Parents of Scots aid worker killed in Afghanistan speak of hopes and fears as Taliban hold country on knife edge

The Pink Shuttle minibus navigates the streets of Kabul as hustlers and heavy traffic carve out their own rules of the road. People wave and toot at the bus driver, and some just look at her in shock.

A driver of the Pink Shuttle bus, part of Afghanistan's first all-woman transport network, which received funding from the Linda Norgrove Foundation. Drivers have been alarmed in the recent upsurge in Taliban violence in Kabul but are determined to keep going. PIC: Linda Norgove Foundation.

The bus serves Afghanistan’s first all-female transport service and is designed to move women and their children in safety, and free of harassment, across the capital.

The Toyota eight-seater was funded by the Linda Norgrove Foundation, set up by the parents of the Scots aid worker who was killed by a US grenade in north-east Afghanistan during the attempted rescue from her Taliban kidnappers in 2010. She was just 36.

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Every journey of the Pink Shuttle is a drive for female freedom and mobility in a country where tradition would rather women were at home, and not with their hands on a steering wheel.

The Pink Shuttle buses have become a symbol of female freedom and mobility. PIC: Linda Norgrove Foundation

Drivers include former journalists and beauticians, while those on board include civil servants and mothers on the school run. There are four buses in total now and 14 women licensed to drive them.

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The Pink Shuttle has, however, been shaken by a resurgent Taliban, who have now taken 50 per cent of the country’s district centres as the US withdraws after its 20-year campaign. Fear is back in the capital as attacks, including one on a school in May where 55 people were killed, return once again.

But what the Pink Shuttle crew are most afraid of is losing their symbol of hope as terrorists make inroads into daily life once again.

Aid worker Linda Norgrove, from Isle of Lewis , died aged 36 in Afghanistan. She was killed by a US grenade during an operation to rescue her from her kidnappers in 2010. She is pictured here on her 21st Birthday after leaving Everest Base Camp.

The Pink Shuttle will drive on.

John Norgrove, speaking from his home in Uig on the Isle of Lewis, said: “One of the issues just now is that women can become targets if they gather together. The charity we have been funding suggested stopping the service given the insecurity, but actually the women drivers are determined to carry on.

"They feel that if they stop, they are admitting defeat. There is this sheer determination among women to carry on with their lives.”

The Norgroves have raised more than £1.7 million for the foundation since their daughter's death, mostly from private donations, to fund projects that increase opportunity, education and good health for women and children. Scholarships, mostly in medicine and midwifery, went to 157 women last year.

John and Lorna Norgrove have helped raise more than £1.7m in their daughter's memory with the money going on education and health projects, mainly for women and children, in Afghanistan. PIC: Linda Norgrove Foundation.

Those helped by the Norgroves have spoken of poverty, arranged marriage and the expectation a daughter will stay at home as the barriers to getting an education. During Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, girls’ education was terrifyingly forbidden.Now in 2021, the Taliban advance is closing universities with the Norgroves hearing of the deteriorating situation directly from their students.

In Kandahar, the Taliban now hold the area around the university.

Mr Norgrove said: “Our student in Kandahar told us that the situation was getting worse by the day and she had lost her uncle and her nephew through war.

"The staff at the university are now on leave, there is no one there. She has tried to contact the university many times, but has been told it is now closed.”

Girls attend a circus performance in Kabul, with the treat funded by the Linda Norgrove Foundation. PIC:LNF.

In Ghazni in the south east, 15 out of 18 districts are under Taliban control, including the university area, and the foundation may not offer scholarships here this autumn as a result.

Mr Norgrove said: "From our point of view it's disappointing. A lot of the work that we have done will become undone if the insecurity becomes worse.”

The Taliban resurgence comes as Covid-19 is also fought, with the virus “ravaging” the country, Mr Norgrove said.

“Students are studying through internet classes,” he said. “Electricity is now on for just a few hours a day, often not long enough to do online courses.”

Mr Norgrove said spending priorities would likely adjust to meet emerging basic needs. The UN estimates 270,000 people have been forced from their homes since January in the wake of the troop withdrawal and Taliban advances.

"There are lots of people fleeing the fighting and ending up in cities where they have no roof over their head and nothing to eat,” he said. “We have to adapt and I think the need for help is going to increase.”

Just under 160 students were given scholarships by LNF last year with the number expected to rise. The resurgence of the Taliban, however, has closed universities in some regions. PIC: LNF.

Small schools for children in IDP camps (Internally Displaced People) have recently been funded.

Mr Norgrove said a “genuine fear and also a resignation” was being felt by those the couple know in Afghanistan. One friend told them that when he leaves his home in the morning, he doesn't know if he will return at night.

The Norgroves last visited Afghanistan in 2019, the third trip they have made in ten years. Every time they felt the situation a little less secure, as roadblocks increased and military helicopters circled overhead.

Despite the major challenges and hard losses, the Norgroves believe “a lot has been achieved” in Afghanistan in the past ten years.

“It’s a very different country to what it was,” Mr Norgrove said.

"But it is the poorest country in the world outside Africa and there is a huge drugs problem, not only with the wealth that is created through drugs, but with the numbers of people addicted.

"We are now hearing there is an issue with methamphetamine, which can be manufactured from one of the common plants found in Afghanistan.

“But things have improved, especially for women.”

Mrs Norgrove believes progress in women’s education won’t be undone by the insurgency.

She said: “Once a woman has been educated, you can’t take that away, and it will be passed on within the family.

"The Taliban have, of course, targeted schools for women and have prevented women from going into education. But we see a lot of women who in the last ten to 20 years have got careers, they are leading different lives and very different lives to what their parents were. They would be very, very reluctant to give that up.”

In Uig as in Afghanistan, a belief in better still drives on.

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An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier looks out while standing on a Humvee vehicle at Bagram Air Base, following the departure of US and NATO troops. The withdrawal has coincided with a resurgence of the Taliban, who have made major gains in rural areas and hold around 50 per cent of the district centres. (Photo by ZAKERIA HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)
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