A little over a year ago, I watched from my window as the Taliban appeared around the corner of the street in my beloved Kabul. Now, a year later, I write this column from my desk in the new home I share with my family in London. We have walls to paint, a kitchen to prepare meals in, and my little niece has her own bed. I can see our new neighborhood from a window and finally I can dream of new horizons for me and my family.
Over the past year, after the terror, chaos and shock of having to flee our country and being evacuated by the UK Government, we have lived in limbo in a central London hotel along with 400 other Afghans who also had to seek shelter overnight.
We have been lucky. Our hotel was clean, the staff were friendly and I can’t thank the UK Government enough for what they did for us. However, as the months passed, we all had the feeling of being stuck in limbo, waiting for someone to tell us what was to become of us.
In Afghanistan we had been journalists, doctors, politicians, translators. Now we were all homeless refugees and there was nothing we could do but wait. Although we couldn’t be more grateful for what the UK had done for us, we had no autonomy, independence or money.
400 people of different ethnicities and origins living together, all of them dealing with the trauma of the lived experience and seeing the situation of poverty, hunger and violence in their country is a recipe for disaster. As the months passed, we witnessed domestic violence, family breakups, and ethnic tensions. As families struggled to adjust to their new surroundings, we saw some men forbid the women in their family from leaving the hotel.
The young Hazara women who were not accompanied by a patriarch had to deal with many complex situations in the hotel. I know our hotel was no different from many where thousands of Afghans lived month to month, trying to deal with what had happened to them as they watched their country and the family and friends they left behind sink into a hole of darkness, hunger and violence. All of us struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress. In our last few weeks in Afghanistan, we were overcome with a sense of terror, panic and unspeakable loss.
Now that I am in exile, I feel more strongly the weight of the responsibility to continue reporting
During all these months, I have been lucky that my work has helped me to be focused and motivated. I have continued to run my news agency, Rukhshana Mediawhich publishes stories about Afghan women and girls, from my small hotel room.
I have always felt very identified with my work as a journalist; I had to denounce the injustices and the violation of human rights. My reporting on Taliban violence was the reason we had to flee, but even at the airport as we tried to leave the country, I couldn’t stop reporting, asking a single mother fleeing with her young daughter if she could interview her, despite the noise of military planes evacuating the population.
a new home
When we had to run away, my sisters got mad at me. They told me: “You have worked as a journalist for years and now we have to deal with the consequences: we have to flee our country and separate from our parents.” The truth is that I was proud of my work and remembered the occasions when I had covered demonstrations and protests in the streets of Kabul. Now that I am in exile, I feel more strongly the weight of the responsibility to continue reporting.
All year long, every day, my team of journalists in Afghanistan, working behind the scenes, and I have told sad and painful stories about what happens to women and girls in our country. We have reported on women being flogged by Taliban fighters, going hungry and losing their jobs they had fought so hard for. Although it is depressing and tedious to be constantly writing bad news, every day I wake up early, turn on my laptop and get to work, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.
It’s hard to start from scratch, but now we have a place in the UK to call home
When I look at my young niece and sisters now living in a free country, I think of millions of other girls in Afghanistan who are no longer free and face an uncertain future. My heart breaks and I know I have to keep reporting: the world must not forget what is happening in Afghanistan.
Now, at last, we have a home and can start building a new life in the UK. We can go to the market, buy and cook our own food. Plan our future. I will continue to work in exile until it is safe to return to Afghanistan. It’s hard to start from scratch, but now we have a place in the UK that we can call home. Every day that passes, we regret being away from our family and our country, but now, finally, we have hope again.
Zahra Joya is an Afghan journalist based in London who is Editor-in-Chief and founder of Rukhshana Media, a news agency that reports on the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan. The name Rukhshana Media is a tribute to Rukhshana, a young woman who was stoned to death in 2015 in Ghor province for running away with the man she loved after a forced marriage.
Translation of Emma Reverter