Shabir Ahmadi was the chief international correspondent for Afghanistan’s largest news channel but was forced to flee the Taliban with his family. He writes about his experiences here.
The day I returned to Afghanistan after seven years as a refugee, I felt like a bird being freed from a cage. All around me were other Afghans in tears of joy, as we crossed the dusty border on a beautiful and sunny day.
It was a bittersweet moment that 18 years later I’m thinking about a lot, as I write this from Europe – once more a refugee, having fled my home again.
Being a refugee is not just about leaving your country; it is about leaving all your belongings, physical, mental, emotional and economic. It’s like leaving your future.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August this year, I lost my future. For me and my family it was the second time we were forced to flee. For some others, the third or even fourth.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but back in August I was working for TOLOnews, the largest 24-hour TV news channel in Afghanistan. I was the channel’s deputy head of news and its chief international correspondent.
Now I live thousands of miles away, facing an uncertain future. And I’m not sure if I am the same man I was before the Taliban returned. TOLOnews has changed, too. My colleagues and I took great risks to expose corruption and defend human rights.
Shabir Ahmadi in Spain, December 2021, after fleeing the Taliban.
On the day I was due to start at TOLOnews on the 20th of January, 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked the channel’s parent company, killing seven media workers and injuring 20 others. That year I lost two of my best friends and colleagues – reporter Samim Faramarz and camera operator Ramiz Ahmadi – to a suicide attack in Kabul. The targeted violence never stopped. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 33 journalists were killed in Afghanistan between 2018 and September this year.
The night the Taliban came, it felt like the last 20 years had evaporated. And when the president fled, we knew it was over. Female colleagues were asked to go home by company bosses, because we didn’t know what would happen. I stayed at the office that night with several other colleagues.
The Taliban came to the TOLOnews compound several times in the following days. They disarmed our guards, but didn’t harm anyone physically. At first things continued as normal, but soon women began to disappear, not just from TV screens, but from workplaces, schools and other places of education.
I know I am one of the lucky ones. With the help of friends and journalist organisations, I am safe with my family in Europe. We arrived after enduring a lot of hardship outside Kabul’s airport. What I saw there will never leave me. Seeing people leaving everything behind just for a chance at safety was heartbreaking.
I think a lot now about the 40 million people in Afghanistan, 90 percent of whom will need humanitarian aid, who didn’t have the privilege to try to leave. They are living in a sinking ship, with a blind captain, navigating a stormy ocean.
The Taliban may control Afghanistan, but they do not control our minds. An ideological resistance will continue. We are not calling for war, we don’t want drones bombing our cities and killing civilians. No nation is so tired of war more than us. We want political and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban, increased humanitarian aid for Afghans, and help for those who face the danger of being killed, tortured or arrested to leave the country.
I am not the confident man that I once was. But the Taliban cannot silence women or young people forever. They cannot erase the new generation of Afghanistan. They will not be eliminated, and they will stand again, and grow again, and change Afghanistan to a shining house on a beautiful hilltop.
As much as it hurts me to remember it, I hope one day to once again cross a dusty border on a beautiful sunny day, with tears in my eyes.