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Afghan musicians land in Portugal with hopes of rebuilding famed arts school

An Afghan boy carrying musical instruments disembarks from an airplane at Lisbon military airport
An Afghan boy carrying musical instruments disembarks from an airplane at Lisbon military airport   -   Copyright  AP
By Shannon McDonagh  with AP

Students and faculty members from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music arrived in Lisbon this week with hopes of rebuilding their acclaimed school.

The 273-person group, including some 150 students, flew into the Portuguese capital, from Doha, Qatar.

Their departure from Afghanistan took the form of five airlifts to Doha over six weeks in October and November as they sought asylum from the horrors that have unfolded there.

The school’s campus in Kabul is now occupied by a Taliban faction. Its bank accounts were frozen and its offices ransacked, according to former school officials.

“The arrival of the (institute's) community today means that the first and most important step of saving lives and insuring freedom is now over,” said the institute’s founder and director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast.

“From now on, (the institute’s) musicians will be a symbol of courage and resolve, not only for Afghan artists, but also for the people of Afghanistan, in their struggle against the oppression and tyranny of the Taliban,” Sarmast said.

Musicians and sports stars flee the Taliban

AP Photo
Musician Marzia Anwari hugs Ahmad Naser Sarmast, founder of the music institute, as they board the airport busAP Photo

The musicians are among tens of thousands of Afghans, including many from the country’s sports and arts community, who have fled since Taliban fighters seized Afghanistan in August following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops.

The Afghanistan girls’ youth soccer team has also resettled in Portugal, a country of 10.3 million that has taken in 764 Afghans since the summer.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, and had boasted a pop music scene which flourished there over the past two decades.

But many musicians fear for their futures under the Taliban, which rules according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010, was renowned for its inclusiveness. It became a symbol of a new Afghanistan, with boys and girls studying together and performing to full houses in the United States and Europe.

The plan is to recreate the school in Portugal, allowing the students to continue their education, as part of a wider Lisbon-based centre for Afghan culture that will welcome exiles.

Governments and corporate and private donors met the group’s evacuation and resettlement expenses, with hopes they'll get a chance to grow their talents away from harm.