For the past few weeks, the world has believed Salima Mazari to be a prisoner of the Taliban—and possibly dead.
One of only three female district governors in Afghanistan, and the leader of a pro-government militia, the 39-year-old had an international reputation as a fearless fighter. The Guardian profiled her at length. She was interviewed by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and other international news outlets, fascinated by her courage in the defense of her district, Charkint, which lies about 230 miles north of Kabul.
Mazari had survived several ambushes and believed herself to be on a Taliban hit list. When the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, fell to the Taliban in mid-August, she went missing in the commotion and didn’t surface in the days following. The fighting in Charkint had been fierce.
“Before the collapse of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban attacked Charkint district more than 30 times from different directions,” she tells TIME.
Several media outlets, including People magazine and Insider, reported Mazari as possibly captured. On Twitter, supporters worldwide adopted the hashtag #FreeSalima in a campaign demanding her release. Some began to wonder if she was even alive. As stories began to filter in of the Taliban settling old scores—killing a pregnant police officer, and shooting senior security officials—many assumed the worst.