Shima Forugh* was in 10th grade at school when she decided she would join the Afghan army. It had been taboo in Afghanistan’s patriarchal society for women to join the military, but hundreds of women like Forugh broke through this restriction.

When she was 21, she joined the 207th Zafar army corps in Herat. Her father, who was also a member of the Afghan army, and mother both supported her decision to sign up.

Forugh was in military training when her father was killed in 2017 by a Taliban explosive device on his way to Helmand province. She had to take care of her two sisters, brother and mother.

She never imagined that the Taliban would one day regain power in Afghanistan. Its forces took control of the capital, Kabul, on 15 August 2021, and Forugh was on a fortnight’s leave when it was reported that Herat province had fallen.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban supreme leader, announced a general amnesty after the takeover, but, according to Forugh, those who worked in the former military forces were not included. In the first days of Taliban rule, Alia Azizi, former head of the women’s prison in Herat province, disappeared after she was called to the office by the authorities.

An investigation by the New York Times reported that in the first six months of Taliban rule, about 500 soldiers and government employees of the previous Afghan regime were killed by the Taliban.

“Even those who surrendered were shot dead or followed,” says Forugh. “When the Taliban tried to go door to door, I burned my documents. I left the house and was hiding.”

Female Afghan soldiers on a military exercise on the outskirts of Kabul in 2017.
Female Afghan soldiers on a military exercise on the outskirts of Kabul in 2017. Many of them are still being hunted down by the Taliban. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

She has not been able to travel freely or support her family since. “In these two years, I have spent every moment in secret and in fear of death. With the Taliban imposing restrictions on women’s lives, our economic situation has worsened.”

Forugh describes her life under the shadow of Taliban rule as “gradual death and captivity”, and says she is staying at home like a prisoner. Only her mother is able to work. “Truthfully, I am very tired. If suicide were right, I would end this miserable life.”

Due to her fear of arrest, she has no contact with her former colleagues inside Afghanistan but says a number of those who have fled to neighbouring countries have experienced mental illness.

About 4,000 women worked in the Afghan military system, according to data collated by the previous government of Afghanistan. Now, some are forced to beg for a living.

Fatima* is the only breadwinner of her family of six. She worked as a female police officer in a prison for 10 years until Taliban rule left her homebound and without income.

She moved out of the city with her four children and husband and lived secretly in a relative’s house. Her only concern at that time was safety because she had money saved for at least a few months. But after a year, her savings ran out, and she had to return with her family to the city so that her husband could work as a labourer.

“We were afraid that if the Taliban found our place, they would torture and kill us. We live with trembling fear. We don’t sleep well. If I go somewhere, I wear a burqa so as not to be recognised.”

An Afghan woman walks among Taliban soldiers at a checkpoint in central Kabul, July 2023.
Taliban soldiers man a checkpoint in central Kabul, July 2023. Fatima* says she wears a burqa if she goes out to avoid being recognised. Photograph: Ali Khara/Reuters

Her husband earns the equivalent of less than £1 day. This buys the family dry bread, but one of the children has malnutrition, and there is not enough to pay for treatment.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 28.8 million people in Afghanistan need humanitarian aid.

Fatima has been forced to send two of her children – her 14-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter – to her brother-in-law who lives in another province where he can enrol them with a local charity.

“I miss my children very much, especially my daughter, who is so young,” she says. “Sometimes, when I feel bad, I make a video call to their uncle and talk to them.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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