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World meets eight-year-old Neha, skipping across a Belgian tarmac

14:38 30/08/2021

Perhaps you’ve seen the photo in a newspaper or scrolling through social media: A little girl, flown out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, skipping across the tarmac.

The photograph went around the world, becoming a symbol of repatriation and escape for thousands of families fleeing the political turmoil of their homeland following America’s decision to pull troops out of the country.

Eight-year-old Neha Sadat had just landed with her parents and three siblings at the military airbase in Melsbroek. The family has lived in Belgium for seven years, arriving not long after Neha was born. Neha’s two younger brothers were born in Belgium.

The family was on holiday in Afghanistan for the first time since leaving. The parents decided to wait until they were both fully vaccinated before travelling, leaving at the end of July. They were then as surprised as the rest of the world at the speed at which the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

‘They fired next to our heads’

“We were visiting my in-laws, Sayed Mujeeb Sadat, Neha’s father, told VRT. “We never imagined we would end up in such a situation.”

The family was constantly stopped as they tried to make their way into the airport, where they had been told to go by Belgian authorities. “We tried to get into the airport, but the soldiers kept us out,” said Sadat. “I showed them our passports and told them we had Belgian nationality. I showed them the email that told us to come to the airport and that Belgium would arrange everything else once we were inside. But no. They threatened us with weapons several times to make sure we knew that if we didn’t get out of their way, they would shoot us. They fired right next to our heads.”

They eventually became one of the families that Belgium picked up outside the airport by bus. “I am so grateful to Belgium for how well they organised everything. They told us to stay home until they contacted us, and then they did, with a place and a time. We showed up, and there were five buses waiting. We got on, and the buses were allowed into the airport. Once we got into the airport, we were about half at ease.”

Sayed Mujeeb Sadat and his daughters, Neha, 8, and Nilab, 12  ©VRTSayed Mujeeb Sadat and his daughters, Neha, 8, and Nilab, 12  ©VRT

As for the photo of Neha, they first saw it when family and friends began to send it to them. “They hadn’t recognised me because I was in Afghan dress and had a facemask on,” explains Sadat. “But they recognised her. She was so happy to be home. Every moment were in Kabul she asked ‘when are we going back to Belgium? I don’t want to be in Afghanistan’.”

It turns out that delighted skip at the airport did indeed represent her relief at being out of a dangerous situation. “I thought we were never going to get back to Belgium,” she told VRT. “I hate Afghanistan. I don’t ever want to go back.”

Her father offers a little nuance to the story. “If the situation remains the way it is now, then never again,” he confirms. “We hope that it will improve so that we can go back to visit family and simply see our country. Everybody wants that. My kids, they were born here, but I grew up in Afghanistan, I can’t just forget about it. But in the current situation, I don’t want to go back either.”

Photo top ©Johanna Geron/Reuters

Written by Lisa Bradshaw