Afghan journalists who fled the Taliban say they’re in limbo in Pakistan

(LONDON) — After eight months of living in hiding and moving between three safe houses in different cities in her native Afghanistan, 32-year-old journalist Fawzia Sayedzada said she fled her Taliban-ruled country in April.

Sayedzada told ABC News that she had been arrested in Kabul and threatened by the Taliban for covering the news, especially women’s protests, after the Taliban takeover last August.

She joined dozens of other Afghan journalists in neighboring Pakistan, where she said they are now stranded. Many of them have managed to leave Afghanistan with the help of human rights aid groups, but are now waiting for their fate to be decided by U.N. member nations, including the United States, Canada and Germany, that have announced special schemes to let them in.

“We were not safe in Afghanistan, and we know we are not safe here,” Sayedzada told ABC News.

Many Afghan refugees who have fled the Taliban to Pakistan face potential danger from local Taliban members, Sayedzada said, adding that some journalists and former members of rights groups are seen as more high-profile targets. That’s why Sayedzada is now advocating on behalf of those reporters, she said.

“We have been trying to help people be heard,” she told ABC News. “And, now, on behalf of many of my colleagues here, I’d say we also need to be heard, as we feel we are forgotten by the world.”

Afghanistan was ranked 122 out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued in April 2021. Pakistan was ranked 157 on the index.

While some of these journalists have come with their family members, others have had to leave Afghanistan on their own, which puts them in a vulnerable situation, especially in Pakistan, according to Sayedzada.

“Pakistan is a second home to Taliban members. They are everywhere and keep spying on us,” she said. “If you live on your own and have no one to rely on, it would be scary and very tough to survive.”

Pakistan, in response, said journalists and aid workers were being protected by local and national police.

“If any refugee faces any threat, they can contact the security forces of the interior ministry or the foreign ministry,” Abdullah Khan, secretary to the spokesman of the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ABC News.

Khan said “Pakistan protects all of the refugees that enter the country,” adding that he couldn’t comment on specific cases.

The acting spokesperson of the Taliban foreign ministry did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned of eroding press freedoms under the Taliban, including last year’s order that female journalists must wear hijabs while on screen.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghans who have been forced to flee their homes over the years of war. UNHCR has announced that processing asylum cases for Afghans in Pakistan may take time due to the excessive number of applicants.

During a protest in Pakistan on April 27, a group of about 60 journalists from Afghanistan called for support from the international community and asked that their asylum cases be followed up and accelerated.

After the protest, Sayedzada said a young woman who had fled the country on her own asked if she could stay with Sayedzada and her family.

“It broke my heart I could not help her as we are already four people trying to make the ends meet until we are picked by a safe country that lets us in,” she told ABC News.

Sayedzada, who worked in Afghanistan with television channel Setare-ye Sobh and radio program Zemzemeh, is a single mother of a 13-year-old boy. She crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with her son, her elderly mother and one of her brothers. She said her brother, who isn’t a journalist, has also been arrested and tortured by the Taliban several times, providing medical records to ABC News for review.

“Both my brother and I received death threats from the Taliban many times and had to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible,” Sayedzada said. “We had no choice but to leave my father and other family members back home.”

At least 50 journalists and media workers in Afghanistan have been detained briefly or arrested by police or the Istikhbarat, the Taliban intelligence agency, since the Taliban returned to power, RSF said in early February.

“These arrests, which are often accompanied by violence, have lasted from several hours to nearly a week. They usually occur when journalists are covering street demonstrations by women in the capital, Kabul,” RSF wrote, adding that the Istikhbarat and the Taliban’s Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Suppressing Vice are “directly implicated” in this harassment.

Despite the dangers of speaking up, Sayedzada said her colleagues both in Afghanistan and Pakistan keep reporting on the dire situation of living under the Taliban.

“After our gathering in Pakistan and asking for the acceleration of processing our asylum cases, I received a phone call from a Taliban member who told me if I keep talking to the media, they would hang me from the gates of the town so other journalists take a lesson,” Sayedzada told ABC News. “But I am not going to stop speaking up, even if I am sometimes scared.”

Being heartbroken by the news coming from Ukraine, Sayedzada said she deeply relates to the Ukrainian people and feels the horror of living in a war situation or being forced to leave home.

“We share the pain and suffrage,” she said. “War is a sore on the body of humanity and its pain is not bound to borders.”

Sayedzada said she and her colleagues in Pakistan have heard that the process of their asylum cases might take longer due to the surge of Ukrainian refugees. She, however, said she wants everyone to be safe, “whether from Ukraine, Afghanistan or Iraq.”

“It is true that the process of admitting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers to the western countries might get affected by the urgency of the cases coming from Ukraine,” she told ABC News. “It does not affect how I feel for Ukrainian people, though.”

“But I do believe that the world needs to remember us and the threats we are facing so they treat us equally to Ukrainians,” she added. “Being forgotten is the worst, especially after my colleagues’ attempts to amplify the voice of vulnerable people.”

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