Like many of you, I have seen the Taliban from a long distance. You might have seen their photos and videos on newspapers and TV screens. This time I saw from a close distance, where they were crossing the streets of Kabul in vehicles left from the former government police with speed and loud noise. At these moments when I passed them, one of my worries was being questioned by the Taliban for my clothing. I always wear a colorful t-shirt or shirt with jeans.
Since August 15 2021, when the former Afghan government collapsed and Taliban fighters entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, most of the residents have changed their way of clothing for fear of being harassed by the Taliban fighters. They switched to Taliban’s favorite way of clothing – for men it is long shirt and pants and their heads should be wrapped with turban and for women full hijab. Although I was aware of the danger of refusing to wear the Taliban’s favorite clothing, my mind was still resisting. A mental challenge stuck with me and I always encounter this question: “Why do you have to act according to their wishes and interests before they ask you to do so?”
I never thought I would see one of the key bases of the Taliban in Kabul from the closest possible distance. Eventually, it happened. On Wednesday, September 8, a group of young women had a peaceful gathering in front of a Taliban militant base in Karte Chahar, west part of Kabul, protesting against the violations of their human and civil rights. Two of my colleagues, twenty two -year-old Amir Bamiyani and twenty eight -year-old Najib Uruzgani, went to the scene to cover these peaceful protests.
At ten o’clock that day we learned that the Taliban had arrested them. Upon hearing this news, my colleague Zia Malistani and I left the newspaper office for the Taliban militant camp to talk to responsible officials for the release of our colleagues. When we arrived at the scene, that group of women protesters were still standing there holding placards chanting “Freedom” and “Victory” in opposition to the Taliban, but the Taliban were holding whips and sticks in their hands. They were trying to disperse the protestors. My colleague approached a middle-aged Talib with a black head scarf wrapped around his head. He seemed to be one of their officials. My colleague stood in front of him. “I am a journalist and your people have arrested two of my colleagues,” his sentence was not over yet when another Taliban, who had a long black beard with white strands, slapped him on the back of his neck and said angrily, “Get lost out of here.”
We had no choice but to walk to the beautiful main road of Pole-Sorkh with the pain and pressure caused by this humiliation. Before the fall of Kabul, Pole-Sorkh was a gathering place for cultural figures, writers, poets, artists, stylish and well-dressed couples with modern and crowded cafes. Now the sidewalks were occupied by Taliban fighters with Kalashnikovs in their hands ready to fire, bare feet, soiled and long clothes, uncombed, dirty and long hair, which in the subconscious of Afghans are a true symbol of terror. As we walked toward the main road, several Taliban fighters followed us and took us to their base. When the protesting women realized that the Taliban had taken us, they ran toward us to stop the Taliban. But some Taliban attacked them with whips and sticks in their hands and took us inside the camp.
I was not very familiar with the environment of this camp. In 2019, I had come to this place to take permission from the head of the police station to run a street performance with another journalist to spread the culture of newspaper reading in Kabul. The head of the previous government police station signed our letter and told his assistant to stamp the letter. At the same place, now the Taliban were holding our hands tightly, dragging us toward the blocks. We passed through several blocks and turned toward the block in the middle of the camp in the right hand side.
The first scene I saw in front of the gate of this block shook my body. A young man in a white striped shirt and jeans stood near the gate of the block, bleeding from his head and face. Several Taliban fighters surrounded him from every direction and the young man was looking at us with his trembling body and his lightless, exhausted eyes. The Taliban passed us by him and threw us into a room at the end of the block. There were fifteen prisoners in that three by two and half meter room. With our addition, the number reached seventeen people. We sat knee to knee and there was no place to drop a needle.
When the men in prison saw us still healthy, they said that they had heard screams and moans from the room next to us and wondered how they had not beaten us. Each of them had passed torture, beatings, and some still had dry wounds on their hands and feet from lashes, cables, sticks, and torture. They also said that they heard the sound of torture and harassment of women in the rooms next to them, which made them very angry. One of them, who had been imprisoned there for about three weeks, said angrily: “I wish they would beat me instead of the women. I have become accustomed to the beating of the Taliban. Every time I hear women moaning, I wish I was dead and not hear them.”
The room where we were imprisoned was the dormitory of the former government police. There were two bunk metal beds, leather clothes and boots left-over from police officers, which the prisoners used as pillows. When they became angry, they kicked their equipment and cursed them: “These greedy traitors have brought us to this day.” The door had no handles and the Taliban locked it to its frame with a bicycle cable lock. The prisoners, in order to mentally prepare us for the beating, referred to the stick and cable, with which the Taliban beat the prisoners. A few minutes later, the door of the room opened, two Taliban and another person who had fallen to the ground appeared behind the door. The Taliban told him he had to go inside the room, but the man could not move. At the gesture of the Taliban, two prisoners stood up and grabbed from under his armpits and brought him into the room. He was the same young man I saw in front of the block. Now that white striped shirt had no space for further staining. He was covered in blood. Even the Taliban who had beaten him were worried, and for fear of their elders, they brought a handful of crimson clothes and ordered us to change his bloody clothes with new ones. Two prisoners took off his bloody clothes, put on the new clothes, and then laid him on one of the beds.
I went to his side and asked why he had been beaten so badly. He hardly spoke, he said he was a doctoral student in sociology at a university in India and had joined the women’s protests today. His hand was broken and bleeding from his ear. The fingers of his hand were bruised and the back of his hands were signs of cables. When I asked the other prisoners why they were detained, they said with fear and caution and in a very calm voice that they had been for various pretexts and that they had been detained in this small dark room for weeks without clarifying the reason for which we are detained.
When I told them that I was a journalist and that I would write and publish their plight when I was released, they asked me not to do so, because the Taliban would harass them more if they would hear about it. I explained to them that the camp was full of prisoners and that I would not name them, in that case the Taliban would not be able to identify them. They agreed. One of the prisoners was a young and strong man who had previously served in the Afghan army and had been imprisoned there for about twenty days. This young army guy told me about the torture of another prisoner by the Taliban with bitter and compulsory smile. He said when the Taliban slapped that prisoner on his head with a cable to confess to a murder he did not commit, the prisoner who was under the intense torture would confess to the crime he had not committed. Another prisoner said that when the Taliban began torturing the prisoners with a cable for the crime they were accused of, they compellingly confessed to several other crimes they had never committed, just to escape torture. In our cell, there were people of all ages; from the young and middle-aged to the elderly. Most were imprisoned for debts, lawsuits, property disputes, night walks, and even drug addiction; the reason these people were detained had to be resolved legally in court instead of putting them in prison. They were very disappointed and said, “Afghanistan will not become a place for living for another hundred years.”
Two hours after our arrest, a Taliban man looked at us from behind the cell window and said, “Are there any protesters here?” “There are only a few reporters here,” one prisoner replied. “Show him, who is he?” Talib said. The prisoner pointed at me with his finger. Talib looked at me with a hateful look from behind the window and said angrily, “Did you want freedom? What freedom?” And then he gave me vulgar insults and warned me that he would settle accounts with me later. Upon hearing his insults and threats, my body and soul trembled with fear and horror from the whip and cable, and my face turned red. His reference to the word “freedom” and hatred for it were slogans written by protesters on placards and shouted in the streets during anti-Taliban rallies a few days ago.
A minute or two later, he was behind the gate. When he opened the gate to come in and hit me, two older prisoners with white beards stood in front of him and begged him not to hit me, because I was just a journalist and not a freedom fighter. He calmed down a bit and went out to come to me and my colleagues at the right time. Two hours later, we were released because of the frequent follow-up by our newspaper’s editor-in-chief through a joint commission of private media with the Taliban. Before we were released, we were taken to the room of the head of the camp, and he warned us that “you no longer have the right to cover protests and marches, because they are rioters. If you cover it next time, you will not be released.”
When we arrived at the newspaper office, my colleagues were happy to see us and thought that the Taliban did not harm our other two colleagues who were arrested for covering the women’s protest. About twenty minutes later, one of them called the office and asked for a car to be taken to the office. A few minutes after they arrived at the office. We were all shocked to see what the Taliban had done to them and we all wept for them. They could not even walk and became unconscious several times under the torture of Taliban. The effects of the abuse, torture, and beatings on their faces, backs, arms, torsos, and legs were evident on an incredible scale. They kept vomiting. We rushed them to the hospital, and the French hospital doctors saved their lives. We also reported to the Joint Media Commission and the Taliban through the office of our newspaper to save the life of the young protester. He was later released with two of our colleagues and went to the hospital for treatment. Examination revealed that his arm had been broken under Taliban beatings, his ear had been damaged, and the skin of various parts of his body had been torn from the cable.
After the Taliban called the protests “riots” and the protesters “rioters,” few media and journalists dared to cover the street protests of the people, especially the women’s protests. Journalists who covered these protests for the media also paid with their imprisonment, beatings, and threats. It was not long before most of the popular domestic media changed their media policy, recognizing the Taliban terrorist group as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and a legitimate government and covering its activities on a daily basis. On the other hand, there are still a few media outlets in Kabul committed to civil and human rights values. These media and some of the journalists do not recognize the Taliban government and still use the Taliban title, and are under the threat of being forcibly removed, and leaving the country. If they succeed in leaving Afghanistan, they will cover the changes in Afghanistan as media and journalists in exile. Apart from Kabul, the local media are mostly out of activities and some of them are on the verge of financial failure. Local journalists have lost their jobs and are at risk of being self-censored and threatened by the Taliban. They cannot cover issues freely, and if they do, they will be interrogated and threatened.The Taliban give them enough freedom to cover their interests. This situation has prevented the tragic events that take place daily in the provinces and districts of Afghanistan from reaching the news bulletins of the media and hiding them from the eyes of the people and the world.
Before suppressing and beating the journalists, the Taliban announced that they recognized freedom of expression and allowed private and independent media to operate. This group also announced a general amnesty after taking control of Kabul, telling government employees, the army and police that served in the previous government, their lives and property were protected from danger. These are some of the promises made by the Taliban in front of foreign reporters’ cameras to introduce a positive and acceptable image of themselves and gain international legitimacy, but in practice they are a very violent and extremist group that severely violates the human rights of the people; they beat the prisoners, and torture them.
It is clear that they are not an organized and coordinated group. What their officials say, their subordinates do not act upon it accordingly. The Taliban are repressive. For example, they imprisoned those who had permit letters or documents from Taliban officials that should not have been tortured or detained. But the Taliban did not pay attention to the permission letters and order of their officials. This dispersal between the Taliban makes us journalists even more worried, because each of those who have the authority to act, and by their arbitrary and unaccountable actions, threaten the life and work of journalists through the media.
Although the Taliban’s treatment of people in the city and bazaar is very harsh and repressive, it is much softer and smoother compared to their treatment of prisoners inside the prisons and camps. Inside their camps and prisons, they are many times more demanding than outside. What I saw and heard during the four hours of arrest, is indescribable.
Translated from Persian by Erfan Dana
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