KABUL, Afghanistan—There were few things that scared Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old human rights activist who torpedoed her way across an increasingly volatile and patriarchal landscape of Afghanistan. One of them, Lima Ahmad, her older sister, told me in July, was “that Afghanistan will take away her happiness; it was something she always talked about.” Ahmad is now picking up the remnants of a life after Khalil was killed in an attack on her vehicle in Kabul on June 27.
Through the digital crumbs left behind by a member of Generation Z, who documented everything through Facebook posts, photos, video clips, tweets, Instagram stories, and more, Ahmad draws a vivid picture of her baby sister. Khalil, known to her family as Natasha, was a rising star among young Afghans, whose future is increasingly under threat by ever worsening conflict.
In one video clip, Khalil and her friends are parasailing in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, where she was studying. In the background, her friend says, “Natasha, we might die.” She responds, “It is better than dying in an explosion in Afghanistan.” In the end, Ahmad says, “she faced her biggest fear.” She could have stayed away from Afghanistan—in Kyrgyzstan, where she had studied, or in the United States, where she had opportunities to go—but even grave physical risks were not enough to keep her away from Afghanistan, a country she loved and one that frustrated her in equal parts.
Khalil was born as a refugee in Pakistan, sixth of seven siblings, to parents who were forced to flee their homeland in the 1990s due to civil war. “We did not come from a rich economic background, but when we moved to Pakistan, life became more difficult. My parents were both teachers and also did not speak the local languages and so could not find enough work to support the family. We had many ups and downs, and Natasha was born in this time,” Ahmad said, recalling how the midwife had walked out during her sister’s delivery because they could not afford to pay her fees.
Khalil survived and, from an early age, seemed wise beyond her years. “She already spoke three languages by the age of five. Her excellence in school ensured that she was awarded a scholarship to study at the Afghan Turk school when we moved back to Kabul. After she graduated, she secured another full scholarship to study anthropology at the American University of Central Asia and later pursued another degree in international human rights,” Ahmad said. “She loved to dance and was annoyingly good at it. I often told her to keep her options open in case she wanted to choose to work in a field other than human rights. We discussed the possibility of her opening the first dance school in Afghanistan.”
Still she was most passionate about human rights, particularly about women’s freedoms. At one point, Ahmad recalled, Khalil got into an argument with a government official who refused to take her photo for the electronic ID cards until she agreed to cover her head with a chador. “She raised a furor and demanded the officials show her where in the Afghan Constitution it says that a woman needs wear a chador for taking ID photographs. She always had her own way of doing things. And eventually she got an ID card with a photo of her without a chador because that is who she was.” A childhood friend, Zuhal Ahad, an Afghan journalist with the BBC, concurred that Khalil would advocate for women’s education even in school, urging married classmates to continue or pursue higher education. “I was sure she was going to be a future leader of Afghanistan,” she added.
In September 2019, Khalil joined the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and immediately delved into field work. It was while on her way to work that she was killed by a roadside bomb believed to have been targeting the AIHRC vehicle. The blast killed not just Khalil but also the driver, Ahmad Jawed Folad. Although no group has claimed responsibility, Afghans have attributed a recent of spate of attacks in Kabul to the Taliban, who have been known to disregard civilian lives in their attacks. In just the first quarter of this year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,293 civilian victims—533 killed and 760 injured.
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