September 21, 2021

“Massacre of My Dreams”: Reporter Bilal Sarwary on Fleeing Kabul & How Afghans Are “Thirsty for Peace”

11 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: Today, in this special broadcast, we begin with the longtime Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary. We spoke to Bilal first on August 18th, three days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan after the U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. I began by asking Bilal about whether he was surprised the Taliban seized power before U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

BILAL SARWARY: Actually, I was trying to get a marriage certificate for me and my wife, and we were trying to get a passport for our newly born daughter, so I had spoken to government officials a day before. Some of them are my friends. The next morning, I was heading towards those offices when I heard that the presidential palace employees were told to leave. And the Presidential Protection Service, which is Afghanistan’s equivalent of Secret Service, at the time were taking up positions. So there was a lot of confusion.

And then, in a matter of basically 30 minutes or so, we found out that the then-President Ashraf Ghani was supposed to go to the Ministry of Defense to have a meeting at the national command center, which is a walking distance or a short drive, but instead Mr. Ghani had told his secret service detail that he would want to fly there. So, the minister of defense was waiting. The army chief of staff was waiting. The helicopters changed directions, and they were heading towards the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

I think once that fact was revealed, the entire government in Kabul crumbled in no time, just like it had crumbled across many of Afghanistan’s provinces, where mass surrenders were negotiated between important provincial officials and the Taliban. I think it’s a Taliban strategy, as well as fighting on the battlefield over the last many months, at least, that they offered this insurance, that they offered this surrender deal. And I think this was the work of months, if not years.

So, it was surreal, in many ways, because I had started my career in 2001, when the Americans were bombing the Taliban. I was a fixer translator. I crossed from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, and then I saw the fall of Taliban. And it was unbelievable to see how the tables turned, how there was panic and fear. My family this time was here. This time I was — I am a father to a new baby girl. And I was not exempted from the panic and fear. Will there be fighting? Will there be bloodshed? What will the Taliban do? But, thanks God, Kabul fell to the Taliban without bloodshed, without fighting, although a vacuum created did result in some looting and some harassment and irregularities of the citizens of Afghanistan. So, I would say, for me, it was almost like, you know, in no time, this happened. I just couldn’t believe it, like many other Afghans.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, as we begin to wrap up, you wrote a piece for The Telegraph. You said, “’It has broken me from within’: Afghan journalist reveals heavy toll of covering his country’s collapse.” That was the header. You write, “I became a father recently. Because my own family and relatives saw so much heartbreak these past few years, I prayed that if God gave me a baby girl, I would name her Sola, which means peace. I did that thinking that at least my daughter might grow up in a normal country.” So, you are trying to leave right now. How do you go about that? Have you thought about staying? Do you think you could possibly be safe in Kabul, in Afghanistan?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, my, you know, like, honest opinion here is that I would love to tell the story of the people of Afghanistan. I think everything that has happened, including the loss of friends, both within the government, outside of the government — and, you know, I have friendships within the Taliban; I have a classmate from my days in Peshawar as a refugee, and we went different ways — has left me thinking, “What is it that I can do that will comfort me, you know, that would make me think that I’m doing something better?” And over the years, I’ve been having this conversation with myself, and then I committed myself to telling the story of this country to the world, not only the news side of it. I created a hashtag, #AfghanistanUniversity, many years ago and where I basically showed the world the other side — the beautiful valleys, the natural beauty, the lakes — you know, what Afghanistan could potentially offer in the future, if tourism was to come back here.

And to be honest with you, I would love to be here like the rest of my colleagues and be able to tell the world our stories, because 20 years ago this country did not have this generation of reporters. And we owe this, in large part, to our international colleagues, where we started working as fixers and translators 20 years ago, and they helped us get where we are.

So I think it’s very important for the world, as well, to have a credible and vibrant Afghan media, where different voices can be heard, because we live in a world where we are interconnected. You know, there’s no more any country in the rest of the world that will not matter for anyone else. You know, humanity is something that gives me hope. People care these days about any country and anyone, especially like when you look at the activists on social media and such platforms.

So I hope that I’m able. And I hope that my daughter is able to basically one day go to school here. But there are things that are beyond my control. There are things that people like myself and my colleagues and other Afghans simply are powerless; we can’t do that. I hope that this generation of leaders, both the Taliban and former officials and politicians, can leave a legacy where we walk away from our painful historical, political past, where governments came with coups and tanks and with bullets.

And for this, I think the people of Afghanistan, over the last 20 years, have paid like a massive price, you know, a lot of sacrifices. I will not go into the mistakes, into the failures, into the issue of corruption. I think I will let history judge that. But the people in this country, the lives, when I look back, you know, there’s a river of blood like literally flowing. People gave their lives in districts for education, for health — you know, ordinary people. A tribal elder in Paktika, like, dedicated his own land, making sure that his daughter could go to school like the rest of his district. I think those are the type of things that I hope one day will give us peace, you know, that has remained extremely elusive in our lives, in the lives of generations in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, speaking on August 18th, just three days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. At the time, Bilal was hoping to stay in his country. But just days later, he and his family boarded a flight to Doha, Qatar. He posted a message on Twitter reading, “The day I leave my country, my city, my Kabul. A massacre of my dreams and aspirations. A tragic day in my life,” he wrote. On August 25th, a week after our first conversation, Bilal joined us again, this time from Doha. I asked him to talk about his decision to leave Afghanistan.

BILAL SARWARY: Extremely painful decision. All of a sudden, I had to leave my office, which was next door to my home, without being able to tell my sisters or family members where we were going. I took my parents, my wife, my baby daughter with me. We were hiding for a couple of nights. And then we headed towards the Hamid Karzai International Airport. And since I know the city so well — it’s my hometown, it’s my city, it’s where I grew up — you know, I felt like nowhere was safe for me, as Taliban fighters and certain members of Taliban factions continued to knock on doors. I don’t know why they were doing that, what exactly they wanted, and why did the Taliban political leadership fail to prevent such searches, you know, which are widespread across many different parts of the city. The only thing that I could really leave with was a pair of clothes.

And only two weeks ago, I had gone to the northern parts of Kabul city, speaking to people who were forced because of the war in Kunduz province and elsewhere in northern Afghanistan. And at that moment that I was talking to them, I immediately went back to the 1990s, when I was a kid and we were forced to leave Kabul because of the fighting. And I would never and ever thought that only two weeks later on, it will be my fate, as well. So, the fact that I could only pick up my own computer and couple of iPhones and chargers and a pair of clothes, and not knowing actually if we will make it into the airport and outside of Afghanistan, was, I think, you know, a very, very painful period of time, especially for my family’s sake, for my daughter’s sake.

But once I was on the plane, thanks to the Qatari government for evacuating close to 150 people alone on that flight, I could see everything that Afghanistan was over the last 20 years. I saw the country’s most popular TV presenter. I saw the most famous woman, who started every morning on TOLO’s most popular show, Bamdade Khosh. And my wife recognized her; I could not immediately, because she was covering her face. And, you know, you talked about burials of dreams as we spent, you know, like the next 12 hours all together. A lot of these are people that I know. There’s an artist. His name is Sharifi. He was known as the ArtLord. He was painting a lot of these peaceful messages, anti-corruption messages on these blast walls on the streets of Kabul. He was there. And no matter what I did, you know, to not think about it, I thought, “Well, this is the tsunami, you know, of brain drains. This is Afghanistan going down the drain in a matter of seconds.” And some people were crying. Some were quiet. Others just simply did not want to talk. And that literally, like, summed it up for me.

You know, when I first arrived in the military airport, I think it really had a very, very negative impact on me, because it was that location that over the years I traveled to across the country with senior Afghan military officials covering their operations, and coming back to it, you know, knowing that nothing exists anymore, and Afghanistan’s institutions, Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, Afghanistan’s Air Force, all crumbled, I think also hit me very hard.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, in your article for the BBC, you write about the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion in the fall of 2001. You say, “I saw a genuine willingness amongst the rank-and-file of the Taliban to lay down their arms, and resume their lives. But the Americans didn’t want that. From my reporting, it seemed to me and many other Afghans that their motivation was revenge after 9/11.” We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Can you talk about the peace moments lost, when you actually had the secretary of defense under Bush, Rumsfeld, saying no to the Taliban saying they would surrender if Mullah Mohammad Omar could remain living in dignity in Kandahar, and even the Taliban saying they would turn over, before this, Osama bin Laden?

BILAL SARWARY: I think, in hindsight, when the Taliban government was toppled by the Americans at that time, their fighters and most of their mid-level commanders did go back to rural Afghanistan. They wanted to start their normal lives. There were raids. They were jailed. They were killed, mostly at the hands of warlords, who were allies back then with the Americans. And there was a lot of family politics, tribal and clan rivalries. People wanted to settle old score. Or people simply wanted to lie to the Americans so that they can get something back in return. And those mistakes would cost Afghanistan immensely.

But it’s also true that the Americans shut down the door on negotiations very early on, refusing President Karzai’s request that such negotiations and back-channel talks must continue. We know that there were a lot of letters and communications at the highest echelons of the Taliban leadership with the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other elements of the government at that time.

Obviously, the other mistake was also the fact that the leadership went back to Pakistan, where they got help from the Pakistani intelligence services and the Pakistani Army, institutional support, something that has been well documented.

And on the ground, the Afghan government literally failed to curb corruption, injustice, provide basic services, you know? The Afghan government was seen as a milking cow among these various powerful figures, where government positions were handed over as trophies.

So, I think when you think about that and the U.S. decision at the time to invade Iraq, the hijacking of resources, I think all of those mistakes, all of those policies at the time, contributed towards the bigger problem.

And I would also say that the Taliban, over the years, had this feeling, this very prevalent feeling among their leaders and commanders, that they can win militarily. When they found out that the Americans were withdrawing, the announcement in the absence of a peace process or a comprehensive ceasefire, it was just a matter of time before the Taliban would take over, but no one thought this quick.

And I also think that a 9/11-style commission report must be launched to find out what led to the crumbling of state institutions in Afghanistan, to the billions of dollars’ worth of sensitive military equipments the Taliban now control, because, after all, this is taxpayers’ money from many of these countries invested.

And I would also cite a personal example. Where I lived, in a very central part of Kabul, my next-door neighbor appeared as a neighbor. We had a good relationship with him. We were on friendly terms. After the fall of Kabul, it was very clear to us that that was the Taliban’s intelligence operations, in a street that was home to special forces commanders, former interior minister, the head of the Defense Committee of the Afghan Parliament and a number of intelligence chiefs across many provinces. So you are also talking about a massive intelligence failure, that should go back to a few years, when Taliban were able to, for example, recruit university students, who had a job at the central part of Kabul in a bank. I knew a court and I knew a bank employee. Over the years, I would go and talk to them. And the fact that the Taliban were able to recruit right into the heart of the Afghan capital, right under the eyes of the Afghan intelligence service, I think, also shows you that this is a massive process of failures, the responsibility of which is with the Afghan government, with the Afghan institutions and leadership, in how could have they, like, failed the people of Afghanistan on so many levels.

AMY GOODMAN: Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, speaking from Doha after fleeing from Kabul, Afghanistan. To see our full interview with Bilal, go to democracynow.org.
When we come back, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.