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'No hope left': Afghans in Canada who lived under Taliban say regime can't be trusted

MONTREAL — Quebecer Fakhria Rezaie was seven years old when her family fled Afghanistan and says her memories from life under the Taliban are horrific.

MONTREAL — Quebecer Fakhria Rezaie was seven years old when her family fled Afghanistan and says her memories from life under the Taliban are horrific.

Rezaie, 29, says the Taliban's takeover of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, the city where she grew up in northwest Afghanistan, was sudden and violent.

"They came looking for the men and took everyone over 15," Rezaie, who lives on Montreal's south shore, said in a recent interview. "We still don't know where they are, including my uncle, and to this day we haven't heard from him. There is no hope left. I have so many memories from it, it was savage and terrifying. Humanity didn't exist."

The Taliban swept the country at a surprisingly fast pace after American troops started to withdraw on May 1 — ending two decades of United States military presence in Afghanistan. On Sunday, they took the capital, Kabul, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. The Taliban say they seek an "inclusive, Islamic'' government and claim they have become more moderate since they last held power. 

But Afghans in Canada remain deeply skeptical of the group's intentions.

Montrealer Noori Massoud, 30, says he hasn't been able to sleep over the past few days, fearing for the lives of his family members in Afghanistan. 

"My body is here but my mind is there," Massoud said. "We don't know what's going to happen; people want a peaceful life but I don’t think it’s going to happen in Afghanistan."

Rezaie said her father was taken by the Taliban in 1998 and found in a prison three months after his abduction.

"We fled a few days after we found my dad, leaving everything behind," Rezaie said, adding that her family lived in Pakistan for three years before moving to Canada. "We were so afraid, my dad just wanted to be able to cross the borders and breathe. This is my story, but I am also talking for people who experienced the same thing, and those who are currently going through it."

Under Taliban rule in the '90s, television and music were forbidden. Women were barred from attending school or working outside the home, and they had to wear the all-encompassing burqa whenever they appeared in public.

Massoud left Afghanistan in 2014 at the age of 23, heading to England before moving to Canada.

"When the Taliban were in power, I was a kid," Massoud said. "I remember that time was very dark, lots of bad memories. It’s happening again in my country and it’s very sad."

"No one feels safe — all Afghans. Especially women. They fear for their lives."

After the Taliban took control of Kabul, 23-year-old Saddia Rahmanyarspoke to her relatives in the city to check up on them. 

Rahmanyar’s three uncles, a dentist, pediatrician and pharmacist, and their families have lived in Kabul their whole lives. Her younger cousins say they have never seen this kind of violence and anarchy before. 

“The state was lawless for 24 hours, where you can do whatever you want and get away with it. My cousin claims that in his 23 years, he had never seen this much chaos,” she said from Toronto.

Rahmanyar, who was born in Canada after her parents fled Afghanistan in 1996 to avoid Taliban rule, had visited her family in Kabul several times over the past five years. Her primary concern, she said, is not being able to send them money. “All the banks are closed and no one is working. How am I going to send them money? I can’t e-transfer funds there," she said.

“So, there's this really limited help I can do for them. I can donate to organizations, but making sure that the money goes directly to my family is really unknown at the moment.”

Behzad Nikzad, who's been living in Canada for more than 20 years, says his thoughts are with a cousin who is finishing her last year of medical school in Herat, Afghanistan's the third-largest city.

"She worked very hard all of her life, she's been dedicated to her study for all her entire life," Nikzad said from Montreal. "As far as I remember, she was in her books, studying, but now she’s very afraid it might be like last time, and that she won't be able to go back to school or practice her profession."

The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists. 

Rezaie, however, said those are empty words. She said she hopes international leaders follow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he declared on Tuesday that his government won't recognize the Taliban as legitimate rulers.

"Taliban can show the world that they are there for peace, but we have no trust," Rezaie said. "There are still diplomats over there, and once they are gone, the Taliban might keep peace with other countries but for the Afghans, it’s going to be hell."

"The 20 years of progress are going to be gone in a moment." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 18, 2021. 

— With files from Rhythm Sachdeva and The Associated Press 

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press