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Taliban Flips The Switch On Women's Radio, TV In Kunduz

A radio station run by women was one of the first places targeted by the Taliban when it briefly seized the northern Afghan city of Kunduz late last month. (This is an illustrative photo showing a woman's radio station in Herat)
A radio station run by women was one of the first places targeted by the Taliban when it briefly seized the northern Afghan city of Kunduz late last month. (This is an illustrative photo showing a woman's radio station in Herat)

What had begun as an ordinary workday turned quickly into real-life drama for the employees of Roshani, a women-run radio and TV station in the Afghan city of Kunduz.

Residents knew that the Taliban, which had surrounded the city for weeks, were closing in. But Roshani director Sediqa Sherzai says the militant group's advance on Kunduz on September 28 nevertheless came as a surprise.

"The Taliban attack began in the early hours," Sherzai recalls. "But we believed the fighting would take place outside the city and that government forces would force the Taliban to retreat."

Instead, the Taliban swept in, and it quickly became clear that Roshani was among the first in line for destruction. The militants set fire to the radio building, destroying the station that Sherzai founded in 2008, but she and her employees escaped with their lives.

Like many other Kunduz residents, Sherzai had headed to work as usual, only to realize that on this morning something was different. "Intense gunfire could be heard," Sherzai says, and soldiers and tanks were deployed in the area.

"The radio station was located next to several government buildings," she explains, and fighting was raging at a nearby police station.

Ironically, the armed militants who were moving in on the building that housed Roshani may have unintentionally saved the station's employees.

Upon spotting them, Sherzai realized she would be unable to enter her workplace, and sounded the alarm.

"I called my colleagues, who were at work, and told them to leave the station and come to my home," she says.

It was a narrow escape for the employees of Roshani -- which has nine women, including Sherzai, on staff. Eventually, Sherzai and her colleagues made their way out of the city as bullets flew and rocket fire rained down around them.

Sherzai, 35, escaped to Kabul with her husband, daughter, and two of her colleagues. Others headed for the neighboring Balkh and Takhar provinces.

"Eyewitnesses told me that armed men looted the station's equipment before the building was burned down," Sherzai says. "Most of the equipment was brand new and some was not even unpacked."

The attack on the private station came only two months after Sherzai, boosted by the success of her popular FM radio station, launched a television channel.

The station's radio and television programs focused on women and youth issues, and broadcast social, cultural, sport, and entertainment programs to Kunduz city and the nearby districts of Chardarah, Khanabad, and Aliabad.

Sherzai says the new equipment was earmarked for a training center she was planning to launch in early October.

"We were planning to train women in video recording and editing," Sherzai says. "We had already signed a contract with a private company that provided the necessary equipment for us."

Difficult Road Ahead

Although Kunduz was retaken by Afghan forces within days, fighting continues. And its capture -- making it the first major city to be taken by insurgents since the Taliban was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 -- has left Sherzai uncertain of the future.

"I have no idea what happens next," she says.

The Taliban attack on Roshani has been condemned by media watchdogs, including Afghanistan's Journalists Center, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Amnesty International.

RSF said many journalists have fled Kunduz, and that at least five radio stations, three television stations, and five newspapers have all stopped operating in the city since the Taliban takeover.

Sherzai is anxiously watching developments in her hometown from afar.

"Even after government forces fully retake Kunduz, I can't see myself and other reporters rushing back to resume our work until the government fully wipes the Taliban out of our province and ensures our safety," she says.

Looking ahead, Sherzai predicts a difficult road ahead if she is able to return and pick up the pieces.

"The Taliban erased many years of our efforts to build women's media in Kunduz," she says. "When things get back to normal in the city, we have to start all over again from zero."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.


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    Mustafa Sarwar

    Mustafa Sarwar is a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi in Prague.