In September, journalists Neamat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi went out to cover a women’s protest in Kabul. They had been assured by the Taliban that there would be no restrictions placed on media and journalists under the new administration, which took over the country the month before.
Daryabi and Naqdi, who worked for the renowned Kabul-based outlet Etilaatroz, began filming the protesters. A squad of Taliban fighters approached them and ordered them to stop recording. “I am just doing my job,” Naqdi responded. They were both detained and taken to the nearest police station.
Taliban militants separated Naqdi and Daryabi into different rooms, tied their wrists and feet, and beat them almost to death with cable. Naqdi was knocked out after a few minutes. They threw water in his face. One militant smacked him so hard, his left eardrum was ripped. Another kick hit his right eye, causing his vision to blur.
“I thought that would be it for me,” Naqdi said in an interview conducted in Dari. “My whole life flashed before my eyes in a moment ― my parents, my school years, all of my struggles and hard work to become a journalist, only to be killed in the hand of a few dirty terrorists at the end.”
More than 300 media outlets have shut down since the Taliban takeover, making it more difficult to gather information and report on political violence and protests, according to a report released in February by the International Federation of Journalists. International broadcasters including the BBC, Voice of America News and Germany’s DW were taken off the air recently.
Outlets that remain open face censorship, and journalists who report facts that contradict the Taliban narrative risk being threatened, detained and tortured. Following the Taliban takeover, there has been an increase in violence against journalists ― in September in particular, there was a spike in cases of journalists being attacked or harmed at demonstrations, according to a recent report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Naqdi and Daryabi made it to the U.S., but it wasn’t easy. Now they’re watching in dismay as journalists in Afghanistan continue to be threatened and abused.
“Every time I watch a video of the Taliban torturing and murdering people on social media, I’m taken back to those horrifying moments and have panic attacks and mental torture,” Naqdi said. “Those horrific moments have haunted me for the rest of my life.”
Following Passion At A Price
Naqdi grew up in Jaghori, a district in the southern province of Ghazni populated by the Hazara ethnic group. He started going to school shortly after the U.S. toppled the repressive Taliban regime in 2001.
“I walked four hours every day to and from school because I was so passionate about it,” he said.
Naqdi studied journalism at Kabul University and graduated in 2016. He worked for a year at a radio station. He started working at the Daily Etilaatroz as a video journalist in 2020. His work sometimes required him to travel to film footage on the ground. He hoped to become a documentary filmmaker after a few years, and this was a great place to start.
On Sept. 8, he ventured out with Daryabi to report on the women’s protest, where the two of them were detained and beaten.
Naqdi and Daryabi were released a few hours after their colleagues came to seek their release from the Taliban. They were taken to the hospital for treatment. They could barely walk for weeks. Due to severe pain, they were unable to sleep on their backs or sides. Naqdi’s left ear and right eyesight were severely damaged and still have not fully recovered.
The experience has left them both traumatized. Daryabi had nightmares and restless nights for weeks. Naqdi still suffers from panic attacks on occasion.
They feared even more for their safety when photos of the torture went viral. Naqdi and Daryabi were concerned that the widespread exposure might lead to retaliation from the Taliban.
“I knew they were coming for us, and they’re just waiting for the reports to die down,” Daryabi said. “They would not think twice about killing us this time.”
There was little chance they would be able to continue working as journalists in Afghanistan under the Taliban, so they both decided to leave the country.
They reached out to people they knew in search of a way out. Daryabi was able to board a flight from Kabul Airport on Oct. 3, but Naqdi missed the flight because he did not have a passport. He learned a few days later that he and his wife, Sabera Saba, could get a flight out of Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport, where they could bypass the passport requirement.
Naqdi and Saba hurriedly packed their belongings and rushed off for a 10-hour trip north from Kabul. They had to pass through seven Taliban checkpoints along the route, and feared they could be easily identified. Naqdi’s photos had been widely circulated on the internet by that time, and Saba is a former police officer who worked for the Ministry of Interior, giving the Taliban even more motivation to target them. To disguise his appearance, Naqdi grew a beard and wore glasses.
Because Saba was less likely to be searched by a male member of the Taliban, Naqdi handed all of his sensitive belongings to her. Each time they approached a Taliban checkpoint, they had to come up with believable stories as to where they were heading.
“We were both scared because anything could have happened,” Naqdi recalled.
They finally made it to the airport and boarded the plane to Qatar after 20 hours.
“I had a strange feeling as the plane took off,” Naqdi said. “You were happy, yet angry and heartbroken deep down about leaving everything behind ― your loved ones, your job. You’re also worried about the future. You know you should start again, or you would not be able to continue working as a journalist.”
A New Life
Naqdi and Saba spent two months at a Qatari facility before they were able to move to the United States. They arrived in November and stayed at Fort Pickett Army Base in Blackstone, Virginia, for another two months before finally moving and settling in Pennsylvania.
Naqdi’s life in Kabul was much easier by his own standards. He’d been pursuing his dream career and was surrounded by his loved ones. He’d been on the right track toward his goals. While moving to the United States saved his life, it also seriously disrupted it.
“I have no idea where I’m heading,” he said.
Starting over in the United States could also mean abandoning his ambition of becoming a documentary filmmaker or deferring it for an unknown length of time. His lack of English proficiency prevents him from communicating effectively and he currently cannot apply for jobs or schools in the media.
Daryabi is in a similar predicament. His inability to continue working as a journalist has been a major setback to his career. However, he is focusing on improving his language abilities in order to apply and get a scholarship at a journalism school.
“It takes time, but I am certain that we can still accomplish our goals here,” Daryabi said.
No matter how far they’ve moved away from the Taliban’s oppression, it’s always difficult for Naqdi and Daryabi to see what’s happening in Afghanistan.
“Every time I see a journalist being mistreated or silenced for their profession, it reminds me of my ordeal,” Naqdi said. “Freedom of expression, the only remnant of democracy left in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power, has died.”
Like Naqdi and Daryabi, many Afghans who have arrived in the United States since August, are struggling to make their way through an immigration system that is both complicated and unpromising. The current two-year temporary parole status doesn’t allow for a more permanent legal status, like asylum or the Special Immigrant Visa, both of which have a large backlog in applications.
“I’m also always afraid of having to return to the country,” Daryabi said. “Nothing is certain.”