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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As it happened: Spain MPs use Catalan, Basque, Galician in Congress

Spanish lawmakers were from Tuesday allowed to address parliament in Catalan, Basque or Galician, fulfilling a demand from Catalan separatists whose support is crucial for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to remain in power.

As it happened: Spain MPs use Catalan, Basque, Galician in Congress

But the measure was fiercely opposed by the right, with lawmakers from far-right Vox walking out as members of Sánchez’s Socialist party addressed the assembly in Galician.

They also returned the earpieces that would allow them to hear a simultaneous translation.

“We don’t want to be complicit of the breakdown of our co-existence,” the head of Vox’s parliamentary group, Maria Jose Millan, told reporters.

Vox rejects Spain’s current system of devolved regional powers and has proposed a national referendum to ban separatist parties.

The main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) meanwhile demanded that the use of minority languages in the assembly only be allowed once the rules on their use are formally approved on Thursday.

Catalan, Basque and Galician, which are spoken in various regions, are all classed as co-official languages in Spain, where the official language is castellano, or Castilian Spanish.

Alongside Spanish, these languages are taught in schools and used in the respective regional administrations and parliaments in Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque Country in the north and Galicia in the northwest.

Being permitted to use these languages in debates in the Spanish parliament has long been a demand of nationalist parties in these regions.

“This is a historic day… Finally the rights of Catalan speakers are being respected,” Miriam Nogueras, a Catalan lawmaker from Carles Puigdemont’s hardline JxCat party, said outside parliament.

READ MORE: Why Spain has allowed regional languages to be spoken in Congress

JxCat unexpectedly emerged as kingmaker following Spain’s inconclusive July 23rd election.

It has since laid out a string of demands in return for its support to ensure Sánchez, currently in an interim role, can stay on as prime minister.

Allowing the use of such languages in the assembly was one of JxCat’s demands in exchange for its support to ensure the election of Francina Armengol as parliamentary speaker, the candidate from Sánchez’s Socialist Party.

Puigdemont headed Catalonia’s regional government during the botched 2017 independence bid that sparked Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades.

He fled Spain shortly after to avoid prosecution and has since lived in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Spain’s EU language debate

JxCat also demanded Madrid ensure that Catalan, Basque and Galician were recognised as official languages of the European Union, a question which was being debated by the bloc’s top diplomats earlier on Tuesday.

The EU currently has 24 official languages, although there are around 60 minority and regional languages in the bloc.

The inclusion of any additional official languages must be agreed unanimously by all 27 member states.

But the proposal drew objections, with the EU debate postponed as ministers from the bloc sought more time to mull over the issues.

READ MORE: EU States reluctant to add Catalan as official language

Spain’s general election resulted in a hung parliament.

The right-wing Popular Party won most votes and its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has been tasked with forming a government, despite lacking a working majority within the 350-seat assembly.

Should he lose the parliamentary vote to become prime minister on September 27th, the task of forming a government will pass to Sánchez.

Sánchez will then have two months to piece together a governing majority – which will only be possible with support from JxCat’s seven lawmakers.

If he also fails, Spain will have to call new elections, probably in January.