Afghan Paralympian makes her debut after secret evacuation

PHILIP FONG / AFP

Afghanistan's Zakia Khudadadi competed in the Paralympic Games on Thursday, becoming the first woman from her country to do so since Athens 2004, after a secret international effort to help the taekwondo athlete get out of Taliban-controlled Kabul.

The 22-year-old and her compatriot Hossain Rasouli arrived in Tokyo on Saturday via Paris after Khudadadi made a video appeal for help to leave the Afghan capital after the Taliban swept to power.

On Thursday, Khudadadi entered the Makuhari Messe competition arena in Chiba wearing a white hijab for the opening match of the combat sport's Paralympic debut. She became only the second woman to compete for Afghanistan at the Paralympics, which began in 1960.

Khudadadi did not speak to reporters after her two matches, both of which she lost. Rasouli competed in the men's long jump on Tuesday. Both athletes had said they did not wish to speak to the media.

"I worry about the situation in Afghanistan, but I am very glad that she managed to come and compete with me," Ukrainian Viktoriia Marchuk told reporters after she defeated Khudadadi in the repechage round.

It was not immediately known what the Afghan athletes intend to do after the Games but Alison Battisson of Human Rights for All, who was involved in their evacuation, told Reuters that Australia had granted them humanitarian visas.

In her August 17 video appeal, Khudadadi had said: "I don't want my struggle to be in vain and without any results."

The pair had been unable to travel as originally scheduled after thousands of people rushed to Kabul's airport, seeking to flee. Paralympic officials had initially said they would not make it to the Games.

The Taliban have said they would respect the rights of women, allowing them to work and study but many Afghans fear this is a facade.

During their 1996-2001 rule, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out and then only when accompanied by a male relative. 

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