It is a grim irony when a journalist like Sardar Ahmad, so determined to show the world that Afghanistan is not just a war zone, dies with his wife and two of his three children as a result of extremist violence.
Ahmad and his family were enjoying a meal in the Hotel Serena in Kabul on 20 March, celebrating the Persian New Year, Nawruz, when four young gunmen opened fire. Nine people died, including Ahmad, his wife Homaira, their six-year-old daughter Nilofar and five-year-old son, Omar. Two-year-old Abuzar suffered severe injuries and was reported to be in a coma but survived the attack.
Ahmad became a journalist in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban regime, when he started work as a translator for Japanese journalists. Two years later the AFP news agency hired him to cover daily press conferences in the US army base in Bagram. He duly perfected his English and his career as a reporter took off.
Over the years Ahmad built up a series of strong sources among Afghanistan's complex, tumultuous political life from all sides of the conflict, reporting regularly for AFP as well as running Pressistan, an agency which helped foreign journalists find their feet in Afghanistan. But apart from his versatility and widely respected political journalism, Sardar Ahmed had a striking ability also to find original 'human interest' stories which had little or nothing to do with the conflict, and which allowed him to portray life in Afghanistan beyond the violence.
His final article, published two days before his death, was the perfect example: it recounted the tale of the lion cub Marjan, originally kept as a pet in appalling conditions on a Kabul rooftop. The lion, now rescued and fit and well after five months of rehabilitation, was recently presented as the new star of the capital's zoo and renamed after the first Marjan, a lion who was, as Sardar Ahmad reported, "a symbol of Afghanistan's national survival after living through coups, invasions, civil war and the hardline Taliban era, before dying in 2002."
His ability to find stories from all sides of Afghan life, as well as a well-earned reputation for objectivity in a country with deep social and political fault-lines, helped cement Ahmad's unofficial status as one of Afghanistan's senior reporters. At the same time, he was a family man who loved home cooking, fishing, Afghan poetry and music, as well as taking his children to Kabul's only bowling alley.
"Afghan politicians and officials, army generals, Nato spokesmen, US embassy staff, aid workers, balloon sellers – no one was immune to the Sardar magic," wrote AFP's senior reporter in Afghanistan, Ben Sheppard wrote. "And AFP's expatriate correspondents frankly adored him as he saved us again and again by getting a key police quote, setting up an important interview or calling in the middle of the night with a breaking story.
"Intellectually curious, energetic and always on the lookout for an opportunity, he loved Twitter, Facebook and his new camera-phone, which was his latest obsession – tweeting pictures of street scenes around Kabul with a sense of fun and wonder at the world around him."
The death of Ahmad and his family sparked outrage as well as grief among his many friends in the local media, who made a collective statement on Facebook announcing a 15-day boycott on interviews with the Taliban before adding "We also ask... for an explanation of how they justify the shooting from a close-range of innocent children."
A spokesman for the groups, who quickly claimed responsibility for the attack on the heavily fortified hotel, later said the killings had been caused by crossfire and that they regretted the deaths. One report of the shootings, however, said that the gunmen, who had smuggled miniature pistols through the hotel's numerous security checks and pretended to be there to celebrate the New Year, had carried out the children's murders in front of the mother, before killing her.
The attack by the gunmen, who were later killed by security forces, forms part of a sustained campaign of extremist violence, often including civilian targets like the Serena, in the build-up to today's presidential elections. "His work was among the best in the vigorous media which has emerged in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban," says Kim Sengupta, Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent for The Independent.
"He was a resourceful and brave journalist who wrote about security issues, building up contacts in both sides of the conflict, often working in risky situations. However, he was not killed doing his work, but while out with his young family for dinner to celebrate Nawruz, soft targets for murderous terrorists who some in the West insist are 'freedom fighters'.
"I had first met Sardar in 2004, a year after he had started working as a reporter covering the US run military base at Bagram. He established himself in his field through tenacity and dedication and his loss will be felt by his friends not just at a personal level, but also professionally in the uncertain times which lie ahead for Afghanistan." µ ALASDAIR FOTHERINGHAM
Sardar Ahmad, journalist: born 1974; married Homaira (three children); died March 20 2014.Reuse content