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Diyora Shadijanova

As Afghans, we burn our identities to survive, and to resist

The Taliban are erasing us and our identities, but to survive, we hide or burn every trace of everything we have been and everything we wished to be.


01 Sep 2021

When the Taliban attacked my university, The American University of Afghanistan, five years ago on 24 August 2016, they burned a side of me that will never be healed. I survived the incident by chance as I left the university five minutes before it took place. I was with a friend whose brother did not leave in time. 

The trauma and pain that the Taliban inflicted on us that day has affected our lives in every way since. When I see images of the Taliban roaming around Kabul beating people, I see innocent faces of friends, colleagues, and loved ones they have taken away from me. 

I will never forgive the Taliban. But most of all, I will never forgive them for forcing us to burn our identities and histories to survive their brutality, if we do.

On 15 August, the day of the fall of Afghanistan, I was sitting with a friend in her apartment miles away from Kabul. My friend, an award-winning artist, was making non-stop phone calls to everyone she knew back at home. We both frantically looked at images of our country, videos and texts saying that the Taliban had reached the capital. 

“In the collective memory of Afghans, burning is not a new phenomenon”

With the fall of Kabul, we saw our dreams of a different Afghanistan falling too. In a matter of seconds, our biggest nightmare was taking place before our eyes. My friend called her family in Kabul and asked them to pack up her home and burn all her documents, books and awards. The day after, I received a message from another friend saying, “Do you know that they burned all our files and student documents at the American University of Afghanistan?”

In the collective memory of Afghans, burning is not a new phenomenon. In 1989 at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, when the Mujahideen captured large parts of Afghanistan, a generation, just like us, burned all they had and all that defined them. In 1996 when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, history repeated. Once again, in 2021, we are burning our official documents, books, photo albums, computers, music instruments, dresses, memories, sculptures, and paintings. But we also burn and bury so many unachieved wild dreams, our sense of identity and belonging, and many parts of our shaped and unshaped identities.

Burning: a decision we’re forced to make, between hoping to survive without our belongings, or taking that extra risk, not only for ourselves but our loved ones. I also see burning as resisting, the selfless act of denying a personal and family history, and the sudden removal of one’s trace, an uprooting of identity, lifestyle, and even values. All for the sake of survival. Our collective survival.

“I also see burning as resisting, the selfless act of denying a personal and family history, and the sudden removal of one’s trace, an uprooting of identity, lifestyle, and even values”

Living as an Afghan is living with a constant reminder to leave. The clock is always ticking. To leave as a refugee, or to leave to be a refugee, and even to live in your own country as a refugee. An Afghan life is about packing and learning to repack one’s entire life in a smaller size, over and over again. Miserably, we have become experts in this. 

These days, I am filled with innumerable emotions. I am angry at the corrupt cult we called the president and his team. I am also outraged at the world for abandoning Afghanistan and our people. I am angry because the louder we cry in our quest for help, the more deaf the world becomes. International leaders have failed us, and they continue doing so by further legitimising the Taliban..

Our people die every single day. They have died for the past 42 years, starting from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan up until now. Sadly, the bloodshed will continue. We live in a world that actively teaches us about lives that matter and those that don’t. Through institutions, social media, and news, we see that solidarity with the Afghan people is performative and basic humanity is lacking ground. How have we got to a place where dogs are being flown out of Afghanistan on privately chartered flights, while people are left behind?

“We have to do everything to not only stop this fire spreading, but also put it out”

More than anything, I feel sorry for our people. For myself, for my generation, who will be scattered around the world. I feel sorry for my parents’ generation who never breathe in a peaceful or calm Afghanistan. I am heartbroken for the new generation, for young boys and girls who will never understand what life before the Taliban would look like. Similar to millions of Afghans, I still live with the trauma of seeing the Taliban whipping and stoning women in the street. Just the thought of us and young girls actually living and growing within that horror paralyses my heart.

I, like many Afghans, have feared the Taliban’s return. We did everything we could to protest against the peace deal with the Taliban; we tried to hold the US accountable for its irresponsible withdrawal, but our voices were too weak, and the world was too deaf. Now, it’s too late. Taliban have seized the country without compromising anything or making any deals. And now we have to conceal our identities just to survive. 

It is upon the international community, world leaders, and humans worldwide to reject the Taliban and their actions. It is up to feminists around the world to see Taliban’s war on agency, mobility, and bodies of Afghan women as a feminist issue and fight against it.

It is upon every country involved in the misery of Afghanistan not to trust the Taliban, not give them any chance, and not fund them. 

In a matter of weeks, the Taliban have already forced people to throw their identities, hopes and dreams in a fire they’ve created. But we have to do everything to not only stop this fire spreading, but also put it out.