After making a dramatic escape from Kabul last August, Zarifa Ghafari, once Afghanistan's youngest female mayor, vowed to return to her native country.
“Leaving [Afghanistan] doesn’t mean I’ve left forever," she told VOA after evacuating to Germany. "I’m optimistic that I’ll return to my country very soon."
Last week, she made good on her word. But no sooner had she announced her arrival in Kabul on Twitter and Facebook — "I've come to my people!" — than her return set off a social media quarrel among Taliban critics and boosters.
While many praised her courage to return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to deliver badly needed humanitarian aid, others accused her of coddling the militant group.
"The Taliban will leave you alone because you're a Talib," one Twitter user wrote.
Added another commentator, "So what was the reason for your departure [in August]? Aren't [today's] Taliban the same as yesterday's Taliban?"
In an interview with VOA, Ghafari responded to her critics.
"Unfortunately, critics who have moved from Afghanistan to the West have an unstable view," she said. "I'm sure most of their families are living in extreme poverty, and if helping the desperate nation amounts to solidarity with the Taliban, this is a good thing."
Ghafari is one of only a handful of public figures known to have returned to Afghanistan in recent months following the U.S.-led evacuation of more than 124,000 people in August.
In November, popular TV comedian Ibrahim Abed went back. In February, the Taliban welcomed Abdul Salam Rahimi, a peace minister in former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government.
Their "homecoming" has added to a raging debate over just how much the Taliban have changed since their last repressive rule in the 1990s. While Taliban officials claim they've moderated their ways, critics remain skeptical, citing, among other things, the group's crackdown on rights activists and others.
Ghafari, 30, finds herself in the eye of the controversy in part because she was once among the Taliban's fiercest critics. In 2018, she became Afghanistan's youngest mayor when she was put in charge of Maidan Shahr, a small town 46 kilometers southeast of Kabul.
Opposition to her appointment in the conservative province was swift and severe. But despite death threats and assassination attempts, she remained on the job for three years, winning international recognition for her defiance of the Taliban.
In late 2020, Ghafari’s father, an army special forces commander, was gunned down in Kabul, and she later blamed the Taliban for his death. With Taliban forces closing in on her city, Ghani appointed her as a senior Defense Ministry official in early 2021.
After the Taliban seized power, Ghafari and her family evacuated to Germany. She later told VOA she feared for her family's safety and vowed to "raise the unspoken voice of Afghan women throughout the world."
As she made the rounds in recent months criticizing the Taliban, Afghanistan descended into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
"As an Afghan, I couldn’t just sit and watch it from abroad and not do anything about it," she told VOA's Afghan Service.
Former co-workers, she said, warned her about the risks of returning.
"Their advice was that the risk is extremely high but sacrificing for public service is a victory for history," she said. "As in the past, I've chosen the path of sacrifice."
But Ghafari said whatever apprehension she had disappeared as she flew into Kabul on a flight full of women in late February.
"What gave me reassurance was these women. When I landed, I was apprehensive. But no one said anything to me. Nothing happened [to me]," she said.
Despite imposing many restrictions, the Taliban allowed women to work in media and attend university. But Ghafari said she has no interest in working for them. She has forsworn politics and instead wants to carry out humanitarian work through her NGO, Assistance and Promotion for Afghan Women.
"I just want to work for the people without any political, personal … or foreign goals," she said.
Ghafari is circumspect about her plans to stay in Afghanistan. "Contrary to expectations, I have a long-term plan to travel both at home and abroad to draw the world's attention to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan," she told VOA.
On Monday, she traveled to Abu Dhabi where she and a former Afghan member of parliament received Forbes magazine's Changemaker Award.
At the award ceremony, she said the Taliban are "capable of changing."
"The Taliban do not stone women in public … as they did in the past. They do not torture women without a male companion, but instead are opening the doors of schools and universities to them," she said. "If someone tries to reform himself, the world has a responsibility to help him."
On social media, the comments prompted charges that she's normalizing the Taliban.
“You’ve sold out," one commenter wrote in response to her speech. "You’re a big part of the Taliban normalization project.”
But others came to her defense.
"Thank you for presenting the real picture of Afghans to the world," a Facebook user named Saifullah Samim wrote. "Also invite other activists to serve their country."
This story originated in VOA's Afghanistan Service.