“We were trying to build a democracy. Every value we worked to uphold has vanished”

After fleeing the Taliban and rebuilding their lives in Canada, three Afghan journalists reflect on what’s been lost since the fall of Kabul
Afghan journalists Zuhal Ahad, Jalal Nazari and Zamir Saar.

Afghan journalists Zuhal Ahad, Jalal Nazari and Zamir Saar.

18th August 2022

After Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, living in Afghanistan became more dangerous and risky for journalists and media workers. Reporter Jalal Nazari and hundreds of his colleagues went into hiding and needed to explore every possible means to leave the country they once called home.  

“The situation was very chaotic,” said Nazari, who worked for the Wall Street Journal as a freelancer in Kabul. He was at the airport when the Taliban entered Kabul. But when the situation at the airport became more chaotic, he went back home and waited for further instructions on the evacuation plans. “It was useless to stay there,” he said. 

On the next day, Nazari managed to get in and stayed there for three more days before the Wall Street Journal managed to evacuate him and flew him to Ukraine on 18 August. 

While in Kiev, Nazari’s employers enrolled him into the Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellowship. The programme, launched in September 2021 and based at the University of Toronto, offers practical hands-on skills and mentorship in multimedia journalism, photojournalism, podcasting and long-form journalism to early-career journalists. Nazari, who focused mostly on story writing, joined in virtually while waiting for his travel papers and asylum documentation. 

A new life in Canada 

Nazari arrived in Canada in November 2021 and is now adapting to life in the country. He lives at Massey College, a graduate residential college at the University of Toronto. Although his fellowship ended in April, the opportunities and the network it created remain important for him. “It was a rich and diverse program that was very helpful in terms of learning new things and meeting new people and experiencing a new academic environment,” he said. “I feel very lucky to live there and there was no challenge for me to socialise and find a community where you have the support you need.” 

Nazari would like to take on postgraduate studies in gender and sexuality at a Canadian university because he is passionate about the issues facing women and girls in Afghanistan. “I love journalism, but at the same time I have been thinking about doing postgraduate studies for many years. I didn't have the chance to study in Afghanistan because there were no such courses on women's studies.” 

Journalism will still remain at the intersection of Nazari's work. “I can use this knowledge to work in journalism and I will also continue freelancing for international publications,” he said. 

Afghan journalists in Canada

Nazari is not alone. More than 200 Afghan journalists are finding new lives in Canada after fleeing Taliban rule. Zamir Saar fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. On 12 August, he boarded the last flight from the Northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and arrived in Kabul to make it in time for their flight out of the country.  

Saar, who was on the same fellowship as Nazari, spent three months in Ukraine before arriving in Canada, where his wife gave birth to their child. “My wife was pregnant and I was afraid of losing her and our baby,'' Saar says about the traumatic scenes during their evacuation.

Before leaving Afghanistan, Saar was a freelancer for several publications and also taught linguistics and literature at a local university. He said he recently signed a contract with the Wall Street Journal to provide freelance and translation services especially on events happening in his country.   

“All I have seen here [in Canada] is love, compassion, friendship and respect,” Saar said of his experience living in Canada. “I am so happy to be here. I never felt lonely or seen as an alien.”  

Zuhal Ahad, an Afghan journalist, was working for the BBC back in Afghanistan covering Women’s Affairs. While in Afghanistan, Ahad started working from home for more than a year after her friend, a human rights activist, was killed in a car bomb by the Taliban in 2020. “I maintained a low profile so I wouldn’t be a target,” she said. “I used to change my routes and cars on the days I would decide to take the risk and go out for reporting.”

Due to the increasing security threats, Ahad’s husband’s employer decided to transfer him to Dubai. In July 2021, a month before the Taliban takeover, Ahad, her husband (who is also a journalist) and their 2-years old daughter fled Afghanistan to Dubai. 

Ahad left Afghanistan because the situation was deteriorating and because journalists were at high risk of attacks. “Targeted killings of journalists and human rights activists were increasing,” she said. “It was an opportunity for us to take ourselves to safety.”

After staying in Dubai for 8 months, Ahad and her family moved to Toronto, where she currently lives with her family and works as a freelance journalist for the Guardian and Al Jazeera. “I lost everything,” she said. “My job, education, friends and my family were left behind. I had to start all over again.” 

Helping to evacuate Afghan journalists 

The Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a Canada-based nonprofit media organisation, has been helping in evacuating Afghan journalists, human rights activists and family members since the Taliban took over. 

Since August last year, the organisation has safely evacuated 1,100 fixers and interpreters working with the Canadian military. Of this number, 930 made it to Canada while 170 are in third countries. An additional 400 Afghan journalists and human rights defenders have been evacuated to third countries. Rachel said that in some cases, the organisation helps facilitate visas and passports for these journalists. In other instances, she said they help provide everything – visas, passports and life support in the third countries. Of those 400 journalists, 171 are currently settled in Canada.

“We are seeing movement all the time, which is great,” said Rachel Pulfer, the executive director of JHR. “The situation is not static, but we still have a long way to go and we are working towards it.” 

In  partnership with the Meta Journalism Project, JHR recently launched the Afghan Journalist-in-Residence program to help and support Afghan media professionals in Canada. The program will offer 10-fully paid placements at five leading Canadian newsrooms, including The Canadian Press, CTV News, Toronto Star, The Hamilton Spectator and Global News. Meta will provide funding while the JHR will provide training on human rights reporting to the journalists.  

“We did some brainstorming on what would be the most useful thing that Afghan journalists would benefit from after arriving in Canada,” she said. “That's how we came up with this program which is an opportunity for 10 Afghan journalists to get something done.”  

Pulfer said they are also looking at expanding the program to the U.S as a way of helping Afghan journalists living there. News organisations such as NBC News have already indicated interest in joining the program. 

“They don’t have to spend months or years riding cabs or the usual things that other new immigrants face when they arrive in this lovely but complex country,” she said. “This is an opportunity for them and we are hopeful we will have a great mix of bylines appearing in these newsrooms and producing stories on the events in Afghanistan while building networks that will help them in their careers. We want to try and support them as much as we can to have a better life here.” 

Pulfer said the program has started and that two of the media partners have offered job placements to four Afghan journalists and placed them in newsrooms, where they would work and receive opportunities and mentorship to enhance their careers throughout the program duration. The remaining six journalists are expected to receive their offer letters in September. 

The evacuation of Afghan journalists continues, Pulfer said, but added that there are challenges and bottlenecks facing the evacuation process. She added that they are working with governments and other partners to solve those issues.   

“A lot of the work we have been doing with the government hinges on us having an ongoing supply of private funding,” she said. “We’ve been taking the financial brunt of managing and supporting evacuees in third countries since the evacuation work started. But that can't go on forever.” 

Pulfer also noted that delays in processing the papers of Afghans and diplomatic bureaucracies are affecting their work. “Negotiating exit permits from the Pakistani government has been a challenge. [Afghan evacuees] sit in guest houses and we pay for their living expenses, medical care and we are not just in a financial position where we are going to be able to sustain that for the scale required. We just received some news that the Canadian government will be supporting us again in evacuating another group of 750 Afghans. This is very encouraging and we are very grateful for that support.”  

Journalism in Afghanistan

Looking back, Nazari said journalism has changed and improved in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. “We have so many independent TV and radio stations, newspapers and online media. This was not the case before,” he said.   

And yet Afghanistan is not a safe place to do journalism right now. Since the Taliban takeover, six journalists have been killed and dozens of others remain at risk.  A survey by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association shows that attacks by the Taliban have intensified since the takeover. A total of 231 media outlets have had to close and more than 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs.

“As someone who was attached and working with foreigners and international NGOs, it was risky for me because I was not able to travel to different cities to visit my parents and siblings because if the Taliban sees me and finds out what I do, I would definitely be attacked,” he said.  “The situation is not really good now because the Taliban doesn't like free press and so many journalists have been killed while media houses have been destroyed or shut down.”  

Even before the fall of Kabul, Saar said the Taliban made it difficult for journalists to thrive and do their work in the country. “As journalists, we had certain degrees of freedom but again there were some power brokers that we could not directly report on,” he said, referring to the state of journalism before the Taliban takeover. “We knew that there was corruption, but since we were afraid of the power brokers and warlords, they were untouchable because they have their own militia and they could kidnap or harm you.”

Saar said the government at the time was not powerful enough to protect media workers and journalists had to protect their identities: “We had to self-censor and make sure we stayed safe while doing our work. I don't use my bylines while working for the WSJ. But now it is far worse because they could be kidnapped, forcibly disappeared and beaten. In fact, journalists are having a hard time now and are not safe.”  

Ahad said she has been in touch with colleagues and human rights defenders who are still stuck in the country or decided to stay back and noted that the reports she receives from them about the crimes of the Taliban are heartbreaking. 

“Every value we worked to uphold with our reporting has vanished and people are now locked up in their homes and girls are not allowed to go to school,” she said. “Jobs for women are restricted and there are stringent rules for those allowed to work, especially in the media.”

Ahad describes the situation back home as a complete disaster. Before the Taliban, she said, there were challenges for women, but they had hopes and worked to make their country better.

“We were trying to build a democracy and girls like me were living progressively,” she said. “It’s devastating and this anniversary reminds us of the dreams and hopes that were taken from us. Girls in Afghanistan have a dark future ahead of them and this should not be allowed to continue.”

In June, Ahad was selected for the William Southam Journalism Fellowship at the University of Toronto where she would spend an academic networking, learning and sharing experiences with the university community. She said she is happy to be safe in Canada, where she could continue reporting about the unfolding events in her country, giving her people a voice in the hopes that things would change. 

From his base in Toronto, Nazari still has his eyes back at home. His family and siblings are still in Afghanistan and the Taliban have been going on retaliatory attacks – abducting, torturing and killing people who they say worked for foreign governments or opposed their rule.  “They are not really safe and we are trying to find a way to get them out,” he said. “I didn't get the chance to get them out when I was leaving because it was even difficult for me to leave.”  He plans to stay in Canada, explore opportunities and make a living. “I can't go back to Afghanistan. I love it here.”  

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance investigative journalist based in Toronto, Canada where he is currently a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Formerly based in Johannesburg as an Open Society Foundation Fellow, his reporting is at the intersection of human rights, social justice, global health, migration, conflict and development in sub-Saharan Africa, and has been published by Foreign Policy, NPR, Daily Maverick, African Arguments, Rest of World, World Politics Review, Global Investigative Journalism Network and elsewhere. You can find his work here.