My journey to defend human rights in Afghanistan

Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, was last week awarded the Afghanistan Simurgh Human Rights Award by the Arman Shahr Foundation – an annual prize given to a human rights defender who has done exceptional work in highlighting rights issues in Afghanistan. Here Horia reflects on how she became an activist and the future of human rights in the country.

My life started with war. I was born in 1973, just a few years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which triggered the decades of conflict that have gripped my home country ever since. I sometimes feel as if I’ve known and seen nothing but human rights violations and atrocities since I was a child. But it was also witnessing this injustice first hand that set me on a path to activism.

I’ll never forget the morning of 27 April in 1978, when the communist Saur revolution happened and my life changed forever. In Herat – my home town in western Afghanistan – we woke up to the sound of gunshots. It was the first time in my life I had seen my parents scared. My father, who was working for the government at the time, spent hours listening to the radio until there was an official announcement and his face went pale. “There has been a coup d’etat,” he told my mother.

From then on, my father more or less stopped leaving the house. Visits from friends, night parties and poetry readings in our house all but stopped. Talk of politics – which before used to dominate our dinner conversations – also ended. At night, my father would turn off the lights and listen to BBC radio in secret, terrified that someone would catch him and inform on him.

It was chilling to see the effects of repression at such an early age. I often asked myself how listening to the radio could be dangerous?

Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher

It was chilling to see the effects of repression at such an early age. I often asked myself how listening to the radio could be dangerous? Why were people being killed for speaking out, or for supporting a particular party?

When the Soviet army invaded in 1979, it unleashed civil war in Afghanistan. The resistance mujahedin fighters – backed by Saudi Arabia, the US and other Western governments – took the fight to the Red Army. Both sides committed horrific atrocities. Afghanistan was a relatively modern country in the early 1970s, but in the 1980s it became more and more conservative and the situation for women became much more repressive.

I have many memories from the 1980s when Afghanistan descended into chaos, most of them bad. I saw my father pay off mujahedin commanders simply so they wouldn’t harm his children because they were going to school. He quit his government job, unable to continue working for a regime that so flagrantly violated human rights. My male class mates were forced into the military from the age of 16. The war killed students, teachers, civil servants and ordinary Afghans.

In school I started speaking out against the policies of the Russian-backed government, until one of my teachers took me aside to tell me that my opinions could cost me my education, freedom, or worse.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, it didn’t take long for the central government to fall. The mujahedin seized power in 1992, triggering one of the bloodiest periods in Afghan history. Kabul, where my family and I were living at the time, suffered daily shelling and attacks from rival mujahedin factions vying for power. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. In 1993, my worst nightmare came true when a rocket hit our home and killed my brother.

When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, they were welcomed by many war-weary Afghans who wanted nothing but stability and peace. Instead, even more repression followed. Once, I was severely beaten by one of the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue police officers simply for lifting my burqa to look at a piece of fabric.

My young family and I fled to Pakistan in 1995, where I was working as a journalist for an international news agency. I filed numerous reports about the atrocities the Taliban and other armed groups were committing.

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban, I returned to the country. I continued my work as a journalist, documenting human rights abuses committed by the warlords and mujahedin commanders who were still operating openly in my country – many of them had been given a veneer of legitimacy and were part of the new government. Despite the countless threats I received, I never gave up my struggle to tell the truth.

I also established the first War Victims Network in Afghanistan, giving survivors a chance to tell their stories in local media, and organised demonstrations to call for truth and justice.

My activism angered the wrong people. Between 2006 and 2008, there were escalating and serious threats against my life, which soon affected my family. My husband survived a shooting, there were three attempts to kidnap my children, and my home was broken into twice. It eventually became too dangerous for me to stay in Kabul – in 2008, I was evacuated with the help of Amnesty International, where I eventually ended up working.

Today, I am based in London but travel back to Afghanistan frequently. I never know for certain if I will see my husband or children again when I get on the flight to Kabul. But despite all the hardships they have suffered because of my work, they have never stopped supporting me.

I will keep fighting for a better Afghanistan for as long as I can. I believe that Afghans deserve a better future where their human rights are respected and protected, and I will not give up until this dream comes true. The Simurgh Human Rights Award I received today is not just a recognition of myself and Amnesty International, but for the countless of brave men and women in Afghanistan and across the world who share this dream.