08/27/2021, 15.11
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Sr. Shahnaz: 'My last days in Kabul under the Taliban'

by Chiara Zappa

Constant anguish under raids by fundamentalists amid failed attempts to escape. Anxiety for those who have remained, made even more lacerating by yesterday's bloody attacks. The testimony of a religious woman who arrived in Italy on one of the last evacuation flights: "The girls send me messages in tears. If it is possible I will return to Afghanistan.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Sister Shahnaz will never forget the long days in Taliban-occupied Kabul, anxiously waiting for a chance to leave the country. The nun, who worked in Afghanistan for the Pro Bambini di Kabul (PBK) association and arrived in Italy on one of the last flights of the airlift organized by the authorities, is still in shock: "Even now that I'm here safe and sound, every time I hear a knock at the door or hear the sound of a shutter moving in the wind, my heart leaps and I am terrified that someone has come to get me.

The images of yesterday's attack in the midst of the crowd thronging around the airport of the Afghan capital have only reawakened the ghosts of these weeks and reinforced the fears for "those who remained there". The account of the 46-year-old nun of the Congregation of Saint Jeanne Antida is dramatic: "Everyone in the city was in a panic and just wanted to leave. In these days of terror, not a minute passed without some acquaintance arriving to ask for a letter of reference in the name of PBK in the hope that it might help them to leave the country; I prepared them but I was aware that they would be useless, because all the offices are closed in the city , as are the banks, there is complete paralysis".

The decision to leave Kabul was a hard one for Sister Shahnaz and the four missionaries of Mother Teresa who in the last days had moved into the same building with the 14 disabled children they looked after: "No agency felt like taking the responsibility of accompanying us to the airport because security could not be guaranteed. We made contact with various organizations, from NATO to Catholic Relief Services, from Unama (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) to the Red Cross: on several occasions it seemed that the transfer was imminent, but every time, at the last moment, we received a phone call telling us that the conditions did not allow us to move.

In the meantime, the sisters - as well as the other religious still in Kabul and the local citizens who had collaborated with them over the years - lived in fear of a raid by the Taliban: "They came knocking on our door once, violently, in the first days of the occupation. In the house there was only me and the other nun who worked with me in the school for disabled children in PBK. We heard a loud commotion and the crying of some people outside the gate.... We hid, even though we were aware that if they broke down the door we would not be saved, and luckily after a few minutes they left. Similar experiences happened to some of our staff, as well as to the Indian Jesuit in charge of the Jesuit Refugee Service who was then helped to hide in another building by some local collaborators".

Shahnaz confesses: "I would have had several opportunities to escape on my own but, like the pastor of our local Catholic Church, Father Giovanni Scalese, I refused to leave without the other members of our community and the people who depended on us completely. I thought, 'We will die together as martyrs or we will be saved together.'"

Finally, three days ago, the opportunity came: "Father Giovanni called us and told us to be ready for that evening. Around 9:30 p.m. a bus arrived in front of our gate accompanied by a police car, Father Scalese and Alberto Cairo of the Red Cross. We got out, completely in the dark, and left for the airport". A journey characterized by "an unspeakable anxiety. On the streets people were running and trying to reach the airport, the Taliban were shooting wildly in the air, then a bullet hit a person who fell to the ground right in front of our car. Finally arriving at the main gate, we managed to get through the fundamentalist checkpoints and made our way to safety. We later learned that the same police that escorted us were Taliban, who now have everything in hand."

Even now that she is safe in Italy, the nun is certainly not serene: "My soul is torn, my heart is in Kabul among the school children and their families, who risk retaliation. But I also think of the girls who send me tearful messages asking for help, and of the many parents who are afraid that the Taliban will take their children and turn them into guerrillas, while they would like them to go to school and build a different future. I entrust them all to the Lord...".

As for her, Sister Shahnaz is determined to do her part: "With the help of my congregation and PBK, I will do everything I can to stand by the Afghans who have arrived with us: the children, the students, my staff.... Since the entire staff is here now, I would like to continue our commitment to the service of other Afghan refugee children in Italy: after all, this is the vocation of the association from the beginning. However, my superiors will decide my future. I can only say that, if one day we have the chance to go back to Kabul, I will be there".

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