Volunteers fear arrest after Taliban takes Afghan education activist Matiullah Wesa into custody

Panic has gripped the more than 3,000 volunteers of Afghan education activist Matiullah Wesa’s NGO Pen Path

Arpan Rai
Friday 31 March 2023 12:55 BST
Matiullah Wesa, head of PenPath and advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan, speaks to children during a class next to his mobile library in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province
Matiullah Wesa, head of PenPath and advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan, speaks to children during a class next to his mobile library in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province (AFP via Getty Images)

Panic has spread like wildfire among more than 3,000 volunteers of Afghan education activist Matiullah Wesa who is currently in the Taliban’s custody.

The founder and president of the local non-governmental group Pen Path, with a mobile school and library, was arrested on Monday by Taliban fighters who came in four cars to detain him after they raided his house. He had just left a mosque after prayers when they found him, tied his hands, and whisked him away.

Ataullah Wesa, the educator’s elder brother and a director at the Pen Path foundation, said that the Taliban fighters are now looking for him.

“The Taliban fighters came to our house on Tuesday and wanted to arrest me, they asked for me. Thankfully I was not home and managed to escape the arrest,” Attaulah Wesa told The Independent over a phone call.

Mr Wesa is also a fellow campaigner alongside his younger brother as they covered the length and breadth of Afghanistan by visiting hundreds of rural villages with the message of education for all as a basic human right.

“They have seen my video against my brother’s arrest on Twitter and asked my family to delete the video. After arresting my brother, they came looking for me,” he said, but added that he is not afraid of the Taliban.

The fear is more palpable among more than 3,000 volunteers in parts of the country where they help the brothers campaign as within minutes of Mr Wesa’s arrest they were asked to go off the grid completely and avoid public glare.

“Stay offline, delete your accounts, switch off your mobile phones and do not tweet or the Taliban might come to arrest you as well” was the message that spread at lightning speed among all the volunteers as soon as the arrest of their Pen Path founder was confirmed, said the organisation’s board member Amena Sahar.

“The minute I saw the message of Matiullah’s arrest from his brother Ataullah, I was very afraid,” she told The Independent over a phone call from Kabul.

All the volunteers were asked to take cover and hunker down in a safe place over text messages and hurried calls in case any of the Taliban’s fighters showed up at their doorstep, she added.

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Owing to this, most of the Pen Path volunteers remained unreachable over phone throughout the weekend. Some of them have stepped out of the self-imposed curfew but only on social media to demand the release of Mr Wesa.

“Everyone thinks it is completely unsafe to step out. One of the volunteers told me that the situation of Mr Wesa’s arrest confirms that the situation is not good for us either. We’ll have to be careful, anything can happen to us,” Ms Sahar said, adding that the situation is far worse for their women volunteers in the Taliban-ruled country.

According to the local reports, Taliban security forces detained Mr Wesa after his return from a trip to Europe. It was not immediately clear where Mr Wesa had been taken after detention.

His brother said that it is likely that he has been taken to the Taliban regime’s General Directorate of Intelligence building.

No reason was given to the family despite them asking for it as a basic right, Mr Wesa said.

Ms Sahar said that she and other volunteers have watched the Taliban spokesperson’s response where he had claimed that “Matiullah is guilty of illegal work by gathering several girls in one place in the name of education”.

“The Taliban official has said that they do not know if he is talking about education or something else, and these kinds of gatherings are not allowed in the Taliban’s culture,” Ms Sahar said.

According to the caretaker regime’s director of publications at the ministry of information and culture Abdul Haq Humad, Mr Wesa’s actions “were suspicious and the system has the right to ask such people for an explanation”.

Pen Path has ceased all outreach work as the volunteers are fighting a crackdown by the Taliban, tying everyone to a safe place.

“We are not campaigning as of now, and waiting for Matiullah’s release,” his elder brother said, adding that the movement will kick-start again when the former is out of Taliban’s custody.

“I know my brother is very brave and he will endure this,” Mr Wesa said even as he admits that it is not clear when his younger brother will be released.

“It is not going to be anytime soon, we feel,” Ms Sahar said.

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