(CNN)Friba Rezayee made history in 2004 when she became one of the first two Afghan women to compete at the Olympic Games.
When the judoka competed in Athens, her father and one of her brothers told her it was as if she had taken the “first step on the moon.”It wasn’t just a special moment for Rezayee: it was a momentous moment for women across Afghanistan. The judoka was now a symbol for a society that, although far from perfect, was finally changing.Women had more opportunities and the future, after years of Taliban rule in the 1990s where basic human rights were taken away from them, was looking brighter.But now the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan and Rezayee fears that the progress that has been made for women’s lives over the last 20 years will be lost.Read MoreTaliban leaders have recently expressed their commitment to a “blanket amnesty” for all in Afghanistan, including members of the Afghan military and interpreters, but Rezayee says the future will be bleak for women in the country.”After they [the Taliban] settle down, they have their government established, they will go after the individuals who spoke against them,” Rezayee, 33, told CNN Sport. “Women who went to school, women who went to universities and women who played sports.”Born and raised in Afghanistan, Rezayee moved to Canada as a refugee in 2011 and has since set up a non-profit organization, ‘Women Leaders of Tomorrow,’ which advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan.The initiative GOAL (Girls of Afghanistan Lead) also looks to support female judokas to compete and represent their country on the global stage.Since the Taliban swept into the capital of Kabul, Rezayee says the women she works with now fear for their lives.”I’m in contact with them every day. They send me heartbreaking messages,” she said.”Recently, the Afghan female athletes visited the dojo (judo training gym). They held each other’s hands. They hugged each other. They also kissed the mats because that was the last time they’re going to see them and that was the last day of their freedom.”They’re also sending me messages, pleading for their life, for their safety. All these women leaders or human rights, women’s rights activists want to flee the country. They want to flee the Taliban for obvious reasons.”Friba Rezayee in Vancouver, Canada, where she moved in 2011. ‘A movement for freedom, for liberty, for life’Rezayee says she still remembers the brutality and oppression of the Taliban’s “unimaginable” regime.She fled to Pakistan with her family after the start of the group’s first rule in 1996 but returned after the US invasion in 2001 and set about making the most of newfound freedoms.It was as a refugee in Pakistan that Rezayee says she fell in love with boxing.She remembers watching heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on a small crackling TV screen and being inspired by Laila Ali, the daughter of sporting legend Muhammad Ali.”I fell in love with how powerful Laila Ali was, what an icon she was. I wanted to do the same thing,” says Rezayee.On her return to Afghanistan, she enrolled at an all-girls school and started training with a boxing coach, feeling empowered by the sport.”The last two decades, Afghan women worked so hard, they had so many achievements,” she said.”Women went to school, they had careers. Women ran for office, women ran businesses — you name it — the Afghan women did.” Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers fire artillery in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in June 2011. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in October 2001 to stop the Taliban regime from providing a safe haven to al Qaeda and to stop al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base of operations for terrorist activities.Hide Caption 1 of 60 Photos: America's longest warThousands of Taliban supporters rally in Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghan border, on October 1, 2001.Hide Caption 2 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAl Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is seen at an undisclosed location in this television image broadcast on October 7, 2001. Bin Laden praised God for the September 11 attacks and swore America “will never dream of security” until “the infidel’s armies leave the land of Muhammad.”Hide Caption 3 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA Tomahawk cruise missile is launched from a US ship in the Arabian Sea on October 7, 2001. American and British forces began airstrikes in Afghanistan, targeting al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that had been giving al Qaeda protection. Hide Caption 4 of 60 Photos: America's longest warMembers of the Afghan Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban group, kill a wounded Taliban fighter they found while advancing toward Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2001. US airstrikes and Northern Alliance ground attacks led to the fall of Kabul that month.Hide Caption 5 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAn Afghan Northern Alliance fighter bursts into laughter as US planes strike a Taliban position near Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001. Afghan militia leaders declared victory in the battle of Tora Bora and claimed to have captured al Qaeda’s last base.Hide Caption 6 of 60 Photos: America's longest warRenae Chapman holds her 2-year-old daughter, Amanda, during the funeral service for her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan R. Chapman, in Fort Lewis, Washington, in January 2002. He was the first US soldier to be killed by enemy fire during the war in Afghanistan.Hide Caption 7 of 60 Photos: America's longest warMohboba, 7, stands near a bullet-ridden wall in Kabul as she waits to be seen at a health clinic in March 2002. She had a skin ailment that plagued many poverty-stricken children in Afghanistan.Hide Caption 8 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldier Jorge Avino tallies the number of people that his mortar team had killed while fighting in Afghanistan in March 2002.Hide Caption 9 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA man and his son watch US soldiers prepare to sweep their home in southeastern Afghanistan in November 2002.Hide Caption 10 of 60 Photos: America's longest warWomen wait in line to be treated at a health clinic in Kalakan, Afghanistan, in February 2003.Hide Caption 11 of 60 Photos: America's longest warMohammaed Mahdi, who lost his foot in a mine explosion, waits for a Red Cross doctor at his home in Kabul in August 2004. This photo was taken by Associated Press photographer Emilio Morenatti, who five years later lost part of his leg when the armored vehicle he was in hit a roadside bomb.Hide Caption 12 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAfghans in Kabul line up to vote in the country’s first democratic election in October 2004. Hamid Karzai was sworn in as President in December of that year.Hide Caption 13 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAn Afghan soldier provides security at the site where a US helicopter crashed near Ghazni, Afghanistan, in April 2005. At least 16 people were killed.Hide Caption 14 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS President George W. Bush attends a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul in March 2006. It was Bush’s first visit to Afghanistan.Hide Caption 15 of 60 Photos: America's longest warGirls at the Bibi Mahroo High School raise their hands during an English class in Kabul in November 2006. After the fall of the Taliban, millions of Afghan girls were able to attend school and get the education that their mothers couldn’t.Hide Caption 16 of 60 Photos: America's longest warBritish Marines take cover during an anti-Taliban operation near Kajaki, Afghanistan, in March 2007. Many other countries also deployed troops to the country.Hide Caption 17 of 60 Photos: America's longest warSupplies are dropped to US troops in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in May 2007.Hide Caption 18 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAfghan students recite Islamic prayers at an outdoor classroom in the remote Wakhan Corridor in September 2007.Hide Caption 19 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS Army Spc. Brandon Olson sinks onto a bunker embankment in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in September 2007. The Korengal Valley was the site of some of the deadliest combat in the region.Hide Caption 20 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS Marine Sgt. Nicholas Bender launches a Raven surveillance drone near the remote village of Baqwa, Afghanistan, in March 2009.Hide Caption 21 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers take defensive positions after receiving fire from Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in May 2009. Army Spc. Zachary Boyd was still in his “I love NY” boxers because he rushed from his sleeping quarters to join his fellow platoon members. Hide Caption 22 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers shield their eyes from the rotor wash of a Chinook helicopter as they are picked up from a mission in Afghanistan’s Paktika province in October 2009.Hide Caption 23 of 60 Photos: America's longest warChildren watch a Canadian soldier conducting a dusk patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2009.Hide Caption 24 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers fire mortars from a base in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in October 2009.Hide Caption 25 of 60 Photos: America's longest warTroops rest at an airfield in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in February 2010.Hide Caption 26 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAfghan soldiers rush a wounded police officer to an American helicopter in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in March 2010.Hide Caption 27 of 60 Photos: America's longest warVillage elders meet in Marja, Afghanistan, in March 2010.Hide Caption 28 of 60 Photos: America's longest warSgt. Brian Keith sits with his wife, Sara, and their baby son, Stephen, just before his deployment to Afghanistan in March 2010. A few months earlier, President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops. This new deployment would bring the US total to almost 100,000 troops, in addition to 40,000 NATO troops. Hide Caption 29 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS troops, aboard a C-17 transport plane, head to Afghanistan in April 2010.Hide Caption 30 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers recover an armored vehicle that was hit by an explosive device in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province in April 2010.Hide Caption 31 of 60 Photos: America's longest warSchoolgirls are seen through the window of a Humvee as they wave to a passing American convoy in Herat, Afghanistan, in June 2010.Hide Caption 32 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA man cries while talking to US soldiers in Naghma Bazaar, Afghanistan, in September 2010. The man said Taliban fighters had forced their way into his home and demanded food and milk before getting into a firefight with American soldiers.Hide Caption 33 of 60 Photos: America's longest warHalawasha, right, and an Afghan National Police member hold her young sister Shokria as a US Army medic wraps her serious burns in Now Ruzi, Afghanistan, in October 2010. US soldiers were on a routine patrol when they came across Shokria, whose forearms were burned with scalding milk during a household accident five days earlier. Medics dressed the burns and began working with local Afghan military to have the girl driven to a nearby hospital.Hide Caption 34 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAn Afghan man is detained by US Marines after they battled Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in November 2010.Hide Caption 35 of 60 Photos: America's longest warPresident Barack Obama and members of his national security team monitor the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. “Fourteen people crammed into the room, the President sitting in a folding chair on the corner of the table’s head,” said CNN’s Peter Bergen as he relived the bin Laden raid five years later. “They sat in this room until the SEALs returned to Afghanistan.” (Editor’s note: The classified document in front of Hillary Clinton was obscured by the White House.)Hide Caption 36 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS Marine Cpl. Burness Britt reacts after being lifted onto a medevac helicopter in June 2011. A large piece of shrapnel from an improvised explosive device cut a major artery on his neck near Sangin, Afghanistan. This photo was taken by Anja Niedringhaus, an Associated Press photographer who was fatally shot in Afghanistan in 2014.Hide Caption 37 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers work out at a post in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in September 2011.Hide Caption 38 of 60 Photos: America's longest warTarana Akbari, 12, screams after a suicide bomber attacked the Abul Fazel Shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2011. Twin bomb blasts killed dozens of Afghan people on the holy day of Ashura.Hide Caption 39 of 60 Photos: America's longest warIn this long-exposure photo, a jet takes off from the flight deck of the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier that was in the northern Arabian Sea in January 2012.Hide Caption 40 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAfghan soldiers, left, and American troops blow up a Taliban firing position in the Afghan village of Layadira in February 2013.Hide Caption 41 of 60 Photos: America's longest warLesleigh Coyer lies down in front of the grave of her brother, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Coyer, at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery in March 2013. He died of complications from an injury sustained in Afghanistan.Hide Caption 42 of 60 Photos: America's longest warSamiullah, 8 months old and malnourished, is held by his mother, Islam Bibi, at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Lashgar Gar, Afghanistan, in September 2013.Hide Caption 43 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAn Afghan army convoy travels Highway 1 in Afghanistan’s Wardak province in November 2013. The picture at right shows Afghan President Hamid Karzai.Hide Caption 44 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAfghan Army Sgt. Sayed Wazir screams a prayer while firing a rocket in Afghanistan’s Wardak province in November 2013.Hide Caption 45 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA woman is rushed from the scene of a suicide car bombing in Kabul in December 2013.Hide Caption 46 of 60 Photos: America's longest warBlood-stained Pakistani bank notes are displayed on the body of a dead suicide bomber after an attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in March 2014. Police said they found the bank notes in his pocket. Three insurgents tried to storm the former headquarters of Afghanistan’s intelligence service in southern Kandahar. They died in a gunbattle with security forces, officials said.Hide Caption 47 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after making a statement at the White House about Bergdahl’s release in May 2014. Bergdahl had been held captive in Afghanistan for nearly five years, and the Taliban released him in exchange for five U.S.-held prisoners.Hide Caption 48 of 60 Photos: America's longest warThis photo shows the aftermath of an American airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October 2015. The hospital was “accidentally struck” by US bombs after Afghan forces called for air support, said Gen. John Campbell, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan.Hide Caption 49 of 60 Photos: America's longest warAmerican service members ride in a helicopter on the way to the Bagram Air Base near Kabul in September 2017. President Donald Trump had recently announced a plan to increase troops in the country.Hide Caption 50 of 60 Photos: America's longest warPresident Donald Trump visits Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base in November 2019.Hide Caption 51 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA US Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goble during a dignified transfer at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base in December 2019. Goble, who was from Washington Township, New Jersey, was killed during combat in Afghanistan. Hide Caption 52 of 60 Photos: America's longest warTwo children pass members of a Taliban Red Unit in Afghanistan’s Laghman province in March 2020. A month earlier, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic agreement.Hide Caption 53 of 60 Photos: America's longest warUS soldiers retrieve their bags in Fort Drum, New York, in December 2020, after returning home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.Hide Caption 54 of 60 Photos: America's longest warPresident Joe Biden speaks from the White House Treaty Room in April 2021. Biden formally announced his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan before September 11.Hide Caption 55 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA member of Afghanistan’s security forces walks at Bagram Air Base after the last American troops departed the compound in July 2021. It marked the end of the American presence at a sprawling compound that became the center of military power in Afghanistan.Hide Caption 56 of 60 Photos: America's longest warA member of the Afghan Special Forces drives a Humvee during a combat mission against the Taliban in July 2021. Danish Siddiqui, the Reuters photographer who took this photo, was killed days later during clashes in Afghanistan. Siddiqui had been a photographer for Reuters since 2010, and he was the news agency’s chief photographer in India. He was also part of a Reuters team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography covering Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar.Hide Caption 57 of 60 Photos: America's longest warHanif, who was struck in the temple by a stray bullet, and his older brother, Mohammed, are seen at the Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar in August 2021. Kandahar had been under siege for a month, and it would soon fall to the Taliban.Hide Caption 58 of 60 Photos: America's longest warTaliban fighters sit inside the presidential palace in Kabul in August 2021. The palace was handed over to the Taliban after being vacated hours earlier by Afghan government officials. Many of Afghanistan’s major cities had already fallen to the insurgent group with little to no resistance.Hide Caption 59 of 60 Photos: America's longest warPeople climb atop a plane at Kabul’s international airport after the Taliban retook the capital a day earlier. Hundreds of people poured onto the tarmac, desperately seeking a route out of Afghanistan.Hide Caption 60 of 60Finding judoExcept not all sections of Afghan society were ready to accept these freedoms for women.Rezayee says she started to receive death threats and her coach eventually said it was too dangerous to keep training. The coach put her in touch with another trainer, who introduced her to judo.With the help of a charity, she fell in love with the martial arts discipline and trained alongside two other girls — the only women in the entire country to compete in judo, she says. “It was a milestone for us and a significant moment,” Rezayee added.”[It was] very dangerous because the society was not ready to see female athletes at that time because they were just finishing and just coming out of the dark regime of the Taliban.”It was extremely dangerous, but I would train hard. I did not care about the social stigma, what my relatives and the society…said.”I believed in myself and I believed in the other girls and I believed in the sport.”The Taliban knocked on her door 3 times. The fourth time, they killed herAfter competing locally, Rezayee was eventually selected to represent her country at the 2004 Athens Olympics.She was one of only two Afghan women to compete in Greece — the other being 100m sprinter Robina Muqim Yaar — but the scheduling of the judo and track and field events ensured Rezayee was the first woman to step into official competition, she says.She faced a four-time world champion from Spain and lost in the first round but nonetheless made an indelible mark on Afghanistan’s history.”I did not win. I was very sad, I was heartbroken. I called my father and my older brother back in Afghanistan and said that I was so sorry I didn’t win, I let you down,” she said.”But my father and one of my brothers said: ‘Don’t worry, you didn’t win, but you made history.'”However, on her return to Afghanistan, Rezayee says she was forced into hiding for a few months.She said fundamentalists in the country “wanted her dead” and that she also feared for the safety of her family.After a family tragedy in 2005, Rezayee fled to Pakistan again before finally seeking refuge in Canada in 2011.She has not returned to her beloved country since 2013 but has no regrets about her decision to represent Afghan women on the global stage.”I wanted to show the patriarchy in Afghanistan that women are equal (to) men and they can participate,” she said.”And I also wanted the women’s competition, women’s sports, women’s rights to be very normal in the eyes of the patriarchy and other people and also to show to the world that there are women in Afghanistan and they play sport.”JUST WATCHEDMalala: ‘This is a call to humanity’ReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Malala: ‘This is a call to humanity’ 11:58’We will become a resistance group’Watching the news unfold over the last few days has devastated Rezayee, and she says she is frightened of what this regime will do.Despite their public pronouncements, she doesn’t believe that the Taliban have changed and called on world leaders to topple the newly formed regime.More positively, she believes there is still a chance that women can represent Afghanistan at future Olympic Games. She is working on a project to send Afghan women judokas to Paris in 2024 and called on the world’s sporting governing bodies to assist Afghan athletes.In a statement to CNN, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it was “monitoring the situation and is in contact with the sport community in Afghanistan.””At the same time, we have forwarded relevant information to a number of responsible governments. For obvious reasons of security of concerned people, we would not comment further at this stage,” the statement continued.CNN has also contacted the Afghan Olympic Committee but has yet to receive a response.Despite the chaos and traumatic pictures coming from the country this week, Rezayee still has hope.That, she says, is something the Taliban can never take away from the women of Afghanistan.”My message to Afghan women in Afghanistan right now is to stay strong. This is a nightmare, but nightmares don’t last very long,” she said.”We will make this through. If nothing else, we will become a resistance group. We will fight for our rights no matter what.”Once, we lost our rights in the 1990s — we are not going to let that happen again. Stay strong. Stay in touch. Also stay very intelligent.”I believe in peace. Peace, prosperity and human rights will prevail.”Everybody’s dying for peace.”
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