Across the Durand Line – I

November 21, 2021

A reporter’s journey to Afghanistan, where reporting a story does not appear to be as straightforward as it once was

Across the  Durand Line – I

As the clock struck 5:30 am, an alarm rang on my mobile phone safely tucked under my pillow. Outside the east-facing glass window of my fifth floor apartment – covered with thick brown curtains – a dawn had just been born in the Afghan capital. Birds were chirping on a big oak tree. Down on the street, a few Taliban fighters were stretching and yawning in a double cabin vehicle. It was a chilly morning in October with temperature as low as 12 degrees Celsius. As a Karachiite, this is winter to me. For Afghans, leaves had started changing colour, announcing the arrival of fall. Almost everyone in Kabul realised that winter was not far behind.

Suddenly, there was a boisterous knock at the door.

KhabarNigaar Ast

Almost a month ago, I had taken a two-hour ride to reach the Torkham border from Peshawar. Within a few moments after I’d crossed the border I was convinced that my reporting trip would end before it actually began. The border crossing connects the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan to the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan and is located along the Grand Trunk Road. The route was historically used by Afghan and Turkic caravans, including marching armies on their way to northern India. Today, a Pakistani flag hoisted at the fort-like gate at the border welcomes travellers. This border is considered one of the busiest on Durand Line – a nearly 2,600 kilometre long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thousands once passed it informally for daily business. Nowadays trucks loaded mostly with fruits await their turn in long queues to cross the border. Their drivers can be seen sleeping on hammocks made by tying sheets to the giant tires. I had felt lucky getting past them without the long wait. The twist in my story came on the other side of the border.

The border was declared closed for the citizens of both the countries. However, journalists willing to cover the unfolding news were given an exemption. Going ambidextrous with the luggage and camera kit, I crossed the border on foot under a barricaded corridor. Authorities on the Pakistani side of the border were easy to satisfy with polio and Covid vaccination certificates. The documents become irrelevant as soon as one stepped into Afghanistan.

Asnaad (documents),” demanded a Taliban man sitting in a wheelchair at the first check post – he had a limb missing. My Pashto-speaking-clean-shaven cameraman greeted him in the native language with a toothy smile.

Asnaad” repeated the man with a thick square beard and a visible sunburn, his palm moving with an urgency. He fixed the rifle on his shoulder.

Khabarnigaar ast”, (It’s a journalist) I prompted, having learnt the phrase from an Afghan refugee friend in Karachi, and handed him our passports with Afghan visas and a permission letter neatly signed by the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid.

He looked at the passport, then at me, trying to match the face to the photo on the passport. Satisfied, he signalled us to proceed.

The ‘clearance’ was apparently temporary. A few yards from the first check post, we encountered another, with two Taliban men, one wearing a Pashtun turban and the other a traditional Sindhi cap. This time my cameraman asked me to proceed first. I repeated the mantra. It didn’t work.

“I know all the journalists are going there. Tell me where do you plan to stay?” asked the tall one wearing the Sindhi topi after glancing at our documents. “We don’t have funds to stay in Serena. We will try to rent out a reasonable apartment,” I answered.

“If you want to cross the border, call someone in Kabul who vouch for you. It must be an official from the new Emirati government,” he handed us back our passports. “Or else, you can wait at the bench. A previous team waited for eight hours. Some have turned back.”

This was an early indication of how unpredictable Afghanistan was going to be. Was there a central authority? The question remained unanswered till the end of my trip. After an hour of argument, I and my cameraman had yet to satisfy him with our visas and permission letters.

“I don’t have an Afghan SIM here. How am I supposed to make a call, and that too, to a government official? I can show you a few reporting clips on my phone that I made in Karachi, while visiting the Afghan refugees’ settlements.” I said as a last resort. “Do you want to see them? Would that satisfy you?”

“Go ahead,” he seemed interested. For the first time, his colleague in a turban walked over and joined us.

As he watched the sound bites of elderly Afghan refugees crying about unrest in their homeland and the cost of migration, something melted in his eyes.

“Can you AirDrop this clip?” He surprised me with his iPhone lingo as he pulled out his phone from a loose pocket. I knew then that we were going to enter Afghanistan.

Farah Jan of Kabul

“Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains/ And Rose, of the trails of thorns she envies/ Her gusts of powdered soil, slightly sting my eyes/ But I love her, for knowing and loving are born of this same dust.”

As she said these lines, Farah squeezed her eyes shut, tears clinging to her lashes, then rolling down her cheeks. “I see most of our people flee every time the conflict erupts but there are reasons I cannot leave Kabul Jaan,” she said while we sipped on saffron tea. She proudly mentioned that two of the world’s greatest poets Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi Balkhi and Khushal Khan Khatak were from what is today’s Afghanistan. The meeting over the roof of the Cafeteria restaurant under the full moon was in complete contrast to our first encounter.

The Taliban conquered Kabul without a single bullet being fired. Soon after they took charge, protest demonstrations by women were banned. Despite the prohibition, a few women in Kabul would pop up on streets every now and then, with A4 paper placards. Their demands were mostly about the revival of freedoms they had enjoyed for the last two decades. Farah was among the first organisers of those protests. For her, trust issues and security concerns went hand in hand. She frequently changed her location. After a brief WhatsApp chat, we agreed to meet. For the meeting to go ahead, I had to arrive on time and wait at Chaurah-i-Ansari (Ansari Square), meaning that she was supposed to spot me first.

Across the  Durand Line – I

Whenever a reporter travels, there is always this natural pressure to search for and report stories as soon as possible. Moreover, there is that natural anxiety about the first story being filed from a foreign land.

My cameraman, Fazl Hussain, was unhappy about the arrangement but I followed the instructions. Moments later, a tall lady in a veil asked me to follow her. As I sought a confirmation of her identity, she said, “Walk ahead of me or behind me. Walking next to me can cause you trouble. We are going to the Cafeteria restaurant. It’s barely two blocks away.” I realised that when you look like a foreigner and are walking on the streets of Kabul with a local person of the opposite gender, you can be stopped and asked about the nature of your relationship.

Confusion and indecision regarding the attendance of female students in universities has created resentment among Kabul’s women. “Initially, they said there would be a partition with a sheet separating the boys and the girls. The girls will be wearing a hijab. High heels were prohibited. Even that was not enough. Eventually, they decided to call us (male and female students) in different shifts. Since then there has been a deafening silence,” said a woman student of Kabul University.

“I was working for Aryana TV when the Taliban took over. My immediate boss advised all female employees to stay at home until the situation became clearer and there were new laws for women at the workplace. Since then I have been at home. We, the women of Kabul, eat, sleep and repeat. Why does the concept of ‘vice and virtue’ apply only to the women’s ministry and not to anyone else?” asked Tamanna, 25.

Soon afterwards, the Taliban in-charge of Higher Education Ministry announced at a crowded press conference that there will be no ‘co-education’ in Afghanistan. As he left the premises, his guard tore the posters on the walls of the ministry, carrying pictures of women.

Don’ts and don’ts

On my first visit to the Ministry of Information, a heavily barricaded grey building opposite the Grand Abdur Rahman Mosque of the city, Shafiq Yousafzai was waiting for us. He was one of the few people who had continued serving despite the change in regime. Shafiq’s bearded appearance looked different from his WhatsApp display picture. He greeted us with tea that is always without milk.

“There are three things you must not do while you’re here,” Yousafzai said, while handing us the original Permission Letter. “You cannot enter any military site, you cannot cover any protest for which official permission has not been obtained and you are prohibited to travel to Panjsheer.”

“What are we doing here then?” was my question.

“That’s for you to decide,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“What about a story on the National Museum of Kabul?” I asked.
“Well… We have to think about it. How about you write us an application tomorrow? It will take a few days but we will get back to you,” he assured me.

Across the  Durand Line – I

I sent the application the same day. We did not get the permission.

There is always pressure on a reporter to look for and report stories as soon as possible. There is also the natural anxiety about the first story one files from a foreign land. Nervously, I reached the Traffic Police section where colourful murals had been replaced by calligraphed victory slogans on a plain white background. Outside, beauty salons images of women wore spray paint on their faces. Taliban flags flew over every building. This was the only department where the Emirate (current government) and Doulat (previous government) coexisted. The traffic personnel performed their duties wearing the same tricolor flag of Afghanistan while the Taliban emir and the previous director looked after the affairs from the top.

I showed the accreditation letter to a Taliban fighter, positioned outside the Traffic Police Department building.

“What is this?” asked the young fighter, wearing dark sunglasses.
“This is the permission letter from the Emirati Ministry of Information, signed by Deputy Information Minister Zabihullah Mujahid. I am here to make a report,” I continued.

“I don’t know Zabihullah Mujahid. Unless my emir allows you, you cannot enter the building.” He returned me the letter.

I was stunned. Will I ever be able to file a story on this trip? Whoever one approached in Afghanistan knew too many ways of saying NO.

— To be continued

The writer is a Geo TV broadcast journalist

Across the Durand Line – I