Fatima Ahmadi only stopped screaming when the Taliban held a knife to her child’s throat, and told her: “Shut up, or we will kill your son.” They had burst into the policewoman’s Kabul home one late September morning, demanding she hand over her weapons. She told the Taliban she had no guns at home, but they said she was lying, ransacked the house, then began beating her, pulling out handfuls of hair, and when she would not stop shouting, they grabbed her nine-year-old son.
The knife was pressed so violently into his throat it left a red welt, visible in photographs seen by the Observer. Ahmadi’s back was covered with bruising from an assault so vicious that she lost control of her bodily functions. The men eventually left, but with an ominous warning. “We will come back.”
A divorced single mother of two young children, Ahmadi had no idea who gave the Taliban her address, or what they might do on a return visit, but she knew the family couldn’t risk waiting to find out. There have been several murders of female police officers since the hardline group took control of Afghanistan, including a vicious attack on one woman who was eight months pregnant.
So she packed her bags, went into hiding and days later managed to flee with her two boys to Pakistan. But their visa is only valid for 60 days and she is terrified about what will come next; Pakistani authorities are deporting Afghans without documents.
“When I arrived, I slept for three nights and days, because I hadn’t been sleeping for weeks, but now I am worried again. And Mirwais, my son who had the dagger put to his throat by the Taliban, he wakes up screaming in the night,” she told the Observer.
She has tried to apply for refugee status in Pakistan through the United Nations, but has had no response yet. Asylum applications to western countries that sponsored police training, and encouraged women to join the force, have met with silence, despite the documented evidence of threats to her and her children’s lives. “I don’t care about myself, I am already done. All I think about is a future for my children, somewhere peaceful where they can study,” she said. “I don’t want their lives to be like mine.”
With the frantic evacuations that followed the fall of Kabul long finished, the risks to Afghans who fear for their lives under the Taliban are fading from the headlines.
But there are regular reports of reprisal killings, despite an official amnesty for anyone who worked in the security forces or for the last government. Thousands of people are still in hiding inside Afghanistan and thousands more like Ahmadi are clinging to precarious safety in neighbouring countries.
“There is a group of people we have heard less about in recent months, who have made it out of Afghanistan but not been able to reach anywhere that is safe for them and can be a new home,” said Heather Barr, associate director for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
They have no legal status as refugees in the countries to which they have temporarily escaped, and live in permanent fear of deportation back to Afghanistan. Both Iran and Pakistan, which have taken in millions of Afghans over decades of war in the country, have said they will not accept another wave of refugees.
“There are a lot of people out there who are in this kind of limbo like Fatima Ahmadi. They are really stuck and have claims to needing asylum in some of the countries that contributed troops to the Afghan mission, just as much as those who were evacuated, or those still trying to escape Afghanistan,” says Barr.
Ahmadi does not know why she was targeted on that afternoon in Kabul, but her life was a template for the opportunities the west claimed to offer Afghan women, and her courage and achievements represent everything Taliban authorities hate.
She was forced to marry an abusive, drug-addicted husband when she was just 12, and he beat her so badly she has been left with a permanent limp and memory problems.
She was astonished and delighted when a decade ago, desperate for money and unable to work himself, he pushed her to join the police force. She loved her job and it eventually gave her the confidence and money to get a divorce.
“I had always admired the police cars, the guns, so I was very excited and grabbed the opportunity. It was my dream to work as a policewoman,” she said. “It changed my life.”
In 2020, confident that Afghanistan was changing, she went public with accusations of sexual harassment inside the police and the interior ministry. One of the men she says targeted her was a deputy minister.
She put out a video of herself burning her ID documents in protest, but her public stance unleashed a torrent of online abuse and three physical attacks, on the street and at her own home, that forced her into temporary exile.
Her own family refused to help her because they said allegations that she had to fend off lecherous bosses brought shame on them. After the publicity and fury died down, she came back to Afghanistan, and begged for her job back. “I got back my confidence when I was working again,” she said. But 10 days later, the Taliban swept into Kabul.
“On the first day I went to work, but I was told to empty my office and go home. I felt destroyed, because I knew the Taliban wouldn’t allow women to work, and I was thinking about how I would feed the children.”
She also worried that her husband might go to the Taliban and demand custody of their boys. Then the bodies of former policewomen started turning up around the country and she realised that the threats were even more serious.
There was a long list of people who might wish her dead, from the criminals she had helped bring to justice, to former colleagues, perhaps even her own relatives and of course the Taliban, whose vicious attack finally pushed her into exile.
“Until the flight took off, I kept thinking that the Taliban were going to stop me, take me off. I thought next time they come it will be to kill me, and I was so very scared they will get me in the airport.”
Now she lives in fear of being sent back, but can only wait to see if the countries that claimed they went to Afghanistan to help its women, and urged them to sign up for the police force, will give her refuge.
“I can’t make any plans,” she said. “Nothing is in my hands.”