The ominous update arrived in a terse text over WhatsApp after midnight on Thursday, just as Sanjar Sohail was trying to squeeze in a few hours of sleep: While trying to get to the airport in Kabul, two of his media employees were arrested by the Taliban, beaten and thrown in jail. The detention of his editor-in-chief and a reporter came just hours before Canada’s last evacuation flight out of Afghanistan.
Sohail, an Afghan Canadian, operated a daily newspaper in Kabul for 15 years, up until the moment the Taliban seized control of the capital city on Aug. 15. Hasht e Subh, which means 8 a.m., employed 40 people — from journalists and photographers to cooks and drivers.
Sohail, who started the newspaper in 2007 and has also been working as a reporter for state radio since 2001, was trying to continue publishing stories online. But he said the Taliban raided the newspaper’s offices and seized personnel files containing home addresses — putting not only his staff in danger but their families as well.
“These are my colleagues. We’ve been writing and reporting on the atrocities of the Taliban for nearly 20 years. [These journalists] are now known,” Sohail said, adding that they will be targeted by extremists.
“The Taliban are just waiting to kill someone so they can go to paradise.”
Airlift hopes diminish
Sohail’s own family is also at risk. His parents, siblings, nephews and nieces are currently in hiding, and their chances of getting out of the country have diminished.
Since the Taliban took over Kabul, thousands of Afghans fearful of life under extremist rule have tried to get to Hamid Karzai International Airport in hopes of being evacuated from Afghanistan.
Just hours before suicide bombers and gunmen struck crowds near the airport on Thursday, killing at least 60 Afghans and a dozen U.S. troops, the Canadian government announced that it had ended emergency airlifts in the face of rising security threats.
“This is unimaginable. What happened in Afghanistan was a total failure of intelligence and crisis management. They have lost to a few thousand primitive violent killers. It’s a shame on the whole of modernity,” said Sohail, his voice cracking over a cellphone call with CBC News this week from Berlin, where he’s been since Aug. 19, hoping to help free his journalists.
Sohail — who’s been running the paper from Vancouver after moving to Canada in 2011, making trips back to Afghanistan several times a year — said he’s especially frustrated with the federal government’s response to the humanitarian crisis. Since arriving here, he said he has tried to sponsor his aging parents, both in their 70s, but his application was rejected by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) because he didn’t earn enough income.
Even before this crisis, IRCC was facing a backlog of thousands of applications due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is lots of bureaucracy in the Canadian system. The system is not ready to accept more people. [IRCC] has piles and piles of [unprocessed] cases,” Sohail said. “I am blaming my government. Where is their emergency preparedness? This is shameful.”
Frustration with Canada’s red tape
Sohail was last in Kabul at the end of July, and since returning home to Vancouver, he said he has tried to get emergency travel visas for colleagues and family but has been frustrated after multiple queries to the Immigration Department went unanswered.
In an email response, IRCC said that since the collapse of the Afghan government, it has received 2,500 emergency applications, representing more than 8,000 people. The department says 1,000 people have arrived in Canada under the special immigration measures.
But Sohail said he wasn’t even able to get an IRCC employee on the phone, receiving only an auto-reply email. On Aug. 19, four days after Kabul fell, Sohail flew to Berlin in hopes that his connections to German officials would pan out. Earlier this week, he was able to get the names of eight Hasht e Subh journalists onto the evacuation list of a U.S. non-governmental organization.
Sohail said the six women and two men were first taken to a safe house in Kabul, before a bus with U.S. soldiers on board took them to the airport. The group was flown on a chartered flight to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said Americans troops will not stay past the Aug. 31 deadline set by his government, given the threat of terrorist attacks.
There is a possibility that the U.S. military will abandon its rescue efforts even earlier due to Thursday’s deadly attacks, which also wounded more than 100 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Plea to find another escape route
Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, said Canada has evacuated roughly 3,700 people from Kabul, including Afghan refugees, Canadian citizens, permanent residents and other foreign nationals. But with the imminent stoppage of airlifts by other countries, thousands of Afghan civilians with legitimate documentation will be left behind.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada will not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but Sohail said that Canada and its allies need to negotiate a land corridor to provide Afghans with an alternative exit out of the country. He wants to see United Nations peacekeepers stationed along the route to keep civilians safe as they flee.
For years Sohail has used his media company to criticize Afghan government corruption and denounce the Taliban. He said his 11 family members and dozens of employees are “dead walkers” unless they can escape.
He has seen the rise and fall of the Taliban under U.S. forces. In the late 1990s, he fled from the Taliban after they tried to force him to join their fight.
Sohail said his heart breaks for the young generation who grew up under the protection of NATO forces. They were educated and free, but now, he said, they will experience a new rule of brutality many had wrongly assumed was in the past.