Zarifa Ghafari arrives hurriedly and out of breath at the Kabul hotel where she has asked for the interview to take place. The director of a Netflix documentary about her, In Her Hands, follows behind. To her left is the writer who will help her to turn her experiences into an autobiography, Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World. Now, both projects have already been announced, because the interview took place last March, a little over six months after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.
It is the first time that Ghafari, 30, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, has returned to her country following the traumatic events of the summer of 2021, when the Taliban launched their offensive, causing tens of thousands to flee. Ghafari and her family managed to escape via Turkey to Germany. Her return, far from being viewed just as an achievement, has sparked controversy on social media. Some critical commentators accuse her of downplaying the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan by deciding to go back, and even of whitewashing the Taliban.
She denies these claims. Over the past few years, Ghafari’s work has not been smiled upon by the fundamentalists. She served as mayor in Maidan Shahr, a small city around 30 miles to the southwest of Kabul and capital of the Maidan Wardak province. It was 2018 and she was 26 years old. Despite the many obstacles placed in her way, including protests and death threats, she remained in the post until she was promoted, a few months before the Taliban took Kabul, to a position in the Afghan Defense Ministry.
Her father, a veteran special forces commander under the previous government, was assassinated in 2020. The Taliban were widely suspected of involvement. Despite threats and harassment, Ghafari says she remains committed to her country and accepts the risks. As such, she wants to split her time between Europe, where her family still live, and Afghanistan, where the day before the interview she inaugurated a donor-funded center where women receive free education and workshops in handicrafts and tailoring, among other activities. Her long-term goal is for these centers to be set up in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Question. How did you start out in politics and manage to become a mayor in a country like Afghanistan?
Answer. I always wanted to work with, among and for people. Starting out in governmental work and taking on responsibilities was not an attempt to enter into politics. But ever since I was a child, I wanted to do something important. That’s why I joined the Afghan Youth Parliament after gaining a Master’s degree in Economics in India. I set up a radio station with the person who is now my life partner and later started an organization, and from there I applied to join a program to become a mayor.
Q. How do you remember your time in office?
A. It was really incredible. In three years, I grew at a pace that helped me not only to develop my career, but also to learn about my own society, my country and what my people wanted. I have always wanted to do so many things for other places, although I wasn’t able to because I was stuck within the context of the city. When I left my post, four months before the fall of Kabul, I hoped that another woman would succeed me.
Q. Being a female mayor of a conservative city must have been very challenging.
A. When I was mayor, any little problem within the city became a huge disaster for everybody, and I was subjected to a lot of attacks, on social media and at events… “The mayor doesn’t work; she isn’t up to the job.” Now everything is a huge disaster and nobody is saying anything. That leads me to believe that I was criticized simply because I was a woman.
Q. You also faced threats from the Taliban.
A. Yes, I have been attacked three times and my father was assassinated – by the Taliban, according to information we received from the government at the time. I had to face a lot of things as the mayor of a very conservative Afghan city. Firstly, to foster trust between the people and myself. Secondly, dealing with the extremist ideologies of those who, when talking to women, were only thinking about cooking and babies. Speaking to them and giving them orders was extremely problematic. The insecurity caused by the Taliban, having a mafia inside the city, with a group of very corrupt local governors within the office, gave me a lot of headaches.
Q. The biggest of those came in August, 2021. What was your experience of the fall of Kabul?
A. On 15 August at 11.30am I was still in my office, here in Kabul, at the Defense Ministry. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I finally came to terms with it in the middle of the night, when Al Jazeera broadcast live footage from inside the presidential palace. It wasn’t because of the change of government, because it doesn’t matter to me who is the king or what government is in place. It was a matter of my rights, my work, my struggles. I saw a big change coming, that would affect my life and the life of my father. My sisters wouldn’t be able to enjoy a free life, I wouldn’t be able to walk the streets like a normal citizen. That was the moment when I broke down and cried. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Q. You decided to pack up and run.
A. I left the country to provide my family with a safe haven. We managed to get to the airport with help from the Turkish Embassy. It was difficult, I wore a black hijab to hide my face. From there we went to Islamabad and from there to Turkey. I arrived in Germany on August 22 with my whole family. After the death of my father, I was responsible for them as I am the eldest. My mother was three years old when she lost her father, and she had just lost her husband. I didn’t want them to pay for my decisions.
Q. You are back in Afghanistan now for the first time since the Taliban regained power. What are your feelings?
A. I admit there are a lot of problems. But other things lend you the power of self-resilience. I have seen girls walking through the door of Kabul University and that has given me a huge shot of energy, it has been the best medicine for all this pain. At the same time, I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could go to an office, any type of office, and work, maybe they would have enough to eat, at least once a day.
I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could work maybe they would have enough to eat
Q. High school students have not been able to resume classes. Could that also happen at the universities?
A. We’ll see what happens. For now, this vision of women going to university has given me strength to resist. People – especially outside of Afghanistan – talk of armed resistance, of war… but I think resistance through education works better. Sometimes you don’t have to die carrying a gun: you simply get ready and leave the house. Like me, who has risked everything. It’s not easy. I came back, I’m here and so far, nothing has happened to me. But of course, I see a lot of problems and difficulties, and I am going to talk about them. Like yesterday: in an interview on a national television channel, I was asked about women’s rights. I urged the Taliban leaders to release all female prisoners. No one dares to do that. It doesn’t bother me; I am prepared to risk everything because I believe I am doing the right thing. That is how we must resist.
Q. Did you have to come to some agreement to guarantee your safety in order to return to Afghanistan?
A. I don’t need to come to agreements with anybody to return to my own home. I’ve already told everybody, in all of the interviews I’ve done since I’ve been here, that if anyone is able to prove that I have made some kind of arrangement with the Taliban, I’m ready to pay whatever they want. But I don’t need to do that: this is my country. Of course, the Taliban know that I’m here; I went through immigration control at Kabul Airport when I arrived.
Q. There has been some criticism on social media about your return to Afghanistan.
A. There are a lot of rumors surrounding me, especially from those who are not in Afghanistan. People think I earn a lot of money from donations and that’s why I’ve come back, maybe to give it to the Taliban. But a lot of women believe in what I am doing. What I have been saying over the past few days in Afghanistan is the same thing I have been saying since I left the country, before the previous government fell.
Q. Access to EL PAÍS is blocked in Afghanistan because of international sanctions against the Taliban. Is there a message you’d like to send to the international community, foreign governments or NGOs?
A. I’d like the international community to pay attention. I share the pain of the Ukrainian people; I feel hurt for Ukraine and its people. But at the same time, the same crisis is taking place in my country. We need aid to be delivered to people on the ground, especially to those women who don’t have anyone to look out for them.
It is 3.30pm and Suna Hamanawa, 25, is doing what she and dozens of other Afghan mothers do most days: whiling her time away on a park bench in Viktoria Square, a scruffy plaza in central Athens, as her children play around her. Like almost every other asylum seeker, she is relieved to be in Greece.
“We’re better here, we’re safer here even though me and my husband and our first little one [initially] spent 10 months in Moria,” she says, screwing up her face at the memory of the notoriously overcrowded and fire-ravaged refugee camp on Lesbos.
“But every day, in its own way, is a fresh hell. The Greek government does nothing. It just keeps saying ‘wait, wait, wait’. And that’s what we do all day, every day. Wait for our papers, wait for our travel documents. Wait for freedom.”
Hamanawa, who arrived in Lesbos with her husband, Mohammed, in a dinghy from Turkey in 2018, waited four years to become one of the estimated 28,500 Afghans to secure refugee status – a protracted period of legal limbo that is vastly at odds with other refugees, not least those from Ukraine.
Of the 192 Afghans monitored by the organisation’s mental health teams between April 2021 and March 2022, about 97% had reported symptoms of depression, while 50% had considered suicide, the IRC report said.
“Many Afghans fleeing conflict and persecution in their own country think their troubles will be over once they reach Europe … This is simply not the case,” says Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the IRC’s Greece director.
“Instead, people face the stark reality of violent pushbacks from Greek borders, months or years living in fear of being sent back to Turkey or Afghanistan, where they could face untold horrors, extended periods trapped in prison-like reception conditions, far from towns and cities and an alarming lack of support to begin rebuilding their lives,” she says.
For the estimated 70,000 Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Greece, it has been a different story. After Russia’s invasion on 24 February, the EU moved quickly to issue a temporary protection directive to safeguard the rights of people desperate to leave the war-torn country.
It was vital, said the IRC report, that Afghans were also guaranteed access to full and fair asylum procedures and given “dignified” support with accommodation and integration.
“While the Greek government has welcomed refugees from Ukraine, by efficiently registering them, issuing legal documents and allowing immediate access to employment, Afghans in Greece, alongside other asylum seekers and refugees, continue to be isolated from the Greek society in which they seek to rebuild their lives,” the report’s authors wrote. “Even after receiving status, refugees have limited integration support.”
The biggest barrier for Afghans claiming asylum is the Greek government’s controversial decision to label Turkey a “safe third country” for people not only from Afghanistan but also from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. The decision has prevented thousands of people from being able to explain why they need international protection.
“We’ve been here for four years,” says Khorshid Ahmadi, 26, as she plays with her children in Viktoria Square. “My family’s request for asylum has been rejected three times. They keep saying we should return to Turkey, even if Turkey doesn’t take anyone back from Greece.”
As a result, she says, neither she, her husband nor their five children have legal status or any right to housing or cash assistance.
Greece’s centre-right government insists it pursues a “tough but fair” migration and asylum policy. Accusations of pushbacks – despite overwhelming evidence – have been strongly denied. But keeping asylum seekers at bay remains a priority. In September, the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, noted that the country had blocked about 50,000 migrants from entering Greece in August alone.
Amid renewed tensions with Turkey, the public order minister in Athens claimed last month that every night about 1,500 people gathered at the land border with Turkey were attempting to cross as a result of Ankara’s policy to “weaponise” migration and push asylum seekers into Greek territory.
As one of Europe’s most southerly states, Greece was the main entry point for more than 800,000 Syrians when the refugee crisis first engulfed the continent in 2015. After the adoption of a controversial pact aimed at stemming flows between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, the influx dropped steeply.
As patrols have been reinforced, with the help of the EU’s border agency Frontex, the number has fallen further in recent years, particularly arrivals on the north Aegean islands facing the Turkish coast, where most asylum seekers at the height of the crisis were located. The decline prompted the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to boast last week that smuggling networks had been largely cracked.
International bodies have echoed the IRC in rebuking Athens for resorting to tactics of brute force to keep asylum seekers out.
Concluding a 10-day fact-finding tour of Greece in June, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, accused the Mitsotakis government of creating a “climate of fear”, not only for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing poverty and persecution but also for groups defending migrants’ rights on the ground. Illegal evictions of asylum seekers at land and sea borders had become a general policy in Greece, she said.
Last week, Mitarachi insisted the government would continue to replace open-air camps on frontline islands, such as Lesbos, with barbed-wire encircled “closed controlled” access centres, and would push ahead with plans to extend a border fence along the Evros land frontier with Turkey.
Mohamad Mirzay, Greece’s Afghan community spokesperson, who arrived in the country in 2006 at the age of 14, says: “Every day, we hear from families back home of Afghans being lost at the border.
“One of our biggest problems is that a lot of young Afghans whose asylum claims are rejected get into drugs, a problem we are now trying to address as a community. It’s all so very hard. Very few want to stay here, they don’t want to endanger their future. For sure, you could say, Ukrainians get very different treatment.”
Sofia Kouvelaki, who heads the Home project, an NGO that supports unaccompanied minors, said: “Ukrainian refugees have proved a point. In Greece, and in the EU, they have shown that if we want to integrate we can, and if we want to welcome people with a human face we can do that too.”
The GERB and Union of Democratic Forces coalition currently has 25.64% of the votes, while the centrist We Continue the Change (PP) party, co-led by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, is second with 20.87%.In June, the Bulgarian parliament cast a vote of no-confidence in the coalition government and the cabinet led by Prime Minister Petkov was forced to resign. Attempts to form a new government failed.Bulgaria held three snap parliamentary elections last year, as no party was able to form a government. In November 2021, lawmakers finally formed a four-party coalition between PP, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There Is Such a People (ITN), and Democratic Bulgaria, ending a month-long government crisis. The elections saw an all-time low turnout of less than 40%.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Opposition party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), chaired by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, is coming ahead in the snap parliamentary elections, Bulgaria’s Central Election Commission said after processing over 51% of the ballots.
The GERB and Union of Democratic Forces coalition currently has 25.64% of the votes, while the centrist We Continue the Change (PP) party, co-led by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, is second with 20.87%.
In June, the Bulgarian parliament cast a vote of no-confidence in the coalition government and the cabinet led by Prime Minister Petkov was forced to resign. Attempts to form a new government failed.
Bulgaria held three snap parliamentary elections last year, as no party was able to form a government. In November 2021, lawmakers finally formed a four-party coalition between PP, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There Is Such a People (ITN), and Democratic Bulgaria, ending a month-long government crisis. The elections saw an all-time low turnout of less than 40%.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made history two decades ago, when he became the first president of Brazil without a university degree. It was a historic milestone. Lula – as he is popularly known – was the first worker to reach the summit of power in one of the most unequal and classist countries in the world. Now the 76-year-old has the opportunity to return to power and rewrite the last chapter of his political history. The leftist leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) is poised to the first round of the Brazilian presidential election on Sunday. If the polls are correct, Lula will defeat Brazil’s President Jair Messias Bolsonaro by a wide margin – a victory that could heal the trauma caused by the 2016 impeachment of former PT president Dilma Rousseff and consolidate the leftist shift in Latin America, where the left has made gains in Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.
The main question is whether Lula will win more than 50% of valid votes (not counting blank or invalid votes) on Sunday. If he achieves this, he will win the election outright and avoid a runoff vote against Bolsonaro on October 30. According to the last voter intention poll on Saturday, Lula is predicted to win 50% of the vote and Bolsonaro 36%.
While Bolsonaro won the support of Brazilian soccer player Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, who encouraged his followers on TikTok to vote for the former military general, Lula has been backed by iconic singer-songwriter Chico Buarque. On Saturday, the Brazilian performer shared a message on Instagram, in which he called on his followers to vote for Lula – even if they didn’t like him – because Brazil’s democracy was in danger. According to Buarque, whose parents helped found the PT during the military dictatorship, Sunday’s vote, was about “saving democracy.”
Another question hanging over the election is whether Bolsonaro will accept the results. The far-right leader has raised doubts about the credibility of Brazil’s electronic voting system, even though it has been working without incident for 25 years. Many Bolsonaro supporters – who make up a third of the electorate – believe the system is rigged against Bolsonaro. And they also question the polls, which for months have given Lula a clear lead. Bolsonaro’s constant attacks against the justice system, the free press and anyone he considers an opponent have slowly eroded Brazil’s democracy. In the lead-up to the October vote, many in Brazil have expressed concerns that Bolsonaro will falsely claim the election has been stolen, which could lead to a constitutional breakdown.
For Lula, the vote is a dispute between democracy and barbarism. For Bolsonaro, it is a fight between good and evil. Around 156 million people are eligible to vote on Sunday. Voters will cast their ballot for president, and also vote for Congress deputies, a third of the Senate, as well as the governors and state legislatures of Brazil’s 27 states.
Under Brazil’s convoluted electoral regulations, political rallies are not allowed the day before an election, but candidates are allowed to parade in public. On Saturday, Lula appeared in a kind of Pope mobile on São Paulo’s main avenue, while Bolsonaro led a group of bikers through the north of the city.
Lula’s rise to power is an incredible story, but his image was tarnished by the Car Wash (Lava Jato) corruption scandal. In 2018, he was convicted of corruption and imprisoned for 20 months. The convictions against him – which have since been overturned – prevented him from contesting the last presidential election in 2018, in which he was also the favorite. Lula has always defended his innocence.
Lula is the son of illiterate parents and the youngest of seven children. Born in the interior of Pernambuco state, a land ravaged by drought, he was seven when he traveled with his mother and siblings in a van for 13 days to the booming city of São Paulo as part of an exodus of northeasterners to the south in 1952. His father, Aristides, was a longshoreman who struggled to feed all his offspring while treating them with a cruelty bordering on sadism, as recounted in his biography, Lula, Volume 1. Life was hard, but there were opportunities. Lula took advantage of them. He worked as a shoeshine and errand boy before entering a vocational school, his springboard to a job as a lathe operator in which he lost a finger; Bolsonaro often calls him “nine fingers.”
Lula became a union leader, and after the military seized power in 1964, he led major strikes against the dictatorship. The PT leader first ran for president in 1989. He was defeated three times before he was finally elected in 2003. His two terms in office (2003-2010) were a time of prosperity for Brazil, thanks to Chinese demand for raw materials. Lula was able to implement ambitious social programs for the historically marginalized. “We put the poor in the budget,” he likes to say. The lives of millions of people greatly improved under his administration. Electricity and appliances that once seemed like luxuries reached the homes of Brazil’s poor. Thanks to that prosperity, many poor people flew in an airplane for the first time. The children of domestic workers were able to go to university – to the ire of the elites, who argued that they had displaced their children.
Lula’s Brazil won over the world and former US president Barack Obama, who, in 2009, described Lula as “the most popular politician on Earth.” The following year, Lula left office with an 87% approval rating.
Lula’s 2022 presidential is focused on bringing back that Brazil – not the Brazil that was seen later, under Rousseff, who he appointed to continue his legacy. Rousseff’s Brazil is linked with systemic corruption, recession and an impeachment that ended 14 years of progressive governments. This context fostered in Brazil a deep hatred of the political class, particularly of the PT. Bolsonaro was able to skillfully ride this wave of discontent to his shock win at the 2018 election.
Today, Brazil is facing another economic crisis. More than 33 million Brazilians are going hungry, unemployment is around 9%, inflation has reached 8.7% and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that gross domestic product (GDP) will only increase this year by a marginal 1.7%.
If he loses, Bolsonaro will be the first president not to be re-elected so far this century. His inhumane and disastrous management of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed 670,000 Brazilians, is the main reason why many former supporters now oppose him. To survive in office, Bolsonaro turned to political parties that offer parliamentary support to the highest bidder, and launched a generous economic aid program to help 20 million poor people. The economy survived the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is still flailing.
Upon coming to power, the ultra-conservative leader, who has expressed his admiration for Brazil’s military dictatorship, set about fulfilling his pledges to dismantle environmental policy, facilitate the sale of arms and place a “terribly evangelical” judge on the Supreme Court. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation has accelerated, the environment has been devastated and the country is more diplomatically isolated than ever.
For many, Lula is seen as a savior. For others, he is the lesser evil and the only politician capable of defeating Bolsonaro. To improve his chances, Lula picked Geraldo Alckmin, a former center-right figure and staunch supporter of Rousseff’s impeachment, as his vice-presidential candidate. The PT leader is promising to bring back prosperity to Brazil, but has not detailed how he intends to resurrect an economy that been stagnating for decades. Nor has he explained how he plans to fund his ambitious programs to lift Brazilians out of poverty.
Lula’s team has reserved Paulista Avenue for Sunday night, but Lula will only make an appearance if he wins the 50% plus one needed to win the election in the first round. Bolsonaro supporters also wanted to gather at the central avenue, but will only be able to do so in the unlikely event that Bolsonsaro wins the election in the first round. A quick count is expected thanks to the electronic voting system, which now – thanks to Bolsonaro – is only a source of pride for half of the country.