Life for Afghans now: interview with a young mental health activist (Part 1)

Newscoop: Hi Noor*, it’s great to see you again. And thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. For our readers, I had the pleasure of meeting Noor as part of an advocacy programme last year. And I remember how worried I was for you in August and September when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.  But also how moved I was by your graceful handling of the situation. I distinctly remember one moment during a meeting when you described your circumstances and the situation at the time. You explained how, despite the horrendous circumstances, you felt hopeful. That really stuck with me. So, thank you very much for taking the time. Perhaps we can start by you telling our readers where you’re based at the moment and what you do? 

Noor: Thank you so much for the opportunity. My name is Noor Nazhat and I’m an activist by profession and a humanitarian by nature. I’m based in Kabul, Afghanistan. My advocacy work involves education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, equality, mental health, and very recently climate change. My main focus has been on ensuring the rights of all people, including marginalised populations, regardless of their social status under an intersectional lens. Inclusion, equality, accessibility, and meaningful community engagement are at the heart of my work. This includes holding public awareness campaigns, policy advocacy, reporting, and writing on the conditions people live under. My recent project revolves around filming a documentary showcasing the pathetic climate conditions and highlighting the underlying factors that cause it. 

Newscoop: Let’s jump right into the events of last August. I remember the pictures and videos of Afghan civilians trying to flee through Kabul airport. It was truly shocking to witness. And many watched in horror when the US withdrew their final troops, knowing the political consequences. I was wondering if you could share how you experienced the Taliban takeover? 

Noor: I precisely remember that day when the Taliban took over the country. In the beginning, it was a quiet and peaceful day. I was reading as usual, studying the materials that I was provided. But as time passed, there was an increasing number of helicopters buzzing in the sky and you could get a sense that something was wrong. After it was formally announced that the government had fallen, thousands of people took the chance to flee the country, even those who weren’t involved with the international entities. I remember that silence and solitude were the order of the day, briefly speaking businesses stopped, and schools and universities were shut. A defendant party was formed in Panjshir which led to the massacre of tons of young people, and most offensively, the stream near the Kabul airport was flowing blood instead of water. Blood of innocent people who didn’t have a choice in the war. In the coming days, Daesh, also known as ISIL, declared its war against the Taliban which further stretched the prolonged deadly battle that only cost lives and nothing else. Following that, weekly bomb attacks were organised in mosques and hospitals. Some people were anonymously killed because of their style of clothing, some for their political opinions, and others died because of food shortages or the cold winter. 

By and large, the effects of the Taliban’s take-over left no stone unturned, and you can easily observe its impacts by reading people’s expressions or listening to their words. In an already destroyed country, a political crisis only adds to the agony people suffer. I get to hear disappointing stories of women workers who are widows or whose partners are addicted. Others complain about how the prices of everything have been doubled and how on the one hand they bring food to the house, and on the other hand they get beaten by their male counterparts for no valid reason. Poverty has struck so hard that even some teachers are polishing shoes on the street to earn a living. Not only that, but hunger, the winter, unemployment, deprivation from education, and taking a step backward from civilization make people wish they were dead instead of living miserably as they are now. 

Newscoop: Could you describe what the first weeks were like in the direct aftermath of the take-over, and what daily life is like at the moment?

Noor: Before the Taliban took over, I was working on a policy proposal for increasing the budget allocation for literacy, and it was going very smoothly. But once they took over control, I couldn’t dare visit the ministries. I was planning to expand my literacy advocacy and film videos to advocate for the rights of people with a disability and conduct community awareness campaigns to educate people on sexual and reproductive health rights and its correlation with mental health. But I had to stop my advocacy work for some time. When I felt safer and went outside, observing how agitated people were added salt to my injury. But at the same time, it’s the very same people themselves who have never had the courage to catalyse change. Even though some people comprehend the basic guidelines for conserving a society, you will barely see someone throwing trash in the dustbin or cleaning the town by themselves. 

Although I have proposed this multiple times, no one takes on the burden to do this. This combined with the inattentiveness of the government hinders the country to reach its full potential. In my journey before the Taliban, the government barely attempted to assist or support social projects, although they reap tremendous effects. One of the reasons the country’s conditions never improved is because of our incompetent leaders throughout the history of Afghanistan who only thought about their own benefits at the cost of people’s welfare.

When I talk to anyone, male or female, young or old, they complain about the situation they are in, mostly about the unemployment that leads to substance abuse in young people. Often when I get outside, I see young people smoking cigarettes, drinking privately, or some even using marijuana or K-Tab to escape the lethargic feelings they’re having while not having any resources to really help them. All of these consequences have environmental stressors like poverty, abuse within the house, and an early shift from childhood to adolescence. A woman narrated about the problematic anger her son is having by using these drugs and that he even beats his sisters, his brother, and uncle if he doesn’t get the drug. They are part of the 90% of people living below the poverty line. These unfortunate experiences are followed by consistent bomb attacks, power cuts, food shortages, and a fear of being martyred or assassinated by random people. This could be your neighbour, a thief, an anonymous person, and sometimes your own relatives. 

In the midst of such misfortunes, I find myself lucky to have food and a house to live in. But nonetheless, my future is uncertain. My university, projects, advocacy journey, career, and safety are all unknown. I live in an apartment, and due to consistent power cuts, the rooms get so cold that I can barely type or write. I can’t use fossil fuels because I’m not in a bungalow, and the only heat source we have is radiators that haven’t been active for three consecutive years. Electricity is unavailable most of the day. We get electricity for four hours a day. Sometimes it’s stable, sometimes it’s not. It is just dependent on how stable electricity is outside. Each time you walk into the house, you feel like you are walking over ice. Such conditions existed for years and regrettably have never taken a break. Not in my life, and not in the life of millions of Afghans.