Taliban takeover one year on: Afghanistan's only female guide is now running virtual tours

Although she is adjusting to her new life in Italy, Fatima Haidari says her heart remains in her home country

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When the Taliban seized control of Kabul last year, Fatima Haidari was forced to leave her loved ones behind and flee Afghanistan.

She was in danger as the only female tour guide in a country now in the clutches of a regime known for its brutality against women. With her story of success in the country’s tourism industry having been published around the world, she was believed to be a target for the extremist group.

She initially left her home in Herat and moved to the capital. However, within one month Kabul had also fallen and Haidari had to escape. What followed was a nail-biting journey including several attempts to reach the airport, death threats from the Taliban and the help of foreign soldiers.

Today, almost one year after arriving in Italy and having endured more horrors than most could imagine in a lifetime, Haidari is turning 24.

However, just like last year's birthday spent hiding in Kabul, she isn't celebrating. Though, she does have one birthday wish — that the Taliban will allow girls in Afghanistan to go back to school.

According to Unicef, more than 850,000 girls have been prevented from attending secondary school since the Taliban seized control.

One of the lucky ones who managed to flee, Haidari has been given a fully funded scholarship to one of the best universities in Italy on a course she’s looking forward to starting after the summer. She’s also continuing to do what she does best, guide travellers around Afghanistan, even if it is virtually.

A 1,400-year-old mosque, ancient bazaars and traditional teahouses

Picking up her guide duties with Untamed Borders, a travel operator specialising in trips to less-trodden parts of the world, Haidari's next virtual tour will take place on August 23. Travellers keen to find out more about Afghanistan can join her for an exploration of Herat, the country's third-largest city.

Designed to give participants a glimpse into her home country, the tours — which Haidari has already hosted a handful of — involve stories about Afghanistan, its people, its culture and its tumultuous history.

Guiding guests virtually though the city, which is located more than 800 kilometres from Kabul, she takes travellers to the 1,400-year-old Great Mosque, through the Herat citadel and to the city’s bustling bazaars and traditional teahouses. Haidari explains how her interaction with lovers of travel over the years prompted her to launch the digital experiences.

“Travellers are always going to be the people who see Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, differently," she says. "You cannot feel or you do not understand a country's residents until you visit them, that’s when you see, that’s when you get an idea. And, when the Taliban took Afghanistan, it was the travellers, the people who had been here, who I saw working so hard to help.”

For James Willcox, founder of Untamed Borders, the virtual tour is a chance to remember the cultural wealth of Afghanistan, despite the ongoing situation.

“Nothing beats being somewhere in person, but the chance for Fatima to be able to continue showing her home town to our guests, even though she cannot be there in person, is important in its own right," he says. "We’ve taken guests to Herat since 2008 and it’s an incredible city, with Afghanistan’s most architecturally complete medieval city centre.

“Much of its most striking architecture dates back to the Timurid Empire and was actually commissioned by a woman — Queen Gawhar Shad, the wife of Timurid ruler Shahrukh. Having a female tour guide in Afghanistan gives guests an additional insight into a part of life often unseen there — and that's the life of women in Afghanistan.”

Shining a light on turmoil in Afghanistan

These are no ordinary tours. Haidari also takes the opportunity to tell people about the situation in Afghanistan today — something she describes as nothing other than “hell”.

She says the Taliban are “forcing women to marry them and sexually or physically abusing them". She adds: "Women are not allowed to go out without a chaperone, people lost their jobs, things are three times more expensive and women are now only allowed to be housewives, with no access to education."

Shining a light on what’s happening at the hands of the extremist group also gives Haidari the opportunity to raise awareness of the plight of girls trapped in the country. The tours cost $60, and money raised helps to pay for books, stationery and teachers’ fees in a country where girls are largely banned from going to school.

Travellers are always going to be the people who see Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, differently.
Fatima Haidari

Haidari is more determined than ever to help women in Afghanistan receive an education.

Born in a rural village in the Ghor province, one of the country’s poorest regions, she knows first-hand what it's like to grow up in a place where education for girls is almost non-existent.

One of seven children, Haidari refused to follow the same path of her sisters who were both married by the age of 15 and instead begged her parents to send her to school.

Burning books as the Taliban took over

When the family moved to Herat in the wake of Taliban attacks, she taught herself at home and graduated from Herat University. During her studies, she also started a voluntary teaching group for girls. However, after the Taliban takeover, Haidari and 10 female colleagues were forced to burn books and papers. They were also forced to close the teaching centre. In January , some of her students returned to the classroom, this time in a secret location, and started learning again under the guidance of one of Haidari’s friends.

“The girls send me videos about their writing and their stories, and it makes me so happy. Inside all the limitations, the darkness and the restrictions, these girls are acting like a light,” she says.

As well as helping to fund the education programme, the tours have also helped Haidari find some peace. “It’s very healing. I feel like I'm doing my job in Afghanistan, just guiding my guests all around,” she says.

“It was a hard decision to leave, because I have done so many things out there. The hardest part was to leave all my loved ones behind in the worst situation of our lives, just to save my life. But I knew that if the Taliban captured me, they would also hurt my family and my loved ones.”

However, her escape from Kabul was anything but simple.

Death threats and panic attacks

Armed with a visa secured by her former employer, Haidari was booked on a flight to Pakistan. As fate would have it, the day she was due to depart was the same day the Taliban captured Kabul and, instead of flying to safety, she found herself wandering the streets of the capital.

“I walked from 8am to 8pm, all the time thinking it was the last day of my life and wondering what it would be like to die at the hands of the Taliban,” she says. Later that evening, she received a call from someone at the home of her former tour operator, telling her to seek refuge there. Two days later, they helped to book her on to a flight to the US.

“We tried to get to the airport, but it was so crowded," she says. “There were so many Taliban members, gunshots and crowds of people, some were injured, others had lost their children and many had been killed. A woman I was with fainted because she couldn’t breathe and when we tried to help her, a Taliban member stopped me with a gun in my face and threatened to kill me. It was so horrible, we decided we couldn’t try any more.”

Dejected, the women returned to the city. But two days later, Haidari was ready to try again — this time with a group of about 25 people who were booked on a flight to Poland. Once more, the situation was too dangerous and after several attempts to make it to the airport, the group decided to retreat.

Stopping for water on their way back into the city, they chanced upon a government official who offered to help them reach the airport safely, in exchange for money.

It’s like I left one part of myself in Afghanistan and one part is here. Sometimes my heart is completely out there in Afghanistan.
Fatima Haidari

After handing over the cash, the group successfully reached an area of the airport guarded by foreign military. After a few hours, an Italian soldier asked for their passports and ushered them through the gate to a waiting plane.

Haidari arrived in Italy on August 23 to start her new life; a life now plagued with sleepless nights and panic attacks.

“The last panic attack happened not very long ago. When they happen, I lose control of myself. Last time, I went outside on the street where cars were driving up and down, and I was just asking anyone to help me," she says. "I thought somebody's trying to hurt me, somebody's trying to kill me.”

An unrelenting sense of guilt also consumes her. “I feel guilty for leaving all those people behind in the days they really needed me," she says. "It’s like I left one part of myself in Afghanistan and one part is here. Sometimes my heart is completely out there in Afghanistan, thinking of the women and the situation out there.”

A reimagined bucket list

With near-perfect English and a smile concealing the terror she has lived, Haidari is all too aware of the positives of her situation.

“The people here have been nice to me and really try to make me feel at home," she says. "And, I am a person who loves culture, so of course there’s plenty of that and amazing tourist attractions for me here in Italy.”

Her passion for travel remains pure. “Travelling is understanding the world. Not going to places only to enjoy them, but also to understand them," she says. "When you go to a country, you experience the life of a real local. The world of travel is an amazing world and I'm so, so happy I’m in this world.”

However, with her entire family remaining in Afghanistan, Haidari’s travel goals have changed.

“When I was younger, I read about a woman who wanted to go to Tibet but she was not allowed, so she learnt the language and the culture, and managed to go in as if she were Tibetan," she says. "I always said that one day I would do the same and go discover Tibet in my own way.

"Now, that’s not my dream. Now, going back to Afghanistan, to my country, is my dream — even if it means going as a tourist.”

Updated: August 17, 2022, 4:22 AM