Heroes

08.13.13

Afghanistan's Amelia Earhart

She flies risky medevac missions to the Afghan frontlines and has fought against the Taliban for two governments and an Uzbek warlord. Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai talk to Latifa Nabizada, the first female to join the Afghan Air Force.

When 18-year-old Latifa Nabizada graduated from helicopter flight school in 1991 along with her younger sister, Lailuma, they proudly became Afghanistan’s first-ever female pilots. But they also received their wings and their commissions at the peak of the destructive Afghan civil war, which immediately threw the two women into perilous combat. They were flying for the beleaguered government of the Russian-backed dictator, Najibullah, which was fighting for survival against the U.S.-backed mujahideen guerrillas. Latifa, now 40, a colonel and pilot in the fledgling Afghan Air Force, recalls in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast how dangerous it was in those days to pilot a lumbering, Soviet-built Mi-8 chopper on resupply, medevac, and combat missions while she and her co-pilot sister dodged salvos of lethal CIA-supplied heat-seeking, anti-aircraft missiles. “Most of our flights were high risk because of the Stingers,” she says. “The mujahideen hunted us constantly with those missiles.” “But we didn’t care,” she adds. “You don’t get your wish if you don’t take the risk.”

Flying had always been her dream, says Latifa, an ethnic Uzbek, while sitting in a Kabul restaurant dressed in a plain brown shawl, which covers her hair and shoulders, and a brown Afghan dress. “I am in love with the sky,” she says. “The closer I am to the sky the more pleasure I feel.” While she and her sister were growing up in Kabul, they never played with dolls; they played pilots. “We went after our dreams,” she says. As top students, the sisters could have gone to medical or engineering schools upon graduation, but without hesitation they volunteered for, and were accepted in, air force pilot training in 1988, just one year before the battered Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan. For all its murderous abuses, Najibullah’s communist-leaning, authoritarian regime staunchly promoted women’s education and rights.

Latifa calls her first solo flight in 1991, a 90-minute resupply mission to the Tajikistan border, “the most beautiful day of my life.” “That day I was proud and proved to the world that Afghan women are brave and equal to our Afghan brothers,” she says. After that inaugural mission, the male military pilots accepted her as one of their own. “It was a landmark day for my country where women are still oppressed and seen as less than men,” she says. “I showed the authority of Afghan women.” And soon afterwards she experienced “the happiest day of my life,” she says, when she took her mother on a flight from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Before boarding, her mother—who was doubtful that her daughter was really at the controls—peered through the cockpit window to verify who really was in the pilot’s seat.

Latifa’s fear of the Stingers was overcome by her love of flying. “The fear quickly vanished as I was doing my dream job with my sister in the next seat,” she says. “Fighting and flying became routine.” Still, she had a number of close calls. On many occasions she had to pop high-temperature flares to divert the Stingers that were headed directly at her chopper’s red-hot, dual jet exhaust. She was nearly captured by the Taliban in 1998. She had just touched down near the frontline to unload ammunition and other supplies to anti-Taliban forces in northern Faryab Province when villagers came running to warn her that the Taliban had just captured the area. “I quickly realized that I had landed in the middle of Taliban forces,” she recalls. She somehow managed to pick up a handful of villagers and made a successful escape under a barrage of heavy small arms fire. She thanks God that the Taliban didn’t possess any Stinger missiles. On less dangerous missions, she always loved to land in villages and to be surrounded by Afghan women who rushed out to meet a woman, one of them, flying a modern machine. “These village women showed an incredible interest in me and my success,” she says. “I hope I encouraged them to follow their own dreams.”

Latifa went into hiding as the Taliban mounted a hunt for her. "The Taliban hated the fact that I was a female pilot," she says.

Latifa feared her dreams of flying would end forever in 1992 when Najibullah’s regime fell to the mujahideen. “We thought ‘that is it’,” she says. “The mujahideen did not have a good view of women.” Discouraged, she went home to her family’s Kabul house and waited to see what would happen. To her surprise the new mujahideen government called her back to the armed forces. She was back in the air once again. But as the mujahideen factions began fighting each other and shelling Kabul, killing hundreds if not thousands and destroying much of the city, she fled north to Mazar-i-Sharif, near her ancestral home in Faryab Province in 1993. There she was introduced to Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, the most powerful and brutal warlord in the north, who befriended her. “He was a nice guy, protected my job and family,” she recalls. “The first time I met him he ordered his aides to provide me with a house, food, and inducted me in his air force.”

By 1996, the Taliban had captured Kabul and were fast closing in on Mazar-i-Sharif to consolidate their hold over the country. As a result, Latifa was flying missions nearly round the clock, ferrying munitions and other supplies to Dostun’s forces in the field, and returning with sick, wounded and dead soldiers. Flying medevac missions had become routine since the early 1990s. It’s still one of her most difficult tasks. “The flow of injured and dead soldiers I carry never seems to end,” she says sadly. She recalls her most recent mission of airlifting dead and wounded Afghan soldiers from the battlefield back to Kabul. “All of them are so very young,” she says. “It’s painful to see these young boys lose body parts and their lives.”

The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to the Taliban in August, 1998, marked a sad turning point for Latifa. In an attempt to escape, she and her sister commandeered a helicopter, even though a mechanic had warned them that the chopper had major mechanical faults, and started to fly toward the Uzbekistan border. But they quickly made a U-turn, knowing they could not leave their parents, brothers and sisters behind. They parked the aircraft and tried to disappear into the chaotic city. Latifa went into hiding as the Taliban mounted a hunt for her. “The Taliban hated the fact that I was a female pilot,” she says. “Their mentality was ‘How does this woman dare fly and for enemy forces.’” The Taliban wanted her so badly that they detained her three brothers and tortured them, hoping they would divulge her whereabouts. “My brothers courageously resisted and did not disclose my location,” she says.

Clearly it was too dangerous for her to stay in Mazar-i-Sharif, so Latifa managed to flee to Taliban-controlled Kabul, dressed in a burqa. When she got to the capital she was appalled by the conditions of women who had to stay indoors, could not work, or go the school. “The women in the city were the living dead,” she recalls. A pilot friend of hers, who knew where she was hiding, used to buzz her home in an effort to keep up her morale. Tired of laying low, Latifa and her sister decided to escape to neighboring Pakistan in late 1998. It was not a positive move. They exchanged lives in hiding for an existence of near slavery. To survive she began working in an oppressive carpet factory. “I sewed carpets all day and into the night for just a handful of rupees,” she says. “It was painful and discouraging to fall from the high-ranking job of being a pilot to working as an ordinary, uneducated woman,” she adds tearfully. “All because of the Taliban.”

She stayed in Peshawar until the Taliban regime collapsed in late 2001. The Taliban’s sudden demise was “the sensation of my life,” she says. “I could not believe that the strong and harsh Taliban were gone and that a new, modern government that respects women and their rights had replaced them.” She rushed home to Kabul and was able to reoccupy the family’s house that had been requisitioned by the Taliban. She says she could never figure out what the Taliban were doing while they were in power. “They were leading us to nowhere,” she says bitterly.

With the new U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai in charge, Latifa returned to the air force and to the chopper’s cockpit. She regularly flies resupply and grisly medevac missions in the old, refurbished Mi-8 choppers, but the tiny and rather backward Afghan Air Force is not yet capable of flying any combat sorties. While she is disappointed that the Air Force doesn’t have more modern aircraft, she is pleased by the advancements women have made since the Taliban’s fall. There are now five female pilots in the Air Force including her. “I see progress in Afghanistan though it’s very slow,” she says. “At least we are headed in the right direction to a better future.” Still, she knows how far Afghan women have to travel to achieve any sort of equality. She gets depressed when she flies resupply missions into Taliban-influenced rural villages. “Too many women are still living under the sky as if the Taliban were still in charge,” she says.

For all her bravery, Latifa is still a traditional woman. At the age of 31, she married in a union that her parents had arranged. She saw her husband, who is an Afghan army captain, for the first time after a three-month engagement. “I trusted my parents’ judgment,” she says. The first thing she did was to check if his arms, hands, and legs were intact. “Because of the war each Afghan girl wants to make sure her husband is not disabled,” she says. Three years later she gave birth to her first child, a girl named Malalai. Coincidentally her copilot sister, Lailuma, became pregnant at the same time. She died in childbirth in 2007, though the baby survived. Latifa was devastated.

Latifa raised Malalai in her chopper from the time she was one month old. “There was no place to leave my baby so I had to take her onboard,” she says. “She has grown up in the helicopter.” American advisers complained that it was too dangerous for mother and child to be flying together, but she persuaded her Afghan commanders to give her permission. She admits though that she is frightened each time she takes Malalai in the air with her.

Latifa also fears that the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces at the end of 2014 will jeopardize the progress Afghan women have achieved in the past 13 years. “I don’t want us to return to zero as we were under the Taliban regime,” she says. To prevent that, women have to be courageous. “If you don’t have courage, you can’t get what you want,” she says. “We are tired of the war but we don’t want to settle at the cost of our progress and rights,” she adds. “My message to the Taliban is to please stop the violence and let women be educated.”

She is grateful to the U.S .and its allies for all they’ve sacrificed for Afghanistan. “The blood and money you spent in Afghanistan has not been wasted,” she says. “You protected women and every human being of Afghanistan.” But she realizes that soon it will be up to the Afghans themselves to preserve and build on what has been achieved so far.