Paying our debts

BJR.org

On the evening of March 28, as he was driving home in the early Kabul twilight, my friend and colleague Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer prize- winning photographer, was shot at by unknown men with automatic weapons. He was physically unharmed. His black SUV is such a wreck it is difficult to comprehend how he was not killed. The vehicle is now infamous in the Afghan capital as the “enemy’s car”, and though Hossaini had wanted to sell it, no one is buying it now.

He was shot at at least three times in what appears to have been a targeted attack. Hossaini would make a great catch for a kidnap/murder gang – he is a Pulitzer winner with the world’s biggest news agency; a vocal supporter of media freedoms and human rights; a critic of the incompetent government and endemic corruption; and a member of a high-profile Shia family. Afghanistan’s decades-long war provides cover for criminal gangs across the country and an almost complete lack of economic growth provides the excuse.

In case there was any doubt that journalists are being targeted in Afghanistan, 10 were killed on April 30 just before World Press Freedom Day. In Kabul, nine died while covering the aftermath of a terrorist attack by a bomber who mingled with reporters who had rushed to the scene. He was said to have been wearing a media identity card, and the explosives were packed into his “camera”. Another was shot dead in Kabul Province.

Hossaini and I worked together in Kabul between 2009 and 2016, when I was bureau chief, first, at the French news agency AFP and then at the Associated Press (AP). He became Afghanistan’s only Pulitzer winner in the 2012 breaking news category for a portrait of horror showing a girl in a bright green outfit screaming in the sun as her family lie dead and mangled at her feet, victims of a suicide attack.

During his career as a photographer, he has often faced danger. In doing so, he has provided the world with some of the most searing and marvellous images of war and peace in Afghanistan. We travelled together often, making a great on-the- road team reporting from innumerable datelines, happiest in helicopters.

I left Afghanistan in late 2016, much earlier than I wanted to, because after 15 years of covering conflict and war, the odds turned against me. Death threats signed by Islamic State – though, according to some investigations, possibly from people I worked with – convinced me that it was time to get out while I still could.

I see the attack on Hossaini the same way – the odds are no longer in his favour. Crucially different, however, is the fact that he is Afghan. More than a decade’s work for international news organisations and bylines worldwide are no path to safety.

In the weeks since the attack, I have spent many hours calling and emailing individuals and organisations that purport to support and protect journalists in distress or danger. Indeed, it was a full-time job over the Easter holiday. I did secure him an Indian visa after calling the ambassador directly. Unfortunately, from almost every other person I have contacted on Hossaini’s behalf, I have received little more than sympathy, and in some instances not even that.

Thanks to the Friday holiday in Kabul, It took a couple of days, and calls to the state department in Washington DC, to swing the US embassy into action; it has since given Hossaini priority for a non-immigrant visa. Shockingly, I had to call a senior editor at AP and send photos of Hossaini’s shot-up car before the seriousness of his situation permeated there. Until then, he said, he had been hearing only that if he left Kabul he would have to pay his own way and had better not be gone long. That changed quick smart to “full support”, though I haven’t worked out what that means.

I have put him in touch with a lawyer in the US, a former marine who served in Afghanistan and now advocates for those unaware of their most basic rights – such as employee entitlements versus employer obligations. As a Pulitzer winner, Hossaini is likely to be entitled to a US green card, but he has been reluctant to leave Afghanistan while studying part-time for a bachelor’s degree in English at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). After arriving Delhi on April 2, he began stressing about missing classes ahead of exams at the end of April. I asked the Americans administering the university if he could sit his exams outside the country, explaining the danger he faced should he return. I was told that Hossaini was in danger of disqualifying himself from even sitting the exams as he was missing classes while out of the country. So he went back.

AUAF looms large in Hossaini’s life as he was caught up in a suicide attack and siege while in class in 2016. He was so badly affected that I pleaded with my editors at AP to transfer him to another bureau, preferably in the US where he has friends, so he could photograph flower shows and weddings while getting counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder. Nothing happened.

In the days and weeks after the March attack, I began contacting journalism organisations and schools around the world, hoping to find an academic route out of the country for Hossaini – a university that would transfer his AUAF credits and grant a fellowship so he could continue his studies. I emailed the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York- based non-profit, which of course took an interest and contacted him almost immediately. But like other NGOs doing good work for journalists, they seem to be stymied by his staff status at AP.

The most understanding reactionI got was from my old friend Keith Richburg, formerly of The Washington Post and now director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and his colleague there, the former war reporter Kevin Sites. Tell Hossaini to
stay in India, they urged. They clearly would have taken him in a heartbeat, but the practicalities of China’s immigration regime meant a visa was unlikely. David Schlesinger, former editor in chief at Thomson Reuters and a former bureau chief of mine, offered solid advice, as journalists’ safety had been a pillar of his stewardship of the agency.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, I found little traction. City University of New York, Columbia University, University of British Columbia, Cardiff University, the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, the journalism departments at City and Kent universities – if they responded at all to my queries about helping Hossaini get out of Afghanistan, it was to say sorry they couldn’t help. There was no money; the parameters didn’t exist for bringing in someone like Hossaini; the only programme that would suit him was about to be defunded. Someone in the NGO sphere even suggested I set up a global fund to fill the void. The Frontline Club wrote a letter to senior AP editors.

I am used to working at warp speed as a competitive wire-agency journalist getting the story first, fast and right. It was in that spirit that I swung into action to get Hossaini to safety. I thought the sense of urgency I felt would be familiar to the people I contacted and took it for granted that they would want to keep him alive.

Throughout the weeks since the attack, I have recalled often my flight into Kabul, from London, in early 2014, to attend the funeral of another friend and colleague, Sardar Ahmad, who was killed along with his family in a terrorist attack on a hotel. I never want to do that again, I kept telling myself.

I left Afghanistan because I was being threatened and felt the dangers of being a high-profile, pull-no- punches journalist in a contentiously dangerous environment closing in on me. But I am white, western and a holder of multiple passports. I only had to buy a plane ticket and I was out of there. Hossaini, an Afghan facing a bigger danger every day in the hellhole that his homeland has become, has no such luxury.