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Haley Carter: How a “Ragtag group” helped evacuate the Afghan women’s national soccer team from the country

Eventually, however, 86 Afghan athletes, officials and family members were brought to safety. Her successful evacuation was the result of an internationally coordinated effort involving six countries, but even those who tried to get her out had to admit that it was still “no less than a miracle”.

But what these women had experienced was almost inexpressible, and the people who had worked so tirelessly for their salvation now feel deep feelings of guilt that they could no longer help.

Strengthening through sport

Haley Carter knows all about stressful work environments – she spent almost eight years in the US Marine Corps and was stationed in Fallujah and at Al Asad Air Base in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The 37-year-old American also played as a goalkeeper in Division I college football and signed for the Houston Dash before moving to the sidelines to coach.

But in the last few days their two career paths have converged critically.

In April 2016, Carter joined the Afghan women’s national team as an assistant coach. It was a young team with a limited history that was only founded in 2007 and was only made possible by a more tolerant approach to equality and human rights.

In a country where girls and women were previously barely allowed to leave the house, let alone offer training or the opportunity to work in positions of authority, Carter knew that the team’s potential lay in scoring more than just a few goals .

“We are committed to empowering these women,” she told CNN Sport. “We wanted to found a football team that could compete on an international level. But we all knew that this effort was something much, much bigger than football. We gave them the opportunity to use sport to get out of the house for an education. “

The ultimate realization of her power also marked the end of Carter’s involvement on the team.

In 2018, the players accused several male members of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. At the time, the AFF denied the allegations, saying it had a “zero tolerance” approach to abuse.

The world governing body of football, FIFA, opened an investigation, but the evidence presented was sufficient to leave the AFF’s main sponsor, Hummel, and the American coaching team, all of which were voluntary, was not recalled by the AFF. Technically, they say, they never really got fired.

Nonetheless, the players’ brave demeanor, for which any one of them could have been killed, started a chain of seismic events. “You have fundamentally changed the criminal justice system for victims of sexual assault in Afghanistan,” Carter said. “They inspired other women. These women not only played sports, they really changed society.”

An unbreakable bond

Carter now coaches the Antigua and Barbuda team and is no longer professionally affiliated with the Afghan women’s team, but she says the relationships she has made with them are unbreakable. “These players will always be our players,” she said. “We have developed a bond, a trust. Some of these girls are like family to me.”

When she remembers trips to India and Jordan, she smiles at the memories. “They built us a Christmas tree with all sorts of decorations, everything they could find in the hotel. We had private dance parties, players only, an opportunity to be ourselves and enjoy yourself.

“I think my happiest time was when we were able to bring refugee women or children of refugees outside Afghanistan together with the players in Kabul to share experiences and realize that it doesn’t matter where they live – they are all part of the Afghan diaspora . ”

These ties were certainly not forgotten when the Taliban effortlessly took control of Afghanistan in mid-August. Those who had enjoyed freedom and opportunity over the past two decades quickly realized that their lives would change dramatically.

Khalida Popal, the team’s former captain who fled to Denmark in 2016, revealed in an interview with CNN the stark reality that football players are now facing. “They will take us with them and we will remain their slaves. We don’t want that and we hope that they kill us first. “

So, Popal and Carter helped form an emergency coalition to try to get them to safety.

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Carter said the women's national soccer team had to burn their uniforms and delete their social media accounts.  They sent her pictures of other Afghans wading through the sewage in search of salvation.

Human rights lawyers Kat Craig and Alison Battisson, as well as former Afghan women’s soccer coach Kelly Lindsey and Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden completed the group of six. “Never underestimate the power of a group of women with smartphones,” Carter quipped.

Together with the former Australian soccer captain Craig Foster and the Global Players Union FIFPRO, they left no stone unturned. “NGOs, government agencies, military and non-military,” said Carter. “We have a team that works 24 hours and takes tactical naps to meet each other. I slept three and a half hours last night and feel like it was the best sleep I’ve had in days. ”

There was no time, because as soon as the security situation deteriorated, visa applications and evacuation lists were hastily drawn up. Carter and her team weighed down the realization that the atmosphere at the Kabul airport was lagging behind and that dangers lurked around every corner.

Prior to the evacuation, Carter told CNN, “What happens at the airport is highly dangerous and highly volatile.”

“You will have to fight,” she would tell the players. “You are going to have to fight and you have to be smart about what you do. Be prepared and really take care of yourself. You have to put yourself in some situations where you are going to be uncomfortable with this to get through this.” . ”

‘It’s incredible’

The world had watched in horror as desperate civilians, including a young male soccer player, clung to an American C-17 transport plane and fell from the sky to their death. People were crushed to death in the chaos outside the airport, and the clock ticked louder and louder in late August as the US government ended evacuation operations.

After the players were brought to safety, Carter revealed more details of what they had been through: two days with limited supplies, three nights camping to survive. “The things the players had to endure is just amazing. I got voice memos from some of them when they made it to the terminal and they couldn’t even describe how awful it was. They couldn’t even find the words to describe how awful their experience was trying to get in. They couldn’t even process it. ”

When she received visual confirmation of her safety at three a.m. – a photo of some of the women on board a flight to Australia – Carter described a surge of emotion. “I’ve never cried tears of relief the way I cried when I got the last picture,” she wrote on Twitter. “We all become incredibly grateful for what we achieved and utterly heartbroken for what we failed.”

Carter says she and her team felt when she received visual confirmation of the players boarding their flight from Kabul to Australia "incredibly grateful."

FIFPRO confirmed the mission’s success in a statement: “We are grateful to the Australian government for evacuating a large number of women footballers and athletes from Afghanistan. These young women were both athletes and activists in a dangerous position.” and on behalf of their colleagues around the world, we thank the international community for coming to their aid. ”

The world association FIFA is also closely monitoring the situation, a spokesman told CNN. “The leadership of FIFA is personally involved in the negotiations on the complex evacuation of footballers and other athletes. This is an extremely challenging environment.”

The players may be out of danger, but as refugees, their future is inevitably uncertain. FIFPRO said: “Much remains to be done to support and relocate these young women and we urge the international community to ensure that they receive all the help they need”. The fate of their project – the Afghan women’s national football team – is certainly unclear, not that football is now playing a role at all.

“You made very tough decisions”

“They made very tough decisions about leaving their families,” Carter explained, “and all they knew. And these people are still at home in Kabul, they are still in danger. Everyone needs to understand the trauma these women have been through ”over the past 96 hours. Our team isn’t even there and we’re all struggling to process what’s happening. “

The only thing that is certain is that one day the players will be united with their guardian angels at the other end of the world. “Wherever these women go, wherever they land, we’re going,” Carter said before she was sure they would be safe at all.

“I’m going to take the next flight to where we can take them for many, many, many reasons. This is the kind of family that the Afghan women’s national soccer team is. I assure you they will all get on a plane. “

In the meantime, Carter herself must process the emotional events of the past few days and her own dedication to make the world a better place.

“I feel responsible and I feel responsible for our strategy of western nation building and democratization,” she said. “When we take strategic initiatives like this, we naturally fight to empower women and minorities. And now let’s just let them down and hope things work out.

Even more pressing, however, is the emotional pressure to wonder if they have done enough.

“When you are able to put people on a list and get them out, there is this guilt that comes with it because you are essentially choosing who lives and who could possibly die. It’s a very difficult feeling.

“My therapist will be working overtime.”

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