The night of September 10, 2001 is still etched in my memory. It was the first night I could put my hand on my ex-wife’s pregnant belly and feel my eldest daughter move inside. I was ecstatic. The next morning I still had a huge smile on my face as I showed up for work and I quickly started telling everyone I knew. I was still smiling as we all sat down for our morning meeting, when a security guard told us that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers, a few miles away.
We quickly turned on a TV just in time to see a second plane hit the other tower. The smile I had worn from the day before quickly faded.
My daughter is now a second year college student and her whole life the United States and our allies have fought in Afghanistan. Today, after 20 years, the Taliban are back in power as they were on that fateful morning of 2001.
When they last ruled the country, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban used a harsh form of Sharia law to control the nation and its people. They banned television, movies, music, and all visual representations of living things, including humans.
Women did not have access to school and work, were forced to wear the burqa outside their homes, and had to be accompanied by a male relative when they were outside. The Taliban also destroyed cultural treasures they saw as un-Islamic. Punishments for breaking the rules could be severe, and executions were not uncommon.
The Taliban have said they will not retaliate against those working for the Western powers or the former Afghan government. They also said there would be no violence against women, who would be allowed to work and study.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that “there will be no threats or reprisals against journalists”. He added: “We will respect press freedom because media reporting will be useful to society and can help correct the mistakes of leaders. ”
“With this statement to RSF, we are telling the world that we recognize the important role of the media.
But the Taliban’s commitment to these commitments is already starting to falter, less than two weeks after coming to power. There have been reports that the Taliban have killed, detained and intimidated people across the country. Amnesty International has reported that the Taliban have killed a number of Hazaras, an ethnic group of Shia Muslims who have been persecuted by the Taliban in the past. And there are many reports of people beaten and killed while trying to flee the country.
There have been reports of assaults and harassment of journalists, and in some cases refusals to allow women to work have been reported. Two female Radio Television Afghanistan hosts, Shabnum Dawran and Khadija Amin, were kicked out of their offices by members of the Taliban who took control of the station. Male journalists were allowed in.
Journalists Babrak Amirzada and Mahmood Naeemi were beaten by activists while covering protests against the Taliban regime in Jalalabad. Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times was attacked along with a fellow journalist at a similar event in Kabul, an ordeal reported in an article for the LA Times.
Taliban activists also raided the homes of journalists across the country. The house of Khadija Ashrafi, director of the Bakhtar news agency, was searched in Ghazni, while Zalmay Latifi, director of Enikass Radio and TV, saw his home in Kabul searched. The Taliban also raided the homes of at least three employees of the German chain Deutsche Welle. During a hunt for one of the journalists, Taliban militants killed one of the journalist’s family members and injured another.
Across the country, around 100 private local media have closed, according to figures from Reporters Without Borders, mainly outside the capital. Those in Kabul, although active, face daily threats.
“Last week the Taliban beat five reporters and cameramen from our channel and called them ‘takfiri’. [tantamount to calling them ‘unbelievers’, in this context]”, A producer told Reporters Without Borders. “They control everything we broadcast. On the ground, the Taliban commanders systematically take the numbers of our reporters and tell them: “When you prepare this story, you will say this and that. If they say anything else, they are threatened.
An owner of a radio station told RSF: “A week ago they told us: ‘You can work freely as long as you obey Islamic rules. [no music and no women], but then they started to “guide” us to what news we could or couldn’t get and what they see as “fair” reporting.
By working together, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have collectively succeeded in driving their Afghan reporters and their families out of the country. For the New York Times, their most recent extractions involved a lot of backstage denials between various parties. Mexican authorities have cut red tape to allow Afghans to enter the country temporarily while awaiting permanent resettlement.
The scenes at Kabul airport since the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15 have been heartbreaking to watch, recalling the fall of Saigon in 1975. Two photographs, one from 1975 and one from the other week, helicopters flying low over the respective US embassies are eerily similar.
Photographs and videos of people falling from planes are ominously reminiscent of the 9/11 photograph of the “falling man” at the World Trade Center, ending 20 years of war.
With the deadline for full withdrawal in a few days, it doesn’t look like everyone who wants to get out will be able to do so. It is still unclear how far and how quickly Afghanistan will sink into the Taliban’s preferred version of Sharia law. The safety of journalists, women and those who worked for the West is uncertain.
Afghanistan is not the only country, and it will not be the last, where those in power crack down on human rights and press freedom to maintain their power and silence critical voices. So far this year, 27 journalists have been killed around the world for their work. It’s seven more since my last play just a month ago.
As Afghanistan slips into uncertainty and repression, how many more will be added to the list this year? And how many will we not even know?
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