KABUL, Afghanistan — It's not the risk of contracting COVID-19 that keeps journalist Fatima Roshanian home. It's the murders.
Roshanian scaled back her movements after she found her name on three different lists circulating on Afghan social media, claiming to be of people the Taliban want to kill. On one list, she's number 11.
"They are after people who are well-known, who are against the values of this society, who speak out," she says.
It's not the first time Roshanian has been threatened. She's offended plenty of conservatives in her life in her job as the editor of an Afghan feminist magazine, Nimrokh. It covers topics like sex, virginity, periods, marital affairs — all shocking by Afghan standards. But this time, she says, she's taking the threats more seriously, because "you see journalists and other people are being killed everyday, everywhere, on the streets, in their homes, in the bazaars."
Over the past six months, shadowy assassins have murdered influential and prominent Afghans, including journalists, human rights activists, judicial workers, doctors and clerics. The killings began escalating last September, when peace talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
It should have been a time marked by hope. Instead, the United Nations said in a February report that more than 700 people had been murdered in targeted killings in 2020. More than 540 were wounded. The U.N. noted it was a 45% increase in the number of civilian casualties compared to 2019. So far this year, more than 60 people have been the victims of targeted killings, according to an NPR tally of incidents reported by an Afghan violence monitoring site.
"It has been unprecedented," says Shaharzad Akbar, the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She says she's never seen anything like the scope of these assassinations, "in terms of how many people have been killed, in a short time period and how it hasn't stopped."
The killed include Faiz Mohammad Fayez, a religious scholar and university professor, gunned down earlier this month as he walked to a mosque for morning prayers. They include the surgeon Dr. Khalil-ur-Rahman Narmgo, who was gunned down in February.
They include prosecutor Mirwais Samadi, shot dead by gunmen while on his way to work; and television presenter Malala Maiwand, killed alongside her driver in December. Three other women from the same station where Maiwand worked were shot dead in March.
In response, one Afghan media rights group has flung up shelters for threatened journalists. "They don't have any safe place, so they come here," says Wahida Faizi of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. Faizi says the group is also distributing bullet-proof vests and helping some of those threatened leave the country.
Identifying the killers
It's not clear who is behind the carnage. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the murders of five women: Maiwand, her three colleagues and a doctor.
The U.S. and other Western nations blame the Taliban. "The Taliban bears responsibility for the majority of this targeted violence," noted a January statement from the U.S. embassy in Kabul signed by the European Union, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan and the diplomatic missions for 12 Western countries.
Many Afghans agree, like one feminist who requested anonymity because she recently received a death threat over Facebook. She believes it's because she helped women flee their violent husbands.
In an interview with NPR, she said it's no coincidence that the killings stepped up after Afghan peace talks began.
"The Taliban are demonstrating their power," she says, a way for them to flex their muscle in negotiations, while also silencing those who might disagree with them and their hard-line methods. "They are targeting journalists and civil society — people who can raise their voice. People who can tell the international community what is happening. They want to shut them up."
The Taliban deny responsibility. "This is a false propaganda of the enemy," said a spokesman, who uses the name Zabihullah Mujahid. He blamed Afghan government intelligence officials for the murders.
Roshanian thinks it's more complicated. She believes the death lists being shared on social media are actually worked up by locals: conservatives, Taliban sympathizers, people with grudges.
She thinks they're doxing for the Taliban — revealing the identities of people online in order to entice militants to harm them. "These lists tell the Taliban: these are the people who are making trouble, who are putting new thoughts in women's heads. They identify us so the Taliban can kill us."
Some caution other hands may be at work.
One cleric, Ustadh Abdul Salaam Abed, who survived a bomb blast that struck his vehicle, believes Afghan intelligence officials are also targeting people.
"Intelligence has a direct hand," he says. "There are people in the system who are scared of the nation's voices, scared of the coming peace," he says. He punctuated his conversation with nervous giggles, saying he could hear beeps on the line that he believed were a result of his phone being bugged.
Officials for the Afghan government declined to comment for this story.
Amnesty International recently criticized the government for not moving on the creation of a body that would protect human rights defenders. Other diplomats have said that while the government is investigating these murders, they have done little to communicate with victims' families or the media on the steps they are taking to address the violence.
A mission to intimidate
Akbar, from the human rights commission, says even if the killers are unknown, the intention is clear. "It's a deliberate attempt to kill people or scare them away from the country," she says. "Unfortunately, it has worked."
The killings are already impacting female reporters in particular. Faizi's organization recently published a report noting that more than 300 women — one-fifth of all who work in Afghan media — have quit their jobs as a result of the killings, and because of insecurities surrounding COVID-19.
They include a young reporter who requested anonymity because out of concern attention would trigger a death threat. She fought her family to become a reporter — a profession they said was not honorable for a woman. She found a job, but then the murders began. Fearing for her life, she quit. "Now the world feels dark," she tells NPR. "I am always thinking: what if this is permanent? What if I never work again?"
There's been other secondary victims of these killings, too. Karima Rahimyar, a school teacher and girls education activist, received threats over Facebook. She, defiantly, continues to work. But she pulled her own daughters out of university — until the danger passes, or until they can flee. "I'm scared for my daughters," she says.
Roshanian, the feminist magazine editor, now works from home, but her friends urge her to flee. "They all tell me, 'Fatima, the things you are doing right now for this country is useless. It won't impact anyone.'" She responds: "If you are thinking like this, and I start thinking like you – what will be left here?"
Hadid reported from Islamabad; Ghani from Kabul.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has just landed in Afghanistan in an unannouced visit, a country experiencing a troubling trend. Assassins have been killing some of the country's most influential people - journalists, human rights activists, judicial workers and doctors. The killings began escalating last September, when the Afghan government started peace talks with the Taliban. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Fatima Roshanian rarely leaves her house. But it's not the pandemic keeping her home. It's the murders. Roshanian runs a feminist magazine, Nimrokh. It covers topics like sex, virginity, periods, marital affairs - shocking stuff by Afghan standards.
FATIMA ROSHANIAN: (Through interpreter) My name appeared on three different lists on social media.
HADID: These are lists of people marked for murder. She shows the list to NPR producer Khwaga Ghani in Kabul.
KHWAGA GHANI, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken).
ROSHANIAN: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: On one list, she's No. 11. Roshanian's been threatened in the past, but this time, it's different. The U.N. estimates that more than 700 people have been murdered since September in targeted killings.
SHAHARZAD AKBAR: I think it has been unprecedented in terms of how many people have been killed in a short time period and how it hasn't stopped.
HADID: Shaharzad Akbar is the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She says in 40 years of war, she's never seen anything like the scope of these assassinations. They include a religious scholar gunned down in the street, a doctor killed in a targeted bomb blast, a prosecutor shot while going to work, a television presenter shot as she left work. Wahida Faizi is from the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. She says it's become so bad that they flung up shelters for threatened journalists.
WAHIDA FAIZI: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: Faizi says they're also distributing bulletproof vests, and they're helping some of those threatened leave the country. It's not clear who was behind the carnage. Most of the murders have gone unclaimed. Western countries blame the Taliban, and many Afghans agree, like this feminist. She recently received a death threat, so she's asked that we not use her name. She says it's no coincidence the killings stepped up after Afghan peace talks began.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: She says the murders are a way for the Taliban to flex their muscle during the negotiations. See, this is what we can do. And it silences those who are most likely to disagree with their hard-line methods.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They are targeting journalists and civil society, people who can raise their voice, people who can tell the international community what is happening. They want to shut them up.
HADID: The Taliban deny they're behind the killings. And Fatima Roshanian, who runs the women's magazine, thinks it's a bit more complicated. She thinks the death lists, like the ones she's appeared on, are being worked up by locals, conservatives, Taliban sympathizers and people with grudges. They're doxing for the Taliban.
ROSHANIAN: (Through interpreter) These lists tell the Taliban these are the people who are making trouble who are putting new thoughts in women's heads. They identify us so the Taliban can then kill us.
HADID: Some caution it might not just be the Taliban. One cleric who survived an assassination attempt says government intelligence officials are also targeting people. Others could be score settling. Akbar from the Human Rights Commission says regardless of who's behind the killings, the intention is clear.
AKBAR: It's a deliberate attempt to kill people or scare them away from the country. Unfortunately, it has worked.
HADID: Those who stay are shutting up. Some have quit their jobs. Roshanian, the feminist magazine editor, still works from home. But her friends are urging her to flee.
ROSHANIAN: (Through interpreter) They tell me the situation won't change with your writing and they'll kill you.
HADID: But she says if I go, who will be left to defend Afghanistan? Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.