Just over a year ago, I watched in horror from my window as Taliban gunmen appeared on the corner of the street in my beloved Kabul. Now, a year on, I am writing this from my desk in my family’s new home in London. We have our own walls to paint, a kitchen to prepare meals in, my young niece has her own bed. From my window I can see our new neighbourhood and can finally dream of new horizons for me and my family.
For the past year, after the terror, chaos and shock of our evacuation from our homeland by the UK government, we have been living in a state of limbo in a hotel in central London, along with 400 other Afghans who also found themselves refugees overnight.
We were lucky. Our hotel was clean, the staff were kind and I cannot thank the UK government enough for what they did for us. Yet as the months went on we all felt the strain of being trapped in a state of suspended animation, just waiting for someone to tell us what would happen to us next.
In Afghanistan we had been journalists, doctors, politicians, translators. Now we were all homeless refugees and there was nothing to do but wait. Even though we could not be more grateful for what the UK had done for us, we had no agency, no independence, no money.
Four hundred people from different ethnicities and backgrounds all living close together, all dealing with the trauma of what they had been through and seeing the poverty, hunger and violence happening back home is a disaster. As the months went on we witnessed domestic violence, families breaking up and ethnic tensions. As families struggled to adapt to their new surroundings we saw women being prevented from leaving the hotel by male relatives and as a group of young Hazara women with no patriarch with us, we had our share of problems during our time there. I know our hotel was no different from many where thousands of Afghans were living month after month, trying to deal with what had happened to their lives while witnessing their country and the family and friends left behind falling into darkness, hunger and violence.
All of us struggled with depression and post traumatic shock. Those final weeks in Afghanistan were ones of terror, panic and indescribable loss.
I was lucky I had my work, and that gave me a strong sense of purpose and I have continued to run my women’s news agency Rukhshana Media from my small hotel room.
I have always felt strongly about my role as a journalist; I had to call out injustice and human rights abuses. My reporting on Taliban violence was the reason we had to flee but even at the airport when we were trying to leave I could not stop reporting, asking a single mother who was fleeing with her young daughter whether I could interview her even as military planes evacuating people screamed overhead.
My sisters were angry with me, saying: “You have done this for years and now we are facing the results of your work today, we are having to run away from our country and our parents.” But I felt proud, remembering the days I covered protests and civil demonstrations on the streets of Kabul. Now I am in exile I feel my responsibility to keep reporting even more heavily.
All year, every day, I and my team of reporters in Afghanistan, who are all working in secret, have told sad and painful stories about what is happening to women in our homeland. We have reported about women being lashed by Taliban fighters, going hungry and losing the jobs they had fought so hard for. Even though it is depressing and boring to constantly be writing bad news, I wake up early every day, open my laptop and start working, sometimes until the early hours of the morning.
When I see my young niece and my sisters who are now living in a free country, I think about millions of other girls in Afghanistan who are no longer free and are facing an uncertain future. My heart breaks and I know I must keep going – the world must not forget about what is happening in Afghanistan.
Now, finally, we have a home and we can start to build our life here. We are able to go to the market, shop and cook our own food, plan for our future. I will continue my work in exile until it is safe to return. It is hard starting from scratch but now we have a place in the UK that we can call home. Every day we grieve the loss of our family and our country but now, at last, we have hope again.
Zahra Joya is an Afghan journalist living in London and the editor-in-chief and founder of Rukhshana Media, a news agency reporting on life for women and girls in Afghanistan