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BBC’s Yalda Hakim on Afghanistan evacuations: ‘I had no idea how you get an aircraft into a war zone’

The i 14/08/2022 Rob Hastings
Yalda Hakim, whose family left Afghanistan when she was just a few months old, has been reporting from the country on life under the Taliban after one year of their rule (Photo: BBC) © Provided by The i Yalda Hakim, whose family left Afghanistan when she was just a few months old, has been reporting from the country on life under the Taliban after one year of their rule (Photo: BBC)

Yalda Hakim was just a few months old when her family fled Afghanistan on horseback nearly 40 years ago. Using people smugglers, they crossed the border into Pakistan to escape Soviet rule. It was a brave move and a wise one. But in the decades since, her mother and father never really opened up about the traumatic experience of leaving their homeland and relatives behind.

“I never fully understood the decision that my parents were forced to make with small children,” Hakim says, “until the fall of Kabul last year”. After the Taliban swept into the capital on 15 August 2021 and resumed their tyrannical rule, it was footage of Afghans desperately trying to cling onto a plane making one of the last flights out of the country – but failing and “plunging to their deaths” – that really struck her. “Things could have been very different had my parents chosen to stay.”

Hakim’s family eventually settled in Sydney when she was three. She grew up enjoying the benefits of a “quintessentially Australian upbringing”, where the only danger was from the occasional bushfire, and is now a journalist covering world affairs for the BBC. It’s a job that has taken her to Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, but her most poignant trips have been to the country where she was born.

She was in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago, reporting on the oppression of women and girls since last summer’s US-led Nato withdrawal, the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban seizing power.

For her new documentary, Our World: The Hunt for Alia, Hakim met girls who now have to be educated in hidden classrooms. “Their mothers went to secret schools and they vowed that they wouldn’t. Now they found themselves in the place of their mothers, which is absolutely horrific,” she says. The reporter also met female activists who had been held in prison for weeks and investigated the case of “a woman who’s completely disappeared off the face of the Earth and her family trying to look for her”.

In 2018 Hakim established a charity, the Yalda Hakim Foundation, to help boost the education of poorer children in Afghanistan. And when the Taliban took control of the country last summer, she led its team in organising emergency evacuations that saved 250 students, campaigners and journalists.

“I had no idea how you evacuate people or how you get an aircraft into a war zone,” she says, speaking to i from the BBC Newsroom in London. “But suddenly, I drew on my global network of people and they jumped in and we got that support.”

Her knowledge of Afghanistan and recent time there led to the United Nations Security Council inviting her to testify in June at its headquarters in New York about the situation in the country.

“I laboured over every word that I uttered. I went over my speech over and over again to ensure that it was a completely balanced, impartial speech,” she says.

“I made it very clear that I’m not an activist, I’m not a policymaker, I’m here as a journalist. But also I was there as a daughter of the nation. I’m Australian and I now consider myself British too, but I see this country of my birth in crisis – and that’s why, with my reporting and the platform I have, I want to be able to highlight these issues.”

A new terrorist takeover?

It is ironic that in her two assignments to Afghanistan in the past year, Hakim has been able to visit parts of the country that journalists couldn’t reach before the Taliban took power once more. “I traveled to Helmand, to Kandahar, to places where we didn’t have access in the last 20 years as the war raged on. One highway I was traveling on between Kandahar and Helmand, a Taliban commander described it to me as ‘hell on Earth’ for British and American soldiers, where he said they would die daily. They took us to Sangin, where many British troops lost their lives.

“To have all of these places opened up again was surreal, was strange. But security still remains an issue. The kind of conflict that we saw doesn’t continue but Isis operates in many of these places across Afghanistan.”

Nothing could have more clearly illustrated how terrorists are finding a haven in the country again than the US drone strike last week that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor as Al Qaeda leader, in the centre of the capital. The location was what Hakim calls “the Mayfair of Kabul”, one of the city’s wealthiest areas. The fact he could have sheltered there is “the most shocking thing to emerge from the last year”, she believes.

“In many ways, we are back to square one. The idea that we have a Taliban 2.0 has been put to rest, but also really makes it very difficult. I was speaking to General David Petraeus, who was the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, the head of the CIA and a retired four-star general. He said to me: we may not like it, but we need to have a relationship with the Taliban – and this now puts that relationship in a very difficult position.

“That relationship was almost starting up again. The US and the international community knows it has a responsibility to the 38 million Afghans who are living there in dire circumstances. We hear from the UN often when they talk about this march towards starvation. Billions and trillions of dollars were poured in over the last 20 years – many people question, what was that for? And now we have this. Afghanistan never fails to provide new twists and turns to the plot and the drama.”

Helping women and girls

Hakim admits the situation “wasn’t perfect” for women and girls after the Taliban were ousted in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 – hence her establishing her charity while the elected Afghan government was still in control. But “something was being built and developed – women were in the public eye and part of public life for the last 20 years”, she says. “It wasn’t what we are seeing today, where millions of girls have been denied the right to an education.”

Even in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where many wide-ranging restrictions are imposed on the lives of girls and women, girls are still allowed to go to school and women can go to university.

“Nowhere in modern history have we seen the lives of women and girls transformed literally overnight,” she says. “I can’t think of somewhere where suddenly the basic human rights of individuals are overturned. Everything – their right to an education, their right to existence, the way they dress, where they work, how they operate in the public eye – has changed. That is a horror.”

Her charity is now working out how it can continue to help girls trapped under Taliban rule, including supporting secret schools, and is “thrilled and excited” about other projects starting this autumn.

“We now are about to launch the biggest scholarship programme in the US for refugee and immigrant students – 250 fully funded scholarships, valued at about $20m for these students who will all study at prominent universities,” she says.

“We also have two scholarships that we’re launching at Oxford University, for young women who will come from Afghanistan. I believe one is already here.”

Yalda Hakim’s family escape

“My father is an architect, my mother was a midwife,” says Yalda Hakim, revealing what led her family to flee Afghanistan. “My father had just returned from living in what was Czechoslovakia at the time. He was living in Prague, studying architecture on a scholarship. He was one of only a handful of [students] who returned to the country, to come back to the family that he had left behind.

“A year after his return, I was born. He was conscripted into the army and he realised that there was so much more to the world. He wasn’t someone who believed in the communist-backed regime, he also wasn’t part of the Mujahedeen – he saw himself as a neutral party, an educated man with a young family. He was in his late 20s and so was my mother. They wanted to get out of there.

“They traveled using people smugglers on horseback to Pakistan in the dead of night, sometimes facing danger and difficulty. They lived there for a few years until they were able to convince an Australian architect to sponsor them,” she says.

“When they emigrated to Australia, they had four young children. They needed to get on with life. They needed to educate us, they needed to re-educate themselves… I am the product of a society taking my family in. My parents are now proud Australians… they’re incredibly proud citizens.”

Challenging the Taliban

Hakim is one of the most high-profile Afghan-born women in the world and that brings “huge responsibility”, she says. “I often have Afghan girls contact me – even this afternoon – saying to me, ‘We feel that you’re this bridge between us and them and the East and the West’.”

However, there are undoubtedly “challenges and difficulties”, she says, and in what the Taliban views as a “clash of civilisations, I represent everything that they probably want to eliminate… A friend of mine said to me, joking, ‘No wonder they don’t want Afghan women educated – look at you.’” But they seem to regard her as an outsider rather than an Afghan, and “in a weird way, they treat you like a third gender when you’ve come from somewhere else”.

“Every now and then, we will hear things that do make me nervous,” she admits, but in fact her global profile has given her “certain privileges that I know local Afghan journalists do not”.

“It’s a very strange dynamic for me,” she explains. “On the one hand, the Taliban ring me on my phone while I’m live on air and want to speak to the world via me. On the other hand, I’m reporting on things and saying things which erk many in the country.

“I have to just do my job, and that is to tell the truth. I have made that very clear to the Taliban: if you do good, I will report it. If you do bad, I will report it… That is what I feel I have done with my reporting and perhaps why, when I have gone to the country, regardless of so many risks, I am able to safely come out again.”

Another challenge is putting her emotions about the nation and its people to one side for the sake of her impartiality. The sudden fall of Kabul, which quickly unfolded on a Sunday morning, was “one of the most difficult days of my life,” she says.

“I had been up all night following the developments and getting calls from these young girls and women for help, saying we need to leave this country, we can’t stay here.”

Going on air, she had to tell herself: “This isn’t about how I feel… This is about conducting an impartial, factual, fair interview, asking the most critical questions and holding truth to power… whether that’s with former government officials of Afghanistan, or whether that’s with the Taliban, or whether that’s with activists or people who are speaking up.”

One moment was particularly tough: when she found herself interviewing a friend “who was fleeing their home and was worried about their future… I wasn’t aware that they were going to suddenly pop up on my screen – that was very emotional for me.”

A country still in crisis

Afghanistan was the biggest story in world news for a while – but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed it down in the world’s priorities. Indeed, a former UN aid chief recently warned in an interview with i that the global focus on helping Ukraine is reducing the aid money going to Afghanistan at a time when the country is facing famine, saying that children will die as a result.

Hakim herself has reported from Kyiv. She refuses to blame racism for the way that European nations have helped Ukrainian refugees more than Afghans in need. She says it’s natural that “relatability” plays a factor in countries offering greater help to their continental and cultural neighbours – especially when the world is still recovering from Covid-19 and now dealing with rampant inflation – and praises the many “ordinary Brits coming out and doing what they can”.

She is clear that more needs to be done to avert a food catastrophe in Afghanistan, however. This crisis is not caused by drought or a failed harvest. It is a result of soaring prices caused by the war in Ukraine and how global sanctions on the Taliban mean that the country’s de facto government cannot access international funds even for the benefit of its own people. State workers have found themselves out of work, or unpaid when they do still have jobs.

“There is plenty of food in the markets and in restaurants. The problem is that the country has had its foreign reserves frozen,” says Hakim. “Poverty has always existed in Afghanistan. Malnutrition has always existed in Afghanistan. Even when trillions of dollars were being brought in by the US, there were parts of the country that you couldn’t get access to because of the fighting.

“On the one hand, we are now seeing children who would have perhaps previously died before from malnutrition in those villages now making their way to hospital – we’re seeing the numbers rise as a result of more people being able to have safe passage to get to hospitals and get to care. That’s why we’re seeing a spike.

“On the other hand, we’re also seeing the middle class in Afghanistan, who were doing quite well and were well to do and educated and had jobs, suddenly finding themselves facing poverty and malnutrition and hunger,” she explains.

“I went to a hospital in Kandahar where I met a little girl called Gulnara who was four years old but she looked about two. She weighed what a two-year-old would weigh. It was devastating to see the pain and suffering in her eyes as a result of this geopolitical crisis that the country has found itself in… That is really hard to witness. I’m a mother to a three-year-old, and so I find it particularly hard to see that kind of thing…

“What I found extraordinary was the hospital staff weren’t getting paid their salaries but were coming into work, for months on end, because they knew that if they didn’t come in, the children would die. I found that extraordinary, courageous and brave.”

Our World: The Hunt for Alia is available on BBC iPlayer.

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