Afghan girls in climbing group wait and hope, desperate to escape Taliban rule

For girls and young women accustomed to mountain climbing and physical fitness training six times a week, being confined in a crowded wedding hall near an airport in northern Afghanistan is a different kind of challenge -- one with their very fates at stake.

It's the new reality for dozens of them affiliated with Ascend, an organization that teaches Afghan women and girls athletic-based leadership skills. They came to the airport in Mazar-e-Sharif 10 days ago for evacuation flights the Taliban have blocked, heightening their fears they'll be left behind.

"We're trying to remind them we haven't forgotten you. The world hasn't forgotten you," Marina LeGree, founder and executive director of Ascend told ABC News. "But some of them are losing hope."

While the first passenger flight out of Kabul since the Taliban seized power took off on Thursday, carrying some U.S. citizens and other Westerners on board, life-and-death concerns loom for at-risk Afghans still in the country, especially for women like those of Ascend who have exercised independence in the last 20 years, free from Taliban rule.

Founded in 2014, Ascend is a U.S.-based nonprofit operating in Afghanistan that recruits a new group of Afghan girls and young women aged 15-24 each year to embark on a two-year mountaineering program. The recruits -- who have trained in Ghaza Stadium, used by the last Taliban government for public punishment -- have a mission of fostering leadership, volunteerism, and physical and mental well-being for the next generation.

But if the group in Mazar-e-Sharif is left behind, LeGree fears they'll be married off to Taliban fighters -- or worse.

Standoff at Mazar-e-Sharif

For over a week now, the Taliban have not permitted at least six chartered flights to leave from Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan, saying some evacuees do not have the proper documents to depart. The standoff is turning dire for some passengers, including the women of Ascend.

LeGree, speaking to ABC News from Naples where she's trying to get the State Department and others to help, said her group traveled from Kabul without their families with the understanding they'd be evacuated days ago. They've recounted to her since how the bathrooms are getting "disgusting" and it's difficult to sleep.

"I've got teenage girls separated from their families in this kind of environment with the Taliban and men all over the place. It's uncontrolled, and it's not comfortable at all," she said.

Many women affiliated with Ascend were born before or were too young to remember the last time the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan -- when women were barred from attending school, forced to wear all-encompassing burqas and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside. Accustomed to their independence, with 80% of Ascend graduates going on to higher education, they fear for their future under the Taliban's new "caretaker government -- which, so far, includes no women in power.

LeGree blamed the U.S. for promising to evacuate at-risk Afghans but missing out on "precious time" as the Taliban has gotten more organized.

"This is a whole bunch of women at risk about to be left to the slaughter if we can't do something -- I'm horrified that my government had such a weak response," LeGree said.

"We've given you all the details of these people and you cleared them and call them to come, and now you're saying, 'You have to have travel documents and don't worry if you do, you get to go'? That's a complete abdication of responsibility, and it's just -- it's morally repugnant," she added.

There are at least 1,000 people trying to fly out of Mazar-e-Sherif on these chartered flights, she said, including at least 19 U.S. citizens and two green card holders. She's been told the Taliban have come inside the holding facility several times and taken people out, but those she's in contact with aren't sure why.

So for now, they wait.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday the Biden administration was doing all it can to get the planes off the ground, including engaging in private talks with the Taliban through special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the new U.S. mission in Doha.

"The United States has pulled every lever available to us to facilitate the departure of these chartered flights from Mazar. The chartered flights, of course, have not taken off from Mazar -- I can tell you that has nothing to do with any inaction or action by the part of the United States government, and we were clear that we want to see the Taliban permit those who have expressed a desire to leave in this way to do so," he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said Wednesday the charter flights in Mazar-e-Sharif "need to move" but that there are "limits" to what the U.S. can accomplish without personnel on the ground and without an airport under their control. He said it was his understanding the Taliban have objected to flights that combine passengers who have valid travel documents and those who do not.

LeGree said that's not sufficient.

"It was really hard day for me watching what Blinken said, because my hopes were high, because he was in Doha, that it would be easy for him to press upon the Qatari is to press upon the Taliban to just let us go -- and it didn't happen," she said.

While Ascend has successfully seen the evacuations of 56 staffers and Afghans, LeGree said it will be hard to sleep until all 88 who asked to be evacuated are out.

Despite the hardship, Ascend plans to continue operating in some capacity when the situation in Afghanistan calms down. There are still some 150 women and alumni affiliated with the program who are staying behind and have expressed hope in continuing their mission. Ascend moved into a new facility this year, and LeGree paid the landlord rent on Wednesday as he holds the building for them, though she isn't sure if she, herself, will be able to return to the country she also loves.

"Don't assume that we're closing up the shop. It's quite the opposite," LeGree said. "We need to keep the light shining on Afghan girls and women. Taliban have bullied their way into power now, but they have to govern. Let's be in there with them."

US women hike in support

When Jahna Cook and Danielle Jefko of Madison, Wisconsin, learned that Ascend had women still stuck in Afghanistan hoping to evacuate, they felt a calling to get involved from the U.S.

"Their stories pulled on our hearts and hit home for us because we're women, we're moms and we climb together," Cook said. "The freedom and accomplishment and leadership these girls so clearly have on the mountain was so relatable, and to see them facing the crisis at hand, we knew we had to do something."

Inspired by an annual 50K race Ascend puts on in the U.K., Cook and Jefko made plans for a sister 50K, before moving the race up by two weeks as the chartered planes carrying Ascend members remained grounded. The women taped up photos of the girls along their route, she said, to keep their intent at top of mind.

The two are continuing to encourage others to donate to Ascend's resettlement fund or call their elected representatives.

"We want to make sure people know this is not a closed issue," Cook said. "There are still people there that desperately need our help."

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.
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