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Threatened Scholars: Shaharzad Akbar Seeks Accountability for Human Rights Violations in Afghanistan
"There are stories that people want to tell. Every day we receive messages and we see footage of violations. These people, these survivors, care about being seen,” says
, a Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative Fellow.
This is the second in a series of profiles of fellows participating in OSUN’s innovative Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, which supports writers, researchers, teachers, and intellectuals who have fled authoritarian governments in their home countries.
An Unplanned Departure
In August 2021, when
booked flights for herself and her family for a journey from Afghanistan to Egypt, she had planned to be away from Kabul for only two weeks. At the time, Afghan military analysts said Taliban forces were beginning to advance toward the capital but were still months away from actually capturing it. But very quickly, events on the ground shifted and Akbar had to make some quick decisions.
“By the morning of August 15, we knew that things were moving much faster than we expected...but still I didn't know that would be the day” the capital fell, says Akbar, who at the time was chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). She would soon receive sponsorship from OSUN’s
Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative
(TSI) so she could pursue her rights work in safety in London.
TSI offers fellowships at OSUN institutions to scholars, writers, and other intellectuals who are forced to leave their home countries due to threats from authoritarian regimes or other types of persecution, because of their work or their identity. The initiative offers fellows a safe haven and a place where they can integrate into the local community while pursuing their teaching, writing, or research. It also benefits students and faculty at the host institution, giving them valuable exposure to the various global perspectives and stories that visiting fellows provide.
Akbar, her husband and son, got one of the last commercial flights out of Kabul to UAE and then Egypt. Soon after, the Taliban seized power. From Egypt, Akbar immediately started making nonstop phone calls around the globe, trying to help Commission staff and colleagues evacuate to other countries. “For two weeks, I don't remember what I had for food or anything, I just lived on my mobile phone,” she says.
Akbar explains that earlier in 2021, colleagues at the Commission and other human rights groups were already the victims of targeted killings by the Taliban, forcing staffers to leave the country for safety. “I thought that I would be next and my colleagues in the Commission would be next and I was right,” she says.
After two weeks in Egypt, Akbar and her family went to Turkey and stayed there for five months. Eventually, with the support of TSI, all three arrived in London, where Akbar served as a fellow for one year at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank.
“There was a process, of course, of grief and trying to process what happened. My emotional and mental health were terrible,” says Akbar. While discussing her story via Zoom, it’s clear that the ordeal still affects her emotionally.
Seeking Accountability for Human Rights Violations
Akbar decided to use her time at Chatham House, with its large institutional presence, to help build an international network of human rights advocates who could amplify the voices of threatened people in Afghanistan.
“There are things that I can do to help people on the ground because I may have contacts here that they don't have. How can I be a bridge connecting them to policymakers here?” she says.
“And there are stories that people want to tell. Every day we receive messages and we see footage of violations. These people, these survivors, care about being seen,” she adds.
Aside from assisting Afghans and telling their stories, Akbar also seeks accountability for the violence committed against Afghans by the Afghan government and US forces during the long-running war. “There was a lot of talk about the US being in Afghanistan for twenty years and how much money had been spent, how many Americans had died in the war, and how many were injured, but there was very little talk of how many Afghan lives had been lost,” she says.
She notes that as far back as 2019, when US-Taliban peace talks started, she and other Afghan human rights advocates noticed an increase in targeted killings of social rights defenders, activists, and academics, particularly women, something which the US government never spoke out against.
“The whole situation made me and many others feel very angry,” says Akbar, “because we felt like we were told we were on the forefront of the war against terrorism, a US ally and partner for 20 years, losing an average of hundreds of lives every week…but there was no accountability, no reflection.”
Various estimates place the number of Afghans killed during the war at 176,000, with an additional 360,000 due to indirect causes.
Rebuilding a National Human Rights Movement
Akbar says she and her colleagues regularly discuss what might be done to rebuild Afghanistan’s fragmented human rights movement, which had made some advances during the time the US occupied the country. Reflecting on lessons learned from her painful experience, Akbar says, “In addition to signing up for a lot of conventions, we should have really invested more in building the movement itself and trying to find allies and like-minded communities or groups within the country.”
“I think having more Afghans talking about human rights inside the country, knowing what their rights are…can bring change that's maybe slow, but is less reversible,” she says. She explains that, in the past, Afghan communities gradually changed their perceptions about educating girls and women after they agreed that educating their families also meant augmenting their household income. “How do we capitalize on that social transformation? Cultures are not static; they change,” she asserts.
Akbar’s current position as a human rights advocate in exile is complicated. She regrets that she is away from her home country at a very desperate time but she continues to pour her energy into the important work that has defined her life.
In her current role as the Executive Director of
, a nonprofit organization working on human rights issues related to Afghanistan, Akbar continues to focus on rebuilding the country’s human rights movement. This means monitoring and reporting on rights violations and pursuing accountability for crimes against Afghans. In addition, her
continues to provide a voice that supports a human rights agenda, particularly the rights of women and girls.
While she is thankful for her safety and that of her family, she says she still feels guilt for having left Afghanistan. “I am privileged,” says Akbar. “I can accept guilt as a powerful emotion that’s going to be part of my life but not let it paralyze me.”