In Kabul, New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis faces a lonely vigil. There are two things uppermost in her mind.
The first is her duty to let the world know about an impending humanitarian disaster that could cost millions of Afghan lives.
The withdrawal of Western aid following the takeover of the country by the Taliban has left more than half the population facing starvation.
“I think a lot of people think that the story is over, because the West isn’t there any more. But on a humanitarian level, it’s huge,” she stresses.
The second is a potential threat to her own life.
Many Kiwis will associate Bellis with her unforgettable reporting on the evacuation of Kabul for the Al Jazeera television channel. Gun-toting fighters posed for her at the end of the runway as the last American plane flew into the night.
She briefly returned to Al Jazeera’s home base of Qatar before returning to Kabul. But she hadn’t been there long when her bosses got a warning from the Taliban that the militant Sunni Islamist group Isis was planning an attack on her hotel.
Al Jazeera decided the situation was so dangerous it withdrew all its staff from Kabul except Bellis. This means she is now one of the last foreign TV reporters on the ground in Afghanistan and is working with a local Afghan crew. So why her?
It could just be because she was the most recent to arrive, she says. Or it could be that she is well used to working by herself. “They know I have enough contacts and support networks here that if anything did happen, I’m pretty self-reliant and low-maintenance.”
Her base, Kabul’s Serena Hotel, is “a sanctuary of style and serenity with state-of-the-art security”, according to its website. Among news crews, its notoriety rivals that of Beirut’s Commodore Hotel, or Baghdad’s Al Rasheed.
During the decades of fighting in Lebanon, journalists shared the Commodore poolside with Coco the parrot, famous for a perfect simulation of an incoming missile. At Al Rasheed, where this writer stayed in the build-up to the Iraq invasion, grinning staff watched as we had to step on a mosaic of President George HW Bush’s face to get through the front door.
But in Beirut and Baghdad, there was a certain sense of security. Few Iraqis would have dared to defy Saddam Hussein, and the Commodore’s owner had warlords on the take. At the Serena, there is no such certainty with Isis. The US State Department has warned all US citizens who are at or near the hotel to leave immediately.
“Every couple of weeks, we get intelligence that they’re planning a particular type of attack,” says Bellis. “And we need to be on alert for it. The hotel security and the Taliban are working closely together to mitigate the threat.”
She is somewhat comforted by the fact the Taliban have surrounded the hotel with dozens of guards carrying machine guns, and with American-made Humvees. “They’ve taped off the roads, and they’re patrolling and interrogating anyone who tries to get close to it. So, for now, my security is in the hands of the Taliban.”
Nevertheless, she is acutely aware the Serena has already been attacked twice by the Taliban themselves. In 2008, a suicide bombing left six dead. In 2014, four teenage Taliban recruits with pistols hidden in their socks killed another nine people.
This time it’s the Taliban who are in charge, and Bellis believes she can trust them. “Even this morning, I went back to the hotel just to grab my laptop and leave again. When I came back, they all waved at me and smiled. So, they’re not threatening or intimidating at all.”
But she is also well aware that as a foreigner, she is treated differently. “That may not be the same if I was Afghan. I think there’s probably a double standard there, with me being a blonde female Westerner.”
In the thick of it
Bellis is now internationally renowned for her inside knowledge of the Taliban. Hers is the craft of top contact work – the envy of war correspondents worldwide. But her journey to journalism had a very unlikely beginning back in Christchurch.
“I was practically mute as a child. My teacher in school said, ‘Your child has a problem, and she needs to go to speech and drama classes. It’s not normal; she should speak more than she does.'”
After 13 years of learning drama, she gained enough confidence to speak publicly.
“I was always a big fan of people like Anita McNaught and looked up to a number of journalists, and we always watched TV One news at 6pm over dinner. But my main passion was to be a tennis player, and I was recruited to play tennis in the United States. One of the universities was Missouri. And when I interviewed with them, they said, ‘If you come here, you can do journalism’.”
It turned out she enjoyed journalism more than tennis, and in Missouri she realised the employer she most wanted to work for was Al Jazeera. “I always admired them for being in the thick of it. I thought, ‘That’s what journalism is – it’s not standing a kilometre away saying you can see smoke’.”
After stints at TVNZ and Prime, Bellis landed a job at ABC World News in New York in 2015. In 2017, she started working for Al Jazeera in Doha.
The Middle East’s first English-language satellite news channel, funded in part by the Qatari government, genuinely cares about the developing world, she says.
“The slogan is, ‘We’re the voice of the voiceless’, and they do very much try to stay true to that. And I love them for that. One of the first things they said to me when I joined the network was, ‘Just to be clear, we don’t use the word terrorist here because one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ And that really stuck with me.”
Bonding over cricket
So, how did a Pākehā woman from Christchurch manage to win the trust of the Taliban? In a word: cricket. The diplomatic process began with the Americans. Washington bigwigs, realising they needed to be able to negotiate with the Taliban, asked their Middle Eastern allies if any would be willing to host a Taliban embassy. Qatar put its hand up.
Bellis met her first Taliban representative in 2019 in Doha, during peace negotiations between the Taliban and the US. “I staked out their meetings, and would smile and wave as they went by. And then I eventually got the courage to go up to one of the spokesmen who I knew spoke English and introduce myself. We would talk every few days, and I got his number. And then we would joke around and we would talk about the cricket. I love cricket.”
Bellis is a former TVNZ cricket reporter. During the 2019 Cricket World Cup, she watched the games on her mobile while staking out the Taliban’s peace talks. “They would run out of their meetings and come down to me and say, ‘What’s the score?’ And that was a great bonding moment.”
Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson are names often dropped by her Taliban contacts. “They know a lot. I’ve heard the names of half the first XI in the past few months.”
Then last year, she was engaged by Netflix to produce a documentary on the Taliban. “The Netflix director gave me a shopping list of people he wanted, including top Taliban leaders. And I thought this was a big ask, to convince them that they should talk to me for a three-hour sit-down interview.”
She approached a couple of people she knew, who put her in contact with some of the names on the list. One person in particular made it clear he needed to know whether he could trust her.
“We spent months having lunch and tea, and talking and debating Taliban policies and things that had happened in his life, until the point where he said, ‘Okay, I trust you, and I’ll do the interview.'”
Since then, she has developed a strong relationship with key figures. They did, however, draw the line at her suggestion last year that they pop over to her apartment for a Christmas party. “They said it might be awkward to come to a Christmas party with the Afghan government and the Americans.”
Running on empty
Apart from staying alive, Bellis’ main concern right now is the impending aid crisis in Afghanistan. The previous government relied heavily on donations of foreign aid, which have now largely been withdrawn.
“After the Taliban took over, that was cut, which left the Taliban trying to run the country on 25 per cent of what it had before.”
She recently visited a hospital in Kabul, where she watched mothers face the hazards of childbirth with only paracetamol to ease the pain. “If anything goes wrong, you’re dead, or your baby’s dead. Even the ability to do a C-section is limited. So the stakes are incredibly high on so many levels.”
Even the paracetamol is expected to run out next month, because the country is unable to get any kind of medicine across its borders. With winter on the way, there are also concerns many people will die from the cold, because they are unable to afford fuel to heat their homes.
“There are very long queues for food; people don’t have jobs; you can’t get money out from the banks. Everything’s breaking down incredibly quickly. And as far as UN aid and NGO help, it’s a very small Band-Aid on a very big problem. It’s shocking how quickly everything is happening; how quick the deterioration is.”
Bellis believes the West wants to use its aid as a political tool, to persuade the Taliban to enrol girls in schools, for example. “The gist of it is that the money was withheld to manipulate the Taliban. And it’s really backfiring.”
Mothers and their children are already dying, she says, and people are starving. “America holds the key to everything. And it’s very political. But the problem is that the narrative in the US is that the Taliban is bad and evil. And there is no nuance in that. And therefore, it’s very hard for the US Government to be seen to be giving money to the Taliban.”
She has faced similar attitudes from friends in the US, who struggle to understand why she’d want to work for Al Jazeera. “They think that I work for some terrorist network, but I know that they probably don’t pay much attention to international news.”
Walking a tightrope
Meanwhile, on the streets of Kabul, some parents have become so desperate to feed their families they have begun to sell the only valuable possessions they have left – their children.
“A woman yesterday said to me, ‘I’m considering selling my baby.’ She had a 2-month-old baby in her lap, and this is becoming a viable option. I mean, to hear that is so shocking and yet for them this is what it has come to.”
She believes the United Nations is facing a potentially insurmountable problem. “The UN is walking a tightrope of not pissing off the Americans by working with the Taliban and also facing an overwhelming crisis that it could never meet the needs of.”
Despite the danger and the despair, Bellis says she is right where she wants to be for now.
“I do love Afghanistan. And I love the people. There is a small group of journalists who have lived here a long time. And everyone says the same, that it gets under your skin. And once you’ve got the bug, it’s very hard to let go.”
• NZ journalist Charlotte Bellis is one of only a handful of foreign correspondents still on the ground in Afghanistan, as a human tragedy unfolds.
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