Afghanistan’s two Paralympic athletes have thanked Australia for the role it played in helping them flee the Taliban, allowing them to get to Tokyo in time to realise their Paralympic dreams.
Two weeks ago, it was Zakia Khudadadi’s video plea for help, and an ABC interview with Afghanistan’s London-based chef de mission, Arian Sadiqi, that kick-started a rescue operation that saw around 100 female athletes and their dependants rescued on the final flights out of Kabul airport.
“Our feelings are indescribable,” the Taekwondo athlete told The Ticket.
“I don’t know how to describe my feelings, currently.”
Khudadadi came close to passing out after a frantic 48 hours trying to get through the security gates at Kabul’s international airport, controlled by the British and US forces.
Alongside her teammate, track athlete Hossain Rasouli, the pair showed incredible mental and physical strength to compete at the Games just days later.
“Generally, in life, there are ups and downs in all situations,” Khudadadi said.
“It’s important as a person to try to keep ourselves in the middle.
“We asked for help from women all around the globe — from institutions and countries — which thankfully managed to come together and help us out [and] we managed to get to safety and to where we are now.
“But the facts of what we experienced … the days at the airport, we will never forget that, but generally we are happy.”
‘Very insecure situation with Taliban’
Khudadadi says her parents are proud of her, but even that is tinged with sadness.
“Every parent’s dream is to have talented and skilful children to give back to society.
“They are very happy that we managed to compete at the Paralympics … they feel proud of us but still the fact that they remain there in Afghanistan, in a very insecure situation, given the Taliban has taken over, things will remain uncertain.
Rasouli missed his 100m race but International Paralympic Committee officials organised for him to be included as a late addition to the men’s long jump final.
It was an event he hadn’t competed in before but taking part allowed him to become a Paralympian.
“Since childhood, this was my dream to compete in the Paralympic Games,” he said.
“We had very difficult days and nights spent at the airport. It was a very difficult situation … we were under so much pressure and stress.”
Video spread message and increased hope
“When finally Zakia’s video got spread around the world, when people started sharing and talking about it, our hope increased,” Rasouli said.
“The people heard our voice. [We thought] there is help, there will be help.
“The fact that we are now out of Afghanistan we are very grateful, we are very happy, thanks to you guys.
“My family is very happy, very proud because they worked so hard year after year to get me where I am.
“They see me now compete on the Paralympic stage, it is a very enjoyable moment for them.”
Although Rasouli hopes his family can leave Afghanistan, he says there are others that he thinks about too.
“My family will be happy if they get out but the bigger question is that there are thousands of other Paralympians still in Afghanistan,” he said.
“It’s a dream for them to be in a safe environment too.”
In the confusion of Kabul airport at the time of departure, Khudadadi and Rasouli found themselves on a French aircraft, and it appears they will be processed as refugees in France.
The team’s Chef de Mission, Arian Sadiqi, said in the space of three weeks he had experienced every emotion from hopelessness to exhilaration, confusion and panic to gratefulness.
“Every second of every day I have mixed emotions … this has been definitely a huge, huge, learning experience for me,” he said.
“While I was in London and they were in Afghanistan, I tried desperately to look around to see who could help, how we could get them to safety to compete in Tokyo because this was a dream for them.”
‘No hope’ when Taliban took control
“For me, there was no hope. I was under the impression that the Taliban had taken over, that’s the end of the Games, there are no commercial flights, so I wasn’t thinking of the second step,” Sadiqi said.
“But when Zakia pleaded for help, it crossed my mind if she’s in that desperate situation and is still thinking of getting out, I am in a better position so I should be able to do something.
“But thanks to you … if it wasn’t for your interview, for your connection, the fact you sent me to the right link to the right people … to David, Alison, Nikki, and Kurt … it was such an amazing team.”
The team he refers to is a collection of individuals who combined their skills and contacts to rescue the athletes — David Grevemberg at the Swiss-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and in Australia, Allison Battisson from Human Rights 4 All, and Nikki Dryden an Olympian and human rights lawyer, and Kurt Fearnley, Paralympic wheelchair athlete great.
Confusion at Kabul airport for athletes
The two Paralympic athletes had been abandoned by Afghan Paralympic officials. They found themselves separated from the larger group of athletes being directed through the confusion and towards the right gate for access to the airport.
“My younger brother [Fawad Sadiqi] was at the airport three days before Zakia and Hossain,” Sadiqi said.
“I phoned him and said ‘I need your help’. He said ‘Sorry, if it’s going to the airport, I’m not going to go.'”
He had already spent three nights sleeping at the airport mosque, without food, he was exhausted and drained.
“He said ‘If you promise me one thing I will go … if you tell me my name is also on the Australian list.
“I asked the team if it was possible to add him to the list, they said ‘Sorry, the list was done three days ago.’
“But I lied to my brother. I said ‘Yes, you are on the list, you must go, you are the captain now.’
“Finally, he managed to meet the team and get them to the gate where they should be. But they couldn’t get through. I was telling them to shout, tell them you are on the Australian list, we are Paralympians … Zakia was about to faint.
“They told me they had tried everything, but they weren’t being let in.”
‘Olympic moment’ after calling in favour
Sadiqi said he remembered a message from ‘Anna’ at the British Paralympic Association offering help, so he called her.
“Our athletes are literally behind the gates controlled by the Brits,” he told her.
“She messaged the Secretary-General of GB Paralympics, Mike [Sharrock]. He went to the UK Ambassador, he contacted them directly and that was it.
“There was good news from all sides — from the British, the Australian. Suddenly the gates were open, they were in.
“I started calling on the WhatsApp group … everybody was shouting, celebrating, we were all happy. They got inside the gate … it was confirmed.
“But then after that, the French were there as well, they grabbed them … the rest is another story, I am waiting for another time.”
The temptation is to think it’s a happy ending to an incredible story.
But the reality now that the Games are coming to a close and that part of a fairy tale journey has reached its conclusion, two young Afghans will now begin the challenging process of starting a new life in a foreign country.
They recognise the challenges ahead but are not daunted by them.
“On this journey, we have experienced very bitter days. But the fact we are here now, we are very happy,” Rasouli said.
“We experienced very hard times but, now that we are in safety and security, we do have concerns,” Khudadadi said.
“But over time we will find solutions for those concerns.
“I am very grateful. I’m very thankful to you guys that through social media and news channels you allowed our voices to be heard, to get us where we are.
“We are very thankful and grateful for that.”
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