Afghanistan Sees Largest Evacuee Airlift Since U.S. Exit, All Connected to Music School

In what has been declared the largest airlift of Afghan refugees since the U.S. exit on September 1, more than 100 students, alumni and faculty members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music were evacuated from Kabul and are en route to Portugal.

The institute's director said Monday that that Portuguese government has agreed to grant the group asylum. They left on a flight carrying 235 passengers out of Kabul's international airport to Qatar on Sunday, the largest rescue lift of Afghan nationals since two weeks prior to U.S. and NATO forces withdrawing from the country.

"You cannot imagine how happy I am. Yesterday I was crying for hours," the school's founder and director, Ahmad Sarmast, said from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

Afghanistan airport
Around 100 passengers including Americans arrived in Doha after flying from Kabul airport on September 9, the first flight ferrying out foreigners since the U.S.-led airlift concluded on August 30. Above, evacuees from Afghanistan arrive at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, on the first flight carrying foreigners out of the Afghan capital since the conclusion of the U.S. withdrawal on September 9. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

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The musicians join tens of thousands of Afghans, including many from the country's sports and arts scene, who have fled since August. Among the recent evacuees are Afghanistan's female robotics team, known as the "Afghan Dreamers," and a girls soccer team who resettled in Mexico and Portugal, respectively.

The last time the Taliban ruled the country, in the late 1990s, they outright banned music. So far, the new Taliban government hasn't taken that step officially. But musicians are afraid a formal ban will come. Some Taliban fighters have started enforcing rules on their own, harassing musicians and music venues.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music, and a thriving pop music scene flourished in the past 20 years.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded by Sarmast in 2010, was once famous for its inclusiveness and emerged as the face of a new Afghanistan, performing to packed audiences in the U.S. and Europe.

Now its classrooms are empty, its campus guarded by fighters from the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban considered a terrorist group by the United States. The teachers and 350 students haven't come back to the school since the Taliban takeover.

Around 50 students were on the flight out Sunday, including most members of the all-female Zohra orchestra, in addition to former students, faculty and relatives. The group of 101 is about one-third of the ANIM community.

Sarmast is now planning to recreate the school in Portugal, so that the students can continue their education with minimal interruption, and is already looking for ways to secure musical instruments for them as soon as possible. He hopes remaining students and faculty members will be leaving on another flight out later this month.

"We want to preserve the musical tradition of Afghanistan outside of Afghanistan, so that we can be sure that one day when there are better conditions in the country, hundreds of professional musicians would be ready to return and relight the music," he said.

"The mission is not complete, it just began."