Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Flora Neda and her son Farhad were the only two people from Grenfell Tower’s top floor to survive 2017’s devastating fire. Now the family faces tragedy again – this time in Kabul

“Was that fire not enough catastrophe for us?” Flora Neda asks. “Was this all not terrible enough that this has to happen now?”

On 14 June 2017, Flora climbed onto her son Farhad’s back and the pair made their way down from the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower. Farhad stepped over dead bodies to bring his mother to safety on the ground. They were the only two people to survive from the top floor. 

His father – Flora’s husband – Mohamed Saber Neda remained behind in their flat to help four elderly female neighbours. None of the five made it out alive. 

When he realised that he would not survive, Mohamed Saber – known as Saber –left a voicemail message for his family before jumping from the 23rd floor. He wanted to make sure that, according to Islamic custom, his family would have his body to bury.  

More than two decades earlier, Flora and Saber left Afghanistan. He had been in the Afghan Army and the young couple knew that it was not safe to stay when the Taliban took over the country in 1996.

But Flora’s three sisters remained. They survived life under the brutal regime that banned women from working, denied girls education, and refused to let women leave their homes without a male guardian. When the Taliban was defeated in 2001, they got jobs as teachers. Today, they are trapped in Kabul. They don’t want to leave their homeland, but they know that, as women and as Shi’a Muslims, their lives are in danger from the Taliban.

Flora is determined to get her sisters out. But with the US, UK and the Taliban agreeing on a deadline of 31 August to evacuate those desperate to leave, and the UK urging people to keep away from Kabul’s airport, she is starting to lose hope. 


Trapped Inside

The day after the Taliban seized Kabul, Flora’s three sisters went into work as normal, only to be turned away. The man at the school gates said to them: “Take your ID card and go.” 

Since then, the sisters have been unable to leave their home. Flora’s brother travelled to the capital to be with them, hoping to protect his siblings should the Taliban knock on the door. In a matter of days, it had become dangerous for single women to live alone. 

“They are unhappy,” Flora says. “They know it is very dangerous for them, living alone. My brother came from another city so at least if they knock on the door, a man is there to open the door and talk with whoever is there. If a woman answered the door then they would know there was no man there.”

Flora fears that the Taliban will realise that her sisters are living without husbands and force them into marriage. “A Taliban wedding,” is how she refers to the prospect.

The experience of her sisters stands in stark contrast to the narrative that the Taliban is attempting to project to the world. In advance of a House of Commons debate on the fallout of the takeover, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff Nick Carter said that the Taliban may now be a different type of organisation. He claimed that the group wanted an “inclusive” society and said that here were signs that its regime may be “more reasonable” this time around.

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Flora is not convinced. She remembers how, in the 1990s, her sister went to the local shop to buy some bread. She wasn’t legally allowed to leave the house without a male guardian but her father had been too ill to accompany her. The Taliban flogged her, breaking both her legs, and left her on the street. 

“No one really trusts them,” she says. “They say these things because they want people to believe they have changed. But no one is going to work, because they are afraid of being identified”. 

Although much attention has been focused on the crisis facing women such as Flora’s sisters, she is also terrified for her nephew and the young men being targeted by the Taliban. 

“One of the things you notice is how it is mostly men fleeing,” she adds. “But this is because the Taliban targets young men, especially those who are educated. They are out on the streets. They will be killed right in front of their mother’s eyes. So, for the mothers, they prefer to see their sons get away.”


An Echo from the Fire 

For Flora, the chaos in Afghanistan feels close to the trauma that she and her son endured following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

“It is exactly like the aftermath of the fire,” Flora says. “Because they do what they do, and then they leave us. They don’t take responsibility.”

Flora recalls how, in the days and weeks following the fire, it seemed as if the world was paying attention – the authorities, politicians, and the media swept into the neighbourhood. But, as the first anniversary approached, many survivors were still struggling. Four years later, questions remain unanswered and families feel stranded. 

Now, half a world away in Afghanistan, she sees the same patterns repeating itself.

“I was talking to my son about Afghanistan,” she says. Farhad was born in the UK. “And he was so deeply upset. He said: ‘do you remember what it felt like when we went through the fire and we survived? And when we lost my dad and we lost everything? We had nothing. We were so dependent. Do you remember what it felt like for us?’

“Well, these people in Afghanistan are going through exactly the same thing. This feeling of helplessness and dependency and fear – and not knowing what they can do but having to trust.”

Flora paused. “He said to me: ‘do you remember what it felt like for us when that trust was broken?’”

Mohamed Saber, Farhad and Flora Neda

Hopes and Fears

The failings of both US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to recognise the consequences of their withdrawal from Afghanistan weighs heavy on Flora’s and her family’s minds. 

“It is deeply hurtful how foreign policy has turned our people and our country into a country of victims,” Flora says. “We are presented in this very negative way. It really makes me sad and upset that they reduced us to this. They mock us and say we just didn’t fight. It was very, very deeply hurtful.”

Flora talks about how people ask her “why is your country always in conflict? Why are your people always killing each other?”

“Now, I say they should ask Biden and Johnson,” she says. “They should ask the people who are responsible, not me.”

For her, this line of questioning is another echo of Grenfell. “People would ask me ‘why did your husband not survive?’ Well, they need to ask the people who had responsibility for the tower, not me.” 

Flora is now being supported by her MP, Conservative Felicity Buchan, who has written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to raise the issue of Grenfell survivors who have family members in Afghanistan.

But, with the 31 August deadline merely days away, Flora is fearful of what the future holds. All the family can do is hope, and fight, for their safe evacuation. 

“I had depression and, after the fire, I had so much anxiety,” Flora tells Byline Times. “Then the Coronavirus. The fire was the first trauma – it doesn’t feel like four years ago, it feels like yesterday. Now, I am sleepless, my head doesn’t even work. If my family were here, at least they would be safe.

“My sisters – the Taliban can take them as wives and force them into marriage. That’s what they do. They’re not allowed to be without men. My youngest nephew is really in danger because he’s educated.”

The immediate family situation is terrifying enough, but for Flora and so many people like her, her anguish goes beyond her own relations – this is about the future of the country she loves and everyone who lives there. 

“My heart goes out to all of Afghanistan and everybody in Afghanistan,” she says. “It breaks our hearts and it breaks my heart. It’s not that we only care about our own families. We feel for every person falling in Afghanistan.”

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