It is the stuff of horrors, heartache and helplessness: Afghan girls who have devoted their entire lives to making melodies have not only been silenced amid the Taliban takeover — they have also been barred from entering the US military-run airport in Kabul.
Now, the clock has run out.
“We had seven buses filled with world-renowned orchestra performers – 280 girls all approved to go,” said Robert Stryk, a Washington fixer who has been coordinating private evacuation efforts in conjunction with former Navy SEAL and Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor.
“Our hearts are broken,” he added. “These young girls spent 17 hours on a hot bus with no food or water and were 393 feet from freedom but were denied entry into the airport because the United States government gave [the Taliban] the power to override the US Army’s 82nd Airborne.
“Our elected leaders failed these 280 young girls.”
It could have been a slim success story in the frantic end to the two-decade conflict but it morphed into a dark curtain fall when the performers belonging to Afghanistan National Institute of Music were left to languish ahead of the final civilian evacuation efforts over the weekend.
According to Stryk and Taylor, the buses were sent to three different airport gates – and the group honored a request from the US government to add seven US citizens to the busload – and were finally told to wait in line for “final approval from the Taliban.”
“The bird was right there on the tarmac waiting for them, this was an operation we had been playing for days, and everyone at the highest levels of government knew about it. These are girls whose school had already been ransacked, and the US military approved their departure,” Taylor lamented, stressing that he exhausted all his political contacts and leverage in the final fight for the girls’ freedom.
“As it works, the military gets the manifest and prints it out, and drives it to the Taliban checkpoint, and they negotiate with them to let people through. But in this case, we were told the Taliban does not issue the final approval.”
So the daylight faded, and the danger level grew in the volatile area – just days after an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed more than 160 Afghans and 13 US military personnel stationed around the airport periphery.
And then, the gate was painstakingly shuttered.
“I knew in my gut that was it – they were going to miss the last flight out. We were absolutely guttered, and I am absolutely ashamed as an American citizen how this went down,” Taylor said, noting that supposed meetings to re-visit their case on Sunday morning never materialized. “I broke down thinking about these kids and what is going to happen to them.”
Stryk concurred that such a stain – such a chaotic conclusion to the long-running war – is nothing short of “disgraceful.”
For more than a decade, ANIM literally brought harmony and happiness to the lives of many young Afghans. It was one of the few institutions in which both girls and boys learned alongside one another and were trained in Afghan and Western classics, and it embraced orphaned and tiny street beggars into its fold. The school had weathered numerous attacks in the past – including a suicide bombing in 2014 – but remained steadfast in its determination to be the light to a brighter future.
That future now hangs in silence.
Not only have the girls seemingly lost the opportunity to play professionally, they may not even be able to play for pleasure. While it remains to be seen precisely what approach the Taliban will take to music and the arts, in the past, the outfit has strictly prohibited most forms of music – except vocal-only religious songs – and dramatically destroyed instruments and punished those for violating the music ban.
Similarly, there have been many “botched attempts” to evacuate dozens of young guitar students who have been left to face a frightening future. Already the girls – who have had to abandon their beloved strings out of safety concerns – have gone into hiding.
“I’m still working 24/7 trying to get the word out, to get the music community to rally around this,” said Lanny Cordola, a California-based musician who founded “The Miraculous Love Kids” foundation and developed the “Girl with Guitar” music program for street girls more than seven years ago. “They feel scared and confused and betrayed. I am willing to do anything that I need to do to get them safe passage.”
I first met the young, wide-eyed guitar students in a non-descript Kabul apartment some four years ago. One gentle-faced 12-year-old named Mursal played me a string of her favorites from Sting and the Beach Boys and sang a tribute to a fallen police officer in the US that she learned about on Facebook.
Five years earlier, she and her two older sisters had been selling trinkets to support their family outside the NATO headquarters in Kabul when a 14-year-old boy peddled past and detonated a suicide vest.
In less than a moment, her sisters – and four other small children from the poorest echelons of society – were dead. But in the throes of deep trauma, Mursal soon came to discover the healing powers of music under Cordola’s tutelage.
The re-trauma now is searing.
“The White House is spinning half-truths. The Taliban gets to determine who leaves and who does not,” Taylor added bitterly. “Never mind that the Taliban still has these lists. The fact that the United States of America would abdicate our security and the decisions of who can go and who must stay to the Taliban is nothing short of despicable.”