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Relocate us to a safe country: An interview with a former female military commander

After the Taliban regained power on August 15, 2021, the previous government’s military personnel were suddenly among the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan.   

Soon, reports emerged of the Taliban targetting former government military personnel, who were imprisoned, assassinated, or vanished at the hands of the new regime’s militants. Some former military personnel fled to neighbouring countries, often without legal entry documents. Many are still trying to get themselves and their families to safety.  

To discover more about their fate, Zan Times spoke to Latifa Shujaie about her life before and after the government’s fall. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the military academy and a master’s in criminal law and criminology.  

During her 16 years in the former government, she served in a variety of departments, including the Ministry of Interior, where she was the general director of domestic violence. She was the first woman to command the Women’s Special Forces, and later became the security deputy of the Pul-e-Charkhi women’s prison. The Taliban arrived the day she received her appointment to be a commander of the Police Academy.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Zan Times: Dear Ms. Shojai, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. First, we’d like to know a bit about your personal life 

Latifa Shujaie: I was born outside Afghanistan during the era of its civil wars. I was educated in Iran and Pakistan while living there as a migrant. When I decided to pursue higher education, due to my migrant status, I wasn’t granted permission to enter university. Consequently, I was forced to return to Kabul, along with my family. 

In Kabul, I was admitted to Nangarhar University to study economics. However, my family didn’t allow me to continue my studies due to my lack of proficiency in Pashto. In 2005, I ran as a parliamentary candidate from Daykundi province, but unfortunately, I couldn’t secure enough votes. Later, I delved into cultural affairs and founded a magazine called “Asman Dai Kundi” (Daykundi Sky), which was published weekly.  

Ultimately, I decided to pursue further education and returned to Kabul. After passing the entrance exam, I joined the Police Military Academy, later known as the Martyr Abdul Razzaq Academy. After four years of study, I graduated from this academy with a bachelor’s degree in 2009. 

Zan Times: Tell us about the military ranks and departments you worked in. Where did you start, and what rank did you eventually reach? 

Shujaie: I graduated as a Second Lieutenant from the academy and then worked in the Human Rights Department. As the general director of domestic violence, I worked in the Ministry of Interior and managed domestic violence cases sent to the ministry from all 34 provinces. 

Later, I was appointed the Women’s Special Forces commander, the first time a woman was appointed to lead these forces. In 2011, along with 12 other newly recruited women , we were dispatched to Khost province and underwent 45 days of commando training in an American military camp. 

After completing the training, I became the Women’s Affairs Unit commander. By sending females to provinces, especially in war zones, I sent them to serve the people of Afghanistan. 

In 2016, I was appointed security deputy at the women’s prison of Pul-e-Charkhi. In this prison, I faced prisoner riots and dangerous conditions. I managed the situation by listing and transferring rebellious prisoners to other provinces as well as other  administrative responsibilities. 

In 2018, I was appointed general director of children’s affairs at the Ministry of Interior, then moving to be director of gender reports. 

I worked for years in Afghanistan’s government, earning a meagre salary. My tasks were complex, and I had to go on risky missions. As the security deputy in prison, I spent nights among the prisoners. Whether it was in the prison or in missions I shared, I was always facing the Taliban, sometimes in direct combat. The possibility of death was present every moment. I couldn’t see my family for months. 

Before the fall of the government, I was introduced as a commander to the Police Academy and was supposed to go to Turkey for six months with 300 women from the southern provinces, but the day I received my appointment and went to the Police Academy, I received a call telling me to leave as the Taliban had arrived. 

ZT: Can you describe what happened to you the day the Taliban entered Kabul and how you managed to survive.  

Shujaie: When I was informed about the Taliban entering the city, it was not only distressing and shocking but it also hurt my morale. However, to prevent the despair of the newly arrived recruits, I turned off my phone and said nothing to them. But the news reached the worried women, I tried to give them courage and hope. While there was chaos within me, I calmly told them that this was a shift of power, similar to a new regime coming and that they shouldn’t be afraid; nevertheless, I advised that they change out of their military uniforms, wear civilian clothes, quickly leave the academy, and hide their identity cards. Everyone was trying to flee when we left, and that day was the apocalypse we witnessed ourselves. 

At the time of the government collapse, I held the rank of colonel. For this reason, most of my friends told me to hide, and everyone was concerned. 

I walked home, contemplating where to go as the Taliban had taken over the whole city. There was nowhere to hide for me and my sister, a Ministry of Defence employee. If we went to our province, we would be identified and the locals would surrender us to the Taliban to gain favour with them. My sister and I even tried to escape through the airport evacuation process using a veil, but we couldn’t get out. 

My family went to Pakistan through smuggling routes, but my two brothers and I stayed in Kabul because we were told that we would be evacuated abroad through the evacuation process. I spent one and a half years in Kabul, changing my location 20 times. During this time, even our military colleagues who joined the Taliban tried to identify my whereabouts and trap me, but after countless hardships, I paid a large sum of money to get a visa and arrived in Pakistan in June 2022. 

ZT: During your time in Kabul after the Taliban takeover, what difficulties did you face? You mentioned changing your living place 20 times. Could you elaborate on that? 

Shujaie: Because I was living with my two brothers, people were afraid to give us a place to stay; they didn’t want to risk themselves. I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan through smuggling routes because many military personnel had been detained by the authorities of neighbouring countries and handed back to the Taliban. On August 25, 2021, the Taliban arrested one of my brothers from Nili city, the capital of Daykundi province, and detained and tortured him for 27 days to find my whereabouts, but my brother didn’t say anything – he just told the Taliban that my sisters had left the country, and he didn’t know where they were. With the help of some influential people and paying money, I bailed my brother out and then sent both brothers to Pakistan through smuggling routes. I went to Pakistan via the Spin Boldak border crossing with a visa. 

Zan Times: Considering the limitations Pakistan has imposed on refugees from Afghanistan, could you describe your circumstances in this Pakistan? 

Shujaie: We arrived in Pakistan with shattered spirits and shattered dreams. I was deeply distressed and depressed. After arriving, I extended my visa only once and then did not extend it for four months, and as a result, I was fined for this violation. After that, I reapplied for a visa extension. The situation of migrants is very bleak. Many who have lived and worked here for 40 or 50 years have been ousted. Pakistan continues to oust more people. They’ve told us we must have a visa. We’re concerned about our future, and if they deport us to Afghanistan, we might get killed in the worst situation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) isn’t making any efforts. We expect that they should relocate us from Pakistan to another safe country at least until our case is processed, so the Taliban cannot have access to us. Most women like me, who have a military background and have served in the Special Forces, are in danger. Right now, my only hope is in God, and I’ve lost hope in the United Nations as well.