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Bilal Sarwary: In the city I loved, suddenly

Author : keningkecup
Publish Date : 2021-08-25 18:57:37
Bilal Sarwary: In the city I loved, suddenly

Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary saw the Taliban toppled in 2001 and his country transformed. But in his view, as he explains here, the US missed an opportunity to try to bring lasting peace. And in the last two weeks the path of his homeland took a terrifying twist, one that put his own life in danger.

In 2001, I was a carpet salesman at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, having yet another unremarkable day at work.

I'll never forget glancing up at the TV in a brief moment between sales, only to witness firsthand the dramatic live footage of a passenger plane careening into the World Trade Center in New York. Then the second plane, and another at the Pentagon.

None of our lives would ever be the same.

International attention immediately focused on Afghanistan where the ruling Taliban were accused of providing a sanctuary for the attack's prime suspects - Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement.

Only the next day, there were suddenly hundreds of foreign media crews crowding the hotel's lobby, desperate for anyone who could speak English to assist them as a translator as they crossed the nearby border into Afghanistan. I took up that offer and I haven't stopped since.


I hadn't lived in Afghanistan since I was a child - our family had fled the violence during the civil war in the 1990s when the Soviet troops withdrew. So when I entered Kabul for the first time again after all those years, I was shocked to discover the destruction, with buildings reduced to rubble and twisted metal. All signs of hustle and bustle had vanished. The people were so poor, and there was so much fear.

I was initially working with Abu Dhabi TV and was based in the Intercontinental Hotel with five other journalists. I woke up every morning clouded in a haze of fear, as Kabul became the primary focus of American airstrikes. Known al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban came and went from our hotel, and we saw them wandering in nearby streets. Explosions rang through the night. I wondered if our hotel would be next.

And then one morning in early December, the Taliban were gone.

Within hours, people were lining up again outside barber shops to have their beards trimmed. Rhythmic Afghan music filled the streets, filling the vacuum left by explosions. Afghanistan was born again that morning.

From that moment onwards, I was intimately involved in observing the lives of ordinary Afghans firsthand, as they transitioned back to normality, no longer as a translator but as a journalist in my own right. From covering Tora Bora in the East to the Shai Koat battle in Paktia, I had seen the Taliban toppled.

Their fighters vanished into the mountainous rural areas, and their leadership fled to Pakistan. In retrospect, it is clear to me that this was a missed opportunity, a time when the US should have sat down with the Taliban to discuss a peace deal. 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.

The ensuing years were a catalogue of errors.

Poor and innocent Afghan villagers were bombed and detained. The Afghan government's willingness to allow foreigners to drive the war effort created a gulf between it and the people. I remember clearly an incident where the Americans had mistakenly arrested and detained a taxi driver named Sayed Abasin on the highway between Kabul and Gardez. His father, Mr Roshan, was elderly and a legendary employee of Ariana airlines. After we exposed the error, Mr Abasin was eventually freed. But others were not so connected and not so lucky.

The Americans persisted with a heavy-handed approach, causing excess loss of life among ordinary Afghans. In a clear attempt to minimise American casualties, they prioritised bombs and drones over the use of ground troops. Trust for the Americans continued to erode and hopes for peace talks faded.

There were brief glimpses of what Afghanistan could become. I could now drive on an open road for thousands of kilometres without fear of death. I criss-crossed the country, driving all the way from Kabul to remote villages in Khost and Paktika provinces late at night or early in the morning. Afghanistan's extraordinary countryside could be traversed.

The year 2003 was the turning point.

It was when the insurgents started to strike back with a renewed strength. I remember one day very clearly - it was the day that a huge truck bomb pierced the heart of Kabul, shaking the city and shattering windows. I was one of the first journalists on the scene and I'm still traumatised by what I found. It was my first experience of witnessing what would become the new normal, an imposed fact of life - carnage, flesh, and dead corpses littering the blood-splattered ground.

And it just got worse. Later we would come to understand that the truck bombs and suicide attacks against Afghan forces, foreign forces and unarmed civilians in the middle of the city would mark the start of a very brutal chapter of the conflict. In response, the Americans escalated their reliance on airstrikes, this time expanding their list of Taliban targets - weddings and funerals in rural parts of the country.

Category : world

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