Afghanistan: How one woman fled the Taliban after getting a place at university

Malali Popalzai Credit: ITV
  • Report by ITV News Digital Producer Connor Parker

  • Produced by ITV News Senior Producer Roohi Hasan

A woman who fled Afghanistan and witnessed "thousands" of people being shot at and beaten by the Taliban has described her bittersweet story of freedom and sadness over the family she left behind.

Malali Popalzai, 24, told ITV News about her "magic" story of escaping Afghanistan after being given permission to live in Poland to study - but also described her horrific journey to get on her plane to freedom.

When Malali spoke to ITV News last week, anonymously due to her fear of the Taliban while she was still in Kabul, she was facing a much more desperate situation - having been forced to flee her hometown and her family as the Taliban approached.

Despite the Taliban claiming they will respect the rights of women in Afghanistan, Malali told ITV News she had already heard stories of women being tortured in the street.

Speaking from the safety of Poland, she says an aura of fear and depression gripped the people of Kabul as the Taliban approached.

Listen to Malali recall her journey out of Afghanistan and the horrors she witnessed on the way

Just as the insurgents were entering the capital she was told she had been accepted on her course and would be allowed to fly to Poland, but she was warned it would be a tough journey.

She described the situation at the airport as "dangerous and furious" and added she could never have imagined Kabul ever looking like it did as she left.

When she got there she said she walked for 10 hours looking for a way to get in wandering between "thousand of people" with the "Taliban firing on people and beating them."

Once inside the airport "another story started," as she struggled to find the small number of Polish forces among all of the international militaries present at the airport.

While at the airport she described the food as being "dirty," the smell being overpowering and at one point witnessing 10 women sharing a single bottle of water.

The Taliban watch over people trying to get into Kabul airport Credit: ITV

After spending hours failing to find the Polish army she said she just started to scream "I need Polish people" until eventually, someone pointed in the right direction.

At one point she heard gunfire nearby and in the chaos she was hit by a "piece of iron" on her head.

When she arrived at the small Polish camp she realised everything she owned was completely filthy but the people already waiting there were worse.

By this time it was 10pm and she was greeted by people who told her they have been waiting for five days to leave and they "told stories that were worse than mine" - they finally left early in the morning.

What happens to the evacuation process between now and August 31?

Speaking to ITV News from Poland, Malali often said she struggled to find the words to describe the awful situation she found herself in, and it was only settling in now how close to gunfire she actually was.

She flew to Uzbekistan, then Virginia and then finally to Poland.

On Wednesday Poland ended its evacuations from Afghanistan, becoming one of the first Western countries to halt operations helping people flee the Taliban.

The day before, President Biden refused to extend the deadline for the final pullout of US troops beyond August 31 - the date agreed with the Taliban.Despite her success in escaping Afghanistan, for Malali it was a bittersweet moment because of the life and family she left behind.

Senior International Correspondent John Irvine reveals the fraught situation at Kabul airport as the Taliban herd people inside:

She said: "On one hand, I'm happy another hand, I'm not happy because I had a good job, my family, my life was set and everything was good.

"So suddenly it turned from hundred to zero."

Tearfully, Malali explained she is now facing a situation where her father and sister have been forced out of work because of the Taliban - so rather than them helping her with her studies, she now wants to be able to send them money to keep them alive.

Malali said she was still getting emotional every hour remembering the horror of what she'd been through.

"Whenever I remember my good life, my family, my father.. I didn't see my little sister - she was waiting for me."

Malali said she would complete her studies in economics and sustainable development at Opole University, but does not know what will happen after that.

Although Malali's story was a success, many more face the reality of not escaping the country as the timeframe to get out grows smaller by the hour.