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Follow Friday: @combatjourno, live-tweeting battle in Afghanistan

In a country bound by government-related media restrictions, live-tweeting breaking news is both a sensible and revolutionary act, says Mustafa Kazemi.

In 2012, Afghan journalist Mustafa Kazemi (@combatjourno) made global headlines when he live-tweeted a fire-fight between Afghan authorities and Taliban insurgents at a hotel outside Kabul. The method may not have been anything new, but its use by a war correspondent in the heat of battle was. Kazemi told Crikey that live-tweeting remains his preferred method of reporting the ongoing conflict in his country.

Reading a long article or even opening a link is nowadays somehow boring for the reader,” Kazemi said, “especially when they can read about what’s happening in the world without ever leaving their timeline.

This method of reporting may have existed before I started using Twitter five years ago,” he said, “but I was not aware of it. When I first went out to live-tweet an incident, I didn’t know that it was going to become a common way of reporting the war.”

An article is a summary of incidents that have already happened and that has been put together after the fact,” he said. “This can be interesting for some readers, while others prefer the instant awareness afforded by a live-tweeted report.”

Both are valid forms of journalism and both have their positive and negative points. An article is often more professional and considered than social media coverage. But it also gives editors an opportunity to censor certain information if required or if they are forced to. Live coverage is safe from this.”

Kazemi said that he tried not to overthink things before going into combat. It was easier just to “grab some body armour, a couple of cell phones and some water and rush to the scene,” he said.

Trying to prepare yourself mentally for combat can actually get you killed,” he said. “Being overly concerned with your safety becomes a distraction. A journalist who goes out and covers incidents from one day to the next should know how to cover himself while still being able to use his phone to write updates.”

The 28-year-old was born in Kabul during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, “when Kabul was hammered with Luna and Scud rockets and hundreds of people were dying daily.”

My father was expelled from Kabul by the Soviet-backed regime when I was one year old,” he said. “I grew up in south-western Afghanistan, in Nimruz province, and attended a few years of school there until the Taliban took over and all the schools were closed.” The Taliban later forced the family to leave Nimruz province on religious grounds.

If there is anyone to thank for Kazemi’s vocation — as well as for the fact that he reports in English — it is undoubtedly his father.

My father, who’s a medical doctor, taught me and my younger brother English from about the time that I was seven or eight,” he said. “I didn’t receive any professional tutoring. After the Taliban fell, I finished school, joined the United Nations as a national staff member, entered the military, and eventually received a scholarship and a college degree from India. Since graduation, I’ve been a journalist.”

The experience of living under the Taliban continues to have a profound effect on Kazemi, who has recently begun to explore his feelings in ‘Taliban Memories’, a series of articles on his blog. The pieces make for some harrowing reading. In one, Kazemi remembers how Taliban mullahs at his madrasa would inspect the boys’ genitalia to ensure that their pubic area was shaved. In another, he tells of witnessing Taliban justice first-hand:

The accused was guarded by 5-7 Talibs and a team of doctors from the main hospital was coming through [to him]. They made the accused lay on the ground. Two Talibs sat by his head and two others kept his legs tight. He was calm and wasn’t even shouting or trying to escape, which surprised me. I was standing somewhere in the middle of the crowd holding my turban and my books in my hand and watching it. It was summer, very hot, and the sun was burning my bald head. […] The doctors started sanitising the man’s wrist. They then applied an injection in the man’s wrist, which I believed was an anaesthetic agent in order to prevent or decrease the pain. The man would die of pain without this.

Five minutes later, the doctors got to work, Kazemi wrote. They were done within moments.

[T]he doctors dislodged the hand from the wrist using moves to detach the bones from the joint. They threw the cut hand a [metre] away from the man. The Talibs then took the cut-away hand [and painted it black]. The man was apparently unconscious when the operation was over. He was then taken to the bazaar and was shown to the public. The Talibs chanted slogans saying that “if you do anything against the Islamic rules, this will happen to you too.”

The main reason I started writing about what I suffered and witnessed during the Taliban’s rule is that it helps me to cope with the memories,” Kazemi said. “I regularly experience nightmares about those years.”

At the same time, those years also made him who he is today.

Among all the adventures I have experienced in my life, those years remain the most exceptional,” he said. “I learned a lot, suffered a lot, and I still keep learning things from the memory. This is why I always choose to write about the boldest stories, such as the one about the man’s hand.”

While Kazemi remains committed to Afghanistan, he said he’s open to covering conflict elsewhere in the world as well.

My coverage of Afghanistan has been not-for-profit ever since I stopped writing for news outlets,” he said. “I don’t receive any income from this. Not a single penny. If I was given the chance to go to another conflict zone to cover other stories, I wouldn’t hold back. A good journalist should be a global citizen and I intend to live up to this ideal to the extent that it is possible for me to do so.”

@combatjourno respectfully declined to offer his own #FF recommendations.

*Read more of Mustafa Kazemi’s thoughts on the withdrawal of US troops and the cost of war on the website…      

On the US withdrawal from Afghanistan…
Of all the challenges that ordinary Afghans will face after the 2016 withdrawal, sustaining the economy is the most important. Then comes security: Afghan forces will need further training and mentoring to be able to secure the country independently. For Afghans who are awake and aware of the country’s situation, the main legacy of the war will be the desire to work hard towards a better place, everyone in their own field: doctors for patients, the military for everyone, police for law and order, journalists for awareness, and so on.

 Much has been gained since 2001 that cannot even be described in a page or two, and whether or not those gains can be sustained all depends on the economy and security situations. Sustaining these is the key to sustaining the achievements of the past 13 years. If our government and its allies act carelessly in these areas, I can guarantee that the changes of the past 13 years will rolled back and wiped clean in 13 months.

On the emotional toll of the war…
My generation was born in war and grew up in war. My father often recalls a tendency that he saw in me from about the time that I was eight months old: I always wanted to see the gunshots at night, all the explosions. This has had a lasting effect. I have issues with showing my emotions, trouble with expressing happiness or sadness. I mean it literally when I say that my emotions and feelings are dead. That’s the sheer truth of it. I can’t fall in love with anyone. I can’t show genuine sadness in the face of a tragedy. I can blame nothing but war for this. This is the legacy of the war for me.

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  • 1
    Brian Williams
    Posted Friday, 13 June 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Every now and then in Crikey I read something that moves me in ways that had never happened to me before. Reading this has been another of those occasions

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