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(KTanaka CC BY 3.0)


The irony wasn’t lost on any of the 12 high-powered women who had gathered in the House of Lords at 2.30 pm on March 22. The Afghan Women’s Support Forum was holding one of its quarterly meetings to discuss keeping the issue of Afghan women’s rights on the political agenda. All of us had a strong connection to the country.

Not long after we started came a sound like a herd of elephants stomping down the corridor. The meeting continued as normal until the news broke by text: there had been an incident at the palace. “The Arg in Kabul?” we assumed.

Cloistered as we were inside one of the womb-like committee rooms, the drama unfolding outside seemed surreal. A female staff member arrived and asked us to stay in the room as we were now locked down. She told us she would escort us out of the building when we needed to go. As the following meeting couldn’t take place she brought in the chopped egg and cress finger sandwiches that the next group had ordered, saying they shouldn’t go to waste. After a few more minutes, Baroness Hodgson, organiser of our group, proposed that we break, have the sandwiches and watch the news.

The police responded quickly, coming in periodically to give us updates about staying put. Four officers guarded the door, including a heavily-armed member of the Swat team. A couple of hours passed, with no panic, no drama. The meeting continued on and off until the guards collected us and corralled us into the Central Hall, where we remained for a few more hours.

Two things struck me: the spirit of the Blitz and the diversity of the people. I went looking for water: a young woman stopped me to say she had two bottles and insisted I take one, which I first declined, then gratefully accepted.

Later, the staff distributed water and biscuits to the hundreds of people in the hall. Everyone shared. It felt as I imagine in a bomb shelter during the Blitz must have been, despite the horrific events outside. One of our group, an Afghan surgeon who works at University College Hospital, texted her husband to say she was safe. She accidentally texted the governor of Nangarhar, an eastern province in Afghanistan and centre of Taliban activity, who replied to say he hoped we were all OK.

After the five-hour ordeal, we left in an orderly fashion through the historic passages, past the flag flying at half-mast, onto the deserted streets, where the tragic events of the afternoon began to feel real.


 
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