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Fleeing Taliban Rule, Journalists Find Themselves Trapped in Iran

Afghan journalist Abdul Khalil Rasoli, pictured with his family in Herat, Afghanistan, before the Taliban take over. (Family handout)

When Abdul Khalil Rasoli fled threats in Afghanistan earlier this year, he thought he was guaranteeing his family a brighter future.

But now the journalist is trapped in Iran on an expired visa and with limited options.

“We don’t know what is going to happen to us,” Rasoli said, explaining that the family’s visas expired three months ago. They have applied for refuge in France but have not heard if they will be successful.

“Every minute, it is possible that [Iran will] deport us to Afghanistan. Now, we can’t pay the fine for overstaying. It is 2,000,000 rial ($50) per person per day, and I do not have the money,” he said.

Rasoli, 36, had moved from his home province in Herat to Kabul two months before the Afghan capital fell.

After the Taliban regained power in August 2021, he moved his wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 6, to Tehran in Iran.

But a return to their home country is risky.

“I can’t go back to Afghanistan,” Rasoli told VOA. “My life is in danger there.”

Threatening calls, texts

When he lived in Herat, the journalist used to report on a range of issues for the daily newspaper Hasht-e Subh.

But when he started to receive threatening calls and text messages, he moved his family to the capital.

“I continued to write after the fall of Kabul. I wrote, for example, on the issues that the universities and local media were facing under the Taliban in the western provinces,” Rasoli said.

His colleagues also were coming under pressure. In October 2021, the newspaper reported about the Taliban acting interior minister hosting an event to honor suicide bombers responsible for the deaths of thousands in Afghanistan.

Shortly after, Taliban fighters stormed the paper’s office in Kabul, Rasoli said, and warned the staff “not to publish anything that is not in line with the group’s policies.”

Rasoli said the Taliban were angry that the paper had used the term “suicide attackers” instead of “self-sacrificing.”

The Taliban did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

For Rasoli, the threats continued even while he was in Kabul.

“We lived in a shelter in Kabul for a while and then moved to Mazar-e-Sharif,” he said, referring to one of Afghanistan’s main cities.

The family later moved to Tehran, joining other journalists fleeing Afghanistan since August 2021.

Dwindling options

Media watchdogs say news outlets and their staff face violence, censorship and economic hardships.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported in August that 213 out of 543 media outlets were closed, and more than 6,400 journalists lost their jobs, with women the most affected.

In November, the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan said it had recorded more than 200 cases of threats, arbitrary arrest, and ill-treatment of journalists since the Taliban takeover.

The Taliban rejected UNAMA’s statement.

“We consider these claims to be far from the truth,” Hayat Mahajer Farahi, deputy minister of information and culture, was cited as saying in local media that the Taliban will “uphold all the fundamental rights of journalists.”

Search for safety

In Tehran, Rasoli is in contact with around 20 to 25 Afghan journalists who also moved to Iran. But he hopes to move to Europe.

“I came here with my family to get visas to France,” he said.

He shared a letter in which the French media group Syndicat National des Journalistes and the International Federation of Journalists advocated for his application to be granted quickly.

“After consultations with our affiliate in Afghanistan, the IFJ is convinced that Abdul Khalil Rasoli has a well-founded fear for his safety inside Afghanistan,” stated the IFJ letter viewed by VOA.

Nicola Edge of the SNJ told VOA that she and her colleagues — a group of volunteers within the syndicate— have been helping to guide journalists to organizations that can assist with relocation.

She estimated that about 300 journalists fled Afghanistan mainly to Pakistan but also to Iran, Turkey and Uzbekistan, “hoping to get a visa” and relocate to a third country.

The process of getting visas is getting “difficult and complicated,” she said, adding that it is “slowing down for most of the countries.”

Nationwide antigovernment protests in Iran since September have further complicated the visa process, she said.

Edge’s organization is appealing to governments to speed up the process, noting that many journalists, especially women in Pakistan or Iran, face economic problems.

Aqila Mobarez Haidari has been in Iran for eight months and, like Rasoli, is trapped waiting for a visa to move to a new country.

Before leaving Afghanistan, Haidari, 24, worked with Negah TV and Radio, and Marefat Radio in Kabul. She hosted political programs on Negah’s radio show, where they discussed the Taliban.

“When they came to power, my life was at risk,” she said.

Even now, Haidari believes her life would be in danger if she were forced to return.

The journalist traveled with other families when moving to Iran to avoid being stopped by the Taliban “for not being with a mahram [a male relative].”

“It is difficult to leave one’s country and work, but I was only thinking about how to flee Afghanistan because of the Taliban,” Haidari said.

She has filled out forms requesting to be relocated to a third country, but has not heard back. Meanwhile, Haidari has overstayed her visa for Iran.

“It is painful that we live in uncertainty all these months,” said Haidari. Returning to Afghanistan under the Taliban rule is not an option she said, as the group is “against women."

But, she said, “I do not know about my future.”

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.