Her voice cracked during the call every so often, but Zahra Joya carried on. “Sorry about the connection. The war, it seems, has impacted our phone connections and internet,” the 28-year-old journalist said over a call from Kabul.
Joya runs a newsroom in Afghanistan’s capital, chronicling 2021’s deadliest armed conflict that has displaced 390,000 people just this year, according to a UN estimate.
Since early May, Afghanistan has been caught in an aggressive offence by the Taliban, who want complete control of the country after U.S. troops left the region.
Hours before Joya sat down for a call with VICE World News on August 13, the Taliban reportedly captured the city of Lashkar Gah, a trading and transit hub in southern Afghanistan. There were also reports of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, falling to the group. Herat, the country’s third-largest city, fell in the wee hours of Friday. As of publication, the Taliban has taken control of two-thirds of the country.
The 20-year war has claimed the lives of over 170,000 people. This year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported record casualties and injuries to women and children.
Joya is already an outlier in Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal society, where women have been attacked – even killed – for being journalists.
Last year, Joya founded Rukhshana Media, one of the few all-women newsrooms in the country. Led by women, the team reports and writes about women’s issues in Afghanistan. It also became Joya’s personal battle to give women a voice. Her story is a window into the human cost of a brutal war.
“The Taliban will kill us,” Joya said. “It’s our responsibility to share women’s voices and reporting from our country. But at the moment, it’s become really hard to even write.”
Zahra Joya set up Rukhshana Media to give voice to women's journalists, and amplify women's issues in the country. Photo: Zahra Joya
Just a few months after launching, Joya and her team – mostly young women – found themselves not just covering the conflict but also becoming targets of the Taliban.
“The situation has become challenging for women journalists, more than ever,” said Joya, whose team consists of women from different provinces of Afghanistan.
“At least 10 provinces fell to the Taliban in the last few weeks,” she added. “All our journalists from these fallen provinces are currently under attack. They went into hiding after receiving threats. Some are living in safe houses in Kabul.”
“I have a journalist in Herat who is currently hiding in her house… I tried to bring her to Kabul but, unfortunately, almost all of my team is currently being targeted.”
In March, data collected by an Afghan watchdog found that over 300 women journalists left their jobs between late last year and early this year, mostly for fear of targeted killings.
Another report by Human Rights Watch, based on a survey of 46 journalists between November and March, said that the Taliban are issuing threats to journalists – particularly female journalists – through their phones, letters or social media.
“Those making the threats often have an intimate knowledge of a journalist’s work, family and movements, and use this information to either compel them to self-censor, leave their work altogether, or face violent consequences,” the Human Rights Watch report said. One Kabul-based journalist told the rights group that she received a letter stating she must not work for news agencies because the job didn’t suit her morally.
In this picture taken on August 13, 2021, Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city. Photo: AFP/ Getty Images
Afghan women have previously told various media outlets that the Taliban militants went to the newly occupied regions and asked unmarried women – even underaged girls – to marry their fighters.
Many other Afghans are talking about the impact of the war on them on social media. But in the country of 39 million, only 11.2 percent are estimated to be social media users, raising concerns about the reality on the ground in other provinces, where there might only be silence.
As the Afghan forces continue to fight in contested regions, some security analysts predict that Kabul could fall in a month.
Joya said her outlet Rukhshana will cease to exist if the Taliban take over, and she will no longer be able to work as a journalist. As is, the male-dominated media space doesn’t just restrict her to her office desk, but also limits her income to below her male colleagues’ salaries.
She grew up when the Taliban, a hardline Islamist group, controlled the country between 1996 and 2001, but managed to attend school by dressing up as a boy.
If the Taliban returns to rule, she said, she faces two choices: accept diktats that will restrict her to her home and confine her identity underneath a burqa, or take a stand against them.
“In the 1990s, they came and killed a lot of people,” she said. “I’m very sure it will be repeated.”
“But I’m an Afghan, and like many in my country, I have hope,” she said. “So many Afghans are leaving the country because of what the future holds. But I want to stay right here and fight them with my pen, my writing and with Rukhshana.”
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