Rahimullah Yusufzai in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 1996 | Facebook
Rahimullah Yusufzai in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 1996 | Facebook

It’s always a daunting challenge to encompass in words the personality and contributions of a man such as Rahimullah Yusufzai. I had been struggling with this idea for some time anyway, ever since I thought of writing a book about him. But now my hand has been forced by his passing on September 9, a day short of what would have been his 67th birthday. I still don’t consider myself fit for the job but what pushes me is the immense inspiration I received from the man himself.

I had looked up to Rahimullah Yusufzai Sahib since my school days. We both belong to the tehsil of Katlang in District Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As a young student, it was more than exciting for me to tune into BBC radio service and listen to the voice of someone belonging to my corner of the world, giving news to the rest of the world outside. I followed his reporting, reading his news stories that were printed in the The News. Having a passion for writing myself, I tried to emulate him. When an article I wrote appeared in Dawn, Rahimullah Sahib encouraged me greatly and told me to keep writing.

I wish that, like the great epic writers, I could invoke a muse to paint in words the larger-than-life personality that was Rahimullah Sahib. During his 15-month illness with cancer, when I would visit him, he told me that he had started writing three books, but regretted being unable to complete them due to his weakness.

At Rahimullah Yusufzai’s burial in his native village of Inzargai, earlier this week, I approached two of his school classfellows, Col (r) Muhamad Khalid and Col (r) Zahoor Hussain. “I feel like a part of my body has left me,” said Col Khalid, choked with grief. “We studied together at Military College Jhelum for three years, from class 8 to 10. We lived at Tipu Sultan House where we learnt together how to walk and talk and play games,” he recalled in voice full of pain.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, who passed away on September 9, was the go-to expert for the world on all matters related to Afghanistan and Pakhtun society. But his real legacy was his sagacity, generosity and strength of character

Col Zahoor remembered Rahimullah Sahib as “a true sportsman”. “He used to play basketball and cricket very well,” he shared.

But what every one of his associates agree on is that Rahimullah Yusufzai’s real calling was in gathering news. “Rahimullah was a window to Afghanistan for the West and for journalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan for four decades,” said Nafees Takar, service chief of VOA, in a note sent to me over the phone. Professor Abaseen Yusufzai, president of the Pashto Academy in Peshawer and who was present at the funeral, said that God had sent Rahimullah Yusufzai for playing the role of a journalist, revealing the truth to the world, and for safeguarding journalistic values.

Khalid Khan, Rahimullah Yusufzai’s younger brother, shares that were his brother not a journalist he would have been an army officer. He tried for the army in 1972 but was not accepted due to his weak eyesight. But the army’s loss turned out to be journalism’s gain, and his profession earned him the nickname ‘General of Journalism’ among his friends, says Khalid Khan.

That Rahimullah was an enduring influence in journalism is beyond doubt. He elevated journalism in Pakistan and worldwide by maintaining the best ethical standards for reporting and offering political analyses par excellence. His coverage of the wars in Afghanistan since 1979 and after 9/11 speaks volumes of his journalistic craftsmanship and courage as well as the respect he commanded from all sides in difficult times. He interviewed Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, twice — the first time in May 1998. He also interviewed Taliban leader Mullah Omar in February 1995 and then, subsequently, 12 more times.

Rahimullah Yusufzai was working as the Resident Editor of The News in Peshawar at the time of his death. He was also a correspondent of BBC’s Pashto, Urdu and English services in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Previously, he had also served as Time’s Pakistan correspondent and was a regular contributor to the erstwhile news magazine Newsline, among many other local and international publications. The government of Pakistan awarded him the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in 2005 and the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2010 in the recognition of his achievements in the field of journalism.

Television anchor Saleem Safi of Geo News, while talking to Eos at Rahimullah Yusufzai’s residence, pointed out that “Rahimullah Yusufzai laid the foundation of true journalism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and he diverted the attention of Pakhtuns towards journalism.”

Ismail Khan, the Resident Editor of Dawn in Peshawar, who also accompanied Rahimullah to when he interviewed bin Laden, remembers him similarly. “I have never seen such a hardworking journalist in my life,” he says. “He would travel to far-flung areas for news, risking his own life to uncover the truth, searching for facts and figures and reliable sources.”

Mushtaq Yusufzai, a journalist associated with The News and Rahimullah Yusufzai’s nephew, regards his uncle and mentor as an irreplaceable professional and individual. “In my 21 years of association with Rahimullah Yusufzai, I never found him compromising his profession. He was fair and fearless. He would transmit all these qualities to those who worked with him,” Mushtaq acknowledged.

But Rahimullah Yusufzai’s rise to the stature he commanded came with a lot of sacrifices. He was born to a lower-middle class family in Katlang. His father served in the Pakistan Army and was imprisoned in an Indian camp while fighting in East Pakistan in 1971. Because of financial challenges the family faced during his father’s two years’ imprisonment, Rahimullah Sahib had to discontinue his education after completing his bachelor’s degree.

He took a part-time job with an English newspaper The Sun as a proofreader in Karachi and was promoted to the position of a sub-editor later on. After the newspaper was shut down during Gen Zia’s martial law, he joined the English daily The Muslim in Peshawar. Later, when the Peshawar edition of The News was launched in 1991, Rahimullah Yusufzai joined it as an editor.

Rahimullah Sahib had roots in the rural areas and he was passionate about the marginalised rural people. He had seen poverty himself and he had a burning desire to help overcome it for the vast majority. This desire was greatly ingrained in him and he was readily drawn to civil society organisations and causes that were at the forefront of such efforts.

Shoaib Sultan Khan, the founder of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and its clone the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), held Rahimullah Yusufzai in high esteem. “I met him in the board meetings of SRSP and it became a source of immense pleasure meeting him every time,” he recalls. “A more sophisticated, gentle, highly intelligent man with not an iota of arrogance, I have yet to come across in journalism. His analysis of events would be so objective and insightful that one had to agree with every word he said.”

Recalling his contributions to SRSP, its CEO Masood-ul Mulk says, “Mr. Yusufzai’s presence on the board brought a lot of wisdom to it. His knowledge, experience and guidance will be dearly missed.”

During his last days, Rahimullah Yusufzai’s eldest son, Arshad Yusufzai, remained close to him and the father would share everything with his son. “My father told me of three wishes he had in the last days of his life,” Arshad discloses. “Firstly, he wanted to see the marriages of some orphan girls in his area. Secondly, he wanted to contribute to some welfare activities, such as the construction of mosques, water supply schemes, etc., which he had committed to. Thirdly, he wanted to see the marriage of his youngest son, whose wedding was postponed just one week before his death,” he said.

For us, the enduring legacy of Rahimullah Yusufzai is the countless individuals whom he generously trained, across the country, in the field of journalism. “Men like Rahimullah Yusufzai are born once in centuries, but we all are his students and we would continue his mission of upholding the truth in a befitting manner,” Hamid Mir, a senior journalist of Jang group, said emotionally at his funeral.

“Today we weep,” said Prof. Abaseen Yusufzai at the funeral, “because the fountain of learning has stopped for us.”

The writer is a rural development professional and Master in European Studies from Germany. He can be reached at ijazsrsp@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021

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