However, 86 Afghan athletes, officials and their families were eventually airlifted to safety. Their successful evacuation was the result of an internationally coordinated effort involving six countries, but even those who had rushed to get them out had to admit that it was still “nothing short of a miracle.”
But what these women had gone through was almost indescribable, and the people who had worked so tirelessly to save them now experience a deep sense of guilt that they could no longer help.
Empowerment through sport
Haley Carter knows all about stressful work environments – she spent nearly eight years in the US Marine Corps, deploying to Fallujah and Al Asad Air Base in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 37-year-old American also played Division I college football as a goaltender and signed for the Houston Dash, before sidelining to become a coach.
But in recent days, his two career paths have critically converged.
It was in April 2016 that Carter joined the Afghanistan Women’s National Team as an assistant coach. It was a nascent team with a limited history, formed only in 2007 and only made possible by a more tolerant approach to equality and human rights.
In a country where previously girls and women were barely allowed outside the home, let alone an education or the opportunity to work in positions of authority, Carter knew the potential of the team was score more than a few goals on the field.
“We made it our mission to empower these women,” she told CNN Sport. “We wanted to create a football team that could compete internationally. But we all knew that this effort was something much, much bigger than football. We gave them the opportunity to use sport to get out of the house, to get an education. “
The ultimate realization of their power also meant the end of Carter’s involvement with the team.
In 2018, the players accused several men from the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) of sexual, physical and mental abuse. At the time, AFF dismissed the allegations and said it had a “zero tolerance approach” to abuse.
World football’s governing body FIFA opened an investigation, but the evidence presented was enough to prompt AFF’s main sponsor Hummel to step down and the US coaching staff, who were all volunteers, was not invited by AFF. Technically, they say, they were never made redundant.
Nonetheless, the courageous stance of the players, for which any of them could have been killed, set off a chain of seismic events. “They fundamentally changed the criminal justice system for victims of sexual assault in Afghanistan,” Carter said. “They inspired other women. These women not only played sports, but they really made a difference in society. “
An unbreakable bond
Carter now coaches the Antigua and Barbuda team and is no longer professionally involved with the Afghan women’s team, but says the relationship she has forged with them is unbreakable. “These players will always be our players,” she said. “There is a bond that we have developed, a trust. Some of these girls are like family to me. “
Remembering trips to India and Jordan, she smiles at the memories. “They built us a Christmas tree with all kinds of decorations, whatever they could find around the hotel. We have organized private dance parties, just for players, an opportunity to be themselves and have fun.
“I think my happiest moments were when we were able to reunite refugee women or refugee children outside of Afghanistan with the players in Kabul, to share experiences and recognize that no matter where they live – they are done. all part of the Afghan diaspora. ”
These relationships were certainly not forgotten when the Taliban effortlessly took control of Afghanistan in mid-August. Those who had enjoyed freedom and opportunity over the past two decades quickly realized that their lives were about to change dramatically.
Khalida Popal, the former captain of the team that fled to Denmark in 2016, laid bare the harsh reality facing football players in an interview with CNN. “They will take us, and we will remain their slaves. We don’t want that, and we hope they kill us first. “
So: Popal and Carter helped form an emergency coalition to try to evacuate them to safety.
Human rights defenders Kat Craig and Alison Battisson, along with former Afghan women’s football coach Kelly Lindsey and Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden rounded out the “motley” group of six. “Never underestimate the power of a group of women with smart phones,” Carter joked.
Alongside former Australian football captain Craig Foster and the FIFPRO global players union, they have spared no effort. “NGOs, state entities, military and non-military,” Carter explained. “We have a team that works around the clock, taking tactical naps to get our bearings. Last night I slept three and a half hours and felt like it was the best sleep I’ve had in days. ”
There was not a moment to lose, as the security situation began to deteriorate, visa applications and evacuation lists were hastily drawn up. Carter and his team knew the atmosphere at Kabul airport was crumbling and danger lurked around every corner.
Speaking before the evacuation, Carter told CNN, “What is happening at the airport is very dangerous, very volatile. They (the Taliban) set up checkpoints, they beat people, they steal their phones, they go through their phones. “
“You are going to have to fight,” she would communicate to the players. “You’re going to have to fight, and you’re going to have to be smart at what you do. Be prepared and really take care of yourself. You’re going to have to put yourself in certain situations that you’re not going to feel comfortable going through. ”
The world had previously watched in horror as desperate civilians, including a young footballer, cling to an American C-17 transport plane and fall from the sky. People were crushed to death in the chaos outside the airport, and the clock was ticking louder towards the end of August, when the US government said evacuation operations would end.
After the players were airlifted to safety, Carter revealed more details of what they had endured: two days with limited supplies, camping three nights to survive. “The things the players have had to endure are just amazing. I got voice memos from some of them once they got inside the terminal and they couldn’t even describe how awful it was. They couldn’t even find the words to describe how horrible their experience was, trying to get in. They couldn’t even process her yet. ”
When she received visual confirmation of their safety at 3 a.m. – a photograph of some of the women on a flight to Australia – Carter described a surge of emotions. “I never cried in relief like I cried when I got the last pic,” she wrote on Twitter. “We will all come away incredibly grateful for what we have accomplished and heartbroken for what we have not done. “
In a statement, FIFPRO confirmed the success of the mission: “We are grateful to the Australian government for evacuating a large number of footballers and athletes from Afghanistan. These young women, both as athletes and activists, have been in danger. and on behalf of their peers around the world, we thank the international community for coming to their aid. ”
World football governing body FIFA is also monitoring the situation closely, a spokesperson told CNN in part: “FIFA management is personally involved in negotiating the complex evacuation of footballers and others. athletes. It is an extremely difficult environment. “
The players may be out of immediate danger, but, as refugees, their future is inevitably uncertain. FIFPRO said: “There is still a lot of work to be done to support and settle these young women and we urge the international community to ensure that they receive all the help they need. The fate of their project – the Afghan national women’s football team – is certainly not clear, although football matters even now.
“They made very difficult decisions”
“They made some really tough decisions to leave their families,” Carter explained, “and everything they knew. And these people are still at home in Kabul, they are still in danger. Everyone needs to understand the trauma these women have endured in the past 96 hours. Our team isn’t even there, and we’re all struggling to understand what’s going on. “
The only certainty is that the players will one day find their guardian angels on the other side of the world. “Wherever these women go, wherever they end up, we go,” Carter said, before knowing for sure they would even be safe.
“I’ll be on the next flight to where we can get them for a lot of reasons. This is the kind of family that is the Afghan national women’s football team. I assure you everyone will get on a plane. “
In the meantime, Carter herself must deal with the emotional scale events of the past few days and her own involvement in trying to make the world a better place.
“I feel responsible, and I feel responsible for our strategy of Western nation-building and democratization,” she said. “When we take strategic initiatives like this, we are intrinsically fighting to empower women and minorities. And now we just let them go, hoping things will work out. It’s soul crushing. ”
More pressing right now, however, is the emotional pressure of wondering if they’ve done enough.
“Being able to put people on a list and get them out, there’s that guilt that comes with it because you basically choose who lives and who could potentially die. It’s a very heavy feeling.
“My therapist will be working overtime. “