For the previous few weeks, the world has believed Salima Mazari to be a prisoner of the Taliban—and presumably lifeless.

One among solely three feminine district governors in Afghanistan, and the chief of a pro-government militia, the 39-year-old had a global popularity as a fearless fighter. The Guardian profiled her at size. She was interviewed by the Related Press, Agence France-Presse and different worldwide information retailers, fascinated by her braveness within the protection of her district, Charkint, which lies about 230 miles north of Kabul.

Mazari had survived a number of ambushes and believed herself to be on a Taliban hit listing. When the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, fell to the Taliban in mid-August, she went lacking within the commotion and didn’t floor within the days following. The preventing in Charkint had been fierce.

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“Earlier than the collapse of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban attacked Charkint district greater than 30 instances from completely different instructions,” she tells TIME.

A number of media retailers, together with Individuals journal and Insider, reported Mazari as presumably captured. On Twitter, supporters worldwide adopted the hashtag #FreeSalima in a marketing campaign demanding her launch. Some started to marvel if she was even alive. As tales started to filter in of the Taliban settling previous scores—killing a pregnant police officer, and taking pictures senior safety officers—many assumed the worst.

However we will report that Mazari is alive. She was by no means captured. After a harrowing escape from Afghanistan, she is now at an undisclosed location in america.

We all know this as a result of one of many authors of this piece was concerned in her escape.

We’re two journalists—Zakarya is an Afghan and Robyn a Canadian—who’ve reported from the strife-torn nation prior to now. Zakarya was based mostly in Afghanistan however in a position to depart for Paris throughout the evacuation. He stored in contact with Mazari after the Taliban seized energy and he or she went into hiding. Collectively in a joint rescue effort by Afghans, People and Canadians, he helped to play a component in getting her to security.

That is what occurred.

The autumn of Mazar-i-Sharif

With a inhabitants of round 32,000, Charkint is a mountainous space of small hilltop villages and grazing lands in Balkh province, close to the border with Uzbekistan. When she grew to become governor in 2018, Mazari was decided to convey higher outcomes for her neighborhood, however the job was by no means straightforward.

In her early days in workplace, she organized the recruitment and coaching of native militia and authorities forces to combat towards the Taliban. When battle broke out, she picked up a gun and joined her males on the entrance line, incomes respect as a staunch, outspoken commander. In 2020, she fearlessly negotiated the give up of over 100 Taliban insurgents.

Because the Taliban marketing campaign intensified over the summer time, Mazari and her militia held out—inflicting, she says, “giant numbers of casualties” on the enemy. However when Mazar-i-Sharif—Afghanistan’s fourth largest metropolis—fell on Aug. 14, and the Afghan Nationwide Military surrendered Balkh to the Taliban, pro-government fighters have been compelled to face the inevitable.

For Mazari, the capitulation marked each a devastating finish to life as she knew it, and the unwelcome begin of a brand new one.

She belongs to the Hazara, an ethnic minority persecuted for its Shia religion and Eurasian ancestry by Afghanistan’s majority Sunni inhabitants. The final time the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, in 1998, the insurgents massacred some 2,000 Hazara, largely males and boys.

It appeared that nothing a lot had modified within the intervening years. Amnesty Worldwide reported that the Taliban tortured and killed 9 Hazara males in Ghazni province, about 90 miles southwest of Kabul, in July. It was additionally reported that they’d shot 14 Hazara—12 surrendered troopers and a pair of civilians—in Daykundi province on the finish of August.

Mazari believed that demise or escape have been her solely decisions.

Farshad Usyan—AFP/Getty PhotosMazari, middle, on July 14.

On the run from the Taliban

When the information of Balkh’s give up broke, Mazari was within the workplace of Mohammad Farhad Azimi, the provincial governor. His guards bumped into the workplace shouting that authorities forces had surrendered, and the Taliban have been coming into Mazar-i-Sharif from all instructions. She recollects feeling suffocated as the fact of defeat began to sink in. There have been frantic telephone calls from militia leaders in Charkint, about 45 miles to the south, telling her that the roads to her district have been blocked and the Taliban have been planning to ambush anybody who handed by means of. Mazari counseled her males and advised them to face down.

“Persevering with to combat can be towards the pursuits of our folks,” she says.

Azimi prompt discovering a strategy to the border with Uzbekistan and the city of Hairatan, a 75-minute drive from Mazar-i-Sharif. From there, the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, spanning the Amu River, may take them to security.

“We set off in a convoy along with my husband and guards. A number of high-profile leaders, together with former vice-president and warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and former Balkh governor and mujahideen commander Atta Mohammad Noor, joined us on the best way. Many Afghan army models additionally adopted the exodus,” Mazari says.

By the point they arrived at Hairatan, the Afghan facet of the bridge was crowded with prime officers. Everybody was in a panic. To her despair, Mazari was not allowed to make the crossing. Solely Azimi, Dostum, Noor and a few legislators have been permitted into Uzbekistan. Mazari and plenty of others have been pushed again and left on the banks of the Amu, pleading in useless.

Learn extra: These Ladies Fought for Afghanistan’s Future. Now They Don’t Need to Depart It Behind

Figuring out the Taliban would quickly arrive in Hairatan, too, Mazari says she briefly sought refuge at a relative’s home within the city. Then she donned a burqa—generally known as a chadari in Afghanistan—and made a swift sprint by automobile to a quiet freeway junction within the desert. There, different family members have been ready to smuggle her again to Mazar-i-Sharif.

“We hid for 2 days in family members’ homes within the metropolis, then determined to make a run for Kabul,” she says. There was no realizing what would occur on the highway, however reaching the Afghan capital’s airport, and boarding an evacuation flight, was her solely hope. Mazari says she had heard from others crossing the nation that the Taliban was much less more likely to query bigger teams of civilians at checkpoints, particularly if there have been many chadari-clad ladies current. She slipped the garment on once more, and collectively together with her husband and several other family members set off in a battered previous car.

They clutched one another’s arms nervously as they approached every checkpoint. However luck was on their facet. “Thankfully, we weren’t acknowledged by any Taliban fighters,” Mazari tells TIME. “They allow us to by means of simply. It was the primary day of the collapse of the nation, and so they have been celebrating.”

They made it to Kabul, the place they’d start the “saddening” strategy of regularly shifting from protected home to protected home to make sure they might not be tracked. Mazari was uncertain what to do subsequent and who to belief. She knew she was too excessive profile to make an open sprint for an embassy or the airport, so she despatched her paperwork to buddies who had connections to international governments, together with these of the U.S., U.Okay., Germany, and the Netherlands.

Map by Lon Tweeten for TIME

Organizing Mazari’s rescue

One of many folks Mazari despatched her paperwork to was Zakarya.

On Aug. 20, Zakarya, who had been had been airlifted to Paris earlier that week, despatched a textual content message to Mazari, trying to affirm whether or not or not she was alive. We had been engaged on a narrative collectively about Afghan ladies, together with Mazari, and Zakarya had given his quantity to her when he interviewed the governor in July. “I’m apprehensive—please let me know the place you’re,” he wrote.

Fearing traps, Mazari had not been responding to messages from unfamiliar numbers, however she acknowledged Zakarya’s. She advised him that she was in hiding and, with few choices remaining, despatched him the identification info of all her members of the family and requested for assist.

Zakarya instantly relayed the information to Robyn: “I simply heard from Salima Mazari. She is in Kabul.”

Robyn’s associate, the Canadian photojournalist Matt Reichel, had already been engaged on serving to colleagues and buddies get out of Afghanistan. Reichel was involved with everybody he knew who may presumably assist and was conscious of some U.S. officers who may have a look at Mazari’s case. He fired off a number of pleas to contacts within the State Division and Division of Protection, hoping one would work.

“We ready all her paperwork with a canopy letter explaining Salima Mazari is alive, extremely excessive danger, and can probably be murdered if she is discovered. She has no thought what to do and is hiding in a protected home,” he says.

“Finally, considered one of my buddies on the State Division, who needs to stay unnamed, however has been instrumental in serving to numerous susceptible Afghans escape, was in a position to ahead her info to the Joint Interagency Process Drive (JIATF) and a high-level determine within the Secretary of State’s workplace. This particular person replied inside hours providing assist.”

Salima’s info had already been offered to JIATF by means of one other connection, Khadim Dai, a Hazara filmmaker in Los Angeles who had been working a parallel operation by means of his personal State division contact. Her identify pinged throughout many channels and was gaining momentum and assist. Reichel’s contact helped to escalate the request for an emergency evacuation.

Dai’s pal in London, the British Hazara activist Homira Rezai, additionally shared information of Mazari’s standing and requested him for assist. “I didn’t know her personally, however knew of her story and wished to assist her. She’s a lady who’s preventing, attempting so laborious to alter issues, and could be a position mannequin for our technology of Hazaras rising up within the West,” explains Dai.

The day earlier than the rescue, his personal contact on the State Division advised him “one thing will occur quickly.”

Escape from Kabul

Mazari was afraid that the Taliban would shut in on her location in a matter of days, however she adopted Zakarya’s recommendation and waited. He was checking in on her steadily to verify she was protected and to supply hope and reassurance—however Mazari’s extraction wouldn’t happen with out a last-minute scare.

On Aug. 24, simply after daybreak, Mazari obtained Sign messages in English, despatched through an unknown Afghan quantity, claiming to be from an American rescue coordination cell. In a lapse of anxious pleasure, she says she shared all her household info and the exact coordinates of her in a single day location. She adopted directions after the sender advised her to connect an image of herself making the peace signal. However when she advised Zakarya what had occurred, he grew to become alarmed as a result of, after a quick English introduction, the rescue directions have been purported to be in Dari—an Afghan dialect of the Persian language. He and Mazari suspected that Pakistani brokers have been working interference.

“I knew that Pakistan had been cooperating with the Taliban, and that among the group’s most well-known management councils are based mostly in Pakistan. I apprehensive that it could possibly be the Taliban or ISI [Pakistani intelligence] accessing our chat,” Zakarya says.

“We have been scrambling to determine if we may affirm the identification of this particular person,” says Reichel. “We now have an Afghan telephone quantity, and don’t know if this can be a professional operation or a lure. My pal at State advised me to right away instruct Salima to alter her hijab, and put together to presumably change areas whereas we discovered what to do subsequent.”

Learn extra: What the U.S. Owes to Afghanistan’s Individuals Has No Expiry Date

Reichel determined to name the quantity on Sign. Nobody picked up, however Robyn observed the consumer additionally had a WhatsApp account, and that the app was exhibiting them as being on-line. Reichel dialed once more on WhatsApp. This time, the decision was answered. It was a U.S. Military main. A number of People could possibly be heard speaking energetically within the background.

“Naturally, he was confused as to why a random quantity from Canada was calling him,” says Reichel. “He requested who I used to be. I launched myself as a journalist and Salima’s level of contact. I advised him his quantity reached out to Salima, she gave away all her figuring out info and site, and we have been involved.”

Fortunately, the State Division was rapidly in a position to affirm the Military officer’s identification. “I received a name again from my pal at State saying, ‘It’s confirmed. This can be a actual operation, make sure that she is on time on the rescue level and is aware of find out how to get there.’”

The plan was to extract Mazari and her household by helicopter, after which chopper them into Hamid Karzai Worldwide Airport. At 7:00 p.m. that night, Mazari obtained a name telling her to fulfill on the rendezvous level.

She remembers scrambling to determine the placement (thankfully she had been properly versed in map studying as a army commander) after which rapidly setting out on foot with all 13 of her members of the family, a lot of them kids. Zakarya was ready in tense anticipation for information. She messaged him at 7:22 pm minutes later to say that she was at Kabul airport.

The following day, Mazari and her household boarded a U.S. army flight to Qatar, and they’re now at an undisclosed location within the U.S. awaiting resettlement.

She had made it.

Salima Mazari’s combat ‘won’t ever finish’

Leaving Afghanistan saved Mazari from nearly sure demise, however it’s also, in a manner, her worst nightmare. She by no means wished to go away a rustic she fought so laborious to defend—and he or she feels betrayed by her authorities.

“At Kabul airport, I witnessed the autumn of a nation,” she says. “I noticed households fleeing and leaving every little thing behind … It was troublesome to see my folks in that state of affairs. Everybody I spoke to is coping with the load of disappointment on their shoulders.”

She continues: “I’ve cried rather a lot. I’ve considered all these youth who have been sacrificed prior to now 20 years for the evils of politics. I assumed in regards to the aspirations of a technology which might be heading in the direction of destruction. I really feel a lump in my throat when pondering of my folks and fellow troopers’ struggles, sacrifices and deaths. Each time I consider this stuff, I really feel like I’m dying.”

At this time, the outlook for ladies in Afghanistan is especially bleak. Whereas a Taliban spokesperson has communicated that ladies can proceed to work in authorities, they aren’t permitted to carry cupboard or different senior positions.

The Taliban lately introduced the formation of their new authorities, and there have been no ladies or Hazaras included. Ladies proceed to be turned away from their jobs throughout the nation. And the Taliban’s opponents are scattered and in shock.

“In the intervening time, armed preventing is now not the answer—we have to work out a special manner to assist the nation,” Mazari concedes. However she stays no much less decided to assist. “My combat for the liberty and delight of my folks won’t ever finish.”

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Nik Popli