Footprints: ‘The sun will never set on TOLO’

Published January 29, 2016
TOLO reporter Shakeela Ebrahimkhel looks at Facebook posts incorrectly announcing her death in a Jan 20 suicide bombing that killed seven of her co-workers in Kabul.—Photo by writer
TOLO reporter Shakeela Ebrahimkhel looks at Facebook posts incorrectly announcing her death in a Jan 20 suicide bombing that killed seven of her co-workers in Kabul.—Photo by writer

Shakeela Ebrahimkhel had just finished editing a video report for TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster, when she got word of a suicide bombing near the Russian embassy in west Kabul.

The long-time reporter for the network ran downstairs to inform the director of news. When she arrived at the news desk she noticed that the report was already on the news crawl.

Though she had done her duty as a reporter, Ebrahimkhel could not shake the feeling that this was somehow not just another explosion along the oft-targeted Darulaman Road.

“Something in me was apprehensive.”

It was then that the entire newsroom was delivered a shocking blow.

“A bus from our office was headed in that direction,” Ebrahimkhel recalls overhearing.

Adding to her colleagues’ fears was the fact that their employer, TOLO TV, had been named in a direct threat by the Taliban last October.

Ebrahimkhel immediately phoned her colleague, Hasib, a cameraman, who had been aboard the bus. “‘I’m burning,’ that’s all he said.”

Still in disbelief, they called the driver of the bus carrying 32 employees of TOLO’s parent organisation, the Moby Group.

“It was the same, ‘I’ve been burned!’”

With initial reports that the blast had taken place near the Russian embassy, Ebrahimkhel held out hope that perhaps her colleagues were not the intended target.

“When we first called the ministry of public health, they said one person was killed and 28 others injured, we thought maybe our bus had just been passing through at the time of the blast.”

However, as the casualty count increased — seven dead and 25 injured — it became increasingly apparent that the TOLO staff were indeed the targets.

Then came the Taliban claim of responsibility.

The group — which had accused TOLO of broadcasting “false reports” about their activity in the northern city of Kunduz during their 15-day takeover of the city — said a suicide bomber from Kabul had been tracking the movements of the station’s workers for several weeks prior to the attack.

“We all knew there was a very real threat against us, but somehow I thought they wouldn’t act on it.”

But the real shock came when Abdul Rahman Rahimi, Kabul police chief, told reporters at the scene that all of the killed and injured were employees of Kaboora Productions, the division responsible for TOLO’s original programming.

Amid the camera flashes and passing cars, the dozens of journalists reporting from Darulaman Road that night all asked the same question:

“Why Kaboora?”

It is a question Ebrahimkhel says she is still unable to answer about the deaths of her colleagues — a graphic designer, a video editor, a set decorator, three dubbing artists and one driver, respectively.

“These were kind, hard-working people simply doing their jobs. They were just trying to provide for their families, they didn’t have much.”

Ebrahimkhel says she was especially close to two of the victims, Mehri Azizi, a 22-year-old graphic designer, and Mohammad Hussain, a driver.

The following day when she attended five of the burials, Ebrahimkhel saw first-hand the living conditions of her slain colleagues.

She was struck by the poverty.

“I knew Mohammad Hussain had a hard time making ends meet. He often said he didn’t have milk for his daughter or money to pay the electricity bill, but when I saw his house I realised his descriptions come nowhere near describing the kind of poverty he lived in.”

One government official who went to visit the victims’ families said she, too, was struck by the economic situation of workers of the nation’s most-watched television station.

“A member of the victim’s family told us his salary was only 10,000 afghanis [$176]. Another said their rent alone was 5,000 afghanis [$88].”

Saad Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group, TOLO’s parent company, said the company is determined to provide proper assistance to the families of the victims and is currently looking into the best methods to do so.

Amid the horror and grief of her colleagues’ deaths, Ebrahimkhel suddenly found herself in the most surreal experience of her life.

“When I got home a student of mine called, telling me to check Facebook.”

When she finally managed to log in, in the evening of what her colleagues have come to call “Black Wednesday”, she could not believe her eyes — photoshopped images of her with the caption “Ebrahimkhel is no more” were being shared across the social network.

There were even screenshots from a fake TOLO News Facebook page announcing her death that was being shared on Twitter.

“I was terrified … they even blurred my face,” Ebrahimkhel says as she stares at yet another incarnation of the image, which has only recently surfaced.

“I was sitting there with breath still in my body looking at people writing my funeral prayers for me.”

Ebrahimkhel quickly posted a status denying her death and urging friends and family not to spread the false reports.

As one of the nation’s most prolific reporters, Ebrahimkhel says she has been threatened on several previous occasions, but these images were especially disturbing given the fact that they were posted within hours of the deaths of her colleagues.

“My children tell me not to go to work anymore, to become a teacher, but now, more than ever, we must stay committed to reporting the truth.”

Ebrahimkhel said despite the difficulties and fears — the Taliban have vowed further attacks on TOLO and 1TV, another private broadcaster — she is proud of the network’s ability to pull together at such a trying time.

“We have an obligation to the people, the sun will never set on TOLO.”

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2016

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