In a rare move, the Taliban last week invited the media to visit a Taliban-controlled village in Kunduz province, that had been targeted in airstrike by the Afghan air force earlier in the week.
The call was made by Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban.
Mujahid said the media was welcome to visit the village and the madrassa that had been targeted and to speak to the locals.
This was the first time the media had been invited, as a group, into a Taliban-controlled area and assured of their safety. TOLOnews journalist Karim Amini and cameraman Wahid Ahmadi accepted the invitation.
Amini in turn gives an account of the visit.
“After Monday’s air strike, I was sent to Kunduz to find out the real story.
Government said a Taliban gathering had been targeted but residents and the Taliban rejected these claims and said a graduation ceremony at the madrassa in Daftani had been bombed.
Days after the incident, security forces and local officials in Kunduz were still not releasing details to the media.
So when Mujahid invited journalists to visit, myself and a number of other reporters sent a message to him and said we would like to visit the area.
In response, Mujahid agreed and said the group would have full access to the area and our safety would be ensured.
Saboor Ghafoori, the head of TOLOnews’ provincial desk phoned me and said he had spoken to Mujahid.
‘I have talked with Mujahid and you can go to the area because the initial figures were conflicting and we should see what has happened there,’ he told me.
My managers suggested we discuss the issue among us journalists and if we all agree then we should take up the Taliban’s offer.
And so it was tentatively decided we would visit Daftani.
I contacted Mujahid once again. He reiterated the group’s promise that we would be safe in areas under their control.
‘I have contacted Mujahedeen and they are aware about the issue. Go there…!’ he said.
We were then given the phone number of a person to contact. Mujahid said he would be our escort.
Another discussion was held among us journalists. We were all afraid. We also were not sure we could trust the Taliban.
In addition we were not sure we could trust government forces in areas under Taliban control.
One senior security official told us on the phone that ‘we cannot ensure your safety and neither can we advise you to go or not (to go)’.
Again the group of us discussed the visit but some journalists were opposed to us going, arguing that there are different factions within the Taliban, any one could pose a threat.
In the end – despite all these warnings – by colleagues and officials – I set out on the journey along with my colleague, Wahid Ahmadi, our cameraman, and reporters from Ariana News, Pajhwok and Kelid Group.
There were seven of us and from Kunduz city we drove about 20kms to Dasht-e-Archi district. Along the way we came across a group of angry protesters in Dasht-e-Abdan area.
The protesters were heading towards the Kunduz governor’s office and were chanting anti-government slogans. Some were riding motorcycles.
After finding out we were journalists they agreed to speak to us on camera.
Unfortunately we could not stay to cover the protest, which reportedly turned violent. Some of the protestors were allegedly wounded when government forces opened fire on them.
These protestors were also prevented from entering Kunduz city and only 20 tribal elders were allowed in to see the governor.
After leaving the protestors we continued our journey on the two-lane paved highway that runs from Kunduz city to Sherkhan Port.
After about one hour we turned off the highway on to a dirt road.
Our small convoy of two vehicles turned right off the highway close to Sherkhan Port. A short stretch was paved but it was deserted except for a few motorcyclists who said they were on their way to join the protestors.
We were all afraid but no one showed their fear and instead we cracked jokes and sang songs in the car.
Taliban-controlled territory started at the end of the paved road and from there onwards many houses were deserted. Clear signs of war, destruction and deprivation were visible.
We drove along the dirt road for at least 40 to 45 minutes until we met up with Haroon, our escort, close to Daftani village.
He had parked his car in the middle of the road, while waiting for us. Haroon was overweight and of medium height. He wore a black turban and had a grey beard. He was armed.
With him were his two bodyguards, who were also armed. Their faces were completely covered, except for their kohl-outlined eyes.
Haroon greeted us warmly, but his bodyguards were not that friendly. He said he was the head of media and information for the Taliban in Dasht-e-Archi.
After greeting us, he asked who our leader was. I introduced Pajhwok reporter Ajmal Kakar to him because he could speak Pashto well. He took Kakar with him in a car and we followed them in another.
Haroon was in a Toyota RunX, equipped with air conditioner, and loaded with water and energy drinks.
Not long after, we arrived in Daftani’s market center – a dusty, open area, with a few Taliban flags flying overhead.
There were at least 50 shops and many private clinics. Interestingly though were the number of female doctors and midwives who had private offices – their names on signboards outside their clinics.
After leaving the market we drove down a lane, lined with trees. Another car was waiting for us.
A tall man, with a black turban and black beard got out of the vehicle – along with his two bodyguards.
He told us: ‘If you have come (here) to spy, go back, but if you are here for the people and exploring the realities, our friends will escort you everywhere you want to go. Go and talk with the people.’
After he stopped talking, one of his bodyguards asked him to leave and said: ‘Mawlawi Sahib, it is not good to be here (longer)’. They then got in their car and drove off.
I later learned that he was Mawlawi Shakir, the shadow deputy governor of Taliban for Kunduz province, who has been reported dead on a number of occasions.
Mid-day prayers had just finished when we arrived at Hashimiya Omariya Dar-ul-Ulum, the madrassa which had been targeted.
However, the buildings did not appear to have been damaged, except for windows that had been broken.
Within minutes however, we were surrounded by locals.
We were invited into a room by Haroon, who was accompanying us, and we were joined by locals who started talking to us.
Everyone had a story! Some showed us pictures of their children while others showed videos taken minutes after the airstrike.
While speaking to the locals, we were served food. Ten large pots of cooked rice stood in the madrassa’s courtyard.
Once we had finished our lunch, I told them we need to start our work.
In the madrassa’s courtyard we found piles of blood-soaked turbans, shawls and prayer caps. These had all belonged to the victims of Monday’s airstrike, the locals said.
Adjacent to the madrassa was an open area, where the gathering had been held – the one targeted by two Afghan air force helicopters, the residents said.
Four missiles were fired off – one on the gathering of people, one on a school, one on the wall of a house and the other on the roof of a house, residents told us adding that the missile that targeted the gathering hit the people in the back rows of the ceremony.
Once we wrapped up our stories – which took about three hours - Haroon escorted us half way back to the paved road. Before waving us off he said we need not worry, we would be safe but that if we were stopped we should just mention his name.”