Tag Archives: Afghanistan

VOA journalist Ayesha Tanzeem visits a police checkpoint in Afghanistan’s Achin district with Colonel Jan Mohammad, left, a local Afghan National Army commander, and Zabihullah Zmaray, right, a Nangarhar provincial council member

In Disguise, VOA Team Ventures Into IS Stronghold

The so-called Islamic State group had sprung up and gained ground in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province this year. News from the area was spotty at best. No one was sure who the militants were. Afghans? Foreigners? Disgruntled Taliban? Where did they come from? What were they up to? What was the situation on the ground?Locals seemed to be scared and fleeing. Officials were hesitant to admit the extent of the problem.

A VOA colleague and I decided to check things out for ourselves. With me were cameraman Rahim Gul Sarwan and a local fixer, whose identity I will not reveal for security reasons.

Afghan National Army troops accompany a VOA team, including reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, to a police checkpoint in Achin, a district in eastern Afghanistan. (R. Sarwan/VOA News)

Afghan National Army troops accompany a VOA team, including reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, to a police checkpoint in Achin, a district in eastern Afghanistan. (R. Sarwan/VOA News)

Complex planning

The first step was planning – days of it. We had plans, then back-up plans, then back-ups for the back-up plans, knowing full well that most of those plans could fall apart at any time.

Not only were we going to Nangarhar province, the Islamic State (IS) militants’ hub, but we were going to Achin district, their stronghold.

Boys observe as VOA cameraman Rahim Gul Sarwan prepares to shoot video in Achin district in eastern Afghanistan.

Boys observe as VOA cameraman Rahim Gul Sarwan prepares to shoot video in Achin district in eastern Afghanistan.

IS was not our only problem. Decades of conflict, a weak government and security forces stretched thin as a snare drum – combined with the presence of foreigners seen as flush with cash – have turned Afghanistan into a haven for criminals. Kidnappings for ransom are a major concern. If you look like someone who has money, you are a target. If you look like a foreigner, you are a bigger target.

Other hazards, like roadside bombs and suicide attacks, are more random and harder to mitigate. But this is Afghanistan. You can get hit by shrapnel on your way to a cafe, so you learn to cope with the fear.

We decided on a beat-up Toyota Corolla, a staple in Afghanistan, as our transportation. No one would take a second look at it.

Then we needed another vehicle: the right cover story, with fake IDs to match.

We didn’t want to reveal our identities to hotel staff or local police at checkpoints. Word of a visiting foreign journalist could spread quickly, perhaps to an IS spy or criminals looking for targets.

My South Asian looks helped. If I wore local clothing and kept my mouth shut, I could pass as Afghan. I put on an abaya, or long black robe, and kept my face covered most of the time with a hijab or a black scarf. Only my eyes were visible. With my Afghan cameraman and fixer, we could pass as a local family.

Jalabad as a proving ground

Our first stop was Nangarhar’s capital, Jalalabad. We picked a low-profile hotel, not a place where foreigners or the wealthy stay, and asked for rooms on the second floor. That would give us time to respond in case of an attack, but keep us close enough to the ground to be able to jump and run if we had to.

Jalalabad is much more conservative than the country’s capital, Kabul. A woman standing in front of a camera, even in an abaya, would stick out, so we couldn’t do any street shots until the last day. We finished all indoor shooting first and planned street shots that could be finished in less than 10 minutes, and then left for Kabul right away. Throughout the drive, we watched our rearview mirror to make sure no one was following.

VOA reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, right, meets with a Shinwari tribal elder in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

VOA reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, right, meets with a Shinwari tribal elder in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

On to Achin

But the trip to Achin proved even more nerve-racking. IS militants have established safehavens in the district, from which they plan and mount attacks on surrounding areas, capturing and beheading hundreds of locals. They probably had spies among the population. Our plan was to be invisible as we approached. Be local. Be part of the landscape.

That included managing my bodily needs. Once we left our Jalalabad hotel, using the toilet was not an option. Public toilets for women are rare in Afghanistan anyway. In a mostly rural area like Achin, they would be difficult to find. And if I found one, I’d risk having to interact with a local. That could blow our cover because I don’t speak the local language, Pashto. So I drank as much as possible the night before and relied on chewing gum to quench my thirst for most of the day, until we could reach safety.

We also knew that the moment we took out our camera or started talking to locals about IS in Achin, our cloak of invisibility would be gone, so we needed protection there and on the way back.

More security measures

Sarwan, who has become somewhat of a security expert himself after traveling and reporting from so many dangerous areas, knew the district governor, Haji Ghalib. A former mujahid who had fought the Russians and then the Taliban, Ghalib had become a bit of a local media celebrity for his bravery in taking on IS militants. He would provide us security in Achin and escort us back to the highway.

VOA journalist Ayesha Tanzeem visits a police checkpoint in Afghanistan’s Achin district with Colonel Jan Mohammad, left, a local Afghan National Army commander, and Zabihullah Zmaray, right, a Nangarhar provincial council member.

VOA journalist Ayesha Tanzeem visits a police checkpoint in Afghanistan’s Achin district with Colonel Jan Mohammad, left, a local Afghan National Army commander, and Zabihullah Zmaray, right, a Nangarhar provincial council member.

We got more security than we had expected. Zabiullah Zmaray, a Nangarhar provincial council member whom we had interviewed, also agreed to accompany us to the district. He was another of the few local leaders who spoke up against IS in public, making him a target. Plus, he was an archetypal Afghan host – and I was now his guest. He was not going to take any chances, either with his life or mine.

So, when we set out for Achin, we found two armored cars and dozens of men in bulletproof vests and fully loaded AK-47s waiting for us. On the road, we were joined by Afghan National Army troops, men in armored Humvees with rocket-propelled grenades. Had I just been elected president of the country? This was the most impressive VIP treatment I had ever received.

But the entourage meant that our VOA team no longer was invisible. I couldn’t help but remember that some people in this region had been attacked by their own guards. I quietly patted my pockets for items I might need if I had to make a run for it: tracker, backup phone, emergency numbers; local currency.

Unbeknownst to our armed hosts, our local fixer was following at a safe distance in another beat-up Corolla, different from the one we’d used to travel to Jalalabad. In case of an ambush, he would be a phone call away.

An Afghan National Army soldier and VOA reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, left, wait at a police checkpoint barrier in Achin, a district in eastern Afghanistan.

An Afghan National Army soldier and VOA reporter Ayesha Tanzeem, left, wait at a police checkpoint barrier in Achin, a district in eastern Afghanistan.

Dangerous road

Achin is a dusty place. The main road into the district leads through areas that have witnessed fighting between IS and Taliban. The driver told me that one bazaar on the way was considered particularly dangerous because militants sometimes throw grenades at moving cars.

As we traveled to our final destination – the police checkpoint where the Afghan government’s writ ended – my fellow passengers pointed out holes in the road where explosive devices had recently blown up vehicles.

By this time, we had left the armored cars behind and I was in an armored Humvee, clad in an abaya topped by a bulletproof vest. As soon as we got out of the Humvee, we were told to duck and run behind the checkpoint barriers. Apparently, IS had long-range sniper rifles they had used to kill soldiers at that post.

In the end, we got multiple stories and lived to tell them. We got a clearer picture of the IS presence in the area, as well as the group’s brutal, repressive tactics and how they’re affecting local people. Would I take the risk again? In a heartbeat.

Source Link = VOA NewsAyesha Tanzeem

A magnitude-7.5 Strong earthquake strike near Afghanistan-Pakistan border

A magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck southern Asia on Monday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

A magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck southern Asia on Monday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey said. “Reports coming of damage and injuries in north eastern Afghanistan,” Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan, said in a tweet. “Disasters authorities to meet within the … read more

After Deadly Airstrike in Afghanistan,24 MSF Staffers Missing.

24 Doctors Without Borders Staffers Missing After Deadly Airstrike (ABC News)

There are still 24 staffers from Doctors Without Borders missing after the airstrike that hit the charity’s hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.  At least 22 people died in the Saturday morning strike, including 12 staffers, the charity’s international president said Wednesday. … read more

U.S. airstrike hits Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan

An airstrike damaged much of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz

U.S. forces may have mistakenly bombed a hospital in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least 19 people, including three children, in an incident that will likely raise new questions about the scope of American involvement in the country’s 14-year … read more

Pakistan in mourning as parents bury children after school attack

Mourners and relatives of Pakistani teacher, Saeed Khan, a victim of a Taliban attack in a school, pray around his body, during his funeral procession in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in the … read more

Pakistan : At least 125 killed in Taliban school attack in Peshawar

Hospital staff transport a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar, Pakistan,Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen stormed a military school in the northwestern Pakistani city, killing and wounding dozens, officials said, in the latest militant violence to hit the already troubled region. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

A Taliban attack on an army-run school in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday left at least 125 dead and many others wounded, Agence France Presse reported, quoting a Pakistani officials. Earlier, the health minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the restive northwestern province where … read more

Osama bin Laden “died afraid” says U.S. Navy Seal who insists he fired the fatal shot in Pakistan

Osama bin Laden ‘died afraid,’ says U.S. Navy Seal who insists he fired the fatal shot in Pakistan Osama bin Laden died afraid, the U.S. Navy Seal who claims to have killed him has been telling the families of September 11 … read more

The U.S. Army formally concluded its operations in Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division formally concluded its operations in Afghanistan on Tuesday, another sign that the war is drawing to a close even as American commanders are evaluating whether they will have enough resources … read more

General Harold J. Greene killed in Afghan attack was engineer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Harold J. Greene, the two-star Army general who on Tuesday became the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be killed in either of America’s post-9/11 wars, was an engineer who rose through the ranks as an expert in … read more

Gunmen carried out a rocket attack on Kabul Airport

Afghan security forces take cover during clashes with Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Gunmen launched a pre-dawn attack on the Kabul International Airport in the Afghan capital on Thursday, raining down rockets, setting off a gunbattle with security forces and forcing the airport to close for hours, officials said. The militants occupied two buildings which were under construction some 700 meters (yards) north of the facility, and were using them as a base to direct rockets and gunfire toward the airport and international jet fighters flying over Kabul, said Afghan army Gen. Afzal Aman. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Gunmen carried out a pre-dawn rocket attack on Kabul International Airport on Thursday, temporarily shutting down the facility and setting off a gunbattle with security forces in which four attackers were killed, officials said. The militants … read more