After September 11, young Afghans had a taste of peace. Now, Hadia Essazada is in exile.

When the Taliban fell after 9/11, Afghanistan entered a period of hope. For Essazada, it feels like the Taliban have won again.

Hadia Essazada (Photography by Farrah Skeiky; wall photography: Wasim Mirzaie)

Hadia Essazada (Photography by Farrah Skeiky; wall photography: Wasim Mirzaie)

This profile is part of a series called ‘Living in the Shadow of September 11’, which looks at how the world of five extraordinary people changed, twenty years later.

Two decades ago, when I was five years old in Mazar-e-Sharif, the future was a universe of possibilities for Hadia Essazada. There were no Taliban, apart from the stories he heard from his family. To a child, remember, the dark group of bearded religious extremists didn’t seem real; they were like monsters in a nightmare world that existed in their parents’ imagination.

For her, the world was very different: there was a school to go to and friends to play with, although the landscape around her was still marked by the remnants of war. But that was also changing. The constant roar of construction crews in his city hinted at the smooth roads to come, like glistening rivers running through the gleaming new buildings that seemed to appear every day, almost out of nowhere.

“Childhood was something magical,” recalls Essazada, 25. “I grew up after September 11; I went to school after 9/11; I graduated from college after 9/11. I got a job and started to be active in my society ”.

Essazada belongs to Afghanistan’s post-9/11 generation, a cohort of educated youth who have come of age since the fall of the Taliban regime. It was a period of hope, when tens of thousands of young people returned to school, when money entered the country and new universities were opened; Bright and determined people like Essazada finally had a chance to shine. Today, those same people are fleeing Afghanistan.

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Essazada is particularly vulnerable. After graduating from a private university in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting, she developed a love of debate and in March 2019 was appointed secretary general of Pamir International Model United Nations (PIMUN) in a ceremony at the Embassy of Canada in Kabul. With the help of foreign embassies, including that of Canada, she was elevated as a prominent activist for women’s rights in Afghanistan, traveled Europe with PIMUN, and spoke out against the Taliban on social media.

In November 2020, Essazada began receiving threatening phone calls from a man claiming to be a representative of the Taliban. He told her to put a headscarf on her head and stop speaking out against the group. The pattern was familiar. Essazada had already lost two friends to a series of targeted killings that swept through the activist community. On Christmas Eve last year, he arrived in Washington, traveling on a visa he had received through his work for PIMUN. She traveled to a border crossing between Canada and the United States to meet with two Afghan friends who had told her they would help her apply for asylum in Canada.

Their attempt failed due to the Safe Third Country Agreement. Now in an undisclosed location in the United States, with an ankle bracelet and 24-hour surveillance via his cell phone, Essazada finds himself in the same situation as millions of Afghans during the 1980s and 1980s. 1990: in exile and without knowing what the future holds. History has come full circle. Afghan women savored independence in the 1960s and 1970s before the Soviet invasion pushed them to the margins and the Taliban’s victory in the 1990s pushed them deep into the shadows.

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They fought their way back after the fall of the Taliban regime, but now it feels like the Taliban have won again.

“The war in Afghanistan was always about us,” says Essazada, “of the next generation that would rebuild our country. The United States, Europe, and Canada went there to fight for us. Now the countries of the USA, Europe and Canada are gone. The Taliban are still there and they are killing us. They are silencing us and forcing us to leave the country. So who do you think won this war? “

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