“The retreat started years ago”

Radio host and journalist Waheedulaah Orya reported from the Afghan city of Mazar e-Sharif – until the Taliban threatened his life. From his exile in Greece he describes watching in disbelief as they recaptured his home country. 

A conversation

 

Mr. Orya, in the past weeks and months images of the evacuation of coalition forces and personnel from Afghanistan, of the chaotic moments at Kabul airport and of the Taliban takeover of the country have dominated the news. How did you feel seeing all that?

My first feeling was shock. When I heard that the Taliban had taken over Mazar e-Sharif, I could not believe it. Then Kabul fell just days later. I had known that things were bad, but I didn’t imagine that things could fall apart that quickly. And then the fear was there, of course, … for my remaining family in Afghanistan and for the people I know in Mazar e-Sharif. 

What are you hearing about the situation from your relatives and friends? 

They are saying that the city has changed completely: There are fewer women on the street, of course, and many people – like my brothers, who also worked for the media – are hiding inside their houses. Many former policemen and soldiers have burned their clothes and job-related documents to protect themselves. The Taliban are going door to door, carrying machine guns. 

Are the lives of your family in danger? 

It’s hard to say, but what’s clear is that there is no future for them in Afghanistan now. If you worked for the media or the coalition forces you will at least be arrested or not find work and make a living anytime soon. Under Taliban rule – and many Afghans know that by experience – you always live in fear. Your mind cannot wander, because you have to be on alert at all times. You feel their breath down your neck. 

Given all this, how do you feel about the US and the international coalition troops moving out of Afghanistan?

You know, the international troops came 20 years ago, back when the Taliban had nothing but motor cycles – and they still lost the war. Sometimes I think about that and laugh to myself. And sometimes I think about it and cry. Other times, I am angry, too, and I cannot help but think that the West just handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban, because the Taliban couldn’t have taken the country in a matter of weeks if it were otherwise. However, I think many people familiar with the situation on the ground already knew that something like this might happen – even though the pace of the takeover was shocking. 

Could you elaborate?

What I mean is that the takeover of the Taliban was a much longer and more apparent process than what was reported on the news in the past months and weeks. As far back as 2017, journalists like me started reporting that the grip of the Taliban grew stronger day by day. Already back then, if you took a car and headed straight for 15 kilometres outside Mazar e-Sharif, you’d hit the first Taliban checkpoint and villages under full Taliban control, even though, as you know, Mazar e-Sharif was the major operations hub of the German Bundeswehr. But at some point, the German and American soldiers started merely staying put inside their military camps. If they had to cross the countryside, they’d only do so in big convoys of 30 or more military vehicles and with air support by helicopters. By 2018, in my view, they had completely seized to fight back against the Taliban takeover: The real retreat already started years ago. 

Do you believe that this was an active decision by the coalition forces or a result of their inability to control the situation?

From my reporting I know that the government under President Ashraf Ghani and the US representatives had already established working relations with the Taliban back then. If they actively pushed for it or not, few people will be able to tell, but I believe that at least on some level, the decision to more or less peacefully hand over the country was reached back then. Maybe in 2018 some still believed that the Afghan army would stand a better chance against the Taliban, but to many it was clear that this was wishful thinking. 

You had to flee the country around that time, because the Taliban threatened your life …

Yes, I worked from Mazar e-Sharif back then and hosted a radio show called “Tahlil” or “analysis”. One day, I received a call from what turned out to be a Taliban commander. They had heard my reporting and weren’t happy with it. So, he told me to lay down my work as a radio host and stop reporting or face the consequences. In a second call, I was asked to come to a Taliban “court”. That’s when I knew that I had to leave the country, because a Taliban court is not a court as much as it is a group of people with guns – and that group only knows one verdict.  

Did you talk to the police or the coalition forces about the threats? 

Sure, I did. But by 2018 or 2019 it was an open secret in Afghanistan that the Taliban – even though mostly operating from the countryside – had already infiltrated parts of the police, the security forces, the army and even governmental institutions in the cities. So, you couldn’t be sure who to trust anymore. When I went to the police and played them back the calls I had recorded they said: “Yes, we can confirm those are Taliban”. But that was all the help I got. They said, they couldn’t do anything for me. Naturally, I was scared for my family, my two kids and my wife. So, I went to Iran using my passport and arranged for them to get over the border illegally, as they had no passports. From there we fled together. We made it over to Turkey and then I paid smugglers to get us to Greece on a boat. After that we landed on the island of Lesbos and spent half a year in the Moria refugee camp. And eventually, we made our way to Athens, where I just got my official refugee status confirmed a month ago.   

Seeing what has happened to Afghanistan in the meantime: Do you think there still is a glimmer of hope for those who have stayed behind, for your family and friends? 

Surely, some in Afghanistan still believe that there is hope. For example, if the Taliban form a government that also allows for other factions to join in. And, yes, it is also true that the Taliban we see today are different from those we saw 20 years ago. They have smart spokespeople, they do not try to push things too fast, they want to slowly consolidate and legitimise their power. But does that mean that life under the Taliban will be different compared to 20 years ago? I believe that there will be only one major difference: Back then they shot people out in the open streets for everyone to see, now they will do it where nobody can see them. 

 

Interview by Kai Schnier, August 2021