The Current·Q & A

Mellissa Fung says Afghan women taught her resilience. Now she's trying to help them escape

Mellissa Fung didn't know how to respond when a family texted her asking if their situation was hopeless. The journalist has been trying to help vulnerable people escape Afghanistan; people she's met while reporting there.  

Afghan women don't trust Taliban promises they will respect women's rights, says journalist

Reporter Mellissa Fung with students at Sayed ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul, in 2018. (Aleem Agha/Submitted by Mellissa Fung)

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Mellissa Fung says she didn't know how to respond when she received a text from a family in Afghanistan asking her if their situation was hopeless.

The journalist has been trying to help vulnerable people escape Afghanistan; people she's met while reporting there.  

Canada said earlier this week that its mission to airlift those fleeing Taliban has come to an end. The government said it's helped evacuate more than 3,700 people from Kabul, but acknowledged that people hoping to return to Canada — including Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families — are still stranded.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau called on those still trapped in Afghanistan to not "lose hope" and said the government is seized with the task of getting more people out.

Fung was in the country last month making a documentary investigating the killings of Afghan women and girls for the news outlet Al Jazeera.

In 2008, she was kidnapped by armed men in Afghanistan while working as a reporter for CBC's The National. She was held captive for 28 days before being released.

Now she's trying to help people get out of the country. Here's part of her conversation with The Current's guest host Anthony Germain. 

I'd like to get your thoughts on the scenes from Kabul's airport yesterday, in the past week. What goes through your mind as you see the video and hear the stories? 

It's really hard to watch. Thankfully, I'm not really watching TV right now because I just haven't really slept in the last two weeks just trying to help people get out — people who have helped me in the past, contacts, friends who are just desperate to get out. 

And many of them did try to go to the airport and were turned away, and the frustration of not being able to help them, it's been really, really difficult to watch. 

Mellissa, what's your sense of the degree of hope that there is for the people who are still stuck there?

One of the families I'm trying to help, I got a text from her last night after the horrible bombing at the airport, and that text was just, you know, should I still even have hope? 

I don't know how to answer that, because I've been trying so hard to get her on that last plane to Canada and it was just really hard to see that plane take off and all these other people being left behind. 

And even a friend of mine who was helping with the Canadian evacuation sent me a text and he said, "I will never forget the faces of those people we left behind. It will haunt me for the rest of my life."

Fung with a student at a girls' school in Herat, 2015. (Sat Nandlall/Submitted by Mellissa Fung)

I think now we have to try to do everything we can to ensure that there is safe passage for those people who are left there and who can leave the country who do have visas to rejoin their families in Canada and elsewhere. 

We have to make sure that we engage with the Taliban in some way and they need to engage with us, too. There may be ways that we can keep that channel open, keep an air bridge open so that the people who are desperate to leave don't lose hope.

What's at stake for women under Taliban rule? 

Women have not forgotten, Anthony, what it was like between 1996 and 2001. You know, they were not allowed to go to school. They were not allowed to work. They had to wear full hijab. They could not leave their home without a male companion. 

If they committed anything that the Taliban considered a moral crime, they would be taken out and publicly whipped. Sometimes they would be beheaded. That's the fear. 

Women in the last 20 years, no matter what you think of the war and the international effort, have really come into their own. We educated a generation of women and those women are now at work. They've become judges, journalists, lawyers. 

U.S. Air Force officials load passengers aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 24. (U.S. Air Force/Reuters)

They've been allowed to have dreams the same way we do, [including] freedom to travel, to just go out and hang out with friends. And that's what they fear is being lost right now. 

In some of the places that the Taliban already controlled before they took the whole country, videos had emerged of similar beatings that had taken place back in the '90s: women being publicly beaten, girls were stopped from going to school. So it's already starting. 

The Taliban say that they changed and they've evolved and they continue to protect women's rights to work and be educated. But Afghan women don't trust the Taliban at all, and that's why so many of them are so desperate to leave. 

You've got a personal story of captivity back in 2008 when you were kidnapped while on assignment near Kabul and finally released. How does that experience inform your work as somebody who returned to the region to tell these kinds of stories about Afghan women? 

When my kidnappers released me, they said, never come back. And I couldn't not come back. I wasn't going to let them intimidate me, because Afghan women inspire me so much. They've been through so much and they continue to persist and persevere and push forward. 

Their successes, their setbacks, those stories were important to me because that was the story I had gone to tell when my kidnapping happened. I needed to persist as well, and so I kept going back just to make sure that they were still making progress. If they weren't, what was standing in their way? 

Fung interviewed girls who have escaped from the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram for her documentary, Captive. (Antica Productions)

To see what's happened now, it's really emotional for me because over the years, I've gotten to know so many women who have done so many amazing things. It's hard for me to know what to say to them now when they ask me, should I still have hope? I don't know what to say to them. 

So it is personal for me because I have a lot of relationships I've built over the last 15 years in that country, and every time I've gone back, I get a little closer to it. 

Written by Philip Drost with files from CBC News. Produced by Arianne Robinson.

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