‘I knew they’d come for us': Afghan journalists, activists report Taliban reprisals

Taliban fighters screen people at a checkpoint in Kabul.
Taliban fighters screen people at a checkpoint in Kabul. © Facebook

The Taliban have started to use any means at their disposal to track down the people they see as a threat to their rule, even going to local mosques or using corrupt police officers to find information, despite showing a conciliatory face to the world. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke with five activists and journalists from all over Afghanistan, who all report that the Taliban are beginning searches in their regions. 

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Several days after taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has begun searching for journalists and activists, using house-to-house searches or intimidation tactics to target people they see as a threat. According to our Observers, house-to-house searches have been held in at least four provincial cities as the Taliban solidifies its hold on the country. (The FRANCE 24 Observers team has chosen not to publish the names of any locations in this article, for security reasons.)

The Islamist group went house-to-house on Wednesday to find a Deutsche Welle journalist – who they didn’t know had moved to Germany. When they were unable to find the journalist, they shot dead one of his relatives and seriously injured another. The Taliban have raided the homes of at least three DW journalists, the German broadcaster reported. 

The Taliban is also conducting “targeted door-to-door visits” and screening people at checkpoints to find people who worked with US and NATO forces, according to an intelligence report prepared for the UN and released Friday. The report says the Taliban is "intensifying the hunt-down of all individuals and collaborators with the former regime".

Taliban fighters man a checkpoint in Kabul.

The searches come amid the Taliban's sophisticated PR campaign with the group claiming to protect women's rights within the limits of Islam and to forgive all those who worked with US forces. At the group’s first press conference on August 17, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said, “Let me remind you that we forgive everyone, because it is in the interest of peace and stability in Afghanistan. All the groups that were confronting us are all forgiven.” 

As evacuations out of Afghanistan remain difficult, foreign auxiliaries, journalists and activists who are stuck in the country are now living in fear that the Taliban will knock on their doors.

‘Taliban fighters are going to the neighbourhood mosque and asking people if they are aware of activists’

Zarghuna (not her real name) is a human rights activist who has gone into hiding since the Taliban entered her city in western Afghanistan. 

I’m well-known in my city for my work as a human rights activist. Everyone knows me in my neighbourhood and on my street. When the Taliban entered our city, I hid out in a friend’s house because I knew they’d come for us sooner or later. A day or two after I moved, some of my neighbours whom I kept contact with told me Taliban fighters were going to the neighbourhood mosque and asking people if they are aware of activists, journalists or anyone else that has worked with foreigners – either in NGOs or with foreign security forces. Apparently, the Taliban told them that it’s their Islamic duty to share this information with them.

Going to mosques to find information makes sense for them, because they think that people in mosques are their fans and supporters. They think they will cooperate with them. I don’t know if they’ve been able to find my previous address yet. They were apparently able to find one of my colleague’s addresses this way, through supporters in the mosque. On August 18, the Taliban raided my colleague’s house, but luckily my colleague and my colleague’s family had already moved like me and the house was empty. 

The Taliban has started their house-to-house searches to look for activists. They haven’t announced it officially and they don’t do it openly, they just try to find the targets they are looking for and hunt them “surgically” to avoid a buzz.

Mosques have been an important tool for the Taliban’s roundups. Rashid (not his real name), a human rights activist in northeastern Afghanistan, told us that a Taliban member has used a local mosque to announce their intentions to hunt down people.

Today [August 20, 2021] in the Friday prayers, a Taliban imam in our city openly said: “We have lists of people who were collaborating with foreigners. They are corrupt.” They invited the people praying to cooperate with the Taliban to find journalists and activists. There is no more future in Afghanistan for me, I have to get out of here.

‘Some corrupt police officers in our city are employed by the Taliban’

Reza (not his real name) is a human rights activist in northern Afghanistan. 

Friends have told us that some corrupt police officers in our city are employed by the Taliban. The Taliban have made a task force with these officers. They are using the Afghan police’s resources and records to get details about activists and journalists – where they live, where they used to work and who they worked with. The Taliban are even getting information about activists from police officers, such as their ethnicity, religion or affiliation with political parties.

With the lists they have created with the help of the police officers, they have started to go house to house and search in our city. We can’t see any other option but to find a way to leave the country. If I stay, I’ll risk not only my life but the safety of my family.

The Taliban has targeted several Afghan journalists in recent weeks, including Nematullah Hemat of the private television station Ghargasht TV, who is believed to have been kidnapped from southern Helmand province, and Toofan Omar, the head of the private radio station Paktia Ghag Radio, who was shot and killed in Kabul. 

‘A few days ago, the Taliban local commander summoned all the journalists and activists in our region to a meeting’

However, some witnesses have reported that the Taliban is still attempting to maintain a conciliatory image and liaise with activists and journalists. One journalist, Ahmad (not his real name), said Taliban officials in his town summoned journalists to a meeting to reassure them, but they were not convinced.

In the days after the Taliban captured our city, people didn’t dare to leave their homes, but now they are less afraid to go out. So far in our region, I haven’t heard of any persecution, or attempts to arrest journalists or activists yet. On the surface, there’s nothing to fear. But in reality, it’s very frightening. A few days ago, the Taliban local commander summoned all the journalists and activists in our region to a meeting with him. 

We went there and, at first, everything seemed nice and friendly. He told us that we could continue working, as long as we do it within the limits of Islamic Sharia law and Taliban surveillance. But in the middle of our meeting, some armed men came into the room and showed us their weapons. The message was received: you can do whatever you want to do, but you should not mess with the Taliban. Now I’m more afraid than ever before.

‘They are repeating exactly what they did in our region in 1996’

Mustafa (not his real name), a journalist in eastern Afghanistan, says that the Taliban’s methods are nothing new.

Maybe some other journalists or activists are too young to remember, but in the 1990s, the Taliban did exactly the same thing. At first, they behaved: they were nice with people, including journalists and activists. Then, when they felt safe in their position, they showed their true colours, and everyone knows what they did back then. The Taliban have not changed. We don’t have a “moderate Taliban". They are repeating exactly what they did in our region in 1996.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said there is “no clear way out” for the Afghans who are living in danger of the Taliban. As of August 20, 2021, evacuation flights out of Kabul are still ongoing, but access to the airport and finding a flight remain huge challenges for many people.