This artist painted murals to challenge the Taliban after their last rule. Then the militants destroyed them, leaving him fearing for his life.

This artist painted murals to challenge the Taliban after their last rule. Then the militants destroyed them, leaving him fearing for his life.
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People painting a mural in Afghanistan.
People painting a mural in Afghanistan. Omaid Sharifi.
  • The Taliban painted over dozens of murals, including one of George Floyd, after seizing Kabul.

  • The murals were done by an artist group named Artlords, who wanted to cover up Kabul's blast walls.

  • Insider spoke to its founder, who fled the country convinced the Taliban would kill him.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Omaid Sharifi wanted to remind people that Afghanistan could be beautiful despite the war.

He wanted to cover Kabul's blast walls, the huge concrete walls erected to protect buildings from bombings.

"We were fed up with these high blast walls," he told Insider. "It was making Kabul look like a prison."

So in 2014 he founded Artlords, a collective of more than 150 artists that painted murals encouraging human rights and social justice in Kabul and other Afghan cities.

Afghan men ride their bicycles walk past blast walls in Kabul
Afghan men ride their bicycles past blast walls protecting the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Kabul in July 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
A mural in Afghanistan.
A mural in Afghanistan. Omaid Sharifi.

The goal was "to claim back back our space, to paint these ugly, concrete walls and make sure these blast walls are turned into something beautiful," Sharifi said.

But one of the first things the Taliban did when they retook Afghanistan in mid-August was paint over the murals and, in many cases, replace them with their slogans.

As of last week, around 100 Artlords murals had been covered up, Sharifi said.

One of them was of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last year. Sharifi said Artlords painted it to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, "to show Afghanistan is not separate from the whole world," and to connect Floyd's death with the plight of Afghan refugees around the world.

A wall with murals on it, including one of George Floyd.
A mural showing George Floyd and the words "I can't breathe" in Kabul on September 4, 2021. West Asia News Agency with Reuters
Murals on a wall covered in white paint
An image of the Floyd mural covered up, taken by Omaid Sharifi's colleague on September 16, 2021. Omaid Sharifi

Sharifi said the Taliban started painting over murals before even announcing their government, leaving him convinced the militants were out to get him first.

"I might be the first to be punished or even killed because the Taliban showed that the first act of their new government was to destroy our murals," he said.

Omaid Sharifi
Omaid Sharifi in August 2019. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Artlords' murals went against the Taliban's principles, Sharifi said: The art promoted empathy and women's rights, and opposed violence, injustice, and Islamic extremism.

"I knew that I would not be able to have a voice under the Taliban," he said.

Women paint on a wall
Artlords members painting a message on a wall that reads "I am back because education prevails" at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul in February 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani.

'Hell on earth'

Sharifi said he was helping paint a mural in Kabul the day the Taliban seized the city.

"I saw people panicking and running. We asked them what was happening while painting a mural about empathy, unity, and kindness. And they told us the Taliban were in the city," he said.

"I asked my staff and colleagues and artists to leave, go to their homes, and make sure their families are safe."

Sharifi also decided to leave given how the Taliban used to treat artists.

"When I lived in their previous regime, from 1996 to 2001, I remember that any expression of art was banned," he said. "They destroyed a lot of paintings ... the punishment was severe for artists."

Last time the Taliban were in power, they destroyed books and art, banned many types of music, and killed artists.

Sharifi said he tried for five days to leave Afghanistan, finally managing to escape on August 22 after joining a convoy of cars entering Kabul's airport around 3 a.m.

For days after the Taliban takeover, that airport was the scene of chaos as people frantically tried to escape, with some latching onto moving jets on the runway.

Sharifi called it "hell on earth."

Taliban CIA base
Members of the Taliban Badri 313 military unit near the destroyed CIA base in Deh Sabz district on September 6, 2021, after the US pulled its troops out of the country. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Vow to continue

Sharifi is now in a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates, with only his backpack and no idea of what might come next.

"I have left all my life behind," he said.

"When I'm talking about this, my eyes are teary."

Artists paint a mural of killed journalists on a wall
Artlords members painting a mural of journalists who were killed in 2018 in Kabul in September 2018. AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

He said he and his wife, through working with NGOs, had already evacuated 53 artists and their families to countries including France, Albania, and Uganda. He told Insider last week that 103 members of Artlords - including LGBT artists - were still in Afghanistan, and he's working to get them out.

But he said Artlords would continue their work, and one day hold exhibitions around the world.

"We will continue painting those murals the Taliban destroyed," he said.

"We will never stay silent."

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