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Hurt, hope and humanising the Taliban, with former Nobel peace prize nominee, Zhala Sarmast ‘23

Zhala Sarmast is a Physics major from the Class of 2023 at Yale-NUS College. A member of Afghanistan's national cycling team and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she shares about her encounters with the Taliban, her experience with activism in Afghanistan, and where Singapore fits into her plans.

Thank you for taking the time. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

My name is Zhala Sarmast. I was born in Afghanistan a couple of months after the first fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. I lived there until 2016, when I graduated from high school.

Growing up, I have always been involved in social activism, even if not outrightly so. I started working in journalism when I was in the 8th grade, with organizations like the National Radio and Television of Afghanistan, USAID, and now Zawia Media. I also did a lot of sports and music, which was really uncommon in Afghanistan. It became a way for us to fight against conservatism in Afghan society, and was why my cycling team was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2016.

How was your experience growing up in Afghanistan, given the political situation?

Living in Afghanistan has always been precious, even though it is difficult. I still remember when I first started cycling. It was so new for the rest of society. Once, we were physically attacked on our bikes, just because we were female.

But there is a lot of hope. Even with all the internal conflicts and tensions, the people around me have always believed that we need to work hard because we are the ones who will impact Afghanistan’s future. That is one thing I admire about Afghan society.

Can you share your perspective on what has been happening in Afghanistan over the past 6 months?

Since early 2021, there had been talk of the foreign troops leaving. Something similar happened in 2014, when over 100,000 US troops left Afghanistan, and people said the Taliban would seize power again. But that didn’t happen, which was why many of us in Afghanistan didn’t take the rumours [from last year] too seriously.

But in August, the US [actually] pulled out, and we started to see the Taliban take control of different provinces. At first, we assumed that the Afghan military would intervene and take back control.

But the streets of Kabul started to get filled with people who were displaced from the other provinces, living in tents with no food or water. The government wasn’t doing much for them. There was so much chaos. The Taliban would go to the Governors’ office in a province and just have it handed over to them peacefully. That was really shocking and heartbreaking.

I still remember the day, August 15th, when it happened. I was in the office that morning, and I saw one of my colleagues crying while listening to a patriotic song about Afghanistan. We were aware of the risk, but we felt that maybe it wasn’t going to happen. I mean, this was our capital. Everyone was still here. Our CEO, who is the nephew of the National Security Advisor, was still in the country, which made us think that nothing would happen.

But the next day, our CEO suddenly came into the office and said he had an emergency flight out of the country. That was when it clicked for me, and I realised Afghanistan was going to fall to the Taliban. Our families started calling, asking us to return home because the Taliban were now in Kabul. Everyone was on the streets rushing to empty their bank accounts. That moment was so difficult for me as an Afghan.

The Taliban's white flags doting the city following their takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan.

How were you and your family affected by the turn of events?

This is not the first time my family is going through this - my mum has actually gone through this situation a few times. The first time, she was living in another province and they lost 14 family members in one night, including her father, siblings, and cousins. Afghan people are just tired of war. We have been in constant war: with the Russians, the Mujahideen, the US in 2001. History is repeating itself.

After the fall of Afghanistan, my family was terrified, because we knew the Taliban were looking for some of us, because of our standing in society. We tried to leave the country but the whole evacuation process was really messed up. We were on these huge buses for as long as 18 hours, trying to get to the airport. But the Taliban would not allow buses in. We ended up not being able to get out by August 28th, when evacuations ended.

It took one whole generation to educate themselves and actually start to rebuild Afghanistan. And now, that entire generation has gone.

It was very, very dangerous for us to be stuck in Afghanistan. I remember being in Kabul, hearing planes fly past every 15 minutes, thinking about how my family couldn’t escape and the risks we faced. But thinking about people leaving was also deeply discouraging. It took one whole generation to educate themselves and actually start to rebuild Afghanistan. And now, that entire generation is gone. It will take another generation to educate ourselves. And who knows if history will repeat itself a fourth time.

Anyway, my family thankfully managed to resettle in Pakistan, and I came back to Singapore after my sister and I handled all the resettlement issues for my mum and brother, who are now in Germany.

You talked about this being a repeat experience for your mum. How do you think the two of you experienced the past 6 months differently?

I’ve asked her before whether it's easier for her, now because she has experienced this over and over again. But she didn't really want to talk about it - she lost too many people the last time.

I think on some level, we are going through a collective trauma. But we have been so focused on just getting out of Afghanistan. I don’t think we’re close to talking about it as a family.

Afghan refugees stranded at the border with Pakistan. Credit: Zhala Sarmast.

Afghan refugees stranded at the border with Pakistan.

How does being in Singapore affect your ability to process what has happened? Does physical distance help, or does it create cognitive dissonance?

I think it's a little bit of both. As much as I am happy to be in Singapore, I'm also quite worried about being far from home. I fear that it will make it hard for me to understand what's happening on the ground.

There’s so much false information on social media about what’s happening in Afghanistan. When I was back home, I tried raising awareness as much as possible. But now that I'm far away, I'm really worried about what's happening inside the country and being able to represent it fairly.

Honestly, I also think I just haven't processed what has happened.

Honestly, I also think I just haven't processed what has happened.

Earlier, you told me about your interactions with the Taliban. Can you share more about that?

When the country fell, I didn't go out for two weeks because I was scared. I had always seen the Taliban in footages, but never in person. Their appearances alone - the beard, the long hair, the guns and rockets - felt very, very scary. At first, even from 50 meters away, I already felt like I was going to faint.

The first time I left my house, I went out to get coffee with my mom. There was a Talib sitting at the back of his car, and he started shouting at me to cover my face. I had already worn a scarf, my glasses, and a face mask, and I didn’t know what else I could do. I shared that with my mom, but she said she didn’t hear anything. I think she just didn’t want me to be scared.

The second time, we were taking a walk again. There were a couple of Taliban sitting at a nearby coffee shop with their guns. I approached them, because I was curious to speak with them. We pretended to ask where the nearest hospital was, even though we knew the answer.

Their reaction was really surprising. The Taliban seemed happy that people spoke to them normally, treating them like regular human beings.

It made me think about the humanity behind some of the Taliban we see on the street. Over the years, people have shunned them. I know I have shunned and hated them, which is probably understandable.

It made me think about the humanity behind some of the Taliban we see on the street.

But I think it is also important to draw a line between the Taliban leadership and their bigger aims in Afghanistan, and those under them who are being misused. When speaking to the Taliban on the street, you can see how tired they are of war too, and how tired they are of being treated like monsters. I am not speaking about their leaders, and I am not stating that they are good people. After all, they are responsible for the death of my friends and relatives.

All I am trying to say is that everyone is sick and tired of war.

Most of the Taliban on the street are just teenage boys. Some lost family members from the war with the US and joined the Taliban because they wanted revenge. Others are just looking for a job to support their families, except many of them died on the frontlines, before they even received their first salaries. It is important not to generalise.

Is there any part of you that's angry at the Taliban you see on the street?

Of course. They are responsible for the deaths of my loved ones. In 2014, they specifically planned a suicide bombing for my uncle at a concert by the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which he set up.

It is important to acknowledge though, that it is not just the Taliban that I am angry at. I am angry at the international community, part of which deliberately contributed to this mess and let this happen.

I am angry at our own politicians. I am, in fact, angry at so many of my own people for not doing well on an individual level. What happened should not have happened. We should not have had to experience this again. Afghanistan should not have shattered again.

We should not have had to experience this again. Afghanistan should not have shattered again.

That's really powerful to hear, that you can be angry at the forces oppressing your people, while still humanising the Taliban in front of you. Another thing I wanted to discuss is your experience with activism. Can you share more about what you’ve been up to back home?

Just before August 15th, I gave two interviews on what I would do if the Taliban came to power, and published a song, which is something the Taliban are very much against. I’ve also been involved in journalism and activism since I was in the 8th grade.

Since the Taliban took over, things have been very different. I’ve given a few interviews (here and here), but I had to ask my interviewers to blur my face for security reasons. On the whole, it’s been very difficult, especially for women. My mum worked at a news channel but was replaced by a man who didn’t even go to school, simply because she’s a woman.

Afghans stranded in airport buses for up to 18 hours, only to be denied evacuation by the Taliban

Afghans stuck in airport buses for up to 18 hours, only to be denied evacuation by the Taliban.

What have you learnt from your activism over the past 6 months?

That there are different forms of resistance.

There’s armed resistance, which I think is very brave. My friends and I were talking about how we were, in some strange way, amazed but also jealous of the Ukrainians who stuck together to fight for their country with the support of their politicians. We Afghans were not even given the chance to take up guns and resist the Taliban. We were just handed over to them.

This, however, does not exclude the fact that there were many people in charge who had strategic plans to resist the Taliban, but they were ordered to surrender. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but I know that on their own, the Taliban could never take over Afghanistan. They were not able to take control of any province entirely for the past 43 years.

In some strange way, [we were] amazed but also jealous of the Ukrainians who stuck together to fight for their country ... We Afghans were not even given the chance to take up guns and resist the Taliban. We were just handed over to them.

But I learnt there’s also quiet resistance, just by virtue of showing up. I know female journalists who continue to appear on TV channels, no matter how difficult it is. There are women protesting the Taliban's ban on girls’ education. There are women that protest not being able to go to work. There are musicians that make music despite the Taliban’s ban on music. That is very important for young Afghans to see.

On the topic of Ukraine, how does your experience with Afghanistan shape your view towards the situation with Russia?

On a human level, it’s so upsetting to see what’s happening in Ukraine. But I think it’s been especially heartbreaking, because of how much it reminds me of Afghanistan. These past few days, every time I look at news reports and think about people being displaced and how hard it will be to rebuild the country, I just can’t stop crying.

The Taliban has been taking advantage of international attention on Russia as an opportunity to implement more restrictions on people, particularly women. Just a few days ago, the Taliban started going house-to-house, searching for political dissidents to beat up and torture.

I also can’t help but notice the reaction of world leaders. Everyone’s rightfully expressing concern about Ukraine. But a very similar thing just happened to Afghanistan, and there was no reaction. The international community seems to be ready to give political recognition to a terrorist network as long as they abide by certain rules, which the Taliban can do until they get recognised.

Moving forward, how do you imagine your heart for Afghanistan will gel with your commitments in Singapore?

To be honest, I'm constantly thinking about Afghanistan, and it's really, really difficult. I love the work that I do back home, and I hope to continue doing that. In future, I would also love to invest in Afghanistan’s educational sector to help the country slowly rebuild.

Sometimes, I worry about being in Singapore and the Tuition Grant Scheme*, but I recognise that there are a lot of learning opportunities for me here. I also wonder whether I can do more for Afghanistan while I’m here, like organising more university programmes to get Afghans an education in Singapore. But we will see.

READ: Reflections from supporting indigenous-led resistance movements by Kei Franklin ('17)

Before we end, do you have any resources you’d like to recommend?

The first is called The Lightless Sky, by a friend of mine called Gulwali Passarlay. It’s his story of forced migration from Afghanistan. The second is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The books show that history is simply repeating itself with Afghanistan, and make you wonder when will we finally break that cycle.

The books show that history is simply repeating itself with Afghanistan, and make you wonder when will we finally break that cycle.

Any final message to our audience?

I want to shout out to Bard College Berlin, which helped my mum and brother settle down in Germany. And also the staff at Yale-NUS, including Dean of Students Dave Stanfield and Assistant Dean May-yi, who were so helpful in getting me back to Singapore. Thank you for everything!

(As heard after the interview - “The news of Yale-NUS’ closure came the week after Afghanistan fell. I was like, “cool, my country is falling apart, and now my school is also falling apart”.”)

All images and videos are provided by Zhala Sarmast.

* The Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS) is a government scheme where international students pay discounted tuition fees for a 3-year work obligation in a Singapore entity.

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