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‘I Was On The Taliban’s Hit List’: Journalists Flee Afghanistan Amid Targeted Killings

Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul on February 20.

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group deployed three assassins to kill Parwin, a female journalist working for one of Afghanistan’s leading broadcasters.

Fearing for her life, Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s main intelligence agency, ordered Parwin to remain at home and cease all communication.

Within a week, a team of armed agents whisked Parwin out of her apartment building, ushered her inside an armored vehicle, and relocated her to a safe house in the capital, Kabul.

Parwin spent months holed up in a room, unable to leave or see her family. Eventually, Afghan authorities flew her out of the country, fearing her life was still in danger.

“I have no doubt I would be dead if I didn’t leave,” said Parwin, who agreed to speak with RFE/RL on the condition that her real name not be published.

“The attackers knew everything about me -- what I looked like and where I lived,” said Parwin, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location abroad. “I could have been killed at any moment.”

The three Afghan female journalists of Enikass Radio Television Network who were shot dead in Jalalabad on March 2.
The three Afghan female journalists of Enikass Radio Television Network who were shot dead in Jalalabad on March 2.

Parwin is among dozens of journalists who have fled Afghanistan in recent months -- either temporarily or permanently -- amid a wave of assassinations targeting the independent press.

At least nine journalists and media workers have been killed in Afghanistan in just the past six months. Many of the killings have been blamed on the Taliban, which has intensified attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians even as it holds peace talks with the central government to end decades of war.

‘I Stopped Going Outside’

Parwin first received a phone call from the NDS advising her to be “extra vigilant in your movements and contacts with people.”

Parwin, who was working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, did not initially take the warning very seriously. As a reporter working in a war zone, she had grown accustomed to danger.

Only days later, she received a call from her employer, warning her that “the threat to you is serious” and advising her to be “extra careful” and not to leave home.

“That’s when I first got frightened,” said Parwin. “I stopped going outside. I also told my family not to tell anyone where I was and to inform me if any strangers asked about me.”

She received another phone call from the NDS a few days later. This time they shared details of the plot against her.

Three young women, the NDS warned, had been deployed to kill her. They could pose as street beggars, health workers, or solicit donations for a charity, the agency said.

The NDS provided a description of one of the killers: tall, fair skin, and likely wearing a niqab, an Islamic veil that covers the face.

“The agency told me that the assassins would try to lure me outside by inviting me to a social event or they would attach a sticky bomb to a vehicle I was traveling in,” said Parwin. “If that failed, the killers would come directly to my home.”

Parwin suddenly remembered she had been contacted weeks earlier by a woman who had sought her help. The woman claimed she was a victim of domestic abuse and wanted to share her story. Parwin had agreed but postponed the interview several times due to work commitments.

In the next few days, two women came and knocked on Parwin’s front door at different times.

One said she was a polio worker and asked to be let inside. Another woman said she was collecting donations for the families of recently slain journalists in Kabul. Parwin refused to let either of them inside.

A third woman soon appeared at the door. Parwin’s mother talked to the woman through a peep hole. She matched the description of one of the killers.

“I immediately called the NDS,” said Parwin. “I felt everything suddenly closing in around me. The killers were literally on the other side of the door.”

Afghan reporters work in the newsroom of the Tolo TV station in Kabul. (file photo)
Afghan reporters work in the newsroom of the Tolo TV station in Kabul. (file photo)

Parwin was rushed to a safe house in the next few days. She was allowed to bring only a single bag with her. Her family was also relocated.

“My mother and I were both crying as I was packing,” she said. “I didn’t even get time to say goodbye to her properly. Everything happened so fast.”

Parwin spent four months in the safe house before she left Afghanistan. During that time, the NDS arrested the three women who were thought to be trying to kill her.

The NDS said the women confessed to the assassination plot. They also said Parwin had been specifically chosen, although they did not reveal why.

“For me, it’s clear,” said Parwin. “I’m a journalist. I’m an advocate for free speech. I’m also a woman. The Taliban and IS see women as a threat to their ideologies.”

During its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban oppressed girls and women, banning them from attending school or working outside their homes.

Parwin left for a foreign country -- but it was not the end of her struggles. She grapples with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks that were triggered by her ordeal.

“When I talk to my mother on the phone, I try hard to hold back my tears,” she said. “When I put the phone down, I cry a lot. I cry for my family, my homeland, and my profession -- which is under attack.”

Parwin sees a psychologist and takes medication to help her deal with her traumatic experience. She rarely ventures outside even though she is living abroad.

She is uncertain what the future holds for her.

“If I go back to Afghanistan I will be killed,” she said. “Once you are a target, you will always be a target.”

Chilling Effect

In Afghanistan, the spate of attacks targeting journalists has been unceasing.

The latest victims were three female employees of Enikass Radio and TV, a privately owned outlet based in the eastern city of Jalalabad. All the women, in their early 20s, were shot dead in two attacks by unidentified gunmen on March 2.

IS militants claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the women were targeted because they worked for one of the “media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government.”

The extremists also claimed the killing of Enikass TV presenter Malala Maiwand and her driver in December.

Those killings were part of a campaign by the Taliban and IS militants to threaten and target major TV and radio stations and their staff members, resulting in a series of attacks that have left scores of journalists and other media workers dead in recent years.

The development of the media in Afghanistan is one of the biggest achievements of the past decade following years of Taliban strictures or outright prohibitions on all forms of music and television, including independently reported news.

But the killings have made Afghanistan one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and forced media outlets to adopt new security measures and self-censor themselves over fears that stories could have security implications.

Afghan journalists film inside a classroom after an Islamic State attack on Kabul University on November 2, 2020.
Afghan journalists film inside a classroom after an Islamic State attack on Kabul University on November 2, 2020.

This is especially true for journalists in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, who live with the fear of retribution if their reporting is critical of the militant group.

RFE/RL journalist Mohammad Ilyas Dayee was killed in November when a magnetic bomb placed on his car detonated in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.

Before his death, Dayee said he had received numerous death threats warning him to stop his reporting on Taliban military operations.

The spate of killings has had a particularly chilling effect on female media workers in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), a media watchdog, said more than 300 women -- around 20 percent of the entire workforce -- have quit or lost their jobs in the media during the past six months.

The watchdog said in a March 8 press release that one of the main reasons for the sharp reduction was the “deteriorating safety of journalists, particularly the targeted killings of journalists.”

In five of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, there were no women working in the media, the AJSC said, adding that it was “extremely concerned” about the trend. In nine other provinces, there were no female reporters, only women working for media companies.

"The targeted killing of journalists could cause a state of fear in the journalistic community, and this could lead to self-censorship, abandonment of media activities, and even leaving the country," said Mujib Khalwatgar, head of Afghan media advocacy group NAI.

'Your Turn To Be Killed'

Samira was in Kabul when she received an urgent phone call from a local media watchdog.

“They told me that according to intelligence they had received I was on the Taliban’s hit list and I would soon be killed,” said Samira, who asked not to use her real name for security reasons.

Just four days later, Samira boarded a flight to leave Kabul. She has been abroad for several months and does not know if or when she will return to her homeland.

“If I was in Afghanistan and they wanted to kill me; it would be so easy for them,” said Samira, talking via phone from an undisclosed location. “I didn’t have bodyguards and I didn’t travel in an armored vehicle. I was in plain view.”

Before she left Afghanistan, Samira had lived in constant fear as Kabul had been hit by months of almost daily targeted killings and assassinations.

Samira and her colleagues changed their routes to and from the office, used different means of transport, and worked from home on some days. Her employer even offered to provide them with handguns, which she refused.

Despite the safety measures, several of Samira’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have been gunned down or killed in car bombings in recent months.

Along with journalists, many of those targeted were civilians -- rights activists, cultural figures, moderate religious leaders, and women in public roles. They represent some of the most progressive elements of society that have thrived since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban from power.

Many of the attacks have gone unclaimed, though U.S. officials have blamed the Taliban for the killings, many of them carried out in major cities. Afghan officials accuse the Taliban of trying to cover their tracks by allowing IS militants to claim responsibility for some of the assassinations.

Security officials inspect the scene of a blast in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, that killed Radio Free Afghanistan journalist Mohammad Ilyas Dayee on November 12, 2020.
Security officials inspect the scene of a blast in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, that killed Radio Free Afghanistan journalist Mohammad Ilyas Dayee on November 12, 2020.

Among the victims of the recent targeted killings were prominent election activist Yusuf Rasheed, Rahmatullah Nikzad, a freelance reporter and head of a media safety union in the central Ghazni Province, and social and political activist Freshta Kohistani.

“All those who have been killed were influential people from their fields,” said Samira. “Each had a strong voice. And each of their deaths is a big blow to the country.”

The uptick in targeted killings began soon after the launch of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar in September.

Months earlier, the United States and the Taliban had signed a deal under which all foreign forces would leave Afghanistan in exchange for security from the Taliban, which had opened the peace talks with the Afghan government.

Observers say the Taliban is using targeted killings to discredit the Afghan government, impose fear, and eliminate critics of the Islamist group.

“Civilians have become pawns in a political game,” said Samira. “The Taliban is terrorizing the civilian population to discredit the government. The government is using these attacks to condemn the Taliban. In the end, there is no accountability.”

For those living amid the carnage, the options are stark.

“You either stay and wait for your turn to be killed or you leave the country,” said Samira. “There’s no way to protect yourself.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.