Reporting from a 'collapsed republic': A journalist's journey through Afghanistan's turmoil

After the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban re-took Afghanistan. Ahead of the launch of her book, Nayanima Basu talks to TMS about her experience as one of the few women journalists to report from the war zone and the fight to get there.
Journalist Nayanima Basu interviewing former Afghanistan PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on August 15, 2021.
Journalist Nayanima Basu interviewing former Afghanistan PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on August 15, 2021.Special arrangement

It was in August 2021 that the news of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan shook the world. As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, journalist Nayanima Basu witnessed prime provinces fall into their hands. In her book The Fall Of Kabul: Despatches From Chaos (Bloomsbury India), she chronicles her first-hand report from the country as the militant group steadily made its way to the capital.

The transition from the author’s view of Kabul before and after the militant group’s entry is palpable. As her memories of buzzing local markets turn into bleak deserted roads, Basu intersperses her reportage with anecdotes about locals, ministers, political experts, diplomats and Taliban leaders. Firm on her decision to report from the ground in the strife-torn country, she slowly unravels the staggering gap between global opinion and the situation on the ground.

Basu talks about her experience as one of the few women journalists to report from war zones and the need to have more female journalists on the ground during historical occurrences influencing the geopolitics of nations. Excerpts from a conversation:

What was the point when you realised you wanted to pen this experience down in a book?

To be honest, I was only concerned about the coverage and wanted to bring those voices, those little moments that were building up to something big but were going unreported. Most Indian media, especially TV, was focussed on showing either the war that was on between the Afghan forces and the Taliban or the plight of Sikhs and Hindus living there. They were missing the forest for the trees. Anybody who would bother to go down onto Kabul’s streets and speak to the regular, common Afghans would have known that the Taliban were coming back.

Graffitis of anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud were a common sight in Kabul before the Taliban took over
Graffitis of anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud were a common sight in Kabul before the Taliban took over

However, I owe the book to Bloomsbury. They approached me to write the book while I was deep into my reporting in Afghanistan. But at that time I was in a trance, bringing out characters who lived in the shadows but they were the ones who knew exactly what was going on. And then there were the officials of the former Ashraf Ghani government, who were desperately seeking help from neighbours like India, and of course the US – the country that had begun waging a war on that soil in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, and withdrew in complete chaos.

Journalist Nayanima Basu interviewing former Afghanistan PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on August 15, 2021.
Taliban has banned girls from school since two years; It’s a worsening crisis for all Afghans

What are the hardships of being one of the very few female reporters in a war-torn country?

There have been several female journalists who have covered Afghanistan and dedicated a substantial portion of their careers to bring stories out. But they were mostly from western countries. Names like Lyse Doucet, Christina Lamb are household names in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, that is not the case with Indian women journalists, who are no less than anybody, but they do not get the opportunity. Most Editors in the Indian media prefer to send male reporters than female journalists. In Indian media, misogyny is deep-rooted and silently it does that work. Even covering beats like defence within our own country are much more challenging for women journalists than their male counterparts.

Covering war zones can be hugely challenging and tricky, there is risk at every step, so female reporters also need to be aware of that and cannot play the victim if something goes wrong.

At one point, you mention in the book you meet a man who was a ‘fixer’ at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport. Aren’t they in danger of getting killed too?

The term ‘fixer’ is mostly used by the western media who take the help of the local people who act as guides. Most journalists prefer to portray an image that the work produced by them is solely to their credit. Fixers risk their lives to take the reporter to difficult places. Yes, they are paid a handsome amount but without them the reporter would be helpless in a place which is as complex as Afghanistan.

Sometimes these fixers do lose their lives while on assignment with a reporter. But the smart ones know that it is precisely their job – to save the reporter they are shadowing and to save themselves too. In Mazar-i-Sharif, my fixer of sorts was my driving help, who bravely took me to the frontline where a fierce gun-battle was on between the Afghan soldiers and the Taliban. At one point when he saw I was getting too carried away in talking to the soldiers while a fierce gun-fight was on in that area on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, he coaxed me to wrap up and leave the place before the Taliban could target us.

Senior journalist Nayanima Basu
Senior journalist Nayanima Basu

Your meeting with the Imams in the Blue Mosque, they seem to have placed some faith in the Taliban, calling them their own people. Does that mean some were unhappy with the Ghani government?

Except for a handful of Kabul elites, most were unhappy and dissatisfied with not only the Ashraf Ghani government, but also previous governments before, which includes President Hamid Karzai’s as these were seen as ‘western-backed’ governments. Afghans were also upset with the Americans and their complete mismanagement of the war, which they thought would take a different turn after the Americans were able to terminate their primary target – Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban, a predominantly Pashtun movement, took birth from within Afghan society. Apart from that, there was a larger thinking within young Afghans, who were not born when the Taliban was in power the first time and were born after 2001, that this is a “more sophisticated” Taliban, who would take the country forward. They thought, after all, it was the Taliban that brought the Americans to the negotiating table and got the ‘Peace Deal’ signed.

Journalist Nayanima Basu interviewing former Afghanistan PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on August 15, 2021.
Afghan farmers lose income of more than USD 1 billion after the Taliban banned poppy cultivation

In the book you mention that some Taliban members let you pass a check post when they realised you were an Indian, and you knew Shah Rukh Khan.

The Taliban are a huge fan of Shahrukh Khan. Not that they have seen all his movies or are a fan of his acting. But this stems from the deep-rooted respect they have for India as a country.

Besides being stripped of the right to education and vote, what other issues are Afghan women grappling with?

Despite promising to take back their regressive policy that does not let Afghan women study, the Taliban have not done anything. The condition of education even among boys is not any better at all. This is because the Taliban have replaced the modern syllabus with old-style religious education. These actions also show the rift that is emerging between the Taliban in Kandahar and the Taliban in Kabul.

You point out that there has been no resistance to the Taliban. The reason?

There were many factors. Most importantly, the Taliban were able to win back the country as the Afghan forces started disintegrating with the withdrawal of the American forces that began, albeit in a slow and gradual manner, since 2013. Then there is the larger argument of whether or not the Afghan soldiers received adequate training from the American forces. Of course, the rampant corruption under the Ghani administration, of soldiers not getting their salaries on time, not getting leaves, not having adequate weaponry, all led to a gradual collapse of the system.

Chronicling your journey during the reportage must have brought back memories. What was it like to revisit the memory when you were writing the book?

While writing the book every moment I spent in Afghanistan came rushing in my mind. I did make it a point that I will note the developments of every day in a notebook but there is no greater diary than the mind and the brain. But the only thought that kept coming in my mind as I finished writing the book, was that I need to go back.

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