Exiled activist says that disabled Afghans are at grave risk under Taliban rule

After fleeing Afghanistan, Benasfha Yaqubi spoke with Insider from London.
She was hiding for over a week.

Yaqubi warned that Taliban would not consider the lives of disabled Afgans, and could target activists.

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Benasfha Yaqubi was a blind commissioner for the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and was concerned that she would be arrested by the Taliban for her advocacy of the rights of the disabled and women.

She fled Kabul to escape her home, which was also the headquarters of an organization she runs to help Afghans. She spent 10 days hiding in Kabul before finally arriving in London.

She is now pleading with the Taliban government and Western governments for the care and safety of the Afghan disabled.

"This is my biggest concern: How can we work with those people?" In an interview with Insider over Zoom, she spoke from her London hotel room. "I'm not calm, my emotions are not in control, and my friends make me feel sick. This is not the time to talk about philosophy or slogans. This is the right time to talk about action.

According to Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan has the highest rate of disability worldwide. More than a million Afghans have suffered physical injuries over the past two decades of conflict. Many others suffer from mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled the country. They are also remembered for their inhumane treatment of civilians and their draconian, zero tolerance approach to women's rights and homosexuality.

Benasfha Yaqubi served as a commissioner for the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission. This article was published with permission

Yaqubi is concerned that Afghanistan's handicapped population may be subject to brutal treatment and make difficult choices regarding how they will survive.

The Taliban used Afghans who were disabled to terrorize the country in the 2000s and 2010. They strapped bombs to their chests before sending them off to die. One Afghan doctor who performed post-mortems of suicide bombers under allied control found that 4/5 bombers had been disabled.

One prominent campaigner was hit with a grenade in their yard on the day that the Taliban took Kabul. The United States International Council on Disabilities warned that 50 disability rights activists were at risk of being retaliated against for their advocacy.

Yaqubi said, "It's more than just because of Taliban." It's because the country has entered crisis. This crisis came so quickly. We were not prepared for this type of crisis in the UK, USA, or with our partners.

"Afghans today are poor." She said that they are losing their homes, their jobs and their lives. They are being displaced. This is the biggest problem. This is a problem for widows and people with disabilities."

The OWindow of HopeO orphanage has children with special needs who help to paint the rooms at the school's new building in 2020. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Programs to assist disabled Afghans could be ended by the Taliban's arrival. The U.S. has invested nearly $130 billion in Afghanistan's security, civil and humanitarian aid, including $787 million for Afghan girls and women. It is unclear how much aid will be sent to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or what humanitarian programs they will accept.

"Not the time to make slogans"

Yaqubi was born and raised in Afghanistan. She fled to Iran 13 years later when the Taliban took control of the country. Before being named a human rights commissar in 2019, she worked at the Afghan attorney general's Office. Yaqubi was a prisoner and advocated for Taliban fighters to be able to access education, food, and lawyers. She said, "Many of these people know me and send me messages."

Yaqubi addressed directly the Taliban. "Please help those with disabilities. Please support women. She asked for widows' assistance. "And I ask the Taliban to let people with disabilities leave the country if they want," she said.

Yaqubi is concerned that people will make drastic decisions about the future as they become more desperate. This could have a disproportionate impact on the disabled. According to the European Parliament, the proportion of Afghans living with severe disabilities grew from 2.7% in 2005 up to 13.9% in 2019.

She worries about vulnerable adults and children who are dependent on their families for help.

Yaqubi, who is better than most due to her disabilities and those of Mehdi, her husband who was born in Iran, fears that discrimination against people with disabilities in Iran and across the region will rise in the weeks and months ahead, putting at risk millions.

She said, "Think of a family with 10 kids, one or two disabled." What will they do? They might prefer to feed their children who are not disabled, and they may be more inclined to bring non-disabled kids with them to wherever they go.

In 2020, women take part in a wheelchair basketball match at Herat, Afghanistan. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

She is also thinking about disabled widows, as well as widows without an adult male partner. Under Taliban rules, where women must move with male escorts, they might become "functionally disabled" which could make it impossible for them to earn money.

"The women do not have husbands. They have very small children. They don't have any man. They don't have anyone outside to follow them. What can they do? They are functionally disabled. They are unable to go to work. Yaqubi said that they will miss their income.

According to the Associated Press, more than 113,000 Afghan civilians, military and police officers, and 51,000 Taliban were killed in the 20-year conflict.

The migr refused the US and UK for their speedy departures and the chaos they caused.

She told Insider that she doesn't have the time to blame anyone. "It's not the time for me talk philosophy. I'm not going to make slogans. Now is the time for action, not blame.

"This is one dream"

It was hard to believe that the Taliban had taken Kabul so fast it took almost everyone by surprise. She said, "I went and did some work, then I saw that the face of our town was changed." "All people were afraid. All people were confused.

Yaqubi's assistant visited her home on August 15 and advised her to leave. Her house was well-known for being the headquarters of a support group she ran in Kabul. They then traveled to safe houses before they attempted to travel to Kabul airport, following the advice from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.

She said, "I was well-known and a human rights activist." "Only one person was a commissioner in our commission who was disabled. It was me. Perhaps the Taliban would attack me. They might, although I don't think so. I was concerned. I was afraid of everything."

Yaqubi and her husband failed several times to pass the checkpoints at the airport. Mehdi, Yaqubi's assistant were beaten by Taliban guards.

On Aug. 27, 2021, a US Air Force aircraft took off from Kabul's military airport. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

She said, "The really terrible memory I have in [my mind], every night I have dreams about it," "Once they said, 'Come forward. Come forward', then the people on the edge moved forward and were beat. To disperse the crowds, gunfire rang through the air. "I was afraid because I have complete visual impairment. She said that she didn't know where the firing was taking place.

The second attempt proved equally futile, and the third failed, even with letters from both U.K. and Danish governments. Yaqubi and her husband were able to get through Senator Merkley to the Danish government. They camped out near the airport between 9pm and 3am on August 24, where they were picked up by the Danes and taken to their plane.

Yaqubi still hears the echoes of her Kabul memories. She said, "The firing was the only thing I can remember." There was screaming, screaming, and firing. What I can remember most clearly are the people who were unsure of where to go or what to do. They lost their jobs, their homes, and their freedom. They lost everything.

Within 24 hours, at least 182 people were killed in a suicide attack at the airport.

Yaqubi is currently in the UK and hopes to arrange a meeting between Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary, to discuss ways to help Afghanistan's disabled population via her organization, Strong International.

She knows she is one of the fortunate ones. There are many others fighting for disability rights, including her compatriots. She said that she didn't want to think about what would happen if there was no help. "It will kill me." All my hopes and dreams were crushed. Now I have nothing. Now, I have one goal: to help my people.