In this photo provided by the US Marine Corps, two civilians during processing through an Evacuee Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. 

‘If journalists leave a scene, it becomes a black hole,’ VOA journalist in Kabul says

Ayesha Tanzeem, the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for Voice of America, waited on Thursday at the airport for a flight out. She caught up with The World’s host Marco Werman to describe what she witnessed there — and the future of journalism under Taliban rule. 

The World

Protesters took to the streets in Afghanistan for the second straight day to rally against Taliban rule. 

Today, protests reached the capital, Kabul. As many as 200 people gathered before armed Taliban fighters violently disperse the crowd. In the eastern city of Asadabad, several people were killed in protests on Thursday, either by stampedes or gunfire. The Taliban fired on people waving the Afghan flag to mark the nation’s annual Independence Day. 

Related: Taliban violently quashes small protest in Jalalabad

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is now the official name of the country. 

Meanwhile, the evacuation of Afghans continued at an accelerated pace on Thursday. Nations such as Spain, Germany and Australia flew out their citizens along with scores of Afghans. US officials say they are processing about 500 people each hour at the airport. 

Related: An Afghan American describes his fear-filled flight from Kabul

Outside the airport, there was more violence and chaos. The Taliban continue to patrol the roads leading to the terminal, blocking entrances and beating back crowds.

Ayesha Tanzeem, the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for Voice of America, the US government-owned broadcaster, was at the airport on Thursday waiting for a flight out. She caught up with The World’s host Marco Werman to describe what she was witnessing there — and the future of journalism under Taliban rule. 

Related: Can the Taliban make the ledgers work to govern? 

Tanzeem said that the evacuation flights are going very quickly but that the stories she’s hearing from stranded Afghans attempting to leave are heart-wrenching as many were separated from their families. 

She told The World that one young teenager lost contact with the rest of his family and neither side had a phone to communicate. Many others who are camping outside the airport are losing hope.

“Gates of the airport are surrounded by people who want to get in. You hear constant gunfire. And I saw it with my own eyes, mostly Taliban firing into the air as a method of crowd control. And I also met people who managed to get inside without complete documents. And once inside, they were told, you cannot go anywhere from here because you don’t have a passport,” Tanzeem told The World. 

One man who had served with the US military as security entered the airport with his family, carrying his badge. But none of them had passports so they couldn’t continue into the airport. 

“And his family was sitting inside the airport on the on the floor saying, ‘We’re afraid we’re going to be sent outside and the Taliban will find us. And if they find out about us, they will kill us,'” Tanzeem said. 

Related: Afghanistan is under Taliban control. Women are worried.

Marco Werman: The Taliban spokesman — and they are all men — they say they’ll be more accommodating toward journalists than they were in their previous era in power in the ’90s. What do you think?
Ayesha Tanzeem: We have to wait and see in the first few days, they have been more accommodating to journalists. So, on Day One and Day Two, they did not stop journalists. But Day Three, they stopped some journalists and interrogated them, asked who they were and whose permission they had and all of that. They told local journalists to register with their media commission. At the same time, I talked to the head of news at one of Afghanistan’s biggest TV channels, and they said that their teams, including women, were going out to report and sometimes they were stopped by Taliban, sometimes they were not stopped by Taliban. But so far they were not stopped from reporting. The channel was on the air. However, a lot of people, including local journalists, said that they thought that this was temporary, that the Taliban were now busy with other things. They were busy because they were negotiating with local Afghan leaders. They were going around the city disarming security guards and whatever police and security forces they could find. So they were busy in other things. That’s why they were allowing the media to work and the women to go out. But a lot of local journalists thought that once the Taliban solidified their hold on power, things would change. These are still early days and we have to wait and watch and see, once the Taliban settle in and they actually are in the government. They have not announced their government yet. They continue to repeat that they want to form an inclusive government. They have not yet announced what form that government would take, whether the leader of the inclusive government would be a president or khalifa [successor] or a prime minister, nobody knows. But because they have a history, 40 years of war, the ’90s era that people still remember, they’ve heard stories from their parents. I talked to people who remembered. One person said his mother told him how she was beaten by the Taliban for not wearing the abaya the right way. So, people have those stories in their minds.
On top of what journalists generally are facing, we have to talk about what it’s like being a woman and a journalist. What has that been like these past few days for you? 
Well, I did what all the other Afghan female journalists did and all the international female journalists did, which is I changed my dress. So, I used to go out in Kabul with jeans, a long tunic and a headscarf. But as soon as the Taliban entered the city, I started wearing a long abaya, started covering my entire head. And the people that I tried to talk to over the phone, the political analysts, the activists that we used to routinely talk to said, “We are not doing media these days. We are not talking to anyone these days.” So, I also became cautious, not because the Taliban told me, but because I don’t know what the Taliban redline is and because every one of them is carrying an AK-47. I don’t want to annoy a Talib on the streets who could get offended by my dress code. So, the Taliban have told people that they want to implement Sharia law. They haven’t really told people what does that mean. A lot of women are asking them on Twitter, what do you mean by Sharia law? Does that mean I can go to work? Does that mean I can walk around the streets without a male accompanying me? Does that mean that I can choose whatever profession I want to choose? Because Afghan women, over the last 20 years, have become artists and filmmakers and actors and singers, along with doctors and teachers and journalists and anchors and field reporters. They’re working in offices, they’re in government. You know, at one time, the mayor of Kabul was a woman. So, there is no clear answer yet. Taliban have been very vague with it. 
Even though you’re at the airport now, are you still dressing more conservatively? 
No, no, no. At the airport, it’s very safe. The perimeter is now secured by international forces. The US is in negotiation with the Taliban to make sure the evacuation is safe. So far, the Taliban seem to be sticking to whatever negotiation they had with the US.
Three days in the waiting area at Kabul International Airport. In the eyes of many Afghans, you’ll be seen as a lucky one. When do you think you’ll be able to fly out, though?
I am hoping to catch a flight out tomorrow. That would be Friday. Let’s see.
Can you imagine returning to Kabul in the near future?
I hope so. I hope so. I mean, if the situation stabilizes and I feel like as a journalist, I can continue to work here without being harmed, I would like to return and report on the story. This is … this is history in the making. This is the big story. But more importantly, I feel like if journalists leave a scene, it becomes a black hole, then the world doesn’t find out what’s happening. And when the world doesn’t know what’s happening, human sympathy also evaporates. That’s why conflict reporting is so important because it is only when the world can see the misery of people that there’s then pressure on governments and the international community to do something about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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