Hamida Ghafour was The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in Kabul from 2003 to 2005, and the author of The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family.
Kabul has fallen, and the Taliban – which had been violently marching toward the capital to fill the void left by departing U.S. forces – are back in power in Afghanistan. Convoys of armed men drove into Kabul on Sunday, triumphantly waving flags. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled. The West is trying to evacuate its diplomats and civilians. And millions of Afghans are being abandoned to an uncertain fate.
Among them is Ahmad, my fixer and assistant when I was writing for this newspaper in Kabul in 2003, and again when I wrote my book.
Ahmad is not his real name; revealing it may further jeopardize his life, because right now, he is hiding in a decaying block of apartments with his wife and their small children, waiting to hear whether they’ll be among the lucky 20,000 who will be evacuated under a special immigration program for Afghans such as him who contributed to Canada’s efforts there. Regardless of whether those efforts meet Ottawa’s bar, he is receiving regular death threats from the Taliban, who are targeting Afghans who have worked with foreigners.
He messaged me on Facebook on Sunday, telling me that someone had just been shot dead outside his apartment. “In this bad situation whether I am alive or dead I will be grateful to you,” he wrote.
He sounded defeated – so unlike the fresh-faced optimist I met 18 years ago when I landed in Kabul airport and he greeted me with a hearty “welcome to your kawn-tree!”
Back then, Ahmad was hopeful for a new Afghanistan. The Taliban regime had been routed by the U.S.-led campaign, aid money was pouring in and so were journalists including me, trying to make sense of a country that had been hermetically sealed off from the world for years.
Streetwise and resourceful fixers such as Ahmad – nearly always young men in their 20s – were, and continue to be, anonymous essential workers in the field. Whether setting up interviews with important political figures or judging if a checkpoint is run by a friendly warlord or one likely to kidnap you, fixers made journalists’ work possible. As a result of their work, people around the world – including policy makers in Ottawa – were better informed about the mission in Afghanistan. Fixers risked their lives to help us, and it is incumbent upon Canada to get them out before the Taliban kills them in revenge. Already, six journalists and media workers have been targeted and murdered in Afghanistan, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Indeed, Ahmad is a true believer in Canada’s humanitarian and military efforts. His determination to never see the Taliban return was visceral; in the late 1990s, the fanatics had killed his sisters as they walked to school.
Often, after yet another bombing or corruption scandal, I would ask him why he remained in Afghanistan. But he’d be aghast at the question. “Who else will fix us?” he’d reply. “I will take the West’s money to build my country and they can go home.”
In time, I left Afghanistan; Ahmad stayed. Inspired by the values of free speech promoted by Western institutions, he became part of a thriving local media scene, filling an insatiable demand by the Afghan public for news and information. He also made commercials about the value of girls’ education for the Canadian embassy and other hearts-and-minds productions for the U.S.
Ultimately, Ahmad’s commitment to a homeland built on human rights, freedom of expression and economic opportunity could now cost him his life. Many other fixers had seen the writing on the wall in recent years and created routes for themselves out of the country. It didn’t even occur to Ahmad that he needed an exit strategy.
The U.S., tired of its forever war, may have ended its nation-building project, but the presence of American troops over the past few months had at least kept the Taliban at bay. As the withdrawal continued, however, the Afghan government quickly collapsed. On Sunday, I asked a high-ranking Afghan official what would happen next.
“The Taliban will dictate the terms,” he said frankly. “No one has a choice.”
The best-case scenario may be a transitional government that spares the lives of civilians – but there is precious little evidence to indicate that direction.
In the meantime, Ahmad is desperately hoping that the values of decency and goodness that underpinned Canada’s efforts to help Afghanistan will, one last time, come through for him. We should all hope the same, for what he did for a better Afghanistan – and a better Canada.
The Globe and Mail
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