Salima Mazari, Afghan governor-turned-refugee, speaks of fight against Taliban

40-Salima-Mazari-and-husband Fighting for life: Salima Mazari and husband with members of the resistance forces in Charkint in Balkh province | Massoud Hossaini

A few days after the Taliban took Kabul in mid-August, I reached out to Salima Mazari. Using a translation app, I texted a basic Persian greeting. Within minutes, I got a reply in English: “Hi! How are you?” The warm response, however, made me uneasy.

Mazari personally led the government and the militia, and denied Charkint to the Taliban. Her associates said that more than 200 Taliban fighters were killed under her leadership in 2021.
By August 14, the Taliban had surrounded Charkint. Handicapped by low ammunition stocks and a series of surrenders by the Afghan National Army, Mazari knew her options were exhausted.

She had never texted me in English before, and I had the feeling that she was not comfortable with the language. But then comfort zones had never held back Mazari, who overcame great odds to become governor of Charkint, a district of 32,306 people, in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Charkint’s population used to be more than two lakh strong; most people fled the enduring conflict and subsequent poverty.

Mazari also headed the pro-government militia in Charkint. Unsurprisingly, her name figured prominently on the hit list of Taliban 2.0. I was even more worried about the English text because the internet was awash with speculation that the Taliban had captured her.

Before I could reply to her message, I got a WhatsApp call from her number. “Aap India se hain? (Are you from India)?” asked a man. He said that Mazari’s phone was with him. For a moment, I was worried if he were a Taliban soldier from the tribal lands bordering Pakistan—someone who could speak Urdu.

But when I asked him about himself, he switched the call to video mode. And there was Mazari, sitting on a mat in the far corner of a mid-sized room. Clad in a black burqa, she smiled gently and waved. She had somehow reached Kabul, after the Taliban overran Charkint. “Her life is in danger. She has to leave soon,” said the man, who appeared to be her interpreter.

A few weeks later, I came to know that Mazari had reached a military facility in the US. She is now adjusting to a new life there, awaiting relocation and catching up on news from home, often over an unsteady Wi-Fi connection. “From the moment I left Afghanistan, I have been missing my country,” she told me. And then, she opened up about her bitter battle with the Taliban, and about her life.

Being a refugee is nothing new for Mazari. She grew up as one after her parents fled to Iran when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. She said that the Iranians never issued proper documents, which eventually hampered her academic pursuits. “Iran never recognised us. We were homeless and helpless,” said Mazari. But she persevered and graduated in sociology from the University of Tehran.

Uncertain future: Salima Mazari in an aircraft with other refugees | Azizullah Ahmadi Uncertain future: Salima Mazari in an aircraft with other refugees | Azizullah Ahmadi

After the Mazaris returned to Afghanistan, she worked for five years at a private university in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province. When the government called for district governors—a bureaucratic post—she applied. She cleared a three-stage examination, finishing first among 25 candidates who had applied for the governorship of Charkint. But despite holding an order signed by president Ashraf Ghani, local authorities delayed her appointment. Her break came when Ghani visited Balkh; Mazari threatened to inform him about the delay. And thus, in May 2018, she became governor of Charkint—“my ancestral homeland”, as she calls it. She became one of three female governors in Afghanistan.

The appointment, however, pitted her against the resurgent Taliban. She said she survived multiple attempts on her life. “The Taliban planted mines and planned ambushes. I thank God that I came out alive,” she said. She personally led the government and the militia, and denied Charkint to the Taliban. Her associates said that more than 200 Taliban fighters were killed under her leadership in 2021; last year she negotiated the surrender of around 100 fighters.

The Taliban hated Mazari for these and many other reasons. One, she denied them Charkint. Two, an armed woman commanding male soldiers went against the Taliban’s strict religious codes. Three, her ethnicity.

Mazari is a Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic minority from the Hazarajat highlands of central Afghanistan. The Hazaras have always faced ethnic attacks. Under Taliban 1.0, they faced genocides in 1998 and 2001. More recently, between 2015 and 2021, nearly 4,500 Hazaras were either killed or wounded, according to Hazara activists.

Lost battle: Mazari and her husband with associates in Charkint | Massoud Hossaini Lost battle: Mazari and her husband with associates in Charkint | Massoud Hossaini

Mazari shares her surname with Abdul Ali Mazari aka Baba Mazari, a revered figure of the Hazaras. They both are from Mazar-i-Sharif, the spiritual and cultural capital of the Hazaras. A champion of the Hazara cause, Baba Mazari was abducted, tortured and beheaded by the Taliban in March 1995. Mazari was confident that the same fate awaited her under Taliban 2.0. And, her assumption was right. Taliban 2.0 razed Baba Mazari’s statue in the central Afghan city of Bamiyan, soon after it took the province.

Most Hazaras are Shia, while the Taliban cadres are largely Sunni Pashtuns. “As Hazaras, we could not expect any peace and goodness from the Taliban. We had no option, but to either overpower them or get killed ourselves,” Mazari said.

With the US announcing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mazari had to spend more time preparing for war with the Taliban. When she was not behind a desk, she would visit strategic outposts, assess security situations and coordinate between the military and civilian fighters. Her packed schedule often did not give her time to visit her three children. She established a security commission to recruit civilians into local militias. Nearly 1,000 new volunteers signed up. These included farmers, shepherds and students, who sold their belongings to buy weapons and fight the Taliban. In the field, she always carried her favourite gun—a scoped M4 carbine.

As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in late July and early August, Charkint was one of the last holdouts of the government forces. In the first week of August, Mazari received intelligence inputs that Pakistani agents had infiltrated the district. Worried, she spent a lot of time planning her response. She shared meals with local leaders, supplied local forces with food and supplies, and motivated residents to join the militia.

Unfortunately for her, key cities and towns around Charkint fell to the Taliban rapidly. Besieged, Mazari sent out an SOS message to India, Iran and Russia. “Our forces did not have weapons and ammunition. Our government was falling apart and we were left alone. We thought we would be killed. So, I asked the three governments for help,” she said. “But our pleas went unanswered.”

By August 14, the Taliban had surrounded Charkint. Handicapped by low ammunition stocks and a series of surrenders by the Afghan National Army, Mazari knew her options were exhausted. To top it all, Mazar-i-Sharif fell that day. Finally, Mazari told her men that a bloody fight would be useless.

Mazari gathered her associates and family and headed for the border town of Hairatan, a couple of hours away. She hoped to cross the Friendship Bridge on the Amu Darya river into Uzbekistan. But by the time she reached there, a large number of senior government officials, warlords and political leaders—including former Afghanistan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum and former Balkh governor and mujahideen commander Atta Mohammad Noor—were already there. While Dostum and Noor were allowed to cross, most others were turned away.

Mazari had to make a plan quickly to stay alive. According to a report in Time, she changed to a burqa and stayed with a relative for a couple of days. Ditching the initial plan to return to Mazar-i-Sharif, she headed for Kabul, hoping to board an evacuation flight. Mazari slipped through Taliban checkpoints along with a large group of women, all wearing burqas. She finally reached Kabul on August 19.

From then on, the challenge was to get out of Afghanistan. Mazari and most of her family members did not have passports, which made things all the more difficult. There was also no coordination or guaranteed support from any country. However, since she had been featured extensively in international media, help came from unexpected quarters.

Afghan journalist Zakarya Hassani, who had interviewed Mazari in July, had already escaped to Paris. Worried about her safety, he texted her on August 20. Mazari recognised his number, realised it was safe to talk to him and shared details about her and her family. Hassani reached out to Canadian journalist Robyn Huang seeking help; both of them later chronicled Mazari’s miraculous escape in Time.

Huang’s partner, photojournalist Matt Reichel, has been involved in helping people flee Afghanistan. One of Reichel’s friends at the US state department forwarded Mazari’s information to a senior official and to the Joint Interagency Task Force, which was organising American rescue missions from Afghanistan.

By this time, another rescue effort was also underway. British Hazara activist Homira Rezai had sought the help of Khadim Dai, a Hazara filmmaker from Los Angeles, who had contacts in the US state department. Dai also intervened on Mazari’s behalf.

Things gradually fell in place, and Reichel was told that Mazari’s extraction would happen soon. Early in the morning on August 24, Mazari got a message on Signal, the encrypted instant messaging service, from an unknown Afghan number. The sender identified himself as a US rescue team member and asked for her exact location. Mazari quickly shared the details and alerted Hassani. The journalist was worried that it might be a trap set by Pakistani agents, who, by then, had taken over intelligence operations in Kabul.

Acting fast, Reichel called the Afghan number that contacted Mazari on Signal. As the call went unanswered, he tried WhatsApp and the call was picked up. The man who answered confirmed that he was indeed a US army major, involved in a rescue mission in Kabul. The state department, too, confirmed that the operation was genuine. A much relieved Hassani told Mazari to go ahead. At around 7pm, she proceeded to the rendezvous point as instructed, with 13 of her family members. “She made a dash to a location close to her hideout. We were told that a chopper was arranged as it would be almost impossible to travel by car to the airport due to the Taliban checkpoints,” said a source close to her. The Mazaris reached the airport safely and flew out to the US the next day, via Qatar and Spain.

Today, Mazari is safe. But one can detect a tinge of sadness in her voice. She does not like the way things went down in her beloved homeland. “As a person who was at the heart of this war, I can say that our central government did not have the heart to fight the Taliban. We had a lot of military equipment, but we didn’t have the permission to use them. If we really wanted, we could have fought the Taliban,” she said.

Another thing that weighs heavily on her mind is the fact that only a few members of the minorities and disadvantaged groups have made it to the US. “Nearly all the people who reached here are Pashtuns. Only a few of them were in danger. Those who were getting killed by the Taliban—like those who worked for the government, social activists, women activists and women police officers and support staff for the military—have been left behind.”

Mazari’s last ray of hope was the Panjshir resistance led by former vice president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud. And she is clearly disappointed that the rebellion failed to achieve its goal. But she said she could see that coming. “I was not confident that they could stand up against the Taliban. They were on their own and they did not coordinate with anyone. Panjshir was the last part of our hope, but we have lost it.”

Mazari squarely blamed Pakistan for the rise of the Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan. She said the Taliban was nothing more than a paid labourer for Pakistan and its aim was to drag Afghanistan back to its past, negating the gains of the last two decades.

“Pakistan’s intention is to destroy Afghanistan,” said Mazari. “Pakistani leaders think that a united and powerful Afghanistan is detrimental to their interests and that is why they created the Taliban, which does not know anything except barbarity, cruelty, bloodshed and violation of human rights.”