September 3, 2021
The allied NATO forces have now left Kabul, and Journalists for Human Rights is working on the ground with a coalition of concerned Canadian journalists all over the world and several media, women’s rights and human rights organizations to determine routes out for Afghan journalists and human rights defenders trapped in the city.
The air bridge to Qatar and Ukraine, which was instrumental in helping some of the journalists and human rights defenders get safely to Doha and Kyiv, is down. The Taliban and Qataris are currently negotiating to figure out how the airport will be policed and managed in this new era as the Taliban forms government. (At some point the air bridge will be re-established, but that process could take a while – up to a month – and is fraught with risk.)
Mindful of the ongoing urgency on the ground, it’s imperative that regional countries allow Afghans fleeing the country access to their borders.
JHR is calling on all neighbouring countries of Afghanistan to keep their borders open to Afghans, especially journalists and human rights defenders seeking safe passage. We are also calling on Pakistan to deploy its influence with the Taliban and request a safe corridor of passage through the region to Pakistan, Tashkent and others.
As a non-profit leader, I’ve worked in war zones for 11 years. I have never seen anything on the scale of this disaster. Twenty years of effort and trillions of dollars spent has resulted in hundreds of thousands killed. This included approximately 170 Afghans and 14 allied service people blown up by a suicide bomber at the airport, as JHR and others frantically sent out alerts to our network to stay away. The region is now fundamentally destabilized. The outcome? Networks of terrorists armed with state-of-the-art weaponry, while a generation of Afghans who genuinely believed in Western promises of a better life and future, grounded in human rights, feel abandoned. There is a gross cynicism in this outcome that beggars belief.
How this all happened deserves hard scrutiny and accountability. And it’s on every Western government that participated to step up now and do the necessary to make it right and learn the lessons to ensure it never happens again.
As in any warzone, there are also stories of incredible heroism and courageous leadership, in particular from the coalition of concerned journalists that JHR is engaged with. Lisa LaFlamme of CTV, Carol Off, Julian Sher and Nahlah Ayed of CBC, Sally Armstrong, Mark MacKinnon of the Globe, Mellissa Fung, Jane McElhone, Martin O’Hanlon, Scott Gilmore, Michael Petrou, Michelle Shepherd, Shawn McCarthy, JHR Board Chair Michael Cooke, CAJ president Brent Jolly, PEN Canada’s Grace Westcott and many many others have been working around the clock, night and day, engaging their vast networks to get groups of journalists to safety, as has JHR staff Mehreen Hasan, engaging their vast networks to get groups of journalists to safety, as has JHR staff Mehreen Hasan, Jordan MacInnis, Aicha Toure, Zein Almoghraby, Janine de Vries and Sarah Ladik in Toronto.
There’s been heroic leadership from both the Governments of Qatar and Ukraine. The Government of Ukraine provided planes and also facilitated safe passage for journalists and human rights defenders through the airport and onto those planes. Coalition journalist Mark MacKinnon wrote up the story in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail. The Government of Qatar, meanwhile, established terms with the Taliban to help get foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans out, and coordinated air bridges to Doha, helping to get several thousand Afghans to safety. All are indicators they will do more.
After a hurried exit, the Canadian government also stepped up all week, with Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Foreign Minister Marc Garneau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland working the phones constantly on behalf of Afghan evacuees, as has Romeo Dallaire and Bob Rae at the United Nations. The scale of the need calls, however, for much, much more government support: flexible terms of resettlement to facilitate the sheer volume of Afghans that need support, paired with, ideally, a Canadian airlift bringing those who received a Canadian visa to Canada.
Civil society also has an important role. A group of concerned citizens, led by Senator Ratna Omidvar, Wendy Cukier, Sally Armstrong, Jill Sinclair, Kathleen Powderley and myself is now working on the bones of a resettlement program, Lifeline Afghanistan, inspired by but also building off lessons learned in the Lifeline Syria effort. That effort is now underway.
The situation on the ground ranges from unstable to terrifying. The JHR team and I are getting WhatsApp updates hour by hour of journalists describing being whipped and beaten and shot at by Taliban, whipping being the preferred means of crowd control, and disturbing reports of journalists receiving phone calls to supposedly private numbers. This indicates the Taliban have hacked systems to get those numbers.
The really good news is we have credible reports of 46 journalists and their families who have made it out so far, up from the 17 we knew of last week. Every one of those 46 people represents a miracle of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of the longest odds imaginable. There are wins. However, we’ve got at least 260+ more to go – the numbers are climbing daily – and much, much more to do to get those most at risk to safety.
To meet this extraordinary moment Journalists for Human Rights is currently doing everything it can to support these journalists and human rights defenders, with the full support of both Board and staff for the period of immediate need. We need significant help, including significant financial help, to do more. Our generous network of supporters have pledged $750,000 for this life-saving initiative, but we need more support to reach our $1,000,000 goal. (This target is informed by costs on the ground and costs related to JHR’s prior experience of evacuating journalists and staff safely from South Sudan in 2016.)
How can you do your part? Please consider a donation to our special Evacuate Journalists Out Of Kabul fund. Please share Journalists for Human Rights updates on social media, and please start thinking about what you yourself can do to step up and contribute to these efforts. This is a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unlike any I have seen, and it is going to take an equivalently epic effort to meet the need.
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