Zainullah Stanekzai hasn’t seen his family since he was forced to leave his home in southern Afghanistan last year in November, after his name appeared on a “kill list” of alleged Taliban targets that was being widely circulated on WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
Stanekzai, who has been a journalist for 14 years covering the fall and resurgence of the Taliban is one of hundreds of Afghan journalists, artists, activists and politicians whose names have been featured in widely circulated “kill lists.”
The lists, commonly found on social media platforms and forwarded on WhatsApp groups, have been all too frequent in the last year in Afghanistan which has witnessed a spike in violence since the US signed a peace deal with the Taliban.
The Afghan security official VICE World News reached out to confirmed the list, and said he was aware of them but did not comment on their origins or veracity. “Based on our intelligence, the Taliban, working with the Haqqani Network, has been conducting targeted killings on Afghan civil society, journalists and government officials. Even those killings claimed by Daesh are conducted by Taliban,” he shared on condition of anonymity, referring to ISIS by its Arabic name.
The Taliban have disowned at least one of the lists that have been widely circulated on social media. “Our targets are clear; they are military personnel and their military bases. They are under our watch and we will eliminate them. Reporters, civil society activists and political figures are not our targets,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said of a list of 100 people that went viral on social media and contained names of prominent political figures.
Stanekzai is no stranger to death threats.
“Threats are a way of life for journalists in Afghanistan. We are used to it,” he told VICE World News during an interview at an undisclosed location, where he and several other journalists who were on the death list have been hiding for six months. Explaining that most threats are simply intimidation tactics, Stanekzai added, “The threats used to pass after a period of time.”
But things changed after his colleague was killed in a targeted IED attack in November last year. Stanekzai started taking the warnings seriously. A surge in assassinations across the country added to his concerns. In 2020 alone, there were nearly 2,250 assassination attempts—an increase of 169 percent since the year before, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
After he saw his name on the list, Stanekzai reached out to his sources in the Afghan spy agency, who verified the threats and confirmed that he, along with eight other journalists from his province, were likely targets of Taliban assassination cells.
To avoid suspicion, Stanekzai and his colleagues left the region a few days apart and gathered at a mutually-agreed safe location. Most have been holed up here since. “We managed to escape for now, but our families are still at risk,” said Stanekzai, speaking on behalf of the group-in-hiding.
Despite the bright, sunny large room that is now their temporary shelter, their looming anxiety is palpable. The group of nine, aged between 23 and 45 years old, attempted to diffuse the sense of dread and uncertainty as they each shared their story of finding their names on various hit lists, allegedly created by the Taliban over the last six months.
While the origins of these lists are hard to track, the threats they pose are serious. “One only needs to look at the growing number of assassinations and targeted killings on the ground to know that the threat is very real,” said Samira Hamidi, South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International, which issued a statement against the publicly circulating “hit lists” that target Afghan media workers.
However, Hamidi said that the lists don’t just target journalists but also include names of “anyone who speaks up against terror and injustice”.
Hamidi’s own name has featured on two recent lists. “For the first time ever, I felt fear in my own city,” she said after finding her name in the dreaded WhatsApp forward with 100 other names. “I was worried not just for myself, but also for my family. What if they get caught in this and get hurt because of my activism? I felt guilt and fear, it was such mental torture,” she added.
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh also addressed the lists on several occasions in the past, calling them Taliban’s “psychological warfare”. “We don't have any basis on whether to trust or dismiss this list. [But] the Taliban is an enemy of anyone who is not a Talib. They are hostile to every structure and value of our [national flag],” he said, in January.
“These lists are, indeed, a psychological war on us,” said Omaid Sharifi, an art activist from Kabul, who’s name featured in a couple of the recent lists that were circulated on WhatsApp. Sharifi co-founded ArtLords, an art collective that is famous for the hundreds of murals and graffiti they have painted on the “blast walls” of Afghanistan. Nearly all of their work carries anti-war messages, promotes non-violence and challenges social norms, earning them the ire of many fundamentalist groups, not just the Taliban.
Sharifi’s inbox is often inundated with threats and hate messages. Many of the direct threats he received on social media come from vague accounts with little or no history. “They don’t have any identities, and there are no names and the profile picture is usually a [Taliban] flag or a flower,” he shared, adding he often ignores such threats and chooses to focus on the positive comments and solidarity he receives.
However, recent events have forced Sharifi and his family to take some of these morbid warnings with seriousness. His sister-in-law, Fatima “Natasha” Khalil, a 24-year-old employee of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission was killed last June in a car bombing. The assassination of young Khalil has left the family devastated, and also more cautious of the threats. “Since what happened to Natasha, the fear of the violence has really come close. Every single moment of my life, my mother, my wife, everybody reminds me that I could get killed. Imagine living with that constant reminder. It was never this way before,” he said. “This has exhausted me.”
The recent list didn’t just include Sharifi. “I knew nearly everyone on that list—they were all vocal men and women advocating for human rights and accountability,” he said. “My first thought when I saw this list was, how to get those most vulnerable among them to safety,” he said, adding there are people on the list who lack the resources to leave the country or even the city for safety. “They are targeting people who have the least but have given the most to society,” he said.
Some are grateful that the lists exist so they can take safety precautions. Still others believe these lists may have been compiled and released by Afghan security officials to warn those at risk.
“When my name showed up on the list, all the security officials told me was to take precautions,” Hamidi shared. “There is no support mechanism on the ground to guide or protect you. In fact, many security officials are also on these lists and can’t protect themselves. So it is possible that this is why the officials themselves may be leaking these lists, so that people at risk can be alert,” she said, adding that she did receive support from her organisation. “One might say, it is done with good intentions to alert the citizens, but the level of anxiety, fear and mistrust it has generated is terrible.”
Facebook told VICE World News that the situation is complex. Under the company’s Violence and Incitement policy, it removes content that incites or facilitates serious violence, however the lists have been shared by users who wanted to warn people and enable them to take precautions to keep themselves safe.
Facebook did however remove several posts flagged by VICE World News because they “put a spotlight on people who may face safety and security risks, and therefore could pose a risk of offline harm. For this reason, we have removed and banked the content,” a spokesperson said.
WhatsApp and Telegram, where the lists are also being shared, both failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the lists shared on their platforms.
For the Afghan journalists holed up in safe houses, the existence of these lists, and looming threats, have left them in limbo. “We miss our families, and we are out of work and savings. My friend here recently got engaged and was to be married, but we can’t go back,” Stanekzai said, pointing to someone sitting next to him. Some of his family members, he said, were trying to negotiate with the local Taliban commanders to have their names removed from the next list.
“But as of now, it is too risky to return.”
David Gilbert contributed reporting to this story.
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