On the streets of Kabul, advertisements depicting the faces of women are spray painted over. In a fitting metaphor for the regression of the gains made in the last 20 years, it took only days for years of progress to unravel following the withdrawal of American operations on August 31st and the Taliban’s sweeping takeover. In the following interview, NATO Association of Canada Junior Research Fellow Brynn Hopper sat down with Sally Armstrong to discuss the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, its implications for women’s rights, and the international security threat it poses.
An award-winning author, journalist and human rights activist, Sally Armstrong was the 2019 Massey Lecturer. She has covered stories in zones of conflict all over the world. From Bosnia and Somalia to Congo and Afghanistan, her eyewitness reports have earned her the Amnesty International Media Award four times over. She holds ten honorary doctorate degrees, is a former member of the International Women’s Commission at the UN and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Armstrong was the first journalist to bring the story of the women of Afghanistan to the world and is relentless when it comes to exposing the abuse of women.
BH: What types of messages have you received from your Afghan contacts? Could you paint a picture of the situation on the ground right now?
SA: I am overwhelmed with email messages, with Whatsapp messages, and Messenger messages from hundreds of people who are begging me to help them get out of Afghanistan. I think every single person who ever translated for me, or drove me, or was interviewed by me has tried to be in touch. And my heart absolutely aches for them, and I’m doing everything I possibly can to get them out. A few have arrived here by now, and they have to go through two weeks of quarantine and then you need to get them resettled. They need to have an apartment, furniture, a job, and know how our system works. So, I am just consumed with this catastrophe.
My Whatsapp and Messenger are also being flooded with videos of the hideous things the Taliban are doing to the women and to the men. It’s torture. They are torturing people. And we’ve always known this is what the Taliban were about. I mean, they sell themselves as acting in the name of God, but in fact, what they’ve done is they’ve hijacked their religion for political opportunism. They are a disgrace to civilization. And yet, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, negotiated with these people.
The other things I can tell you that are happening on the ground are, as the Taliban arrived, village after village in their march toward Kabul, they would walk into the village and demand a list of girls over the age of 15 and all widows under the age of 44. These women were to be rounded up and given to their fighters because every fighter deserves, or has a right to four women. This is what these people are doing in the name of God. The atrocities are awful and on top of that, we have evidence that they are going door to door trying to find the people that either helped the West or promoted human rights or were against the Taliban and they’re executing them.
BH: Do you believe the pleas of Afghanistan’s women and girls are being heard by the Canadian government and our international allies?
SA: Well of course they’re being heard but the disgraceful part is that the whole world, not just the UN, and NATO, and the Americans, and the international community. The whole world knew this was going to happen. A year ago in May, a very senior person in the UN told me this was going to happen and I think they had some delusion that the Taliban had moderated. There is no evidence anywhere that the Taliban have ever considered moderating. In every meeting they held in Qatar, they said “we will rule according to Sharia law”. The truth is, Sharia law is already the law code of Afghanistan. But, when asked how they would interpret Sharia, they would never answer the question. So, everybody knew what was coming and by taking the action they took, which was to leave or ignore the consequences, it says to me that the fate of women and girls in the country was not high on anybody’s list, no matter what they’re saying today.
BH: Can you speak to your experience navigating the Canadian immigration system for your Afghan contacts? What shortcomings have arisen from your experience?
SA: You know Brynn, I am not one who likes to criticize my government. I think governing is a hard job and they’re in the business of trying to please most of the people all of the time and that’s very tough to do. But what happened here was a neglect of duty. What happened here was a misunderstanding of the facts. And what happened here was a failure to serve. I am appalled that my government, not only made a mistake to start with but they didn’t fix their mistake quickly. In fact, they haven’t fixed it yet.
Do you know that when this began, the first message that went from the government was “We will take in those who served our embassy and our military”. Couple of days later, they said “We will also take in those who work for any organization that was funded by Canada”. A couple of days after that, they said “And we will take in those who are vulnerable; the women, the human rights workers, the LGBTQ community”. Then the form went out, that these desperate, terrified people, who by now are on the run, were supposed to fill out. First thing the form said is you have three days to get this in. If you don’t get it back in three days, we will assume you don’t want to take advantage of this offer. Can you imagine? Who was it sitting up there in Ottawa that thought that a person being chased down as a target was able to comply? It wouldn’t matter if it was three days to them. I thought it was an extraordinary demand. So, a few days after that they went through that demand. But they kept the demand that you had to have a passport. Afghans don’t carry passports. They carry a Tazkira. Canada has been in Afghanistan for twenty years and didn’t know that? How could they have done that? And the consequence of that Brynn, is they lost a whole week of getting people out through the airport. An entire week.
I can tell you to my tremendous disappointment that in the Globe and Mail one day, I was quoted as saying “The government should have known that Afghans don’t have passports”. And the very next day, the Prime Minister said “People are blaming it on paperwork. It’s not about paperwork. It’s about danger at the airport”. By that day, the danger at the airport hadn’t started but they had lost an entire week. I don’t know why people don’t stand up and say we made a mistake but we’re trying to fix it. But, nobody did that, even today. Today, I’ve gotten 10 messages from 10 different people in Afghanistan saying “finally we heard back from the government after 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks and we have a number but we don’t have an exit visa and we don’t know when we’re going to hear from them. We’re in a safehouse and we dare not go outside. What should we do?”
They’re (Canadian Immigration Department) beginning to right the wrongs. But they’re not righting them nearly quick enough. You get mixed messages. You get wrong papers. One of my fixers who I worked with, is very very hard to get him out- as he definitely is a target. He has a wife and four children and three sisters he is responsible for. So he goes through all the paperwork, the three-day deadline, the no passport, all that agony and finally he hears from the government saying you’re approved, we’ll send you exit visas. Who do they send the exit visas to? His three sisters? Well, they send them to him. He’s the target. He’s got four little kids and a wife. Of course, he couldn’t leave without his sisters. So finally, he called a British reporter he had been a fixer for. And she turned it around for him in 12 hours and got on a British escape plane. But now he’s in the UK and he’s writing to me saying how do I get to Canada. The moment he landed in the UK and opened up his phone, all the visas for Canada were there on his phone. I mean how does this happen? This is not a matter of being sloppy and fixing it later. These are people’s lives at risk. So, I’m very disappointed that my government did not see fit to do a better job of this. They knew as well as everybody else that this was going to happen. Why did we not act? And when it was an emergency why didn’t we have the tools to act immediately. So, I’m very disappointed.
BH: What does the future look like for Afghanistan in terms of peace, stability, and women’s rights?
SA: Well, that’s a really really long answer. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think the Taliban are not sustainable as a government. They have no idea how to govern. They know how to beat people, they know how to torture people, frighten people, make demands of people. They don’t know how to govern. They were in power for five years and not a single road was fixed in a country that had now gone through seven years of civil war. The place was a wreck. They repaired nothing. Neighbourhoods were turned into rubble. They rebuilt nothing. They did absolutely nothing except beat people up and go around threatening people and ruining their own economy. So why do we think they can govern today? And look who they’ve put in place to govern. They’re all from back in 1996. The same gang of thugs. They’re all old men who have this misunderstood knowledge of their religion. They are all into misogyny and hatred. And on top of that, many of them are on an FBI list of terrorists. Many came from Guantanamo prison. Many are cited around the world as unacceptable to civilization. None of them are outside of the Taliban hold. There are no women. There are no people from other tribes in Afghanistan. There are no reformers of course. There’s no one from the past government in other words. There’s no one to tell them how to do it. So how are they going to manage?
And on top of that you have a perfect storm in Afghanistan going on. There’s a terrible drought. The pandemic, with Covid-19, is out of control. They don’t have what they need to tame that. And now they have a government of a bunch of thugs who are into hatred and misogyny rather than governing. And I think it’s already more than 50% of the country dependent on humanitarian aid. So, what’s going to happen? How do you fix that? Do you promise the Taliban food for safe passage for those who need to get out? You know very well that food will never get to the people who need it. And they’ll never get safe passage anyway. They can’t be trusted. Yet if you ignore them, most countries have now frozen their aid to Afghanistan if that continues. You know very well who gets hurt. It’s the people. So, it’s a very tough situation and I believe it’s not sustainable. So, what do I believe will happen? Well, I don’t know if I should say this out loud, I believe, between the Taliban and ISIS, there’s going to be one God awful terrorist attack. And I believe the international community is going to end up back in Afghanistan.
BH: What can you tell me about lifeline Afghanistan? What can the Canadian public do to help in this dire situation?
SA: You know in the face of such horror Brynn, I was astonished to see invariably you know, goodness surfaces in the worst moment and my email was also stuffed with these heroes from all over the place, all over Canada, and around the world people were saying we’ve got to take action, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that, and I was hearing from Bob Boson who was a folk singer in the 60s. He lived out on an island on the west coast of Canada. And he wrote and said, send me two. I can take care of two Afghans. Louise Penny, the brilliant author from Quebec, she wrote to say what can I do, tell me how I can help. And in between was Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and the Afghan Women’s organization and Amnesty and all the big organizations as well as journalists like Wendy Mesley, Anna Maria Tremonti, and journalists for human rights led by Rachael Pulfer, all these people came together with their skills and said what do we do?
And we decided we needed to make a website, its www.lifelineafghanistan.ca. And I’m so knocked out by the ability of people with good sense and a lot of talent and a commitment to justice could put this together as quickly as they did. Wendy Cukier and Ratna Omidvar are the ones who did the Syrian lifeline and they knocked this together. I bet you 1000 emails were exchanged in a matter of a few days. Lifeline Afghanistan will tell you first of all, what’s going on which is valuable. It will tell you how you can help if you want to put up support for a family. It will tell you where to donate. There are two goals here. One is evacuation and the other one is re-settlement. And the evacuation file is tricky because the government has to be in charge of that and so all these activists are pushing the government to convince surrounding countries, for example, Pakistan, Iran to take these Afghans who have the Canada exit visas into their countries. Those countries don’t want more refugees, so they’re turning people back, but if our government makes a deal with them to say well get them out of there in 30 days, then they’ll take them. So were working on all of these files all at the same time. And Lisa Laflamme from CTV is doing incredible work. So is Mark MacKinnon from the Globe and Mail and many others. In the face of such a terrible storm, to see this form of shelter coming along by way of journalists and humanitarians and human rights activists, I was really knocked out.
BH: Any further remarks you’d like to mention before we close the interview? SA: Well, there is. You know, what happened in Afghanistan is terrible, but in many ways, Afghanistan was the petri dish for intervention in conflict. We’ve been doing this for decades and in Afghanistan, we accomplished an immense amount. People are calling it a failure. Moving the life expectancy from 47 years to 63 years is a miracle. It’s not a failure. And cutting maternal mortality rates by 50% is another miracle. It’s not a failure. But the way it turns out, all though we made all those changes for the people, we could not come together and make changes for the level of government and the way people are governed. But if you look back, I’ve been covering war for 35 years. I cannot point to a country that is better off because of our intervention. Their war might have stopped, but are they better off? Look at Somalia. Look at Iraq. Look at South Sudan. Look at Afghanistan. We have to also come together and say what does it take? What do we need to do in order to make a difference? Because trillions of dollars and all that blood and treasure is not getting the result we wanted as an international community.