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Few Clues to Helmand Journalist's Killers

Death of Abdul Samad Rohani sends shock waves through journalistic community, though not everyone holds Taleban responsible.
By Abaceen Nasimi
The journalists of Helmand gathered in the provincial centre Lashkar Gah on the morning of June 9 to say goodbye to their murdered friend and colleague, Abdul Samad Rohani, as some rejected the official government account that the Taleban were behind the killing of this respected BBC reporter.

Rohani’s body was being taken back to his home district, Marja, for burial – a journey that most of his colleagues could not make because of the security situation.

“All eyes were red,” said Aziz Ahmad Tassal, a journalist and friend of the deceased. “The governor, the chief of police, friends, relatives – everybody was there.”

Rohani, a BBC reporter, was abducted on June 7 and murdered. His body was then left in a nearby cemetery.

Friends and colleagues had been consumed with worry since news of his disappearance broke on the evening of June 7. Rohani’s wife, concerned that he had not come home for dinner, called a friend, who alerted the journalistic community.

From then on, journalists, police and even the Taleban embarked on an all-out search to find the missing reporter.

“It was about 10:30 on Saturday evening when I got a call,” said Aziz Ahmad Shafe, who worked with Rohani at the BBC. “I was very worried, and at midnight I called my office.”

Frantic phone calls and a determined search for information produced a detailed account of Rohani’s movements prior to his abduction, but yielded little in the way of answers.

At approximately 3 pm, Rohani left his home in Lashkar Gah to drive his sister and younger brother to the bus station, where they were catching a ride back to their home in Marja district. He then picked up a friend, whom he accompanied to their English class, and was with him until 5:30, when he dropped him off at a pharmacy to pick up medicine for the friend’s sick child.

According to Shafe, this friend reported that at about 4:20 pm, Rohani received a phone call.

“[Rohani’s] friend said that he got a phone call from someone who told him that there was to be a meeting at the airport at 6:00,” said Shafe. “Rohani kept saying, ‘Yes, rais sahib, yes, rais sahib.’”

“Rais” or “chief” is a title normally reserved for important functionaries.

At 5:45, Rohani drove to a petrol station to buy fuel, but the attendant told him he should come back in an hour.

The journalist was not seen alive again.

“Rohani was taken in the heart of the city, during the day,” said Shafe. “That is extremely worrying.”

Initial reports assigned blame to the Taleban. A press release from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture attributed the crime to “the black-hearted enemies of the country” – a standard phrase used for the Taleban insurgents. The ministry also erroneously reported that Rohani was “taken from his house in the night”, which if true would have been in keeping with Taleban tactics.

But according to journalists in Helmand, the Taleban said they were not involved.

“We were on the phone with [Taleban spokesman] Qari Yusuf from early morning until mid-afternoon on Sunday,” said Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, an IWPR reporter who was Rohani’s friend and colleague.

“They said they’d had nothing to do with it. They said they would try to help, but there was no result.”

Shafe, too, was also in contact with the Taleban spokesman.

“Qari Yusuf told me, ‘Don’t worry, I will try, my friends will try, and my other friends will try to find this guy. We are searching for him.’ And he told me he was very sorry,” said Shafe.

As the search continued, it was probably already too late.

At 4:30 pm on June 8, Shafe received a phone call from a man who did not identify himself.

“I asked him who he was, and he told me it was none of my business,” he said. “Then he said, ‘Go to the graveyard in Bolan and you will find Rohani’s dead body.’ The man said Rohani was killed on Saturday evening, on the same day he was taken.”

Shafe and several policemen went to Bolan, just over the Helmand river from Lashkar Gah. There, after some searching, he found Rohani’s body among the graves.

“His throat was slit in three places,” said Shafe. “The bloodstained knife was still there beside him. His body was all bruised – I think they were unable to kill him by cutting his throat, because they shot him in the head. There were four bullet casings around the body, and some cigarette butts. Rohani was killed in a very brutal way.”

As Shafe stood over the body, he received yet another phone call.

“I was just standing there, numb,” said Shafe. “They asked, ‘Did you find him?’ I said yes. I asked them again who they were, but they just cursed me and hung up.”

The body was taken to the Bost Hospital for an autopsy.

The outpouring of grief and anger that followed was testament to Rohani’s unique position among Helmand’s journalists. A true professional, his balanced, careful reports had done much to expose the troubled state of his native province.

“There is a big story to tell in Helmand,” said Andres Ilves, head of the BBC’s Persian and Pashto Service, speaking to the World Service. “Unfortunately, someone killed the storyteller.”

Jan Gul, head of the department of information and culture in the Helmand provincial administration, told IWPR that Rohani was the cream of Helmand’s press corps.

“He was a very good journalist, brave and patriotic,” said Jan Gul. “I gave him the title ‘Sardar’ [Chief]. I told all the other reporters, ‘Look at Rohani, look at his reports. He is balanced and professional; he shows the realities on the ground.’”

Rohani’s colleague Dayee recalled, “I will never forget how he used to tell me, ‘Never send your report until it is accurate.’ He told me to check it and recheck it. His job was his highest priority.”

But it was probably Rohani’s profession that got him killed. Most of his colleagues are convinced the young journalist was targeted because of his reporting.

In this volatile province, there is no shortage of suspects. As centre of the opium poppy industry, Helmand boasts drug traffickers, smugglers, corrupt officials and petty warlords, all of whom have interests to protect.

“Besides the armed Taleban here in Helmand, we have government terrorism, there are smugglers networks, and there are other powerful people who destroy everything for their own benefit,” said Dayee. “It is quite possible that some of Rohani’s reports touched on the activities of these smugglers, in relation to some of the authorities.”

Rohani was just 25, the oldest son in a family of seven children. He was married with two children – two-year-old daughter Zahra, and a five-month-old son, Emran.

No matter who emerges as the prime suspect, Helmand’s journalists have been left reeling by this murder.

“I no longer feel safe in Lashkar Gah,” said Shafe.

The reporters say they will not be intimidated. But even the bravest among them are feeling the pressure.

“I have promised to do my job,” said Tassal. “I will do even more than that. But every time I leave the house, my parents beg me not to go. They are afraid I will be killed. I think all journalists are in the same situation.”

Abaceen Nasimi is an IWPR journalist in Kabul. Hafizullah Gardesh, IWPR’s local editor in Kabul, also contributed to this report.

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