Afghan sportswomen flee Taliban to Qatar on a 'sweet day'
The female footballers, basketball players and others were among 369 passengers on the plane to Qatar, including more than 55 who were evacuated in coordination with global football body FIFA which is organising next year's World Cup in the Gulf monarchy.
The semi-regular flight to Doha, arranged by the Qatar government, has become a rare lifeline for Afghans with passports and visas since the Taliban seized power in August.
Wednesday's flight was the most packed yet, and included several women athletes including 28-year-old basketballer Tahera Yousofi from Herat, who is heading to Canada.
"Today is a very, very sweet day for all of us because after many, many weeks our trek starts and we are very happy," she told AFP.
Tahera used to play and train regularly in Afghanistan and has competed internationally, but since the hardline Taliban returned this has proved impossible.
"The Taliban government don't let us play and don't let us get a job and we have to vacate this country, unfortunately," she said.
Sports were banned when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and since their return women's freedoms have again been abruptly curtailed.
Flying alongside the athletes were expat Afghans who were visiting their homeland and were caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban victory.
Aside from Afghans, the passengers included citizens from the United States, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan and others.
Several families brought young children and babies, and some were so exhausted they fell asleep almost on take-off.
Sef and Zohra Amiri, 22 and 26, had planned a two-week visit from their home in Britain but ended up trapped for a fearful two and a half months.
"Finally we got the phone call from the British Embassy to help us to get out of here. Now we can finally breathe and we can fly wherever we want to go and (do) whatever we want to do," said Zohra.
Since the Taliban took control of Kabul, the family has been trapped in their compound -- particularly the women.
"My auntie went outside and the Taliban broke her foot. So that was really scary for us, really sad for us. As a woman we want all freedoms for us, like boys," Zohra said.
The Qatari flights began on August 31 and depart around twice a week, carrying hundreds of passengers each time, including Afghans at risk under the new regime.
The Taliban have complained that the ongoing departure of many educated middle-class citizens and employees of the former US-backed government is a brain drain undermining their effort to stabilise the country.
But they have promised the international community not to interfere with the departure of Afghans with legitimate papers, despite reports of intimidation, and have cooperated with the Qatar air bridge.
On arrival in Qatar, the passengers are taken to a compound where they have access to Covid-19 testing and can rest and prepare for onward travel to their final destination.
Qatar says it "will continue to work with international partners on efforts that ensure freedom of movement in Afghanistan, including through serving as an active mediator between various parties."