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Afghan orchestra musicians, music students and teachers have escaped the Taliban

Members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on the plane to Doha.
Courtesy of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music
Members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on the plane to Doha.

After weeks of failed attempts at fleeing the Taliban, members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and Zohra Orchestra have finally escaped. On Sunday, 101 students, teachers and musicians were airlifted to Doha, Qatar.

"One hundred lives have been saved. One hundred dreams have been saved," says an emotional Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, ANIM's director and founder.

The Taliban forbids artistic self-expression. Even listening to music is prohibited. For weeks now, the international community, including members of Congress and leading musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, has been trying to help the musicians and students of ANIM escape. In September, members of the all-female Zohra Orchestra made it within yards of the airport but were turned away when Taliban guards reportedly refused to wake a sleeping commander at the Kabul airport.

Sarmast, who spoke to NPR from Australia where he's visiting family, says this evacuation was successful because of "a lot of negotiations behind the scenes," and singles out "the contribution of our friends on the ground from the Qatar Embassy and also the foreign minister of Qatar." He says he cried when he learned their plane had taken off from Kabul.

"I was still fearful that something might happen. Some problem might come up," he says.

Founded by Sarmast in 2010, ANIM was held up as a great success story in the effort torenew cultural life and the arts in Afghanistan. Boys and girls studied music and academics alongside each other. Ensembles from the school, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, performed around the world. But their existence still posed a danger. During one of ANIM's concerts in 2014, a suicide bomber sitting behind Sarmast detonated an explosive. Sarmast lost his hearing for a time and had an operation to remove shrapnel from his head and body.

The Taliban's recent takeover was made clear to Sarmast when he saw "painful pictures" of ANIM's students and faculty waiting to board the plane in Kabul. He says the men had "long unshaved beards," and the girls were dressed in long black gowns, "Just the two eyes were seen." When he spoke with some of the men after their journey, he joked to them that they looked "amazing" in their long beards. Sarmast says they told him when they had their first shower in Doha, "probably everyone was busy shaving."

Sarmast and his allies on the ground are now trying to secure the evacuation of more than 180 members of the ANIM community including students, faculty and family members left behind.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.