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Zebras, giraffes … and a cycle race through the Maasai Mara | Global development

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In the world of long-distance running, east Africans have long been the dominant force, and soon they may also be setting the pace in the whitest of elite sports: cycling. This month, the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) brought together 100 of the world’s top cyclists in a four-day showdown on the rocky, red dirt roads of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With a third of the entrants from east Africa, it was a rare opportunity for the region’s riders to show they can rival the best.

“Cycling is a very Eurocentric sport,” says Mikel Delagrange, the prime mover behind the event. “In over 100 years of the world championship, only three athletes outside of Europe have ever won, and they came from the US and Australia.”

For 11 years, Delagrange, a human rights lawyer, worked mostly in central and east Africa, for the international criminal court in The Hague. He quit last year and now works with the UN in Palestine.

“The obstacle for east African riders is that they lack access to international competition,” he says. “You might be the best in your neighbourhood but you won’t progress if you’re only beating people in your neighbourhood.

Two cyclists on a dusty dirt trail through vegetation
Two riders on stage 3, which finished in the wildest section of the race with no access to internet and the sound of hyenas at night. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“But if we send an east African to an international race, we’re spending an unbelievable amount of money on visas because everyone thinks they’re a migrant, then on flights, plus staying in Europe is prohibitively expensive for most.

“After a lot of consultation, we thought: instead of clawing at the door, why don’t we bring international competition here?”

Against a backdrop of acacias and euphorbia candelabra trees, amid the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeest of the savannah, the four-day race takes riders along 650km of rough roads, climbing above 3,000 metres. Each day, before the course is cleared by Maasai motorcycle sweepers, dressed in their traditional red plaid blankets, a helicopter goes ahead to check for elephants and buffalo.

The Migration Gravel Race
There would be no race without the local crew, led by Masai chief Saliton.

“What Mikel is doing is giving east African riders a home-based platform, not a European one,” says Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah. “They get a chance to compete against the best, in their country.”

Organising a travelling band of 100 cyclists in a region that lacks infrastructure is a challenge. All the logistics, from security to cooking to building the campsites, is done with support from local Maasai.

Last year, Delagrange set up the Amani team – eight men and four women from the top cycling clubs in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “Amani has changed my life, but not just mine,” says Suleiman Kangangi, 33, a Kenyan cyclist. “This is a big deal for east African riders. We selected the best for this race, and they know there’s something to aim for.”

Nancy Akinyi, 32, another Kenyan cyclist, says: “It’s not just about bringing these people here to compete, it’s to prepare these young riders for what could be their future if they excel. Thanks to Amani, we can send riders from east Africa and show we can do it. If you go to the world championship, you don’t see black people there.

Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.
Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.

“Amani is special because now black people can see that we can be pros. It’s unusual to see people from the northern part of Africa – I’m going to say black people – doing so well,” she says.

“It started here in east Africa, but now I get emails from women in Congo, Tanzania and even Lesotho who say they want to join the team.”

Non-African riders, who include big names such as Lachlan Morton from Australia, Italian cyclist Mattia de Marchi and Lael Wilcox from the US, paid €1,250 (£1,075) to enter, some of which goes towards funding the Amani team.

Everyone is racing for fun and glory; there is no prize money.

John Kariuki of team Amani stands on the winner’s stand at the 2022 Migration Gravel Race.
John Kariuki of team Amani wins the 2022 Migration Gravel Race, with Jordan Schleck and Mattia de Marchi. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“The Europeans didn’t expect the African riders would be so tough to beat,” says Kinjah. “When we compete in Europe, everything is different: the food, the language, the roads. This affects your performance.”

The home advantage changes the odds. On the eve of the first stage, Delagrange thanks the non-Africans for coming, then adds: “Just for a change, you’re going to be the people who stand out and don’t speak the language.”

The fast-growing sport of gravel racing, essentially putting mountain bike tyres on high-end €10,000 road bikes, is more open and democratic than road racing. Like a marathon, anyone can line up with the best.

“What you have here – where you can sit around the campfire after a race and chat with people from all walks of life, make new friends and also hammer each other for five hours on the road every day – that doesn’t exist in the majority of races,” says Morton, who finished fifth overall, behind three Amani riders. “It’s an experience that’s so much more fulfilling. I’d come back in a heartbeat.

“In an event like this, the bullshit fades away. It’s like, here’s the start line, here’s the finish, go for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all going to sleep in tents and we’re all going to eat the same food, so let’s get on with it.”

Local Maasai show their support.
Local Maasai show their support. Photograph: Migrasaltlakephoto.nl

Wilcox, who once rode 3,000km from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to reach the start line of the 4,500km Tour de Canada, and then broke the women’s record by four days, is another fan: “It’s cool that there’s a really good women’s field here. They’ve put a lot of effort into inviting women and making them feel like they belong. It’s good to see.”

Juliet Elliott, a 44-year-old cycling pro, says: “A race like this, where we all race together but there are separate podiums, that’s pretty cool. If I’d had to do road races against guys, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but gravel is more open. In these long-distance disciplines, women tend to do better.”

Xaverine Nirere (left) and Nancy Akinyi of the Amani women’s team.
From left: Xaverine Nirere and Florence Nakaggwa of team Amani; Violette Neza has a refreshment break. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

Delagrange says they had the good luck to be ready with a concrete proposal when the Black Lives Matter movement made some realise that “racial disparity is a thing, and continues to be”. There was some overdue reflection in cycling, he says, and many “were looking for a fig leaf to cover how white the sport is. We acted as a hub for corporations to know where to direct their resources.”

He believes the industry is beginning to understand that it’s not diverse enough to be considered an international sport. “Imagine if running was still just Roger Bannister. We aren’t pushing the limits of human capability. Without allowing the rest of the world to play this game, we still don’t know what can be done on a bike.”

The idea that east African cyclists can hold their own against the best was entirely vindicated. Amani’s John Kariyuki was the overall winner over the four stages. Two of his teammates, Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi and Kangangi, came third and fourth. Fifteen of the top 20 finishers were Africans.

Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three
Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three

Distance rider Marin de Saint Exupéry, from Switzerland, says it’s the first time he’s raced against Africans. “I can’t keep up with this pace,” he says. “I was really attracted to the idea of this project, and met some of the team when they came to Switzerland last year. We shouldn’t need a project like this, but we do.”

Kinjah, 51, who finished 14th, believes many sporting projects in Africa fail because they have a European mentality and don’t understand the culture. “This project is different because they take the best from several countries,” he says. “They bring unity by putting these good riders in one team. Some of these guys have never been in the Maasai Mara or seen an elephant. Now they are having an adventure in their own country – and racing against the best in the world.”

“The scale is small,” Delagrange admits. “Right now, we have 12 athletes whose lives we’d like to improve through opportunities. We’re trying to make it easier for those outside east Africa to invest in great human beings. Maybe we will have those breakout athletes who will change the face of cycling. You’ve got to start somewhere.

“I think many Europeans still cling to a LiveAid mentality. People saw a bunch of things in the 80s, and they’re, like: OK, that’s what Africa is like. If you always see people in a disempowered position, it will reinforce your subconscious view of them. But when people come and meet athletes who kick their ass, they don’t see disempowered people, they see real competitors.

“Hopefully, after four days, they go home with a different view of what Africa is about.”

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The repeal of abortion in the United States leaves doctors in legal limbo | International

Voice Of EU

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On June 29, five days after the US Supreme Court struck down federal protection of abortion rights, Emily Diament, pregnant with her second daughter, was due for her 20th week checkup. Everything was going well in a pregnancy that “could not be more desired.” She will always remember it: it was Wednesday, at two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor told them that the fetus’s heart had stopped beating. “It was terrible. At that time, Ram [her husband] and I had to think: Where does the Supreme Court ruling leave us now? “All of this was new”, adds this 33-year-old public relations officer in an email: “a panorama full of unknowns and fears”.

The gynecologist explained the alternatives. The first, “induction,” was the least safe. It essentially means giving birth to the stillborn baby. The second, more reliable and less onerous for her, was to undergo a D&E operation, an acronym for “dilation and evacuation”. “The process is also faster,” explains Diament. The couple opted for the latter.

The couple live in New Orleans, “the best city in the world”, as Diament likes to define it. The Supreme Court ruling, which overturned the half-century precedent of 1973 by the ruling Roe v. Wade, gave power to regulate women’s reproductive health back to the States. Diament’s legislators in Louisiana, anxiously awaited the moment of a “trigger law”, ready to take effect since 2006. Three days after the ruling, a judge blocked the activation of that rule, one of the most restrictive in the country. But it was just a mirage: on July 8 abortion was outlawed in Louisiana even for rape and incest. And so it goes: after several comings and goings in the courts, the ban holds up, pending new legal battles.

Among the restrictions contemplated by the law is the veto on D&E unless the mother’s life is in danger, or the baby has already died. Diament’s case fell into the permitted categories, but her ordeal compelled her to tell her story. “After going through that process and talking to several doctors about their concerns,” she explains, “I know this happened to me at this exact time for a reason.”

Bhavik Kumar is one of those nervous doctors, pushed into legal limbo by the new rules. He is a consultant in the largest provider of abortions in the United States, Planned Parenthood, in Houston, Texas, another of the epicenters of the restrictive tsunami that hits the United States. He explains that an “induction” can last “from one to 12 or 24 hours”, carries more risks (“the same as childbirth”) and generates more hospital expenses, causing serious debt among less well-off patients. Some, however, prefer it, because “the baby comes out intact, and they can bond with it,” adds Kumar. With D&E, which uses forceps, mothers do not see the dead body.

Conversation between doctor and patient

And that is all that Kumar asks: that the matter be resolved in a conversation between doctor and patient, “without political interference.” “Since the law came into force [in Texas], the only cases in which we are allowed to intervene after six weeks is if the life of the person is in danger, or if there is no doubt that the pregnancy is not viable.”, he warns.

Kumar, like many of his colleagues, has doubts around the idea of “life in danger”. “It’s not exactly a scientific concept,” he clarifies. “Every doctor, every ER, every clinic, and every hospital may have their own theory of what that means. Now, instead of looking at the data and talking to patients to decide what’s best, doctors, hospitals and clinics have to consult with lawyers, ethics committees or administrators about what they can and can’t do. Meanwhile, they also remain in limbo. The precautions seem justified: both Texas and Louisiana threaten prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years to those who perform abortions outside the supposedly permitted limits.

A gynecologist thus defined the new dilemmas of her practice during an interview with EL PAÍS held at a reproductive health center in Des Moines (Iowa): “It’s terrible,” lamented the doctor, who asked to speak anonymously. “They make us choose between the Hippocratic Oath [the famous “Do no harm”] and the penal code.”

This week, Attorney General Merrick Garland decided to take matters into his own hands with a Justice Department lawsuit challenging a new Idaho law that, when it takes effect at the end of the month, will allow prosecutors to “indict, arrest and prosecute a doctor merely by showing that an abortion has been performed, regardless of the circumstances.” The rule thus endorses the burden of proof on doctors (that is, to prove whether the woman’s life was in danger or not, for example, or if there was incest or rape, in cases where the law contemplates those exceptions). According to Garland, who warned that it would be the first in a series of legal actions by the Biden Administration to mitigate the effects of the new state laws, that provision conflicts with a federal regulation, The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).

“D&E requires training that many physicians lack,” explains Diament. “With the new laws, it is likely that there will be doctors who prefer not to learn the technique to avoid its possible consequences. It’s not that we don’t have autonomy over our bodies, it’s that doctors can’t watch over our health either. This is not protecting life, quite the contrary. It’s completely surreal.”

“We must not forget that we are facing cases in which pregnancies are absolutely desired. First they have to accept terrible news, and then they are forced to go through a process that is very traumatic for many, and after that, a few weeks later, they have to relive the experience when the hospital bill arrives”, argues Gabriela Benazar Acosta, spokesperson from Planned Parenthood Latino, New York.

Kumar warns, for his part, that “medicine is a science with vast gray areas, no matter how hard these legislators insist on the contrary. No one better than doctors, in an empathetic dialogue with patients and their families, can know in each specific case what is the best way to act.”

These days, stories like Diament’s are emerging in the United States (“there have always existed,” says Kumar, “but now the spotlight is on them”). Stories of women who are sent home by hospitals with instructions to return when they get worse and are “really” bleeding (“And that, even when it is clear that there is no turning back,” warns the doctor). A patient in Texas whose water broke at week 18 and was advised to stay in the hospital until week 24 to keep her pregnant until then, which is when “viability” outside the womb is set to begin. Maybe then, the baby might survive (the chances, Alan Peaceman, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told NPR that the chances are “as close to zero as far as medicine is concerned”).

“All this means that some have to travel to other states because they do not want to wait to get even more sick,” adds Kumar. Since the Supreme Court toppled Roe, class and race are two factors that have surfaced in the debate on reproductive health in the United States. With this regressive wave, which comes after half a century in which women took for granted a protection that they are now denied, began an exodus of patients from their places of origin to States in which abortions can be performed. This has created yet another gap, between those who can afford to take vacation days, often unpaid, from their jobs and pay for the trip and the intervention, and those who simply cannot afford it. In the case of miscarriages, inevitable in between 10% and 20% of pregnancies, this different position in the wheel of social fortune can become, if things get complicated, deadly.

Translated by Xanthe Holloway.

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Photographer Fatimah Hossaini: ‘In Kabul, there was so much hope and desire’ | Photography

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When the US government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan-Iranian artist, photographer and activist Fatimah Hossaini thought little of it. People warned her, of course. The Americans will leave Afghanistan, they said, and all kinds of trouble will follow. But she hardly listened. Life in Kabul, where she had been working since 2018, felt so full and free, it was all but impossible to imagine the clock turning back.

The simple fact was that she had lived with more day-to-day restrictions in Tehran, where she was born and grew up, than she had ever had to put up with in Kabul (her Afghan grandparents fled to Iran in the 1980s, during the Soviet-Afghan war). “Life was good,” she says. “In Tehran, people are a little depressed with the situation. But in Kabul there was so much hope and desire. A new generation was burning with it. I could see women in every sector: musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians. I could teach my classes at the university without a hijab. I could show my students any image I liked. These things would never happen in Iran.”

A portrait of the photographer Fatimah Hossaini by Maryam Firuzi, 2022

But life really was about to change. When a newly elected Joe Biden confirmed in April 2021 that American troops would be withdrawn by 11 September, Taliban insurgents began to intensify their attacks on the Afghan state; in May, for instance, a car bomb outside a Kabul school killed more than 60 people, most of them schoolgirls. “Even I could see that the security situation was different,” Hossaini says. “I lost two journalist friends [to Taliban attacks] during those months. When my mum called, which was every day, she would say: Fatimah, use a different entrance each time you come home.”

At one point she did go back to Tehran, largely at her parents’ behest. (Her mother is a housewife and her father runs a small business. The oldest of three sisters, Hossaini, ever independent, moved to Kabul when she graduated from university.) “But I only lasted a month and a half.” She struggles to explain it. “I just had to be in Afghanistan. I was there in the bright days; I felt I should be there in the dark days too.” Ahead of an exhibition of her photographs in the US, she had an American visa, and this was her insurance policy. “I thought: if the worst happens, I can use that visa.” She shakes her head. “My parents couldn’t believe I was going to go back. They said I was crazy. But I didn’t listen to them.”

In Kabul, things seemed calmer. She told her mother the media were exaggerating the situation, and that she was not to worry. But her mother did worry, and no wonder. Across Afghanistan, cities were falling to the Taliban: Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif. It was now August. A friend called and said, book your seat to the US; in three weeks, commercial flights will be no more. “Imagine it,” says Hossaini. “I had heard my grandparents’ stories. I knew about all the people that got stuck in Afghanistan in the communist years, even those with visas. But still, I couldn’t believe it would happen to me. My mind turned away from it. The night before Kabul fell [on 15 August], I did an interview with CNN. I said: ‘People will never let the Taliban claim this city.’”

Yasamin Yarmal, a very well-known Afghan actress sits on a flight of stairs with her two daughters.

  • Yasamin Yarmal
    An actor since the age of 14, Yarmal moved from the northern province of Balkh to Kabul against her family’s wishes and became a star of Afghan cinema during the Communist era. By the time the Taliban came to power in 1996, Yarmal had returned to Balkh, where she ran a secret school for several hundred students, many of them girls, defying the ban on female education. The school was discovered and Yarmal was taken into custody and beaten by the Taliban, suffering a miscarriage as a result. After 2001, Yarmal went back to acting, working in radio and TV as well as helping to revive the local film scene. The Taliban’s return to power has delivered a fatal blow to Afghan cinema, she says. Yarmal fled Kabul in August and now lives in Paris with her three children.
    All captions by Killian Fox

On the same evening, she and 10 friends went to a cafe to drink tea. “One of them invited me to her sister’s wedding! We were just drinking and talking. We didn’t know, then, that this would be the last time we would meet.”

The following morning, having at last booked a flight to the US, she got a taxi to take her to a clinic for a PCR test. The driver thought she must have lost her mind. The Taliban are at the gates of Kabul, he said. Looking out of the car’s windows, she noticed that in the streets people were running. What kind of person runs in Kabul in August? “It wasn’t normal. I began to think something might actually be going to happen.”

At home she made some green tea and took it on to her balcony, with its view of her city, and it was then that she saw them: “Down below were Taliban fighters on their motorcycles, waving their flags. They’re here, I thought. I shouted it: ‘THEY ARE HERE!’ But there was no one to hear me. I was alone.”

She isn’t sure how she got through the night. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t eat. She had missed her flight, if it had, in fact, left. The next day, another friend called. “She said: ‘They’re going door-to-door looking for journalists, musicians, teachers; make sure you’re not alone.’ I got my backpack, my laptop, my camera, and a hat that’s traditional to my tribe [Hossaini is an ethnic Hazara, a group that has often been persecuted in Afghanistan], and I went to stay with friends.” She spent the next two days with them, deleting all her social media, begging journalists who had any footage of her to take it down. Her voice is full of contempt. “Those fucking terrorists. One day, early in the morning, we had three Taliban at the door. They were only looking for food, and when we gave it to them they left.”

Shegofa Ibrahimi, an actor and musician, sits on a chair in a car park wearing traditional dress.

  • Shegofa Ibrahimi
    An actor and musician in her early 20s, Ibrahimi grew up in Dasht-e-Barchi, an impoverished area of western Kabul populated mainly by ethnic Hazaras. She belonged to an all-women theatre group and was starting to train as a ballerina and a violinist when the Taliban returned to power. ‘She told me she went through a tough journey to choose art and to work as an artist,’ says Hossaini. Ibrahimi fled Afghanistan after Kabul’s fall last August, leaving her family behind and taking nothing but a traditional Afghan dress that her mother had made for her. She now lives in Lyon. ‘When she said goodbye to her parents, she didn’t know where she’d be living,’ says Hossaini. ‘She took the dress to remind herself where she came from’

But her mind was clear now: it was, she finally conceded, time to go. Like thousands upon thousands of other desperate Afghans, she pitched up at Kabul airport. She would spend the next four days there. “It was crazy,” she says. “Mothers abandoning their children; lovers abandoning each other. People were so desperate, they would do anything to leave.”

It wasn’t, she tells me, as we might have seen it on television. She wasn’t in the military section of the airport, where British and American soldiers were filmed by news crews lifting tiny babies over wire fences. She was in the commercial part, a chaotic realm that could only be accessed through seven Taliban checkpoints. Inside, people stood in long lines, each one corresponding to the country to which they hoped to travel seeking asylum. It was frightening, and surreal. Looking around, she saw several Afghan politicians, and the singer and TV personality Aryana Sayeed, one of Afghanistan’s biggest stars.

At first, Hossaini joined the American line. She knew that to go to the US would make it almost impossible for her to see her family again: travel between the two countries is extremely difficult. But she was desperate, and she had her visa, after all. Wouldn’t it help her? Apparently not. “Get back, get back!” the Americans shouted. This made her very angry. “I thought: you betrayed us. We’re about to lose everything. You have ruined our country. At least be a little nice.”

Like others in the airport, she began to call out to embassy staff, irrespective of which country they represented. Germany, Italy, Poland: four days in, and she would have gone anywhere.

It occurred to her that in France, artists are admired, even revered. “Just take me,” she yelled, in the general direction of the French. “I’m an artist!” She was duly allowed to move from the American line to the French line – and it was at this moment that the miracle occurred. “David Martinon, the French ambassador in Afghanistan, used to come to my exhibitions in Kabul. I was wearing that crazy outfit with a scarf; only my eyes could be seen. But he recognised me. ‘Fatimah?’ he said. He put his arms around me. ‘You will be welcome in Paris,’ he told me.”

Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament

  • Anarkali Kaur Honaryar
    Born into Afghanistan’s tiny Sikh community in 1984, Honaryar grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot. Instead, she studied medicine at Kabul university and qualified as a dentist. After the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, Honaryar joined the loya jirga assembly to elect Afghanistan’s interim government, and helped draft the country’s new constitution. She later became the first non-Muslim woman to serve in the lower house of parliament, advocating on behalf of the country’s embattled Sikh and Hindu minorities. In 2009, she was voted “person of the year” by Radio Free Afghanistan, and in 2011 received a Unesco prize for her efforts to protect Afghan women from domestic abuse, forced marriages and gender discrimination. Honaryar left Afghanistan for India in August 2021 and arrived in Europe this spring

Some hours later, she flew alone to France, relieved but sorrowful, grateful, but in mourning (her friends were eventually all dispersed to other countries). “It was very hard,” she says. “Afghanistan didn’t only give me pain; it gave me love too. I was connected to it by my heart, and when France gives you asylum, the arrangement is that they take your Afghan passport and your ID card, and you must sign a paper that says you won’t ever travel there. Can you believe it? My heart. I had to promise them not to go back to Afghanistan.”


I meet Hossaini in Paris on a hot July day. She is wearing a sleeveless, pleated dress – it’s so fine, you could probably pull it, Fortuny-style, through a wedding ring – and a brilliant smile that only rarely dims. A year on, she is living in the city in a tiny attic, a bona fide garret at the top of an artist’s colony on the edge of the Marais. And how she has made it her own. The building’s wide, sweeping staircase and peeling plaster walls are so very belle époque they might have come from the pages of a novel by Colette. But step inside her rooms, which smell deliciously of roses and cardamom, and you find yourself in a little bit of Afghanistan: low seating, striped throws, a bowl of nuts to welcome the visitor.

A man cleans up a poster of one of Hossaini’s pictures, 28, during the La Visions d’Orient photography festival, wihch runs until 30 September 2022 in La Gacilly, western France

  • A man cleans a poster of one of Hossaini’s pictures during the La Visions d’Orient photography festival, which runs until 30 September 2022 in La Gacilly, western France

On the walls hang some of her own photographs and – I notice it straight away – the brightly coloured hat she grabbed on that fateful day when she left her home in Kabul for the last time. “Women make these with their hands, out of nothing,” she says, taking it down to show me. “Textiles are an important part of Afghan culture because the country was on the Silk Road, and they have many meanings. You can tell by looking at these whether their owner is married or single. It’s a beautiful thing for me – a symbol of resilience.”

In Afghanistan, women must currently draw on every available ounce of their resilience. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, in the year since the Taliban took over, Afghan women and girls have experienced a “suffocating” crackdown on their rights. They are banned from attending school and restricted in the ways they can work; should they dare to protest against such infringements, they are inevitably arrested, and often tortured and abused in custody. The burqa, a garment that covers every part of a woman’s body, including her face, has been widely reimposed. There has also been a surge in child marriage.

Mursal Sayas, an Afghan writer, puts a book on a shelf in a library

  • Mursal Sayas
    Sayas was in the final year of her masters degree in international relations at Dawat University in Kabul when the return of the Taliban last August forced her to flee. It’s not the first time her life was disrupted by the movement: her family left Kabul for Badakhshan when the Taliban first seized power in 1996, returning after their overthrow in 2001. When Sayas started working at the Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan in 2017, she began writing the stories of some of the women whose cases she investigated. These portraits, of women suffering under a patriarchal society, were published under a pseudonym on Afghan websites. Now Sayas is gathering them into a book to be published in France, where she has settled in exile. Under the Taliban, Sayas believes, the plight of women in Afghanistan will only get worse

Is Hossaini surprised things turned so bad so quickly? She shakes her head. “The Taliban are exactly the same as they were 20 years ago,” she says, her voice scornful. “The only difference is that they have Twitter accounts now.” She knew they could not be taken at their word, and she isn’t optimistic that things will change any time soon. “They are stupid, idiot terrorists, incapable of governing properly. On the other hand, so much talent has left the country, and I am not sure that even half of it will ever go back. I am with those women who protest. Their resistance is very brave. But no, I don’t feel very hopeful.”

Hossaini, who is 29, was a well-known (and well-connected) figure in Kabul – a photographer, a curator, a university professor, and the founder of Mastooraat, an organisation that supported artists and performers in Afghanistan. Leaving was agonising. From childhood she had longed to see the land of her grandparents, and from the moment she first visited Afghanistan in 2015, she fell passionately in love with it. She had so many friends there. “This crazy connection with my roots,” as she puts it.

But in terms of her work there was a particular wrench. Inspired by the fact that whenever she travelled abroad, people would inevitably ask about the burqa, she had spent several years photographing the country’s supposedly “unseen” women with their faces uncovered, their bodies swathed in fabrics of every imaginable colour – a project she would now never finish.

In Paris, though, her mind turned to it again. Why shouldn’t she complete it with a series of portraits of women just like herself? After all, a person is no less an Afghan just because they are in exile. And what better way to celebrate aspects of a culture – singing, painting, acting – that are now banned by the Taliban? (In Kabul, people are struck now by the absence of music; the city’s soundtrack has no melodies.)

Atefeh Amini Afghan multidisciplinary artist, sits on a bed covered with brightly-covered paintings.

  • Atefeh Amini
    A multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and actor, Amini was born to Afghan parents in Iran and relocated to Afghanistan in 2020. In Kabul, she starred in several films, including The Dogs Didn’t Sleep Last Night, and was working on a film about her own experiences in Afghanistan, as well as a series of paintings exploring Afghan women’s lives. Fleeing the country last August, she left her film unrealised but managed to take some of her canvases with her to France. ‘They were the only things I brought,’ she says. ‘Everybody told me to leave them behind, but I couldn’t. My paintings are like children for me.’ She now lives in Lille, where she continues to paint. ‘It is the only way I can deal with my traumas,’ she says

To her original collection, then, she gradually added portraits of some of those who had fled Afghanistan in August 2021: women such as Aqila Rezai, a film star who had worked in Afghan cinema for 30 years, and Shegofa Ibrahimi, a theatre actor who left the country with nothing but a dress made for her by her mother; women like Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh doctor and one of the first non-Muslim members of the Afghan parliament, and Marzieh Hamidi, a member of the Afghan national taekwondo team.

“My aim has been to break the stereotype of the Afghan woman,” she says. “I have worked to portray all backgrounds, and all ethnicities. In every province, faces are different, some fair-skinned and some dark, and traditional dress is different in every province too. This project is all about the face: its power, its individuality, its ferocity.” But the series has also taken on extra meaning – a new resonance – since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan once again. “It’s the most valuable thing, because the pictures preserve things – ways of being, and of dressing – that are important culturally. To see a woman’s face at all …” Her voice trails off. There are no words. Even now, it all seems so unbelievable.

Marzieh Hamidi, a member of the Afghan national taekwondo team, who left the country in November 2021 with nothing but her medals.

  • Marzieh Hamidi
    When 20-year-old Hamidi left Afghanistan for France last November, among the few things she brought with her were her precious taekwondo medals. Born in Iran to Afghan parents who had fled the first Taliban regime, Hamidi fell in love with taekwondo at 15. She won several competitions in Iran before her family moved back to Kabul in 2019. Hamidi continued to train in Afghanistan despite discrimination and was part of the Afghan national team when the Taliban returned to power. In Paris, she is practising hard and hoping to compete in the 2024 Olympics. ‘I could never have imagined that one day I would have to leave my country because I want to be a champion of Afghanistan in sport and I can’t, because I am a woman,’ she says

And what of her own exile? The past year, she says, hasn’t been easy. “When I arrived I was in shock. It took two or three months to accept what had happened.” She knew no one, and spoke no French. “I’ve struggled a lot. But I have been made welcome, in a very honourable and respectful way. I hear that in England, Afghans are still living in hotel rooms. Here, I’m respected as an artist, I’ve been able to continue my work, and I have a platform from which to speak about the women of Afghanistan.” Will she stay? She sounds uncertain. “I love Paris. It’s amazing. I do feel France can be my home. But maybe I will go back to a central Asian country to live, just to be somewhere close to Afghanistan.”

What does she miss most? If I were able to visit, where would she tell me to go? She looks out of the window, towards the shimmering Seine. “I really miss my house,” she says, softly. “I miss the nights when my friends came over and we cooked food together. I miss the mountains. I could see the Hindu Kush from my window. I miss being able to travel to Bamiyan [a province in the highlands noted for its carved buddhas, the most famous of which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001]. That’s where I would tell you to go. To Bamiyan, for the buddhas, and the lakes, and the amazing food; and I would tell you to go to Herat too, to see the Citadel, and to eat an orange and some small fishes from the river … Yes, I really do miss every inch of my home.” Does she think she will see it all again one day? She nods. “One day.” It’s a matter of circumstance, not desire. When – if – the chance comes, just let them try to stop her.

Aqila Rezai, Afghan actress, stands next to a flight of stairs.

  • Aqila Rezai
    A journalism student who became an actor, Rezai [aka Agheleh Rezaie] remained in Afghanistan when the Taliban first came to power, even after the regime murdered her husband. In 2003, she starred in Samira Makhmalbaf’s film At Five in the Afternoon as a young Afghan woman going to school against her father’s will – Rezai attended the film’s premiere at Cannes, where it was awarded the Jury prize. ‘She was a superstar in Afghanistan, everyone knew her,’ says Fatimah Hossaini. Last August, Rezai left the country with her three sons and moved to Bordeaux. ‘She told me she didn’t realise that one day she would be coming back to France as a refugee,’ says Hossaini. ‘In exile, she feels like a dead soul across an ocean, a nobody, compared to the prestigious life she had in Afghanistan’



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Sweden to Send Up to 120 Military Instructors to UK to Train Ukraine’s Troops, Gov’t Says

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The Swedish military will send up to 120 military instructors to the United Kingdom to train Ukrainian soldiers, the Swedish Government Office said on Sunday.

Outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed the initiative to provide Ukrainian troops with basic military training in mid-June, with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days. Johnson also invited other nations in the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and Canada to join the initiative.

“Between 12 August and 31 December 2022, the Swedish Armed Forces will send up to 120 instructors to the UK to conduct basic military training for Ukrainian citizens, divided into several training courses,” the office said on the website, adding that “a maximum of 60 Swedish instructors will be in the UK simultaneously.”

Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand announced on Thursday that Ottawa will commit to the UK’s initiative by sending up to 225 military instructors.

The JEF is a UK-led expeditionary force consisting of Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. The force was launched in 2014. The coalition can be integrated with NATO or any other international security force in the shortest possible time should the necessity arise.



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