After the Taliban seized their school, Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra tried to flee. Only some escaped.

By Sudarsan Raghavan

The Washington Post
11 October 2021
Shogofa Safi, 17, a conductor and percussionist who was part of the Zohra Orchestra at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, poses for a portrait in Kabul on Sept. 25. She has since left the country. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

KABUL — The girls came from homes broken by war and poverty to chase an unimaginable future as musicians. And with grit and determination they succeeded: Some played at Carnegie Hall. Others at the Kennedy Center. Many traveled the world as members of Afghanistan’s only all-female orchestra.

On Aug. 14, the girls were rehearsing for an upcoming concert in Colombia.

On Aug. 15, the Taliban seized Kabul. And just like that, the girls’ hopes evaporated.

This is the story of what happened to Afghanistan’s first and only music school and its renowned Zohra Orchestra in the aftermath of the Taliban’s return to power. It was a traumatic experience that for many of the girls and teens is still ongoing, and whose denouement remains far from certain.

Today, their school — the Afghanistan National Institute of Music — is a military base of the Haqqani network, a hard-line group allied with the Taliban with strong links to al-Qaeda.

An evacuation operation launched in the last days of the war brought together a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and other senior American politicians and military officials. But the chaotic effort failed to get the girls and scores of other students and faculty out of the country before the U.S. withdrawal was complete.

Fighters affiliated with the Haqqani network walk the halls of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on Sept. 26. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

At one point, the Taliban stopped the girls’ buses 55 yards from a U.S. military-controlled gate into Kabul’s international airport, their portal to freedom and a new life.

A second attempt on Oct. 3 succeeded in taking out roughly a third of the music school with the help of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others. Those who escaped included two Zohra musicians interviewed by The Washington Post a week earlier.

But the rest didn’t have valid passports and remain trapped in the capital. The girls spend their days inside their houses gripped by fear, uncertain if they will ever return to school or play music again.

“I haven’t practiced my violin since the day the Taliban came,” said an 18-year-old orchestra member left behind, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “The only life I want is one where I can freely play my violin.”

Her future hinges on the willingness of the Taliban, which once dispatched a suicide bomber to one of the school’s musical performances, to issue her new travel documents.

The violinist is among the tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans left to fend for themselves under the Taliban, despite President Biden’s description of the U.S. evacuation of nearly 124,000 people as “an extraordinary success.”

Those who remain in Afghanistan include female judges, women’s rights activists, former U.S. military translators, artists and countless others whose work or beliefs are in the Taliban’s crosshairs. Many remain in hiding.

The difference between the Zohra Orchestra and other Afghans left behind is that the music school has a constellation of educators, philanthropists, lobbyists and other influential benefactors, mostly in the United States and Europe, working to get the students out.

Even so, the exit strategy for the remaining musicians has narrowed sharply.

Under threat in Kabul
Members of the Haqqani network inspect musical instruments inside the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on Sept. 16. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Wajiha Kabuli was 8 years old when she arrived at the coeducational music school from an orphanage that funneled in talented girls. A year earlier, she said, the Taliban had killed her father, and her mother was ill and too poor to support her.

“Music was the only way to reach my goals, either financially or spiritually,” said Kabuli, now 17, a percussionist.

In 2015, she joined the Zohra Orchestra, which performed both traditional Afghan songs and classical music. As they toured the world, the 30-member ensemble became an emblem of Afghanistan’s growing freedoms and opportunities for girls and women.

At home, though, threats emerged. In December 2014, a suicide bomber targeted Kabul’s French Cultural Center, where the school’s students were performing at a musical play. The attack killed a German national and injured 15. The music school’s director, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, was nearly killed.

The Taliban claimed responsibility describing the musical as an insult to Islam.

“My school was promoting gender equality, musical education, musical diversity, women’s rights, girl’s rights,” Sarmast said. “Everything that our school was doing was against the Taliban’s vision and ideology.”

On Aug. 15 of this year, Shogofa Safi, 17, was playing the marimba in an orchestra rehearsal when two teachers entered. The Taliban were on the way, they said.

“We fled the school,” recalled Safi, who is also the orchestra’s conductor.

That was the last time she and the other girls saw their instruments.

Students at the music school were forced to leave their instruments behind after the Taliban took over on Aug. 15. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Within days, the school’s supporters scrambled to get the roughly 280 students and faculty out of the country. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi reached out to senior officials in the Biden administration, the State Department and the Pentagon, people familiar with the operation said.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, confirmed her involvement. A spokesperson for Schumer acknowledged the senator had tried to help “the brave and talented young musicians” to leave the country.

Scott Taylor, a former Republican congressman from Virginia and an ex-Navy Seal, contacted Cheney and other Republican lawmakers. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) also got involved.

A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss the evacuation “for privacy and other considerations.” The State Department spokesperson and the spokesperson for Schumer spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

Portugal’s government agreed to take in the musicians, and the group’s backers made arrangements for them to be evacuated on a British military flight, Taylor said.

On Aug. 27, Kabuli, Safi and the 18-year-old violinist received messages to pack a bag with three changes of clothes.

A failed evacuation
A Taliban fighter guards the entrance of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, on Sept. 16. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

The next afternoon, seven buses carrying around 280 students and faculty from the school arrived at the airport gate. They were marked with an “X” and Christmas signs to be identifiable by U.S. soldiers, said people involved in the operation. But between the American troops and the buses stood a Taliban checkpoint. Thousands of Afghans and foreigners, including U.S. citizens were also trying to flee the country.

“We were in a bus full of girls, and the Taliban were outside,” recalled the 18-year-old violinist. “And we couldn’t get near to the Americans.”

Outside Afghanistan, several groups of the school’s backers were following the drama through Zoom and WhatsApp, connected with bus drivers, faculty and U.S. troops on the ground.

After waiting for several hours at one gate, the convoy drove to another gate, where Taliban fighters again blocked their entry.

By then, Cheney had sought the help of Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to help the convoy get inside the airport, an aide to Cheney said, adding that Milley was “responsive and helpful.” Cassidy’s office also reached out to Milley and U.S. Central Command, an aide to the senator said. Both aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive efforts.

But there was still no approval from the Taliban. U.S. soldiers were dealing with dozens of similar clusters seeking to enter the airport.

“General Milley and others received requests for help from many places, including Congress,” said Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley. “We passed each request to the commanders on the ground, though we were sensitive to the fact that they were dealing with a very complex, dangerous and difficult situation.”

“When this group was lined up for entry, many other special groups were as well,” Butler added. “The ground commanders worked with Department of State representatives to get as many Afghans at risk in as quickly as possible.”

The buses returned to the first gate, where the girls remained overnight. In the early morning of Aug. 29, the buses were half a football field away from the gate where U.S. soldiers were positioned.

Taylor sent urgent emails to a White House official and lawmakers, and he messaged a U.S. captain with the digital location of the buses. Eventually, a U.S. soldier with a printout of the passenger manifest drove to the Taliban checkpoint to get the final authorization. But the militants’ commander was asleep, Taylor said.

By then, U.S. military officials grew concerned that the Islamic State might attack the airport. Three days earlier, the terrorist group dispatched a suicide bomber there, killing 13 U.S. servicemembers and 170 Afghans. Around 4 a.m., the U.S. military shut the airport’s gates.

The buses headed back into the city.

The following day, the violinist bought a hijab, the religious veil that covers the head, approved by the militants. “I have never worn one before in my life,” she said.

‘Music is not in our religion’
A Taliban fighter relaxes in the courtyard of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on Sept. 26. The Taliban is using the space and has it closed off to the school and its students. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Scrawled in white paint on the metal front gate of the country’s National Institute of Music today: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Above it is a picture of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the late founder of the eponymous network, which a United Nations report in June described as the “primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida.”

Recently, armed Taliban fighters sat on the grass, sipping tea near trees etched with musical notes. Their pickup trucks, topped with the movement’s white flag, were parked nearby. In the pink-colored buildings, fighters rested inside classrooms.

Their commander showed two Post journalists rooms containing musical instruments, all seemingly untouched. But Sarmast said the militants broke instruments on another campus of the school.

Maulavi Ahmedi Karwan, the commander, denied those reports. He said the Taliban leadership had no official policy yet about music. But Karwan didn’t hide his contempt for the school.

“Music is not in our religion,” he said. “Since the Islamic Emirate has taken over here, music has no longer a place here.”

Around the capital, Taliban fighters have entered wedding halls, demanding live music be halted. They have confiscated or broken instruments, declaring them “haram,” or forbidden by Islamic law, according to three wedding hall managers and several musicians.

A couple walks in front of a wedding hall near Kabul’s airport on Sept. 28. Taliban fighters have raided weddings ceremonies, demanding that the music and dancing stop. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Against this backdrop and after their ordeal at the airport, members of the Zohra orchestra hunkered down in their homes. They worried neighbors would alert the Taliban or they would be recognized if they stepped outside.

“I fear even imagining the Taliban will find me one day,” said Kabuli in an interview in late September, noting that the militants had killed a folk singer in August.

To keep her skills fresh, Safi was taking an online conducting class with a teacher based in England. She played an imaginary marimba by tapping her fingers on a table to music played on her tablet. Every day she looked at photos of herself playing in the orchestra before the Taliban arrived.

“They make me cry,” Safi said in an interview in late September.

Kabuli played air-xylophone for an hour and a half a day to music kept low as not to draw the attention of her Taliban-sympathizing neighbors, she said. At the time, she was also taking care of her mother, whose illness had worsened.

“When the Taliban sent the bus back, I lost my dreams,” Kabuli said. “My body is alive but my soul is dead.”

Her 18-year-old orchestra comrade felt the same way. She came to the school nine years ago from a small village in Faryab province, she said. Now, she watches herself play on YouTube to channel the musician she wants to become again.

All three girls shared the same dream: to one day attend the Juilliard School, the performing arts conservatory in New York.

A rescue, but only for some
Shogofa Safi poses for a portrait in Kabul on Sept. 25. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

On Oct. 2, Safi and Kabuli received word of a second opportunity to leave Afghanistan. They were informed by their teachers to pack small bags and be ready.

Their families had decided that their futures were worth the sacrifice of separation. “I am happy my daughter is out of the country and out of danger,” Kabuli’s mother said later.

In the days after the failed operation, Sen. Cassidy, Yo-Yo Ma, Taylor and others successfully lobbied the Qatar government to help evacuate the students, said the aide to Cassidy and people involved in the effort.

After tearful goodbyes, the girls traveled the next day to the airport in buses with 91 other students and faculty, including roughly half of the Zohra Orchestra. This time, officials from the Qatari embassy were in the vehicles, and there were no chaotic scenes at the airport.

At one point, the militants questioned the validity of some of the girls’ travel documents. But the Qataris, who have close ties to the Taliban, convinced them to let the group leave, said Sarmast, who was involved in orchestrating the evacuation from Australia.

The Qatari government did not respond to a request for comment.

Also aboard the Qatar Airways plane were graduates of the school who had played at the Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center, and master musicians with deep knowledge of traditional Afghan music.

“We should rescue this knowledge for the future which is significantly important for the preservation of the musical heritage of Afghanistan and passing it to the new generations,” Sarmast said.

Now in Doha, Qatar, the group is waiting to leave for Portugal, which has granted members visas and facilities to restart their musical studies and lives.

About 180 of the school’s students, faculty, staff and family members remain in Kabul, including the rest of the orchestra.

“I am sad that I haven’t left, but that’s okay because my friends are now safe,” the violinist, who lives with a relative, said on Thursday.

She has no other choice but to wait for help. “I can’t go back to my village,” she added. “Our neighbors are Taliban. Everyone there knows I am a musician.”

Taliban officials last week announced they would issue 25,000 passports, but with hundreds of thousands of Afghans seeking to leave, Sarmast said he has little hope his remaining students will receive theirs quickly. He said he is looking for other options to evacuate them from the country.

For Safi and Kabuli, their escape is bittersweet.

“I feel good, but I also feel sad,” said Safi in a telephone interview from Doha. “It’s tragic to leave our own country.”

Kabuli, also by phone, said, now “I can chase and continue my dreams.” But she thinks constantly of those left behind. “I hope they will soon join us,” she said. “Wherever we are, we will be Zohra, and we will again stand as one community.”

Instruments left behind at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
After the Taliban seized their school, Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra tried to flee. Only some escaped.