
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