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Plans Ruined, Dreams Shattered: Female Journalist In Kabul Deals With New Reality

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Kabul on August 18, days after the militant group seized the Afghan capital.

Rahila Elena is one of the very few women journalists in Kabul who continues to work since the hard-line Taliban group took over the Afghan capital and ordered working women to stay home as the militants were not yet "trained" to respect them.

The young reporter for a local media outlet -- who is using a pseudonym for her own protection -- Elena told RFE/RL in an interview that her plans for the future have been shattered and that she is "dealing with a new reality."

RFE/RL: Why did you decide to return to your work despite the security threats?

Elena: My workplace remained closed for two to three days after we all abruptly left the office -- in the middle of a daily staff meeting -- when the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15. A few days later my employers sent a text message saying we could return to work. I was among the first employees who went back to the office.

There are several reasons why I returned.

First of all, I thought that I'm my own person and no government or power should make personal, life decisions for me. I don't know what consequences my decision will have, but at least I'll be able to tell myself one day that I did what I thought was right despite all the risks.

The second reason was that Afghan government money was invested in my education and training and I thought I owed it to society that I work.

I also felt it was my responsibility as a journalist to go out and report about what's going on. It's a journalist's duty to highlight problems in society, the wrongdoings of government, and people's issues. I can't solve people's problems but it's my job to become their voice.

There was also a financial reason for me to return to work. I'm the eldest child in my family and it depends on my salary.

RFE/RL: What changes you have faced at work since the Taliban took power in Kabul?

We had freedom of speech, I could freely choose my topics, freely criticize the government or the others, and there was no censorship in my reports before. It's different now.

There is a power vacuum in Afghanistan these days and it's not yet clear if we're going to have those freedoms again. We're trying to be cautious in our reporting -- we do a lot of self-censorship.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul on August 18.
Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul on August 18.

For example, two days ago I had an article about the creation of the new government and people's concerns about that. I believe I was extremely careful and censored myself. But my editor heavily redacted my story, removing many parts of it that he said would put us in danger. These were merely quotes from people who were sharing their worries. I told myself this is my new reality at work -- I can no longer say or write what I want.

When people complain about the Taliban or make unfavorable comments about the Taliban, I can't publish them in my report because I fear that not only would it endanger myself, but it would also put my colleagues in danger. Our publication could even be shut down.

RFE/RL: How do you see your future as a woman journalist working in Kabul under the Taliban?

It's the question I ask myself everyday for the past two weeks and I have no answer. If you asked me the same question even three hours before the Taliban entered Kabul, I would give you a list of things that I planned for my future.

I had detailed plans and back-up plans for at least the next 30 years of my life. I had a notebook with a list of various personal projects with notes about how to execute them. The day we were leaving the office on August 15 -- not knowing what was going to happen next -- I destroyed that notebook along with some other documents.

And I also had many dreams. I was planning to start my master's degree in the next two years. I had also been preparing for the American Fulbright [scholarship program] tests.

Burqa-clad women shop at a market in downtown Kabul on August 28, weeks after the Taliban's stunning military takeover of Afghanistan.
Burqa-clad women shop at a market in downtown Kabul on August 28, weeks after the Taliban's stunning military takeover of Afghanistan.

I also wanted to work -- as an intern or part of a training program -- for a foreign news agency and bring that knowledge back to my country. In the long run I dreamed of working as a foreign affairs correspondent abroad for some time. Most importantly I wanted to report about my own country.

I used to walk to work even if Kabul wasn't a safe place for young women to walk alone during the previous government. But I liked walking while thinking about my future. Now I fear that my plans are ruined and my dreams are shattered. I don't know what the future holds for me. The Taliban government will be the one making plans for me, instead of me. It pains me.

For now the Taliban says women will return to work, media outlets can function. I don't know if they will keep their promises and I'll be able to continue my job or whether I will be killed or arrested.

RFE/RL: What is the mood like in the streets of Kabul these days for young people like yourself?

People are slowly coming back to work. For a few days Kabul was like a ghost town. The streets were deserted. It's more crowded now, although the city is still far from the lively place it was before.

I cross the busiest parts of Kabul every day and it seems that the city has become a city of men. There are a lot less women at work and on the streets. Most women wear black hijabs or burqas. Men's appearance has changed too -- they now wear traditional Afghan clothes that the Taliban deem appropriate.

Restrictions of our freedoms is only part of the problem.

Both young and old are worried about the financial situation. People are very poor and many don't have stable jobs. Many had odd jobs and earned just enough to buy food for the day. The next day it started all over again.

Afghanistan depended heavily on foreign aid for the last 20 years, which could end. If that happens we don't know if we'll get paid even if we are allowed to work. We fear that people will face starvation.

Interview conducted by Farangis Najibullah in Prague
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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.