'No place for girls': Two sisters' treacherous escape across Afghanistan to freedom

TORKHAM, Pakistan – The Taliban flag flies on one side of the border. On the other side is the Pakistani military – and the hope of freedom for frightened Afghans.

Mursal and Manisha, two teenage sisters from Kandahar, Afghanistan, smiled in relief after arriving in Pakistan earlier this week.

“Girls were not allowed to go to school. There was no place for girls to get an education, ”Mursal said in English after leaving the dusty, crowded border crossing.

Hundreds of people were lined up on the Afghan side of the border, tunnel-like and lined with barbed wire, where Taliban fighters in what appeared to be brand-new military suits stood guard, holding AK rifle variants and other military weapons.

The fighters checked that people had the correct papers, such as valid passports and visas, and then passed them on to Pakistani officials to take the final hurdle into freedom.

For those looking to escape Taliban rule left behind by international evacuation efforts, the best hope is of a way out to Pakistan, and thus at the end of a treacherous journey from Kabul some 140 miles through Taliban-controlled territory.

Taliban fighters guard the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan on the Afghan side.Ian Freeborn / for NBC News

The girls, who refused to give their last name when rushing to a waiting taxi, said they felt compelled to leave their country because they had no future there.

Thousands of others are desperate to leave too, for fear of the Taliban’s oppression and increasing economic uncertainty.

“You should stay at home and get married at 16,” Mursal said of one of the recent Taliban proclamations.

The all-male, all-Taliban interim government announced by the militant group earlier this week has promised to be more tolerant and inclusive, but some say there are already signs that women’s rights are being curtailed.

Several journalists covering a women’s rights protest earlier this week have been arrested, according to The Associated Press. And two journalists who work for Etilaatroz newspaper said they were beaten by militants after they were arrested while reporting on the event.

Elsewhere, teachers and students at universities in Kabul and other major cities told Reuters that male and female students were taught separately or separated by curtains in classrooms.

When asked if they felt compelled to leave, the girls immediately replied “yes”.

While some refugees will settle in Pakistan, for Mursal and Manisha it is only the first stop on their way into a new life.

You have a Canadian visa and you are going to Ottawa. “It’s an imaginary life,” they said anxiously, not knowing what to expect.

A child near the Torkham border crossing in Afghanistan on Wednesday.Ian Freeborn / for NBC News

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News that the militant group will not stand in the way of anyone wanting to leave Afghanistan as long as they have valid travel documents, but many feel stuck in a country with a bleak future.

The US helped evacuate up to 124,000 people, including vulnerable Afghans, but the Biden administration admitted that it was unable to “get anyone we wanted out”.

It was not until Thursday that the first international passenger flight left the Afghan capital Kabul since the United States left.

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While the exact number of those who have tried to cross the border into Pakistan since the Taliban came to power is unclear, the role of Afghanistan’s neighbors extends far beyond accepting refugees.

Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency have a long history of ties to the Taliban, and ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed visited Kabul over the weekend. Although Pakistan could benefit from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, it could also experience instability and anger: earlier this week, demonstrators defying the Taliban chanted anti-Pakistani slogans on the streets of Kabul.

But not everyone is unhappy.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that launched the US invasion of Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban to power gives some hope.

Rahim Omar, a Pashtun – the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and the Taliban – who often crosses the border to work as a day laborer, said he was pleased that the militant group was back in power and believed that they would bring some stability to the region would.

“We want peace in the future,” said 35-year-old Omar.

He spoke in English as he pondered the decades-long war in his neighboring country, which has ruled conflict and violence since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. A little more than 20 years later, the United States invaded with money and unfulfilled promises of stability.

Now the Taliban are back in power.

“Inshallah, you can bring peace,” said Omar.

Surrounded by a large group of men, Omar asked the crowd in his own language if they thought things would improve after the Americans left and the Taliban returned to power.

“Now life is going to be good”, Omar translated after a loud “ahh” and a lot of nods from the assembled crowd.

Molly Hunter reported from Torkham, Pakistan, and Petra Cahill from London.

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