‘The dangerous years are back’

Afghan senior journalist Danish Karokhel: ‘A life of war is my motivation to fight for peace’

On Christmas Eve 1979 Soviet tanks entered Afghanistan. The war and violence that began then, is still with the Afghans, thirty years and many regime changes later. Afghan top journalist and chief editor Danish Karokhel, explains how he experienced those past thirty years.

On Christmas Eve 1979 Soviet tanks entered Afghanistan. The war and violence that began then, is still with the Afghans, thirty years and many regime changes later. Afghan top journalist and chief editor of the most respected news agency in Kabul, Danish Karokhel, explains on request of MO* how he experienced those past thirty years. He was three in 1979.

It can be extremely cold in Afghanistan in December, but in the small office of Danish Karokhel it is always warm.

Usually he starts working at half past seven in the morning and he is still there long until after everyone else has left the building of the Pajhwok Afghan News Agency, which he has been running for five years now. Danish is – like most Afghans I got to know – a serious man who keeps distance in a respectful way.

But he is also very willing to listen and help when one is trying to find a telephone number, a particular person to interview, or when you are stuck in any of the many other troubles journalists experience in Afghanistan.

To me, Danish became a point of reference in the chaotic reality of Afghanistan.

During long talks over lots of cups of hot tea he provided me with precious insight in the complex contradictions of Afghan reality. He introduced me to the elders of the village of Pul-e-Cherkhi, on the way to Jalalabad, arranged for his journalists to help me in out in Kabul as well as in Kunduz and Kandahar. PAN has journalists working in every nook and corner of Afghanistan.

To me, Danish became a point of reference in the chaotic reality of Afghanistan, someone who combines knowledge and wisdom with energy, ambition and an acute sense of justice. That unique personality and work he produces, earned him international recognition, for example from the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in New York that gave him the International Freedom of Media Award on 25 November 2008. Still he is only 33 years old.

At the occasion of the anniversary of the Soviet invasion, we can see the long Afghan war through the eyes of the personal history of Abdul Aziz Danish Karokhel, three years old when his world took a whole different direction.

***

I was born on a spring day, 15 May 1976. My parents lived in the village of Chinar, in the district of Khak-e-Jabar close to Kabul. My father, grandfather and ancestors were tribal leaders. They were president of the jirga or shura – tribal council – in the region, which took care of solving problems between the tribal community and the governments of their time. Afghan governments always leaned on these tribal structures to ensure the safety of the region, but also to protect roads and electricity networks. My father was in charge of a tribal militia that was responsible for the electricity infrastructure between the Sarbobi dam and Kabul.

The seventies were chaotic years for Afghanistan. On 17 July 1973 the monarchy was abolished and the Afghans opted for a more democratic system. Several newspapers opened up offices in Kabul, political parties launched all sorts of campaigns and competing ideologies took root. And from the very beginning of what should have become a free and democratic Afghanistan, foreign forces tried to safeguard their ideologies and interests in Afghanistan. One of those countries was the Soviet Union, that had occupied the Central-Asian countries at the northern border for a long time and consequently would not accept the increasing influence of other powers.

I had just reached the age of two and democracy was hardly five, when the pro-Soviet parties Khalq and Parcham overthrew the democratically elected government of Daoud Khan on 27 April 1978. This coup and the repression against everyone who did not share their ideology – communist, secular and in favour of equal opportunities for women – kicked off a long series of arrests, murders and other violence. The Soviet Union got alarmed by the power struggle within the Communist party and sent their tanks, 100,000 soldiers and planes to Afghanistan on 24 December 1979.

Jihad schooling

It were rough times and my family only spoke with bitterness about the Soviet occupation. The village school closed the doors and so the elderly of the village took care of teaching us how to write and read. I recall how I learned forming the Arabic letters with stiff fingers on winter days full of snow. My step-mother also used to help me with this.

After a while, the increasing anti-Soviet feelings in my family and the villagers changed into active support for the mujahedeen, who put up an armed resistance against the occupation. We would take care of the food and would show them roads and pathways so they could move invisibly. But the Soviets became aware of these activities through the listening ears of their informers. On 2 June 1984 my father and six other members of my family got killed during an ambush. I was only eight years old but I had to take the responsibility of being the male head of the family and take care of my family’s land.

The bombings by Russian war aircrafts worsened and more and more people got arrested. But before we could flee the village, we had to wait until another family with an adult head of family wanted to take care of us. One morning in September 1984, the time had come: we left our houses, fields and orchards behind and left for Pakistan, over little used mountain pathways and with donkeys and horses.

After three days through the bare mountains we reached the Pakistan border post Teri Mangal, which used to be an operating base for the Afghan mujahedeen. We were led to one of the many refugee camps that were set up in the Pashtu regions and in Baluchistan. Our tent was in the Akora Khattak region of the Nowshera District in Pakhtunkhawa – or, like the Pakistani cal it, the North West Frontier Province.

There was no clean water to drink in the refugee camp – we always had to wait for water trucks– and the summer heat was unbearable for the Afghan people coming from higher and thus colder areas. But the international community had taken care of schools so that refugee children like me could finally start studying. One of the first things we learned was the importance of the jihad. In fourth grade we learned how to recognise and use different kinds of fire arms.

The whole time there was more attention for religion – or more precise: for the religious duty to fight a jihad against the occupier – than for maths or science. A couple of neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and the international community supported the jihad with weapons and means in the eighties, although most Afghan people had not the slightest idea of what jihad meant. Average Afghans live according to the basic tenets of Islam, but they never heard of jihad before. It is the international community that armed the mujahedeen in order to stop the Red Army, but they did not realise that one day these same fighters would turn their weapons against the West or the Saudi and Pakistan masters of war.

The Hazrat Omar Farooq higher secundary school where I graduated 12 May 1994, was close to the Haqqania seminar in Akora Khattak. In that centre of religious learning, a lot of future Taliban leaders got their religious education. I visited the madrassa once or twice a week and therefore got to know the rising Taliban movement quite well. 

Underground

Almost ten years after the invasion, on 15 February 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops out of Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans got killed and millions of citizens had fled the country. But the victory did not bring peace. The government in Kabul that was left behind, under the command of the fourth communist president of Afghanistan, dr. Nadjibullah, lasted a few more years.

But on 27 April 1992 the mujahedeen marched triumphantly through the streets of Kabul and Nadjibulla fled to the UN-offices. Again, everyone who had hoped for the end of violence got disappointed brutally. Almost every warlord declared himself to be the leader of the new regime. The result was a devastating civil war in which Kabul was practically destroyed and during which numerous new victims fell, both civilians and combatants.

In that period I had started studying at the Journalist Department of the Dawad and Jihad University in the Pabbi refugee camp, but I had to put an end to this study when the university closed its doors because of diplomatic difficulties between Kabul and Islamabad. That is why I decided to go back to Afghanistan and try to continue my studies there, in spite of the chaotic situation in my home country. Studying in Kabul was impossible because of the civil war, so I chose the University of Nangarhar. Moreover, that was very close to Pakistan where I had left my family. In Jalalabad there were no Journalism studies, so I started an education as engineer in 1995.

The civil war had made all trade in Afghanistan impossible and a thick blanket of hopelessness covered the country. In the middle of this desperation, a group that called itself Taliban arose and created a little spark of hope for the people who were tired of war. That is why the Taliban got immediate support from most Afghans. Also Burhanuddin Rabbani, the then mujahedeen leader in Kabul, gave his full support to the Taliban in order to beat his main rival, Hekmatyar.

However, the Taliban made it very clear that they also wanted to overthrow the Rabbani government. The government army, under command of Ahmed Sjah Massoud, was no match for the Taliban who finally entered Kabul on 26 September 1996.

The Taliban brought law and order, but did not end the war and certainly did not end the misery of Afghans. Again thousands of people began to flee the country. Whatever expectations I had, they were broken when the Tliban governement closed Nangarhar University. I returned to Peshawar, where in 1997 I started working for the Pashtu newspaper Wahdat.

My passion for news made me again leave for Afghanistan in 1999, this time back to Kabul. I enrolled at the university and continued writing news stories for papers and magazines in Pakistan, like Dawn, Jang, Wahdat and Herald. In those days it was far from easy to be practising journalism in Kabul. Independent media or foreign correspondents had no place in Taliban ruled Afghanistan, so I had to do my work underground rather than publicly. I often carried permissions from seven different ministries with me, just to be sure, but that did not mean that I was allowed to use a camera. I got arrested three times and was interrogated very often about the news stories published in various newspapers.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington came on top of the accusations of fundamentalism and terrorism and the unending war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. All this led to the attack of 7 October 2001, when American troops invaded Afghanistan, twelve years after the Soviet invasion. At that time I worked for NBC television in Kabul and I succeeded in sending out exclusive stories and videos to the world. A shopkeeper from the central area Shar-e-Naw provided me with videocassettes, wich were rare in Kabul. It were life threatening days and I scarcely escaped from an American rocket that nearly hit a shop where I was at that moment. 

If my country wants to have a future, it will have to be built by Afghans.

After a 22 year long winter of misery and war, it seemed as if hope returned to the Afghan people in 2002. It was the year I graduated as a bachelor in engineering at the University of Kabul. There was hardly any violence or attacks, and so thousands of Afghans returned from Pakistan, Iran and far away countries. My family took the step on 13 May 2003, after I had partly renovated the family house. Roads, water supplies, electricity and health care however were not yet restored. And would not be for a long time to come.

To me it was a time of enormous journalist activity. I was working as a senior reporter for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Kabul, a job I did with great pleasure and devotion from February 2002 until January 2005. In 2004 I published with a few colleagues “Guidelines for Journalists”.

I also took or gave all sorts of workshops on journalism; I took courses in media management and became director of the Pahjwok Afghan News Agency (PAN) in 2004. PAN publishes news and background in Pashtu, Dari and English. Fifty radio and TV-stations, 200 newspapers, magazines, embassies and foreign missions, offices of foreign forces, press offices of ISAF and coalition troops, local and foreign NGOs as well as large companies subscribe to it.

From 2005 onwards, the Taliban attacks got stronger and more severe and danger returned to the country like snow in December. That forced me to move with my family from Chinar to Kabul in 2006.

The dangerous years are back, and still I think of it as my duty to speak freely and give people information. You can not withdraw in cynicism or opportunism. I want to mean something for the Afghan people, which is why I have always refused the many job offers from abroad. If my country wants to have a future, it will have to be built by Afghans. With support from the international community, of course. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that there is still no sign of internal cooperation or enduring international support. My whole life I have hardly known anything else but war. That is why I fight for peace. With words and images, the best weapons possible.

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