“I’m not losing hope yet. I still have hope that somebody out there will help.”
They are the words of Afghanistan’s first female Paralympian, Zakia Khudadadi, who by mere days missed getting out of Kabul and into Tokyo before the Taliban took over her country.
As late as Tuesday night, Australian time, the taekwondo athlete believed there was still time to get to the Games — if only somebody could find a way to get her and her teammate, Hossain Rosouli, onto a plane and into the Paralympic village.
Her audio message was sent to the London-based chef de mission of the Afghanistan team, Arian Sadiqi.
The message read like this:
“I (Zakia Khudadadi) on behalf of female member of the National Paralympic Committee of Afghanistan, Para Taekwondo: with all the struggles I have been through. I have been imprisoned inside the house; even I cannot go outside the house with confidence and security to buy something for myself or ask how people how they are, or some to ask how I am because of my participation in the Tokyo 2020 to hurry and ensure I am not left out from the competition.
And my family is based in Herat city, where all of the city is captured by the Taliban. Currently, I reside with my extended family members in Kabul who don’t have enough food to feed their own children; and I am additional burden on them.
I request from you all that I am an Afghan woman, and on behalf of all Afghan women to help me. My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, please hold my hand and help me!
Please, I request you all — especially all the women from around the globe and their the female institutions and the United Nations to not let the right of a female citizen of Afghanistan in the Paralympic movement to be taken away, so easily.
I have struggled a lot to get here, this in itself is a great achievement and not to be taken lightly. I don’t want my struggle to in vain and without any results. Help me!
Sadiqi told The Ticket: “This was a dream for them.
“They had this inspiration, this commitment, they trained with a very basic facility, very basic resources in their local clubs and back gardens to prepare for this big event.
“But unfortunately, everything is now shuttered. They cannot compete, they cannot take part because of what happened in their country.
“Words can’t explain what’s actually going through their minds.”
Since the Taliban moved into the capital, Kabul, claiming complete control over Afghanistan, Sadiqi had tried several times, unsuccessfully, to make contact with his athletes.
Even at the best of times power in Kabul is intermittent and network failures are common.
“I couldn’t get through … but this morning, thankfully, I managed to call Zakia. The connection was very weak but we managed to leave each other voice messages.
“She was in tears.”
Khudadadi is from Herat province — the first to be taken over by the Taliban — so she left her parents and travelled to Kabul to be able to train and prepare for the games beginning on August 24.
“She was explaining she is with extended relatives, a family of 10 who are all really struggling to put food on the table given the Taliban situation now,” Sadiqi said.
“She said, please advise me what to do.
“I said, ‘what can I say? What can I do, at the moment?’ It is very limited what I can suggest or what I can do.
There is growing fear among athletes, particularly female athletes, that the Taliban’s previous hard line against sport will see them flushed out and punished.
In other cities, the Taliban has already reportedly compiled lists and gone door knocking to find government officials, journalists, activists and those who worked with allied forces.
Shootings in other cities have already occurred. Kabul has gone quiet overnight as locals wait to see what will happen to them.
Sadiqi fled Afghanistan the last time the Taliban was in charge. He says this is history repeating itself.
“Zakia said she’s very scared to go outside in case the Taliban recognise her as the Para-athlete,” Sadiqi said.
“She was very scared … to say the least.”
Women competing in sport is a relatively new addition in the traditionally strict Muslim country, still frowned upon by many. Paralympic athletes are even more rare.
“In countries like Afghanistan, Para-sports are still stigmatised, people look down, they don’t see it like able-bodied sports,” Sadiqi explained.
“It is very difficult to face so many obstacles when you have no support from the government.
“As far as I remember there was not a single competition that the NPC [National Paralympic Committee] was supported by the government, if there was any support it was very little.”
Athletes, he said, were getting less than $17 per month.
“We tried to keep afloat in order to get the Afghanistan Paralympic team to compete at international competitions so they could get recognition … so we can create more role models for Afghans to participate in Para-sports and the Para movement overall,” he said.
Organisations like the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees, and sports federations like the International Taekwondo Federation, speak of their sporting ‘families’ and raise sponsorship dollars off the backs of athletes ‘uniting’ the world.
Sadiqi says the fast-moving events of the past week, upending his two athletes and their Paralympic dreams, has taught him a lot about the international sporting movement.
“We always say we are part of one body, whether the Olympic committee, the Paralympic committee, the Asian body … in a situation like this you really get to feel the sense of belonging by what they can do for you.
“For example, today I have got back-to-back interviews, but people have not come across to say, what can I do to help?
“When I heard Zakia’s voice this morning, she said, ‘I still haven’t lost hope.’
“That kind of hit me deep down in my heart saying that given the situation she is in, the Taliban has taken over, she knows the airport is in a chaotic situation, she still hasn’t lost her hope.
“She still thinks that she can compete.”
The chef de mission said that made him feel helpless.
“This was history in the making, the first Afghan female to make her debut in taekwondo in Tokyo … she had this dream, she has this hope, still.
He said his next job for the day was to call the UK Paralympic Committee to see if they could offer any help.
Then he was going to try to the Swiss-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights.
“At least then I won’t have this thing in my head that said I didn’t try … let’s see how it goes,” he said.
Yes. Let’s see.
Let’s see if the world’s great and influential sporting bodies, which trade on athletes’ hopes and dreams, can prove that Zakia Khudadadi’s are not misplaced.