Sultan Mohammed Munadi: Shining a light in darkness

On my first trip to Kabul for CPJ in July 2006, I met Sultan Mohammed Munadi at The New York Times bureau. Munadi, who was killed today, was working on a story when I walked in, but he took time to help me find a driver. 

For the next 10 days or so I rattled around the city in a beat-up Corolla with a broken windshield and worse shocks. The driver, also Mohammed, spoke no English, and I found that resorting to my road-block Arabic didn’t help much. So Munadi was at the top of our speed dials when we needed to communicate.

One noon it turned out that Munadi was only a block away when we called for help. He suggested we all have lunch, which we did in an Indian restaurant. I learned that driver Mohammed, wiry, grizzled, with a slight limp, wearing the traditional kalwar shameeze that was in about the same frayed condition as his Corolla, had been a fighter, an “RPG boy,” for Ahmed Shah Massoud, one of the factional leaders who waged war against the Russians. We all spoke of our families, of our children. It took a lot of explaining from me to get them to understand what CPJ was all about— I think they were both skeptical. With Munadi’s help the talk flowed easily and naturally. It was a great lunch, not for the food but for the company.

If you want to get a sense of Munadi, read his blog entry on The New York Times Web site. The full text is at “Hell? No. I Won’t Go,” but here’s a quote that reflects what men, and women, who work as journalists in Afghanistan are all about:

. . . at the age of 34, it is difficult to be away from my country. I would not leave Afghanistan. I have passed the very darkest times of my country, when there was war and insecurity. I was maybe four or five years old when we went from my village into the mountains and the caves to hide, because the Soviets were bombing. I have passed those times, and the time of the Taliban when I could not even go to Kabul, inside my country. It was like being in a prison.

In the year-end essay I wrote for the 2006 edition of our annual Attacks on the Press, I quoted Carlotta Gall, the Times’ Kabul bureau chief. The situation was bad in Afghanistan and getting worse, but she still saw an opportunity for a turnaround. I quoted her as saying: “The ruthlessness has increased over the year and has been specifically aimed at intimidating people. Will this become like Chechnya where journalists were attacked outright? I’m waiting to see.”

Right now, I worry that time may be arriving.