Remembering a mentor

September 19, 2021

Yusufzai, one of the most renowned journalists of his era, silently passed away on September 9 after fighting deadly cancer for over 15 months

Photo by Rahat Dar
Photo by Rahat Dar

Rahimullah Yusufzai, will be   

remembered for his towering

personality and expertise in

Afghan affairs

“I am Jolie from The Daily Telegraph,“ the British journalist said as she stepped in Rahimullah Yusufzai’s office in Peshawar soon after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in September 1996. I used then to work as a correspondent for The News. Some other British journalists were also present, discussing the volatile Afghan situation and wanting to know his opinion.

The emergence of the Taliban was a new phenomenon. The international media was impatient to cover the Afghan civil war. The focus was on the Taliban. Everybody wanted to know more about their determination to introduce an Islamic system in an economically feeble and politically traumatised country divided and tarnished first Soviet occupation and later by Afghan in-fighting.

As she sat down beside me in an easy chair, Jolie fired the first question, “Tell me, Rahimullah, what is the best possible way to reach Kabul to cover the Taliban.” He obliged, “There are two ways to reach there. First, you wear a burqa like an Afghan women and cross the Durand Line. However, this is not the civilised way and will make it difficult for you to perform your professional duties.

“Second, you could go to the Afghanistan embassy in Islamabad or the Afghan consulate in Peshawar to get a visa for visiting Afghanistan. The British High Commissioner could help you. I think that is the right way.” She decided to go back to Islamabad but before her departure discussed the matter with him.

Yusufzai, one of the most renowned journalists of his era, silently passed away on September 9 after fighting deadly cancer for over 15 months. He was laid to rest in his native village, Inzargai in Mardan district on the day he was born in 1954. He had been the resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He had and also worked for BBC Urdu and Pashto service. He had an imposing personality and had carved out a unique place for himself among the journalist community.

Once, when a district correspondent complained that only a fraction of the report he had filed had made it to print, Yusufzai advised him to follow two guidelines: First, concentrate on your copy, work hard on it. When you write a story, read it again and you will certainly find some mistakes in your first draft. Second, regularly read the published version of your work and compare it with your dispatch so that you do not repeat your mistakes in the future.”

He was awarded the prestigious Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in 2004 and the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2009 in recognition of his services to journalism. As news of his death broke, social media channels as well as electronic and print media were flooded with the tributes. Prime Minister Imran Khan said that he “was one of Pakistan’s most respected journalists.“ Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban spokesperson, said that the “void he leaves is irreparable.”

He was widely recognized as an expert on Afghan affairs. International fame came after he interviewed the Taliban founder, late Mullah Mohammad Umar, and Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was known to all Afghan factions and recognised for his balanced reporting, impartial approach and critical analysis.

I recall four landmark incidents after which his office was flooded with people seeking his opinion. These were: the Taliban takeover of Kabul in September 1996; the American cruise missile attack in August 1998; the Indian plane hijacking in December 1999 and the September 11, 2001 attacks in United States.

During my association with Rahimullah Yusufzai, I found him matchless in three areas. First, he was a professional to the core, upholding the principles of journalism even in the worst circumstance, displaying an astonishing degree of professionalism and continued unbiased and balanced reporting. As a prolific analyst, he fearlessly expressed his views about political and strategic issues and was an acknowledged authority on Afghan affairs.

As a journalist, his stature grew; he remained dominant and influential; and was extensively read and believed. He had an extraordinary ability to understand the complexities of Afghan history and political chessboard. He helped numerous journalists better comprehend the complexity of the Afghan war. He was never swayed by controversy and maintained that he only wrote what he saw and heard.

As a boss, he was unparalleled, always guiding juniors in how they should learn the journalistic skills and perform their duty in challenging circumstances. Despite his busy schedule, he always felt comfortable meeting those who strived to carve out a respectable place for themselves in journalism. He twice rejected the offer to serve as a provincial caretaker information minister. He was a teacher and mentor to many prominent journalists.

One of his profound strengths was his humility and simplicity. Yusufzai was a dedicated, energetic, hardworking and established investigative journalist. In Pakistan, he was “one of the few people respected by people from nearly all ideological and political factions.” Yusufzai did not write a book. There is a dire need to assemble his published articles and compile them into a book.

Rahimullah Yusufzai will be missed dearly. The professional standards upheld by him are the benchmarks new entrants in the field should aspire to achieve.

The writer is a KP-based freelance journalist. His areas of interest are South Asian affairs and Afghanistan

Remembering a mentor