- Benasfha Yaqubi spoke to Insider from London after escaping Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover.
- She was in hiding for more than a week.
- Yaqubi warned that the Taliban will have no regard for their lives of disabled Afgans and may target activists.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul, Benasfha Yaqubi, a blind commissioner with the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission (AHRC), feared she would be rounded up by the Taliban for her work promoting the rights of women and the disabled.
She fled her home in Kabul, which also acted as the headquarters for an organization she runs to support Afghans, and spent 10 days in hiding before arriving safely in London.
Now, she is pleading with the Taliban and Western governments to ensure the safety and care of disabled Afghans.
“This is my big concern: how can we work for those people?” she told Insider in an interview over
from her London hotel room. “I’m not calm, I’m not okay, and I’m not feeling well – because of my people. This isn’t the time for slogans or to talk philosophy. This is the time to talk [about] action.”
Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of disability in the world, according to Human Rights Watch—including more than a million people with physical injuries from decades of conflict, including the two-decade-long U.S. war. Countless others have mental health conditions, like post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.
The Taliban, who controlled the country from 1996 until they were knocked from power by the U.S.-led war in 2001, are remembered for their brutal treatment of civilians, and their especially draconian, zero-tolerance approaches to women’s rights, homosexuality and disabilities.
Yaqubi fears that Afghanistan’s disabled population could face brutal treatment and tough choices about how to survive.
In the 2000s and 2010s, the Taliban used disabled Afghans as fodder to sow terror throughout the country, strapping bombs to their chests and sending them out to die. One Afghan doctor who carried out post-mortems on Taliban suicide bombers during the period of allied control estimated that four in every five bombers were disabled in some way.
One prominent campaigner had a grenade thrown into their yard on the same day the Taliban took Kabul, and the United States International Council on Disabilities warns that more than 50 disability rights activists are in imminent threat of reprisals because of their campaigning.
“It’s not just because of the Taliban,” said Yaqubi. “It’s because the country is in crisis. We didn’t expect this crisis to come so soon. The UK, the US, our partners, nobody was ready for this kind of crisis.”
“Afghan people today are poor. They miss their jobs, their lives, their houses,” she added. “They’re displaced. This is the big problem. This affects people with disabilities, and widows as well.”
The arrival of the Taliban could mean the end of programs to support disabled Afghans. Since 2002, the U.S. has poured nearly $130 billion in security, civilian, and humanitarian assistance into Afghanistan, including $787 million in support for Afghan women and girls. It is not clear how much international aid will be sent to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or which humanitarian programs the Taliban will allow.
“Not the time for slogans”
Yaqubi was born in Afghanistan, but fled the country to Iran for 13 years when the Taliban first took over the country. She worked in the Afghan attorney general’s office before being appointed a human rights commissioner in 2019. In that role, Yaqubi visited prisons and lobbied for Taliban fighters to have access to education, food and lawyers. “Many of them know me, and send me messages,” she said.
Yaqubi directly addressed the Taliban. “I would ask everyone to please help people with disabilities. Please help women. Please help widows,” she said. “And I ask the Taliban, if people with disabilities want to leave the country, please let them go.”
One of Yaqubi’s biggest concerns is that as people become increasingly desperate they will take drastic decisions about their future that could disproportionately impact the disabled. The proportion of Afghans with severe disabilities increased from 2.7% in 2005 to 13.9% in 2019, the European Parliament reported last year.
Vulnerable adults and children are often deeply reliant on the assistance of family members, and she worries that desperate families might leave behind more vulnerable, and less able, family members.
Yaqubi—who knows better than most because of her own disabilities and those of her husband, Mehdi, who was born in Iran—fears that longstanding discrimination across the country and the broader region towards those with disabilities will come even more to the fore in the coming weeks and months, imperilling millions.
“Think about a family with 10 children, one or two of them disabled,” she said. “What will they do? They may prefer to feed their non-disabled children, and prefer to take non-disabled children with them if they find a way to take off from that country.”
Another group she is thinking about is disabled widows as well as widows who do not live with an adult male and therefore, under Taliban rules where women are expected to move around with a male escort, might become “functionally disabled” and unable to earn money.
“The women don’t have husbands. They have small children. They don’t have a man. They don’t have anyone to follow them outside. So what can they do? They are functionally disabled. They can’t go to work. They’ll miss their income,” said Yaqubi.
More than 113,000 Afghan civilians and military and police officers died in the 20-year war, alongside an estimated 51,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters, according to the Associated Press.
The émigré refused to blame the US and UK for the speed at which they departed the country, and the chaos that their rapid departure caused.
“It’s not time for me to blame anyone,” she told Insider. “It’s not time for me to talk philosophy. It’s not time for me to give slogans… This is the time to act, not to blame.”
“This one dream”
The Taliban took Kabul faster than almost anyone anticipated, and there was almost no time to prepare. “I went and did a little bit of work, then saw the face of our city was changed,” she said. “All people were scared. All people were confused.”
On August 15, Yaqubi’s assistant came to her home and told her she and her husband should leave their house—which was well-known as the headquarters of a support organization she ran in Kabul. From there, they travelled to various safe houses, before trying to travel to Kabul airport on the advice of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.
“I was a human rights activist and well-known,” she said. “In our commission, only one of the commissioners was someone with disabilities. It was me. Maybe the Taliban would target me. I’m not saying they would, but they may. I was worried. I was afraid of everything.”
Several times Yaqubi and her husband tried and failed to get through checkpoints at the airport, with Mehdi and Yaqubi’s assistant being beaten by Taliban guards.
“The really bad memory I have in my mind, every night I have nightmares [about] it,” she said. “Once they said: ‘Come forward, come forward’, and then the people at the edge moved forward and were beaten.” Gunfire crackled through the air to try and disperse the crowds. “I was afraid, because I have total visual impairment. I didn’t understand where this firing was going,” she said.
A second attempt was equally fruitless, and a third time proved difficult, even with letters from both the Danish and U.K. governments. A conduit through a staffer of Senator Merkley to the Danish government resulted in Yaqubi and her husband camping out at a location near the airport from 9pm on August 24 to 3am on August 25, where they were picked up and whisked to a plane by the Danes.
Yaqubi’s last memories of Kabul still ring in her ears. “The thing I remember was the firing,” she said. “There was shouting, firing, screaming and crying. The thing I remember now were the people who didn’t know where they should go and what they should do. They lost their work, their houses, their freedom. Everything.”
Just 24 hours later, a suicide attack on the airport killed at least 182 people.
Now in the UK, Yaqubi hopes to try and arrange a meeting with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to discuss how to support Afghanistan’s disabled population through her organization, Strong International.
She knows she’s one of the lucky ones, with plenty of compatriots and colleagues fighting for disabled rights still left behind. “I don’t want to think like this [about what will happen if no help is offered],” she said, “because it will kill me. “All my hopes and dreams were destroyed. So now I don’t have anything. Now I just have this one dream – that I can help my people.”