British Columbia

'I became an accidental reporter': UBC student recounts breaking stories from Afghanistan

Ruhullah Khapalwak, a student at the University of British Columbia, was a teenager in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he first fell into journalism.

Ruhullah Khapalwak fell into journalism as a teenage translator after fall of Taliban

Ruhullah Khapalwak has covered the war in Afghanistan for publications like the New York Times, Al Jazeera, National Geographic and CNN for more than a decade. (Submitted by Ruhullah Khapalwak )

Ruhullah Khapalwak, a student at the University of British Columbia, was a teenager in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he first fell into journalism.

He has since spent more than a decade covering the war, writing for publications like the New York Times, Al Jazeera, National Geographic and CNN.

"To be honest, I became an accidental reporter," said Khapalwak, who is currently pursuing a masters of journalism at UBC.

It was 2001 and the Taliban had just fallen.

Foreign journalists poured into Afghanistan to cover the regime change and subsequent conflict, a war that continues to drag on nearly 17 years later.

"They needed help,"  Khapalwak said. "I was lucky and could speak English. They hired me."

He began as an interpreter for international journalists but soon was chasing his own stories.

"As an Afghan, knowing the language, knowing the culture, it's always easier for me to pick up the story compared to a foreigner," he told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Ruhullah Khapalwak, right, standing next to a freelance photographer for the New York Times in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Ruhullah Khapalwak)

Breaking stories

Khapalwak  covered stories of corruption, civilian casualties and human rights violations. Some of those stories went viral and caused international reaction.

Early into his reporting career, Khapalwak got a tip that two unarmed Afghan taxi drivers had been brutally killed in a U.S. detention facility in Bagram. He pitched the story to the New York Times.

"A lot of people in New York could not even believe that a U.S. soldier could kill or murder a detainee," he said. "We had to persuade [the editors]. We had to push them that this is the story. We must pursue this."

The New York Times later published a major piece detailing the abuse of prisoners, the deaths of the two men at the Bagram centre and the U.S. military's response.

Khapalwak also worked on a subsequent Oscar-winning documentary about the story.

Future in journalism

As a journalist, Khapalwak said, he has always felt it was his duty to reveal the truth.

He hopes to return to Afghanistan once he finishes his UBC degree and use his education to pursue a leadership role in journalism as an editor or educator.

Khapalwak is giving a public lecture about his experience as a journalist in Afghanistan at the Vancouver Institute on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 8:15 p.m.

With files from The Early Edition.