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Journalist Who Fled Kabul On How 9/11 Haunts Afghans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As this country remembers the events of 9/11 today, we cannot forget that it's been a little over a week since the last American combat forces left Afghanistan. The attacks on September 11 were the catalyst for the war in Afghanistan. The focus was initially on bringing al-Qaida and especially the leader of the group, Osama bin Laden, to justice. But the war, as we know, would stretch well beyond that mission to become America's longest war at just under 20 years.

The human toll of the conflict has been enormous. Thousands of military casualties - American, allied and Afghan - and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths as well. We want to hear more about how these two decades of war and U.S. involvement have shaped Afghanistan and its people. For one perspective on this, we've called Bilal Sarwary. He is an Afghan journalist who was able to evacuate from Kabul with his family after the Taliban took control of the city. He is with us now from Toronto, Canada.

Bilal Sarwary, thank you so much for joining us.

BILAL SARWARY: It's good to be with you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And first of all, let me just say that we are very glad that you and your family are safe. How are things there where you are?

SARWARY: Thank you very much. We are very lucky that we found a new home here in Canada. But obviously, we continue to feel the pain, the heartbreak, you know, the feeling of devastation, of being forced to leave our home, Kabul. And that pain, I think, will continue to live in our hearts and minds for quite some time to come.

MARTIN: I can understand that. Thank you for that. But, Mr. Sarwary, you have such an interesting personal story. I hope you don't mind my sharing a bit of it. Your family actually left Afghanistan before when you were a child. But then you were able to go back to Afghanistan and work as a journalist. And you've been there for the last 20 years. Correct?

SARWARY: Yes, that's right. I was a salesman at a five-star hotel in the city of Peshawar, where we were living as refugees because we had fled the Civil War during the 1990s, like millions of other Afghans. And there was very little hope for me. Like for the rest of Afghans, I had learned some English. I was doing various jobs until I landed at the Pearl-Continental Hotel, which was a very happening place. And I was just looking at the television.

Suddenly, the normal broadcast - I believe it was a cricket game or an old game that was being replayed. And then I saw the plane hitting the buildings in New York, the first one everyone thought may have been an accident. When the second plane hit, there was very little doubt. And in no time, the lobby of the hotel was full with, you know, hundreds of foreign reporters. And I was offered the job of a fixer (ph) translator by Abu Dhabi TV at that time. And I remember in very quick time I crossed into Afghanistan, my country that I lived as a child. And I was covering the U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban. So in many ways, I am an accidental journalist. And my life, like the life of millions of Afghans, changed because of the 9/11 attacks.

MARTIN: How - and you've lived in Afghanistan for most of the last 20 years. How would you describe - I know it's of - I mean, this is the kind of thing that books have been and will be written about, so forgive me for asking you to try to summarize so much in so little time. But how would you describe kind of the arc of the time that you were there from when you first went back to Afghanistan and as you prepared to leave? Like, how would you describe that period, like, what effect the conflict, all of that had on the country?

SARWARY: Well, I remember, you know, the Taliban were having anti-aircraft guns and perhaps rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns on the back of pickup trucks. So they were, you know, a force that was literally, you know, destroyed by American airstrikes and North Alliance fighters at that time on the ground and other anti-Taliban, you know, figures. But once the city fell and Afghanistan fell, I think the people of Afghanistan started a new journey, you know, a fight for peace, I would like to call it, where the rebuilding of Afghanistan started piece by piece by the United States of America and the rest of the international community.

And then finding myself 20 years later on, suddenly, the Taliban making it to Kabul, places falling one after the other that I was covering for international news media, you know? Here is a force that had everything, you know, that a conventional army or any other army in the region would have. They suddenly had access to attack helicopters. They had access to night vision goggles, to thermal, to some of the best equipment in the world - you know? - provided by the Americans to the Afghan national security forces.

And I'd also like to think that the sort of fear that prevailed and uncertainty that prevailed when the Taliban walked in literally, you know, to the city of Kabul as the Taliban started visiting my office and my home - and, obviously, I realize that, you know, I could not continue doing my job. So it was a very, very painful feeling, a feeling of helplessness. And I'm sure this is the same among Afghans as well.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, as you and I are speaking on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks - and as I'm sure you imagine, this is very much on the minds of Americans. People are spending quite a bit of time today thinking about that day, acknowledging those lives lost. What's on your mind today?

SARWARY: Well, I - just before speaking to you, I thought about this, you know? And what 9/11 did to me, for example, it took me from a salesman to an Afghan reporter who was able to go to the United States and study and finish my education. I've traveled all around the world. I think 9/11 changed, you know, Afghanistan as a country. It changed, you know, Afghanistan as a society for Afghan women, for Afghan men, you know? But I often think about, you know, the changes in terms of how many lives were lost, you know, how much investment was done in Afghanistan.

And to look at the end result, when you have an evacuation in the 11th hour, when you have Afghans, you know, clinging onto, you know, U.S. military planes, when you have stampedes, when you have, you know, gunfire, when you have suicide attacks by the Islamic State, you know, killing, you know, members of entire families, I think, it's simply devastating. This is not how we had imagined that it would end. The last 20 years will continue to haunt many people in both countries and many other European countries because these relationships were deep. And a lot of lives were lost, you know, on both sides. And I wonder how history will remember, you know, how the politics of both countries, like, handled the last 20 years, how many missed opportunities were there, you know? I think that will be for history to judge.

MARTIN: That was Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary. He was evacuated from Kabul, and he and his family are now in Toronto. Mr. Sarwary, thank you so much for joining us. And I do hope we'll keep in touch. And I would love to know how you're doing.

SARWARY: Thank you. It's good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.