Voices from Afghanistan

By Jeffrey Gedmin

Originally published on May 1, 2018 on The American Interest

In the midst of tragedy, it’s worth recalling how journalists in Afghanistan risk their lives daily for decency, tolerance, and peace.

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Nearly a decade ago I sat, together with Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, in the office of the Librarian of Congress, James Billington. Novak had brought us together—he was a longtime friend of Billington—and I was there to pitch an idea. I wanted the Library of Congress to host an exhibit of letters to Radio Azadi, the local branch in Afghanistan of the taxpayer-funded company I led at the time, the modernized Cold War media group called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Billington—joined by a couple of his division experts—was skeptical, to put it mildly. A station’s fan mail in the coveted space of the Library of Congress? Was I mad? Such was the tenor and tone. As any opportunity looked to be slipping away, Novak nudged me: “The letters, show him the letters.”

I had a couple bags of them in tow, and so I let Azadi’s faithful make the case. These were not just any letters. These were scrolls: 10, 20, 30 feet long; even one 70-foot-long doozy. Once unfurled, these “letters” exploded in script and color. They were replete with poems, prayers, songs, tributes, drawings, paintings, and endless commentary. They included digressions of all manner. A young boy opined, “we must respect and honor our women, as only they can tame us men, lest we behave otherwise like wild horses.” Billington’s specialists pored over the documents, soon able to discern regions, tribes, and dialects. People might walk for miles to a village scribe, I had learned, to tell their story so that their thoughts would be eventually conveyed to their beloved Radio Azadi.

Anyone who knows Afghanistan knows how vibrant and exquisite the country can be. Anyone who is familiar with RFE/RL knows how devoted its audiences become. It’s a far-flung operation, with 18 bureaus, reaching 23 countries in 26 languages—by television, radio, video, social networks, websites, and podcasts. And RFE/RL is a tight-knit group. The news this week that three of their own had been killed in an early morning suicide bombing in Kabul was devastating. “Never such a huge loss in one day,” a former colleague emailed me.

On April 30, journalist Abadullah Hananzai and video producer Sabawoon Kakar died in a bombing on the main road behind the RFE/RL Kabul bureau in the Shash Darak area of the capital. Maharram Durrani, a 28-year-old female university student training to become a journalist at the Kabul bureau, was also killed in the attack. The three, all in their 20s, were among at least 25 people who perished in a pair of coordinated suicide bombings in central Kabul on Monday. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Maybe it’s sacrifice that makes the heart grow stronger.

In Afghanistan journalists risk their lives daily in a war waged for decency, tolerance, and peace. Radio Azadi broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, with stringers in all 34 of the country’s provinces. Azadi—the word comes originally from Persian and means freedom or liberty—reports on everything from security and politics to public services, education, and farming. Call-in programs on health are especially popular, and the following is diverse. I recall meeting with a group of tribal leaders in Kabul, older men with long grey beards, wearing long white tunics. One told me that, while indeed they prayed five times a day, they occasionally adjusted the prayer schedule so as not to miss a particularly important airing on Azadi.

Michael Novak felt connected to RFE/RL. It was Novak’s idea—after a visit with our Afghan colleagues—to pitch Billington and the Library of Congress on the Azadi letters. Novak, who passed away in February 2017, had been a member of the RFE/RL board in the 1980s. After communism’s demise and the end of the Cold War, he played a key role in moving the company’s headquarters from Munich to Prague. Václav Havel, the whimsical playwright-dissident turned President—the man who raced in a red scooter down the corridors of Prague Castle and adored the music of rocker Frank Zappa—fell in love with the idea from the get-go. In 1995, he gave RFE/RL the old communist parliament building at the top of Wenceslaus Square, for a Czech crown a year. A decade and a half later, RFE/RL was to move again, relocating its headquarters in winter 2010 to a new, more secure facility on the outskirts of the city.

The move took place during my tenure as CEO and, for the first editorial meeting in the new building, senior editors invited Havel to chair the proceedings. Havel accepted, but insisted, with characteristic charm, that this would not be a purely ceremonial affair. He wanted to be part of a working meeting. And so on that day there sat the great anti-communist dissident and former Czech President, exchanging and arguing ideas with Iranians and Iraqis, Ukrainians and Moldavians, Pakistanis and Afghans, and other freedom-fighting journalists from around the world. I sat next to Havel in the meeting and noticed throughout that he was doodling, with a red pen: squiggles and small hearts, the latter usually part of his trademark signature.

Do they still get letters, the RFE/RL Afghans? I wanted to know in the midst of tragedy this week. A former colleague replied:

Yes, bags full of them. Some, tens of meters and rolled like a scroll. From school children who dream of becoming a scientist. From peasants who pray for rain and better irrigation. Some are love poems from shepherds who spend their days chasing flocks of sheep and herds of goats. Or from soldiers on front lines. From teachers who want better buildings, or any buildings. Many women and girls thank the radio for being their window to the world. They write from remote mountain hamlets, teeming cities and refugee camps in neighboring Iran and in parts of Afghanistan where there is no electricity, and thus no television. Most letters tell stories of suffering, resilience and survival against all odds. Letters from nomads, farmers, shopkeepers, drivers, expatriate workers and village elders. […] Many letters close with a prayer for peace.

Back then James Billington ended up mesmerized. In winter 2010, an exhibit titled “Voices of Afghanistan”opened in a room adjacent to the main reading room of the Library of Congress. RFE/RL gifted at the time 15,000 pieces of “fan mail” for the exhibit, and for the Library’s archives.

Mourning and grieving take place. The war goes on. It’s hard to imagine, though, that these voices of Afghanistan will be silenced.