AVEZZANO, Italy – Two days after Taliban militants captured Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, Italian journalist Stefano Liberti received a message on Facebook: “Hello sir, we are in trouble. Can you help us?”
The news came last month from Susan, 21, the former captain of Bastan, a women’s soccer team that was once the subject of a documentary by Mr Liberti and his colleague Mario Poeta.
“Football is like food to me,” Susan later said, and the fear of never being able to play again under the Taliban rule “made me feel dead.” As with other people interviewed in this article, only you will First name used to protect their identity.
Thirteen days after contacting Mr. Liberti, Susan arrived in Italy with two of her teammates, her trainer and several family members. They landed at Rome’s main airport after a flight made possible by the two journalists, a Florence-based NGO, several Italian lawmakers and officials from the Italian Defense and Foreign Ministry.
The Herat group, a total of 16 people, crossed a tent camp of the Italian Red Cross in Avezzano in the Apennines, where more than 1,400 Afghans evacuated to Italy have been quarantined in recent weeks.
Like so many Afghans, the players have left behind the lives they built to begin the journey. Susan dropped out of her studies in English literature to leave the country with her parents, two sisters and a brother.
During the first Taliban era, women were excluded from sport. Even after the group was ousted in 2001, the sport remained a challenge for Afghan women and the men who helped them.
In the “Herat Football Club”, the journalists’ 2017 documentary about the team, coach Najibullah said he had been repeatedly threatened by the Taliban for coaching young women.
The return of the Taliban to power has not only raised fears that sport will be restricted again, but also that female athletes who have emerged over the past 20 years will face reprisals.
Khalida Popal, the former women’s national team captain who left Afghanistan in 2011 and now lives in Copenhagen, last month advised women who had played sports in Afghanistan via social and mainstream media to close their social media accounts and all online -Contents to remove presence and even burn their uniforms.
“They have no one to go to for protection, to ask for help when they are in danger,” she said in an interview with Reuters.
Another Herat player, Fatema, 19, has also left her studies in public administration and politics behind. She arrived in Italy with a brother, but her father fell ill trying to get through the crowds at Kabul airport, so he and her mother were left behind.
“They said to me: ‘You go, go for your future, for football, for your education,'” said Fatema.
“Playing football makes me feel strong and set an example to other girls to show that you can do anything you want,” said Fatema. She expressed the hope that this would also be the case in Italy. “I want to make it my country now,” she said.
The oldest of the three players, Maryam, 23, already had a degree in management and worked as a driving school teacher in Herat. She saw herself as a role model and inspired young women by setting a good example “because of football, because of driving a car”.
“I was an active member of society,” said Maryam, a role she was sure she couldn’t play under the Taliban.
Maryam was the only team member to arrive in Italy alone, although she said she hoped her family would come to her. “I find it hard to smile,” she said. “But I hope my future will be good, definitely better than under the Taliban.”
The players say many of their Herat teammates are still in Kabul, hoping to find transit to Australia, where some of the Afghan women’s national team have been evacuated.
Last Friday, the three women and their families were relocated to the Italian city of Florence. In Italy, the national football association, some football clubs and the captain of the national team, Sara Gama, have offered their support to the young Afghan players.
“There was a lot of solidarity,” said Mr Liberti, the documentary filmmaker.
And on a warm afternoon last week, Fatema and Maryam did something they had never done before: kicked around a ball with a couple of guys.
When asked how it felt, Maryam grinned broadly and raised her thumb.
“It felt good,” added Fatema. “People didn’t look at us like we’d done something wrong.”