Julian Sher is a Montreal journalist working with Journalists for Human Rights and Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression.
He begged Canada to rescue him.
On Aug. 31, just two weeks after the Taliban swept back into power in Afghanistan, Bismillah Watandost, a committed peace activist and journalist, applied to come to Canada under a special program for Afghan refugees.
“My work as a leader and spokesperson of the People’s Peace Movement and as an independent journalist puts me in extreme danger here in Kandahar, which is the birthplace of the Taliban and remains their stronghold,” he wrote.
Bismillah, a father of eight, had bravely called on both the Taliban and the Western-backed government in Kabul to stop the indiscriminate killing of civilians and end the 20-year war that devastated his country.
He waited and waited and waited, with no word from Ottawa. When I called the immigration department, they told me his name was not even on any waiting lists.
He wrote to me on WhatsApp last week with the distressing news that three of his colleagues had been picked up by Taliban officials for the crime of playing music. They worked with him at an independent radio station called Millat Zhagh (“Voice of the Nation”).
“I am not safe,” he said.
Then came news this week that Bismillah himself had been taken “in custody.” I tried reaching him – no answer.
How many more fathers, brothers, mothers and daughters have to disappear like that before Canada lives up to its commitments?
The irony is that Bismillah became a “ghost” the same week that a film I directed for TVO called Ghosts of Afghanistan won the highest accolades in Canada, winning three prizes at the Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Documentary. It featured Bismillah playing with children, talking eloquently about his hopes for peace and a better future for his country.
I wrote about Bismillah last fall, warning that human rights leaders like him were in danger because they were “being unfairly blocked from coming to Canada.”
Canada’s bureaucratic and hypocritical refugee program makes a mockery of respecting all human rights.
Canada so far has accepted only 10,000 of the 40,000 refugees it promised to let in from Afghanistan.
The program favours those who worked directly with the Canadian military or government – and even many of them have been languishing. It is a disgrace that former Afghan interpreters had to resort to holding a hunger strike on Parliament Hill recently to beg the federal government to bring their extended families to safety here.
But worse still, there are different rules for journalists, women’s rights leaders and other activists who have no ties to Canada. (Though in fact their ties run deep, fighting for rights in a country devastated by a war in which Canada and other Western nations played a huge role.)
They are supposed to somehow make their way out of Afghanistan and get sponsored by what Ottawa calls “referral partners,” international NGOs that are already overwhelmed.
A lot of good that does to people like Bismillah trapped in some jail or female judges and women’s rights campaigners hiding far away from homes, fearful of arrest – or worse.
No such distinction exists for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees that Ottawa quite rightly is struggling to help, regardless of whether they have ties to Canada or not.
But war is war. Repression is repression.
It makes no difference if your skin is white or brown, if your home is in Kyiv or Kandahar.
But apparently it does; that in practice is what the Trudeau government and our immigration department are telling the world.
“In Afghanistan, just living is taking a chance,” Bismillah told me when I met him in Kandahar back in 2019. “When you leave home in the morning, you’re never sure if you’ll return alive.”
Finally, Wednesday morning I got word about his fate. His family says he was released after 10 days in detention. His radio station has been shut down. He doesn’t feel safe.
Canada must open its doors to all legitimate asylum-seekers from Afghanistan before even more of them become ghosts.
Bismillah is waiting.
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