Safe in Spain, Afghan women’s basketball star speaks out about Taliban takeover

As captain of Afghanistan's wheelchair basketball team and a women's rights activist, Nilofar Bayat fled for her life when the Taliban took over, seeking safety in Spain where she hopes to soon be back on the court.

Safe in Spain, Afghan women's basketball star speaks out about Taliban takeover
The captain of Afghanistan's women's wheelchair basketball team Nilofar Bayat poses in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Speaking to reporters in the northern city of Bilbao just days after arriving on a Spanish military plane, this 28-year-old athlete spoke of her
shock at how quickly the Taliban swept into the capital Kabul and of her struggle to get out.

“I really want the UN and all countries to help Afghanistan.. because the Taliban are the same as they were 20 years ago,” she said.

“If you see Afghanistan now, it’s all men, there are no women because they don’t accept woman as part of society.”

After a nerve-wracking escape, she and her husband Ramesh, who plays for Afghanistan’s national basketball team, landed at an airbase just outside Madrid on Friday and are now starting a new life in Bilbao.

“When the Taliban came and I saw them around my home, I was scared and I started to think about myself and my family,” said Bayat after the insurgents swept into the capital on August 15.

“I’ve been in too many videos and spoken about the Taliban, about all I’ve done in basketball and working for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

There can be a big case for the Taliban to kill me and my family.”

With the help of the Spanish embassy she managed to secure a seat on a plane, and set off for the airport where she found scenes of chaos with the Taliban shooting and beating people to stop them reaching the airport.

“It was a really difficult day.. I’ve never seen this much danger in my country. I cried a lot, not because they beat me or my husband, but because of who had taken control of the country,” explained this former law student.

Nilofar Bayat (R) and her husband Ramish pose following a press conference in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao.

‘Others are still there’

With the help of several German soldiers, they managed to get in but spent two days there in the blazing Kabul sun with “nothing to sleep on.. and not enough food” before finally being flown out on a Spanish military plane.

But she’s acutely aware that in getting away, she was one of the lucky ones.

“I’m luckier than other Afghan people in that I’ve left and am here and can start a new life. But I’m just one person, others are still there,” she said.

When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, a rocket hit Bayat’s family home when she was just two-years-old. In the attack, her brother was killed, her father was injured and she lost a leg.

“They changed my life forever, they caused pain and something that I’ll carry forever in my life,” said Bayat.

“I am the best proof of how dangerous the Taliban are.. and how living in Afghanistan is hard and difficult: there is no future and no hope.”

In a country where many people have been left with disabilities due to the attacks or polio, Bayat became interested in wheelchair basketball after seeing the men play and went on to play a key role in setting up an Afghan women’s team.

“When I’m in the gym and playing basketball, I forget what’s happening in my country and also that I have a disability,” she said.

She came to Spain with the help of a Spanish journalist friend and has received “many offers” to play with wheelchair basketball teams, including onefrom Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, with whom she hopes to start playing “as soon as possible”.

READ ALSO: ‘Time is running out’: Spain warns it will have to leave people behind in Afghanistan

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Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.