Devastating Attack Still Leaves Afghan Journalist's Hope Alive
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Bilal Sarwary is a local correspondent for the BBC in Kabul, and over a week ago, he was called to report on yet another insurgent attack that left civilians dead.
This particular attack, however, was different for him. Among those killed were Sarwary's friend and fellow journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of his three children. A third child is recovering in a Kabul hospital. They were eating in the restaurant at the luxury Serena Hotel when gunmen opened fire. Five other people were killed in the shooting.
It's one of several attacks launched by the Taliban in Kabul ahead of this week's presidential election. On Saturday, the heavily fortified election commission headquarters came under fire. But the attack on the Serena Hotel resonated with the close-knit community of Afghan journalists in a different way.
Sarwary tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he was covering the news that night without knowing his friend was killed. He didn't find out until the next morning that Ahmad and his family were at the hotel.
"Once we found out we had lost one of our closest friends along with his family ... I felt like the weight of the entire world was sitting on my shoulders," Sarwary says.
Sarwary went to the morgue and identified his friend, but in hindsight says he shouldn't have gone, because now he has to live with those images. But that is the sad reality of Afghanistan, he says.
"The people of Afghanistan have been born into war [and] the people of Afghanistan continue to bear the brunt of this conflict," he says.
Sarwary says living and working as a reporter in Afghanistan is very difficult when you have to wake up to explosions and deal with corruption. He says he's lost relatives in the violence as well, but there is hope.
"I always believe that there is a very powerful human story," he says. "There's always the story of a family. ... There's always the story of a young Afghan who was nowhere in 2001, when Afghanistan was a destroyed society, [and] today she's a high school graduate and speaking English.
"That's what makes me not lose sight of Afghanistan, the fact that they have not lost hope," he says.
Regarding the upcoming election in Afghanistan, Sarwary says he gets the sense that the Afghan people expected more clarity and vision from the men running to replace President Hamid Karzai. But he says it's important to remember what elections mean to the people of Afghanistan.
"When you compare it with the '90s, Afghanistan today is a very different country, but it's a country with wounds of war," he says. "And I think it will take some time for Afghanistan to be the Afghanistan that the people of Afghanistan will want: a normal, stable and prosperous country for its people."
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BILAL SARWARY: My heart just bleeds because an entire family have disappeared - a family of hope, family of success, a family that was very, very committed. Sardar had began everything. His achievements were tremendous and Afghanistan lost a very brave journalist who had been able to give the people of Afghanistan a voice.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That was the voice of Bilal Sarwary. He's a local correspondent for the BBC in Kabul. And over a week ago, he was called to report on yet another insurgent attack that had left civilians dead. But this attack was different for him. Among those killed, Sarwary's friend and fellow journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of his three children. A third child is recovering in a Kabul hospital. They were eating in the restaurant at the luxury Serena Hotel when gunmen opened fire. Five other people were killed in the shooting as well. It is one of several attacks launched by the Taliban in Kabul ahead of this week's presidential election. But the shooting at the Serena Hotel resonated with the close-knit community of Afghan journalists in a different way. Bilal Sarwary is our Sunday Conversation.
SARWARY: On that specific night, I was covering the news for the BBC. I had no idea until the next morning that Sardar, along with his wife, had gone to the Serena Hotel. And once we found out that we had lost one of our closest friends, along with his family and his beautiful, cute, young children, I felt like the weight of the entire world was sitting on my shoulders. And I can't really explain how I felt because I had to go to the morgue where I had to witness one of my closest friends laying dead, no more this us, but also his children and his wife.
MARTIN: Why did you have to do that? You were called to identify the body?
SARWARY: Well, I felt, as one of his close friends, I had to go. In hindsight, I shouldn't have gone there because now I have to live with those images. But that's what you do in Afghanistan. You have to get used to the sad reality that the people of Afghanistan, you know, have been born into war. The people of Afghanistan continue to bear the brunt of this conflict. And when an entire family vanishes like that, it's heartbreaking because it was a story of a new Afghanistan. Sardar had been able to give the people of Afghanistan a voice to the rest of the world.
MARTIN: I wonder if the reporting has ever gotten to be a little too much for you. A lot of Afghans can, to some degree, shut themselves off from the violence or political corruption. But you are seeped in it every day because that's what you do. How have you been able to put the news away in your mind so you can just have a life there?
SARWARY: Well, it's very difficult when you have to wake up to bomb explosions or you have to deal with corruption. And I have to admit with you, there are times that I get tired. There are times that it's really hard. I've lost family members. I've lost relatives. And I think after a while you just get used to this idea. That's the sad reality in Afghanistan. But there is hope. Because I always believe that there's a very powerful human story. It's always the story of a family. It's always the story of a young Afghan who was nowhere in 2001 when Afghanistan was a destroyed society or a destroyed country. Today, she's a high school graduate speaking English. That's what makes me not lose sight of Afghanistan, the fact that they have not lost hope.
MARTIN: Why journalism? Why was that something that you felt was the right path for you?
SARWARY: Well, frankly speaking, I'm more of an accidental journalist. I was a salesman working for a Pakistani antique shop owner when 9/11 happened. And in the next 24 hours, hundreds of foreign reporters were there and I spoke some broken English. I was from Afghanistan and I just simply crossed into Afghanistan, where I could have got killed, surviving several attacks. I covered Tora Bora, and then stayed in journalism. Of course, the profession of journalism in Afghanistan is fraught with many dangers, but that's the danger that every Afghan has to live with - daily risks that I have accepted, and a lot of the time that has come with great opposition from my family members.
MARTIN: You still have family in Kabul?
SARWARY: I've got family in Afghanistan but mostly they live in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
MARTIN: They question, I imagine, sometimes why you have stayed.
SARWARY: I think Afghanistan is very personal for me. I think I wouldn't have thought of staying had I not lost friends, had I not believed in the story of the people of Afghanistan. And its resilience, its perseverance, it's hope has not died.
MARTIN: If you don't mind, I'd like to switch gears and ask you about the presidential elections that are coming up next week in Afghanistan. Based on the reporting you've done, people you've talked to, just your friends, how are Afghans feeling about their choices?
SARWARY: I think for the moment, Afghans are confused. We are only a week away. I think what the Afghan people expected was more clarity, more vision from all the main candidates trying to replace President Karzai. But I think it's important what election means for the people of Afghanistan, people often forget during the communist times, every single government here came through coup d'etats, through tanks, through rockets and bullets. And then in 1992, there was street fighting in Kabul during the Taliban time. And when you compare it with the '90s, Afghanistan today is a very different country. But it's a country with wounds of war. And I think it'll take quite some time for Afghanistan to be the Afghanistan that the people of Afghanistan will want - a normal, stable and prosperous country for its people.
MARTIN: Bilal Sarwary is a reporter for the BBC in Kabul. He spoke to us from the bureau there. Thanks so much for talking with us, Bilal.
SARWARY: Thank you, Rachel. Good to talk to you.
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MARTIN: And you are listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.