By Harihar Swarup
Salima Mazari — one of three women district governors in Afghanistan — barely survived the brutal Taliban takeover. She opened up from an American base about her escape, on why she despises the Taliban and the challenges she faced in her life and career.
Comfort zones had never held back Mazari, who overcame odds to become governor of Charkint, a district of 32,306 people, in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Charkint’s population used to be two Lakh strong; most people fled the enduring conflict and subsequent poverty.
Mazari also headed the pro-government militia in Charkint. But strangely, her name figured prominently on the hit list of Taliban. Her escape has been indeed daring. She had somehow reached Kabul, after Taliban overran Charkint. “Her life is in danger. She has to leave soon”, said a man, who appeared to be her interpreter.
A few weeks later, 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 said. 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 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. She reportedly said Iranians never issued proper documents, which eventually hampered her academic pursuit. “Iran never recognized us. We were homeless and helpless”, said Mazari. But she persevered and graduated in sociology from the University of Tehran.
After Mazari 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 the three-stage examination, finishing first among 25 candidates who had applied for the governorship of Charkint. 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.
Mazari is a Hazra, a Persian speaking minority ethnic minority from Hazatrajat highlands of central Afghanistan. Hazaras have always faced ethnic attacks. Under Taliban, 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.
Unfortunately, her key cities and towns around Charkint fell to Taliban rapidly. Besieged, Mazari sent out 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”.
She boarded an evacuation flight. Mazari slipped through Taliban checkpoints along with a large group of women, all wearing burqas. She finally reached Kabul.
As all options to leave Kabul appeared remote, help came unexpectedly. She and her supporters were told that a chopper was arranged as it would be impossible to travel by car due to Taliban checkpoints. The Mazaris reached the airport safely and flew out to US next day. Today Mazari is safe but one can detect a tinge of sadness in her voice. (IPA Service)