U.S. Army photo by Spc. Austin Boucher

From Protector to Prey: A Former Afghan Policewoman’s Struggle for Survival

In the bustling streets of Kabul, Zahra’s life was once filled with purpose and honor as a member of Afghanistan’s elite Unit 222 within the national police force. It was a dream beyond her imagination, a world apart from the uncertain path she has tread over the past four months in Brazil.

When she returned to Afghanistan in 2017 from Iran, she never imagined that she would have to leave her homeland again. Nestled in a small room in western Kabul on weekends and rare breaks, Zahra found solace in the familiarity of her relative’s house. But all of that changed in August 2021, when the call to return to base shattered her plans to visit her hometown of Bamyan.

The news arrived around lunchtime on August 15, delivered by a solemn security guard with an urgent message from their commander, Mr. Ziyulhaq. They were instructed to lay down their weapons and vacate the compound, responsible for their own safety but forbidden from carrying arms. A plea to meet with the commander was met with a firm denial. The order was clear – disarm and depart.

Zahra, along with two other female officers, initially defied the command. They wanted to stand their ground and fight until the end, unaware of the rapid unraveling beyond their compound walls. When they finally relented and left at 4 p.m., the city had fallen under the Taliban’s sway, and the president had long fled for to Uzbekistan.

From protector to prey, Zahra’s world took a harrowing turn. Her once-familiar room was now off-limits, and even her own community and family turned their backs, gripped by the fear of Taliban retribution. The elite Unit 222, once guided by Norwegian advisors under NATO’s Resolute Support mission, had been promised that female officers would find refuge in Norway. But those tumultuous days in Kabul offered no lifeline, and two attempts to enter the Kabul Airport ended in failure.

Zahra had become a symbol of vulnerability. A young woman, alone and far from her family in Kabul, a Hazara – a community persecuted by the Taliban since the group’s advent in the early 1990s. To make matters worse, she had served in the elite unit, a coveted target for the Taliban.

In her pursuit of safety, Zahra’s higher-profile friend sought refuge in Pakistan with her family. Having exhausted all options, Zahra too set her sights on Pakistan, crossing borders without a visa, amidst a sea of refugees. She landed in Quetta, a city harboring the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, a key leadership council.

Cut off from her bank accounts, her resources dwindled. After five grueling months, she connected with an American woman dedicated to aiding women like Zahra, who had served in the security forces. The woman revealed the existence of a safe house in Islamabad, offering Zahra a temporary sanctuary until she could find a permanent one.

Upon arriving in Islamabad, Zahra met Shakib, an Afghan man assigned to escort her to the safe house. But Shakib harbored doubts about Zahra’s reliability, fearing she might endanger others due to her possession of a Pakistani SIM card. Zahra couldn’t help but wonder if her ethnicity played a role in being discriminated against – a cruel twist, echoing past injustices. Her initial spot after acceptance into Unit 222 was given to another officer who presented a letter of recommendation from Amrullah Saleh, the then Vice President and former head of intelligence. She was instead assigned to the lower grade Unit 333, to serve with less favorable pay and conditions in Logar.

In search of a lifeline, Zahra reconnected with the American woman, who advised her to seek temporary refuge outside the safe house. Alone and wandering, Zahra stumbled upon a charitable organization, which led her to a neighborhood filled with fellow Afghan refugees. There, she encountered another family, equally hopeful for news from the American woman, who had promised a path to a third country. But 18 long months passed, and still, no word came.

A glimmer of hope emerged when Zahra secured a Brazilian humanitarian visa. Her journey, however, was far from straightforward. Unable to fly out of Pakistan due to her illegal entry into the country, she had to return to Afghanistan, obtain a Pakistani visa, and then retrace her steps to fly to Brazil.

Zahra’s predicament speaks to the struggles of Afghan women, once pillars of their communities but now relegated to the shadows. Even those who escaped the clutches of Taliban rule face uphill battles. Pakistan’s mass deportation of nearly 1.7 million refugees from Afghanistan back to their country looms large, a heart-wrenching return for those fleeing persecution. In Brazil, Zahra has only two more months of limited financial support. She grapples with a language barrier and the daunting task of finding employment.