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Afghan National Institute of Music reunites 1,200 miles from Kabul after fleeing Taliban crackdown

'It was extremely emotional,' said Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of ANIM. 'They just couldn't stop crying and I was crying together with them.'

Afghan National Institute of Music reunites 1,200 miles from Kabul after fleeing Taliban crackdown
Cover Image Source: Afghanistan National Institute of Music

The last two of more than 270 students, faculty and staff from Afghanistan's only music school—the world-renowned the Afghanistan National Institute of Music—have been evacuated from Kabul in the wake of the Taliban takeover, the institution's founder said on Thursday. Tears of relief flowed when the 13-year-old musicians, Zohra and Farida, disembarked the plane in Qatar and ran toward their teacher. "It was extremely emotional," the founder and director of ANIM, Ahmad Sarmast, told NBC News of the emotional moment on Tuesday. "They just couldn't stop crying and I was crying together with them."

Image Source: Afghanistan National Institute of Music

"I am very relieved," he added. "It's good to see them happy, and also hopeful about the future." The 272 evacuees, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, are among hundreds of artists—actors, writers, painters and photographers—who have fled Afghanistan in recent weeks fearing the Taliban. The group's interpretation of Islam previously led them to outlaw music altogether when they led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and although music has not been formally banned this time, several radio and TV stations in Kabul have ceased the broadcast of music or entertainment fearing of potential consequences. There have also been some reports of artists being attacked or threatened for performing.


According to The New York Times, a Taliban spokesman named Zabihullah Mujahid said in an August interview that "music is forbidden in Islam" but that "we're hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them." However, Mejgan Massoumi—a historian at Stanford University—explained that Afghanistan has a rich, centuries-long music tradition and that the Quran does not explicitly prohibit music or consider it "un-Islamic." The Taliban, she said, are using their extremist interpretation of Islam to justify erasing the nation's history and identity. "It will be devastating for the Afghan people to attempt to silence voices and souls," Massoumi said. 

Image Source: Afghanistan National Institute of Music

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music had long been a target of the Taliban as the institution became known for supporting the education of girls and adopting a coeducational model, with boys and girls not only learning music but touring together. According to Al Jazeera, Sarmast—who is the first Afghan to receive a Ph.D. in music studies—was personally targeted by the Taliban in 2014 when a suicide bomb attack during an ANIM concert killed two people and left Sarmast injured and temporarily deaf. The school's doors in Kabul were forced to shut when the Taliban overtook the Afghan government in the summer and Sarmast revealed that one of the campuses at ANIM has since been converted to a command center for members of the Haqqani network.

Image Source: Afghanistan National Institute of Music

"Currently, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music is as silent as the entire nation, which is a pity. A society without music is a dead society," he said. "They [the Taliban] have assured me the school will be safe, but when asked about music education, they say it is a decision to be made by the leadership of the Taliban."



The school's supporters made a frantic attempt to evacuate students and staff in the final days of the U.S. forces withdrawing from the country. At one point, seven busloads of people trying to flee waited at the airport in Kabul for 17 hours before they were forced to turn back when the gate was closed amid fears of a terrorist attack. After that, the school began evacuating people in smaller groups.

Image Source: Afghanistan National Institute of Music

The first group left the country in early October but most arrived in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in the past week, after boarding four special flights arranged by the government of Qatar, following months of delays. "The 272 members will continue to Portugal, where the school will be reconstituted. The rescue to Doha and reestablishment in Portugal will secure the future of Afghanistan’s rich but beleaguered musical heritage," school officials said in a statement. Despite their troubling circumstances, Sarmast and his students are determined to continue the fight. "When I see them I’m just happy," said Marzia, an 18-year-old violist and a conductor for the Zohra orchestra, speaking of her fellow students. "I see all of them happy and they feel free."


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