Four members of the Noorani family — (from left) Laila, Dordana, Shiraz, and Ghazal — are staying on a U.S. military base in Indiana after their evacuation from Afghanistan. (Photo: Noorani family)

After a harrowing escape, a family of Afghan journalists prepares for a new life in the US

The day Kabul fell to the Taliban, was the “end of the line for us as journalists,” said Shiraz Noorani. That day, August 15, 2021, was when the Nooranis, a family of five current and former Afghan journalists, decided to flee the country.

Four months later, four of the Nooranis — siblings Shiraz, Ghazal, and Laila, and their mother Dordana— are staying at a U.S. military base in Indiana, where they spoke to CPJ via video call about their harrowing evacuation. Another sibling, Basir, awaits them in California.

Dordana’s late husband, Dad Noorani, was the first family member to become a journalist. In 2005, he founded two newspapers, Tariqi and Peshraw, as part of Afghanistan’s “media revolution” that followed the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001. Dordana became chief editor of Farah, a women’s magazine.

Shiraz, Ghazal, and Laila followed in their parents’ footsteps, as journalists working for state or private media. Their brother, Basir, worked as a reporter at the independent Radio Killid and started the now defunct monthly newspaper Awaz 21 before taking a job with the U.S. government in Afghanistan.

Even before the Taliban takeover this year, the family knew the risks of practicing journalism in Afghanistan. Dordana left the field in 2018 after receiving threats from warlords with ties to the Taliban because of the focus of the women’s magazine, she said.

More recently, her children also received threats, prompting the family’s decision to leave Afghanistan.

In May, two unidentified men wearing masks flashed a knife at Ghazal while she was walking to the office of state-run Maarif TV, where she was a producer for an education program and a women’s talk show. They warned her to stop going to work and “campaigning for women’s rights,” she said.

Then in early August, Laila, then a reporter and producer at Radio Killid, said that Taliban members added her to a WhatsApp group. Messages sent to the group pressured journalists to publish positive stories about the Taliban, which was quickly advancing on Kabul.

Around the same time, Shiraz, then a news writer at Peshraw, the publication his father founded, said he received an anonymous phone call warning him against starting a blog about families affected by Taliban attacks. Shiraz had discussed the project with friends.

The caller also said, without elaborating, that he “knows about” Shiraz’s sisters.

Bilal Karimi, the Taliban deputy spokesperson in Afghanistan, did not respond to CPJ’s messaging app request for comment on the threats.

The Afghan government collapsed soon after Shiraz got the call, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. When Shiraz heard the news, he rushed home from the Peshraw office. As long lines formed outside banks, the family stocked up on food and supplies, locked the doors, and stayed home.

After Basir left the country on a special immigrant visa for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government, the other four family members searched for their own way out. They, like scores of other Afghan journalists, approached CPJ for help. CPJ emailed them to let them know about an opportunity to evacuate with a foreign government that same day, but they were stymied by crowds and traffic and never made it onto the flight.

They spent the night with a relative, afraid to return to their home in a central Kabul neighborhood which had been overrun with Taliban troops. After the relative fled the country, the four lived in their car for two days, driving around areas of Kabul with limited Taliban presence. With just 2,000 Afghanis (US$24) in their pockets as the banking system began to collapse, they survived on biscuits and juice.

On August 25, Shiraz, Ghazal, Laila, and Dordana joined thousands outside the airport trying to flee the country. As the family inched its way through the crowd, Shiraz helped his sisters and mother navigate a canal filled with sewage water.

Then, a “miracle” happened, as Shiraz described it. One of Laila’s former colleagues at Radio Killid, who was working as a translator with U.S. troops, spotted her and offered his help to facilitate the family’s entry into the airport.

Without documents indicating official permission to travel, they desperately showed the translator the email from CPJ regarding the previous evacuation opportunity. A U.S. marine accompanying the translator allowed them into the airport, where they joined a group of Afghans waiting for evacuation by the U.S. government.

Yet hope was still a “dangerous thing,” Shiraz said. “We were still in Afghanistan. Anything was possible.”

The Nooranis — (from left) Shiraz, Ghazal, Dordana, and Laila — as pictured on the evacuation flight from Afghanistan to Qatar in August 2021. (Photo: Noorani family)

The four slept on the airport floor and the next morning they were escorted onto a U.S. military plane, with no idea of their destination. Laila began to cry. When other passengers asked why, she told them she was afraid of flying. “It was not just that reason,” Laila said. Overwhelmed by the evacuation process, the four were terrified that the Taliban would shoot down the plane.

They arrived at a U.S. military base in Doha, Qatar, learning of their location only in conversation with Afghans who had arrived before them. They felt relief, they told CPJ, but also anxiety about their future. And they grieved too, when they learned of the August 26 explosions around the Kabul airport that killed at least 175 people, among them a family friend. The family had passed through the site of one explosion at Abbey Gate just the day before.

“We were the lucky ones. I saw the other people that were left behind,” Ghazal said.

The family spent a week in Qatar, struggling to sleep in a noisy, blisteringly hot hangar filled with around 2,000 people, before being moved to a U.S. military base in Bahrain. After two days in Bahrain, they boarded another U.S. military flight. Again, they did not know their destination. They guessed it might be Germany, where other Afghans on the base had been relocated, but watched in confusion as the flight map showed them leaving Europe behind.

The actual destination was Washington, D.C. where they were granted humanitarian parole.

The U.S. State Department and Department of Defense did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.

A few hours after their arrival, the four were moved to Camp Atterbury, a U.S. military training post in Indiana, where they remain after completing a five-step screening process which will allow them to stay in the U.S. for two years. The four told CPJ they have grown bored and restless at the camp while they await relocation through a non-governmental organization to California, where they plan to reunite with Basir.

At the camp, women and men sleep on bunk beds in separate barracks, where they are required to report by the nightly 10 p.m. curfew. The family spends its days taking cultural introduction and English courses. Adjusting to “boiled” food on the base, they miss Afghan food, especially kabuli pulao, a steamed rice dish that is Dordana’s specialty.

The Nooranis still worry about their journalist colleagues left behind in Afghanistan, who continue to contact them seeking advice on how to leave the country.

Afghanistan’s media was considered one of the region’s greatest success stories in recent years. Hundreds of news outlets flourished, often serving as government watchdogs to fill the void left by the lack of an institutionalized opposition.

Under Taliban rule, “the first thing Afghan journalists lost was their freedom. It’s very hard to think that tomorrow, maybe in future, they can’t take it again,” Shiraz said, noting that journalists risk detention and beatings if they write critically about the Taliban.

As the Taliban took female state T.V. anchors off the air and began to restrict the role of women in the media, Laila said she realized the work of women in the media is “finished” — a full reversal of the recent progress they made.

“I cannot trust the Taliban,” said Ghazal. “What they are saying is different from their actions.”

Even as they face an uncertain future in the United States, Laila, Ghazal, and Shiraz have all vowed to continue telling the story of their country.  

Laila plans to write about the plight of Afghan refugees and her journey to Indiana. Ghazal wants to report on the “good things” in Afghanistan, like the infrastructure built before the 2021 Taliban takeover. Shiraz hopes to work with Persian-language media outlets in the U.S., and to finally launch the blog that he received the threatening phone call about — called “Vendetta.”

Meanwhile, they hold out hope that one day they will return to the country they left behind.

“When I want to go back to Afghanistan,” said Laila, “I want to be there as a journalist.”

[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its seventh paragraph to accurately reflect Ghazal’s location where she was intimidated.]