Ahmad Sarmast and his pupils in 'better days' when Zohra was free to perform both in Afghanistan and elsewhere

Portugal to shelter ‘internationally renowned’ Afghan girls and women’s orchestra

Portugal is about to receive another 101 female Afghan refugees – living up to its pledge to provide shelter to women and girls fleeing the Taliban regime (click here).

These new arrivals are members of an internationally renowned orchestra called Zohra, as well as the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

The musicians – some of them as young as 13 – were due to have been evacuated from Afghanistan in the final days of the war. But the US-led attempt to rescue them came to a halt at a Taliban checkpoint, 100 yards from the gate of Kabul international airport.

Since that time negotiations have been ongoing between the musicians’ powerful backers in the US, the Qatari government and Taliban leaders.

Wall Street Journal reports that the girls and women finally made it to Doha, the Qatari capital, last Sunday.

Ahmad Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been accompanying the ‘escape’ and pivotal in securing his musicians’ place of sanctuary.

Himself a refugee now living in Australia, he told France’s AFP news agency that the girls and women will be continuing on to Portugal.

Crying with relief, he told AFP: “This is the happiest moment of my life…”

The logistics of getting 101 girls and women out of Taliban-held Afghanistan were clearly nail biting. The rescue had to take place in ‘batches’ – and there were doubts almost every step of the way.

As Mr Sarmast explained, the new rulers of Afghanistan do not look benignly on music, although they have stopped short of outlawing it totally. Whatever their policy, the country has become a place in which musicians feel discriminated against, he said.

Lusa meantime has reported that Portugal’s ministry of foreign affairs has played down this latest rescue. 

According to an official source, policy is to “not publicly comment on any operational aspects relating to the arrival in Portugal of people and groups in a situation of particular vulnerability or risk”.

Nonetheless limited reports in the national press describe the imminent arrival of ‘over 100 girls and women’, described as pupils and their teachers, who were recently flown into Doha from Afghanistan. 

Ahmed Sarmast has told the WSJ that he still has 184 musicians stuck in Kabul, but he is hopeful that these too will be brought out “soon”.

The long-term plan is to rebuild the institute – as well as the orchestra – to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Instruments will be procured in India and Switzerland, said Mr Sarmast.

For a little taste of what is arriving in Portugal, and what it means for a people whose nation is under siege, click here

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