Safe in Spain, Afghan Women’s Basketball Star Hopes to Play Again

As the captain of Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team and a women’s rights activist, Nilofar Bayat fled when the Taliban took over, seeking safety in Spain where she hopes to soon be back on the court.  Speaking to reporters in the northern city of Bilbao 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 U.N. 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 Friday at an airbase outside Madrid and are now starting a new life in Bilbao.   FILE – The captain of Afghanistan’s women’s wheelchair basketball team Nilofar Bayat, 2nd right, and her husband disembark from a Spanish evacuation airplane, that landed at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base, August 20, 2021.”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,” she said. With the help of the Spanish embassy, she managed to secure a seat on a plane and set off for the airport where she saw the Taliban shooting and beating people to stop them from 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,” the former law student said. With the help of several German soldiers, they managed to get into the airport but spent two days there in the blazing Kabul sun with “nothing to sleep on … and not enough food” before being flown out on a Spanish military plane.  She’s acutely aware she is 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 2 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,” Bayat said. In a country where many people have been left with disabilities because of attacks or polio, Bayat became interested in wheelchair basketball after seeing men play, and she 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 said she has received many offers to play with wheelchair basketball teams, including one from Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, with whom she hopes to start playing “as soon as possible.” 

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