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The scene at Kabul airport's east gate on 25 August 2021
The scene at Kabul airport's east gate on 25 August 2021

There was a lot of chaos at the airport. People panicked amid gunfire. Fati was one of thousands of people trying to escape the Taliban.

Growing up in Afghanistan, Fati was exposed to a lot of TV series and films. The identity of her family is protected.

Fati and her international team-mates were forced to leave their homeland after the Taliban took control of her country.

They had played football together for many years, representing Afghanistan's opportunity and freedom for women. The Taliban's previous rule was marked by public executions and stifled liberty.

Fati didn't think the Taliban's return would be possible. She soon felt a sense of dread. She needed to leave.

She accepts that Afghanistan is over.

I didn't think there was a chance for me to live or fight for my rights. There was no school, media, athletes or anything else. In our homes, we were dead.

I didn't sleep for a couple of weeks. I was on my phone for 24 hours trying to find someone to talk to.

Fati and her teammates were able to get out. They were helped by a network of women.

The story of their escape is told in this one.

It begins in Houston, Texas, where a former marine was planning to leave the country.

Short presentational grey line

Haley Carter said that it was like a virtual operation center. The power of women with phones is never underestimated.

Carter was a goalie as well. She moved into coaching after three seasons with the Houston Dash in the NWSL. She was Afghanistan's assistant coach for two years.

The American may have been thousands of miles away, but she was sharing intel about the rapidly changing situation in Kabul with marines and National Security staff. The operation was called a "Digital Dunkirk".

It wouldn't be shared in a combat environment. Carter says that this was an evacuated area.

I didn't think it could be done. It wasn't normal. Looking back on it, it was crazy.

How it happened: The Taliban advance

Khalida Popal, a former captain of Afghanistan's national team, enlisted Carter to help her.

Popal and her friends used to play matches in total silence to keep the Taliban from hearing them. She left Afghanistan in order to escape death threats over her involvement in the game.

It was time that mattered the most. Fati and her teammates were vulnerable to Taliban investigations because of their sporting exploits. The soldiers were going door to door. Female athletes hid in Kabul. They were afraid for their lives.

She told Fati and the other players to destroy their equipment.

Fati says that it was difficult because it was their accomplishments. Who would want to burn their jerseys? I thought I would make the achievements again if I survived.

Carter was working on a plan to get them out of the country at the earliest chance. The security situation in the Afghan capital was only going to get worse. The US and British governments mishandled the situation. The Taliban had set up a checkpoint.

"Khalida told us to be prepared to leave for the airport with just one backpack each," says Fati.

She said that they were not sure if you would go inside the airport. If you fight, you will live.

Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal
Ex-Afghanistan captain Khalida Popal also played a key role in helping the players

Fati wrote Carter's phone number on her arm if her phone was taken. Carter told Fati that the players should switch on their phones to conserve battery life.

Fati was told to carry as little as she could. She was covering her face with robes. The journey to the airport was fraught with dangers that could stop the players.

Popal had told him to pack just in case. Fati took more than one item, even though it was a big risk.

She said she had one of the shorts. I wore it like underwear, and I was afraid of that.

At the airport, the situation was desperate. Some of the people at the gathering had traveled from far away.

People were squeezing each other and trying to get inside as quickly as possible.

It was a decision of life and death. Everyone was trying to stay alive.

The scramble was pointless for most of the people.

Carter says that if your name wasn't on a list, you wouldn't get in.

We had to make sure that the marines at the gates had the information they needed to get in.

Carter said there would be a guy at the north gate.

She said that you should write a password when you are there. There will be no questions for him, and you will be inside.

The name of World War Two marine hero John Basilone was used as the password, along with the date the marine corps was founded.

Carter was told that the marines would be looking for that. A marine told her to write that sign.

Fati and her group were turned away. The message was not getting through.

The soldier rejected the code I tried to show him. What are you? Fati said it.

If you have a US passport, we will allow you in.

Carter had to make a change in Houston.

She says that her heart did not sink because she was in operational mode.

Give me some time so I can tell the people on the gate that you're coming.

I believe she was stressed. If I am stressed, that will convey to her.

The players could only wait.

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There was no air because of the heat. The children around us were crying and screaming, "let's go home, we don't want to die" They screamed whenever they heard the gunfire.

There were a lot of eyes looking at me.

Fati and the players were going to try again at the south gate. Two Taliban checkpoint were in the way of the road.

She was separated from her brother at the beginning. She was attacked by the men with rifles at the second.

She felt like it was over with the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She didn't feel like fighting anymore.

She remembered the message Popal had sent her.

Fati says that it was a thing that lit up the dark room. I was told to get back up and start again. There's always an open door, that's a lesson I will keep in my life.

The players went back to work. Suddenly, taking advantage of a distraction that distracted the Taliban guards, they made a dash for the Australian soldiers just past the airport's southern entrance.

Fati says that they got past the last checkpoint. The soldiers shouted phrases like 'national team players' and 'Australia'.

They looked at our documents and allowed us to go.

An air crew prepares to load evacuees at Kabul airport in August 2021
An air crew prepares to load evacuees at Kabul airport in August 2021

Fati sent a photo and message to Carter when she and her teammates boarded a plane for Australia. I was able to make it. We were able to make it.

The girls were hosted in the cargo area of the C-130 in order to sleep on each other's shoulders.

There were no final glances through the window at the place that had been home.

There was a lot of noise and fear when the plane took off. There were scared faces as Fati looked around.

I was wondering if you would ever be able to see the place where you made memories. It is your final time.

Short presentational grey line

Afghanistan's women were beaten 13-0 by Nepal in their first official match.

Regardless of the score, a momentum was established that could only flourish in the relative freedom of Afghanistan.

Fati says that they were a voice for those who weren't heard.

My dad changed his mindset because of it. He was the same man who thought that sport was bad for women.

People thought we were just having fun. They didn't know that it wasn't just fun. It was about the rights of the people.

The national team was about all the women who weren't seen.

Despite being too dangerous for either of their coaches to travel to Afghanistan, the team was able to reach the verge of the world's top 100 despite never having qualified for a major tournament.

Haley Carter, pictured in 2016 playing for Houston Dash
Carter, pictured in 2016 playing for Houston Dash

Female Afghan football players were involved in an under-20 tournament in Tajikistan in June 2021.

The Taliban returned two months later.

Fati and her teammates trained together for the first time in February after the Victory provided facilities and coaches.

Fati said the feeling was amazing.

I thought that there was a new hope for my team-mates.

I've kept those smiles in my mind. I thought I'm doing well. We are not going to be left behind.

They passed a new milestone in April. They played their first match since fleeing Afghanistan and drew with a non-league team.

The Afghan kit bore no names, only numbers on the back of the jerseys, a reminder that while they are safe, their relatives are still at risk of being identified and retaliated against.

The future doesn't look good. They will need the support of the Afghan Football Association and the approval of the Taliban to compete internationally.

China won the women's Asian Cup in February after the team was pulled from qualification.

The situation in Afghanistan is not stable. It is committed to growing the game and still in contact with the AFA. It was not clear if Fati and her teammates would be able to represent their country again.

The men's team did not qualify for the Asian Cup. The AFA president did not respond to the interview request.

Fati is still determined.

The Afghanistan women's national team playing a non-official match in Australia
The Afghanistan women's national team playing a non-official match in Australia

She is concerned about the title of the Afghanistan national team.

It doesn't matter if the AFA don't have a national team. They have each other. We will play with each other. No one can change who we are.

We want to make the national teams of Australia or the country that we are in. We are still Afghans and we will be the representatives of our country.

Carter traveled to Australia to meet Fati.

An American says that she is an incredible young woman.

Fati was the leader of the group of young women. They have shown resilience and courage over the course of a year.

They are my heroes.