Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Journalist Charlotte Bellis: “I Had a Gun Pointed at Me Yesterday… But There’s No Way I’m Leaving”

Capsule talks to Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis about what it’s like being on the ground in Kabul as Taliban forces claim back Afghanistan – and why she’s determined to walk towards danger when everyone else is running away from it.

When Capsule calls journalist Charlotte Bellis, the intrepid reporter is walking through a Taliban security checkpoint as she tries to enter her home in Kabul.

“As-Salaam Alaikum,” she says casually to a guard, pausing our conversation for a few seconds as she makes her way through. The ease of her tone is somewhat jarring. She sounds like she’s just said hello to a checkout operator at the supermarket in Taihape rather than passing through a checkpoint lined with a dozen Taliban fighters and their fully loaded machine guns.

“It’s just like a normal day here,” she tells. “All week everything was closed, because everyone was like, what the fuck is going on, but the Taliban asked for everyone to go back to work today and carry on with life as normal, so traffic is gridlocked. There are people on the street, I can see women – it’s like nothing has happened. Everything looks identical to last week.”

In what might be the understatement of the year, former Prime News presenter Charlotte has had a rather intense seven days reporting on the chaos that’s unfolded in Afghanistan as the Taliban have taken power. On the ground in Kabul, Charlotte, reporting for Al Jazeera won the admiration of the world as she fearlessly asked Taliban leaders about their intended treatment of Afghan women and girls under their strict interpretation of Sharia law.

One of just three women at the Taliban’s first press conference, her blonde hair poking out of her artfully draped headscarf as she sat surrounded by a sea of men, Charlotte asked the first question of the media scrum – can the women of Afghanistan be assured the right to continue to work, study and enjoy their current freedoms, or would the new government refuse females the right to work and study? They replied yes – within the limits of Islam.

Charlotte Bellis at the Taliban's first press conference
Charlotte (in red) front and centre at the Taliban’s first press conference

“I had no qualms about asking that question,” she says. “The Taliban have always treated me respectfully and they’ve never intimidated me. I’m surprised at the image of them around the world, that they’re so inhuman. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

“The easiest way for me to explain it is that the Taliban are like any political party. There are medieval brutes that you need to stay away from, there are politicians who will just tell you what you want to here, and then there are smart, authentic people who genuinely want to see betterment, and who just didn’t want Americans here. Those are the people that I have relationships with – they’re intelligent and rational and want to see Afghanistan improve.

“But, the question is, who will end up leading the movement? Is it those guys, or will it be the medieval brutes? And that’s why people are nervous.”

Just a few days ago, Charlotte left for work, passing Afghan soldiers at security checkpoints. When she returned home later that same day, they’d been replaced by Taliban fighters. The speed of the takeover has shocked the world – including the Taliban themselves. In fact, the United States thought it would take two years for Kabul to fall. It was closer to two days.

The images of Afghanis throwing themselves onto the wings of American Air Force planes, preferring to chance a slim survival clinging onto a plane’s fuselage rather than stay in Afghanistan, are truly ones of pure horror. Many people, especially foreigners, are clamouring to get out of the troubled country – except Charlotte.

“Yesterday I had a gun pointed at my head. I turned around and a Taliban fighter had a shotgun pointed at me from across the road.”

Charlotte Bellis

“Oh, I’m most definitely staying,” she tells. “There is a lot of ‘oh, I’m so worried about you, this is terrifying’ [from home], and I’m thinking, it’s not really terrifying. I’m kind of running on adrenaline now. I’m not too exhausted, I don’t feel scared. You just carry on.

“I mean, there are definitely moments. Yesterday I had a gun pointed at my head. I turned around and a Taliban fighter had a shotgun pointed at me from across the road. I stared back at him, he lowered his gun. We had a bit of a staring contest, and then I carried on with my work. There are some that will try and intimidate you, but at the moment I have a sense of security – but I also take a lot of precautions.”

What helps, explains Charlotte, is her very good working relationship with the Taliban’s leadership – and the fact that she’s a Kiwi.

“I have more confidence than most because I have good relations with the leaders, and I’m a New Zealander – and that is a massive help.

“In fact, they messaged me yesterday,” she says, again, jarringly casually and like it’s a total normal thing to get a text from the Taliban.

“They asked if it was true if New Zealand donated $3m for aid relief, which we did via the Red Cross– and they thanked me and said that New Zealand was truly a world leader in empathy. They granted me the first interview today and they said they’re giving it to me because they specifically want to thank New Zealand for offering humanitarian aid.”

Christchurch-born Charlotte has been working for Qatari-based news network Al Jazeera since 2017, following the collapse of Prime News’ newsroom. Faced with a fork in the road of her career, Charlotte knew she could play it safe – or head to the Middle East and work for the major international news organisation.

Now, Kevlar and helmets are just as common as blazers and blouses – and she absolutely loves her job.

“I bugged them for years to get them to send me [to Afghanistan],” she says.

“I feel like I’m doing something of value here.”

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