Howard Altman: Afghan journalist struggles to work among hazards of his war-torn home

Afghan journalist Massood Sanjer is director of broadcast/acquisition for MOBY Group, his nation's largest media organization. Sanjer has faced so many death threats he had to send his family out of the country. [Courtesy of Massood Sanjer]
Afghan journalist Massood Sanjer is director of broadcast/acquisition for MOBY Group, his nation's largest media organization. Sanjer has faced so many death threats he had to send his family out of the country. [Courtesy of Massood Sanjer]
Published August 15 2018
Updated August 17 2018

From afar, Afghan journalist Massood Sanjer has been watching horrors unfolding in his homeland with great concern.

During his time here in the United States as part of a State Department-sponsored visit, the city of Ghazni was besieged by the Taliban and there were bloody attacks in Kabul, as well.

"Afghanistan’s security is getting worse," said Sanjer, via phone from Oregon. Now 40, he serves as the director of broadcast and acquisitions for MOBY Group, Afghanistan’s largest media organization.

Things were so bad that during the recent siege of the eastern city of Ghazni, in which scores of soldiers and civilians were killed, it took his TV crews 24 hours to travel a route that normally takes an hour.

"They were ambushed 17 times," said Sanjer, who came to my office along with several other Afghan journalists earlier this month. The troops they were accompanying stopped every meter to fight or clear mines.

It is a tough time for journalists in Afghanistan. In April, 10 were killed, including nine Afghans, in twin Kabul bomb blasts that killed dozens of others as well. All told, 45 journalists from around the world have been killed there since 1992, including 23 who were targeted for murder, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Sanjer knows first-hand about the dangers.

Three years ago, "the Taliban didn’t like a story we did, so they sent a suicide bomber with a car full of explosives that blew up one of our buses," said Sanjer. The blast killed seven and wounded about two dozen others.

About eight months ago, he was driving through Kabul when men on motorbikes started following him. They bumped his car with their bikes and at one point, one of the men got off and pointed a gun at Sanjer.

"I had no choice," he said. "I hit him with my car and ran away. There are many incidents like that in Kabul," said Sanjer, who works in a fortified compound and drives around in an armored vehicle accompanied by body guards.

Things got so bad that three years ago, he sent his wife and two sons to live in Turkey. A third son was born in Turkey.

He visits them every month, but it is not an easy way of life.

"My wife is always upset, she doesn’t like it. But there is no other choice at the moment."

Our conversation came on a day when newspapers around the United States, including this one, ran editorials decrying attacks on the media by President Donald Trump.

It was purely coincidence, a factor of crowded calendars, but an interesting juxtaposition nonetheless.

Sanjer said he found it "alarming" to see images of people in Tampa shouting at reporters during a recent Trump visit.

"I follow most of this on Twitter," Sanjer said. "I think this is very strange for me that in a democracy like the U.S., the president calls the media enemies of the people."

It is a rhetoric he worries might spur people to take action against journalists.

Five people were killed and two wounded on June 28 at the Capital Gazette in Maryland by someone with long-standing animosity toward the paper. While there is no apparent connection between that incident and the president’s Twitter outrages, many journalists have been threatened in the wake of Trump’s animosity. My paper is among many news organizations increasing security.

But for now, America remains a far safer place than Afghanistan.

"Our world is different than what is here," said Sanjer. "Our world is full of guns, bombs and corruption."

•••

Afghanistan remains a dangerous place for U.S. troops as well.

Staff Sgt. Reymund Rarogal Transfiguracion, 36, from Waikoloa, Hawaii, died Aug. 12 of wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near him while he was conducting combat patrol operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The incident is under investigation. Transfiguracion was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 53 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 55 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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