Three years ago, Salima Mazari knew very little about the violence that has plagued her country for decades. Born and raised as a refugee in Iran, she was sheltered from the worst of the conflict, despite enduring other hardships familiar to millions of Afghans forced to leave their country.
But she returned, Ms Mazari, 39, told The National, because she did not want to be a refugee any longer and wanted to help rebuild her country.
"After I finished university, I started work in Iran. But nine years ago, I returned to Afghanistan with my husband and children to serve my country," she said.
"Over the years, I worked in various management roles, most recently as an administrator at a private university. I applied through the civil services commission when the vacancy for the district governor opened up for my home district of Charkint. I knew I had a chance because of my qualifications and years of management experience."
Ms Mazari got the job, becoming the first female governor of the district in the northern province of Balkh, where a resurgent Taliban insurgency threatens the local population. The post brought her face to face with the violence in her homeland.
“I had never even been close to a gun before this,” she said.
As a district governor, she was given two soldiers as bodyguards, but they were “only provided with really old AK47s”.
Wanting to make sure the weapons still worked, she went with the bodyguards to the outskirts of the town to test the rifles. “When one of them fired the gun towards the mountains, it was the first time I had heard a gunshot up close. It was such a horrible sound, I passed out from shock. When I came to, I was on the ground,” she said, laughing at the memory.
Ms Mazari has become much more familiar with weapons since those early days in office in 2018. “There are many days now when I pick up a gun and join the men in battle, but mostly I help co-ordinate between the people and government forces,” she said.
But she had to fight a battle before even getting the job, despite scoring the highest marks in her application.
"In Afghanistan, corruption is so deep that if you’re trying to enter with only talent on your side, it is very hard,” she said, recalling the effort it took to ensure her application was not dismissed for lacking the financial and political backing of other candidates.
The job has been nothing like what she expected. “The role involves a lot of military undertaking. I was hoping to bring about development projects, but much of our resources are directed towards maintaining security,” she said.
Charkint is surrounded by Taliban fighters who often launch raids on the district, capturing police checkposts on the way. When they take control of villages, they force people to pay taxes and plunder army and police posts for weapons and other items.
Under Ms Mazari's leadership the villagers have armed themselves and repelled many Taliban attacks. But they have to be on constant guard and put their own resources into ensuring the insurgents are kept at bay. Many residents sold their livestock to raise money for weapons to join her in battle.
Several times while speaking to The National, Ms Mazari had to pause to take calls from the Charkint police chief and members of a force raised from locals who support her push against the Taliban.
“It is the corruption among government officials I struggle with the most. Police commanders refuse to do their duty to protect the people, who are left to defend themselves," she said.
“In such a situation, I usually just pick up the gun and move forward myself; then they are forced to follow me.”
The soldiers are not put off by having a female commander on the front line, she said. “I know my presence in the battles makes a difference; for the soldiers and the people to see that I am with them in the fight for the republic and not sacrificing them, it provides a kind of moral support.”
However, Ms Mazari does not want the residents or herself to continue fighting. Neither is she waiting for the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government.
Instead, she has reached out directly to the Taliban fighters in her district to begin peace negotiations.
“A little over a month ago the Taliban attacked one of the villages that stopped paying them taxes, killing even the women and children. The aftermath was horrifying and the survivors wanted revenge,” she said.
But knowing that the insurgents had better resources and further fighting would cause more bloodshed, she sent a message to some of the fighters through village elders and religious leaders, appealing to their shared faith.
“I told them we are from the same Islam; if you are talking about hijab, we wear hijab too; if you are talking praying, we pray five times too. If you’re talking about corruption, I am fighting it too,” she said.
“But the Taliban are only killing, where in Islam does it allow someone to kill a mother and child?”
As a result of her efforts, 125 Taliban fighters surrendered to her last month, in exchange for clemency.
“You have to realise that these are mostly youth who have been brainwashed and then sent to Pakistan for training. They return armed and attack their own people,” Ms Mazari said.
She is confident that she can convert more fighters to join the republic.
“What I learnt is that a group will be defeated if you get one – a link in the chain – to surrender, someone who can influence others; the rest will follow.”
But it is up to the government to ensure that these fighters remained loyal to the Afghan flag, she said.
“These young men risked their lives by surrendering. They are now enemies of the Taliban who will seek revenge on them.”
In recent months she has been travelling to Kabul in hopes of securing backing from security officials to give the former insurgents some support and create employment opportunities for them.
Ms Mazari is convinced that dialogue is better than violence when it comes to taking on the Taliban, along with gaining the support of the public.
“And the only way to win the people’s trust is to show honesty in your work and intention,” said the self-taught people’s commander.
“I find that when I am honest with people they always respond in kind.”