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Rahimullah Yusufzai: The Gentle War Reporter (1954-2021)

Published in Sep-Oct 2021

Ismail Khan remembers Rahimullah Yusufzai.

It was a summer morning in 1998. I was up early and having breakfast when my telephone rang. It was my boss, Rahimullah Yusufzai. “Ismail Khan, you are up early,” he said in a surprised tone. “Listen, there is this suspicious stocky fellow here and he wants to take us to Afghanistan to meet Osama Bin Laden. It seems risky. What do you say?” he asked. “It is a big story. Worst case scenario, we might get kidnapped but then it would be a much bigger story.” He laughed. “Alright, pack and come immediately.”

This was to be my first journey with Mr Yusufzai in the eight years since I had joined The News International’s Peshawar Bureau. That perilous journey across the mountains and streams, sometimes on foot, spending nights under starry open skies at a militant training camp in Khost remains etched in my memory. “Don’t move if the border guard shouts,” he cautioned as we could see a Pakistani guard moving his light in the pitch dark. A veteran of credible war reporting during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Rahimullah knew best. He was my boss, my guide and my mentor. Above all, he was my elder. He was peerless. He was my reason for joining journalism; reading his fascinating stories on Afghanistan in The Muslim.

My association with him began in late 1990 or early 1991, when he left The Muslim to join Dr Maleeha Lodhi’s The Independent. The nascent paper, however, died before it could take off, and we were left jobless for at least a couple of months before we all joined The News International. The Muslim still held the field when The News International was launched. Weaning away readers of a well-established and well-liked paper was no child’s play. Rahimullah would carry copies of the newspaper tucked under his arms wherever he went, encouraging us to do the same. I remember him stashing a bundle of the newly-launched paper in the back of his car, visiting the Gadoon Amazai Industrial Estate. A senior journalist, heading The Muslim after Rahimullah’s exit from the paper would often poke fun. “I heard that the per-kilogram price of your paper has increased.” Such was Rahimullah’s humbleness. He was doing the job of what essentially would have been that of a newspaper hawker’s or the marketing department’s. Fame and stature had never entered his head; he knew his roots and background.

His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and join the Pakistan Army and with meagre resources tried to get him into the best of educational institutions, Covent School and Military College, Sarai Alamgir. As fate would have it, Rahimullah couldn’t get into the army due to his poor eyesight. A contented man, I never found him regretting it. He fell on hard times after his father breathed his last, forcing him to relocate to Karachi where he worked part-time as a chowkidar to finance his studies. Through sheer hard work, he won a scholarship at one of the science colleges. That was the time when he had his first break and began working as a proofreader at The Sun. This would change the course of his destiny.

He loved his profession to its core. He breathed journalism. He would wake up with it and sleep with it. The only break would be lunch hour, when he would go to his apartment on the floor above, eat and pray, and come back again to start reading and writing. It was often the case that I would open the door and find him sleeping in his chair, his fingers on his Remington typewriter. He was not what he used to call an “armchair journalist.” He remained in the field for as long as his health permitted, travelling most of the time; sometimes, he had a close shave with death. One such incident was in Jalalabad, when the Afghan Air Force bombed the location of the Afghan Mujahideen. Everybody ran for cover. As Rahimullah took shelter behind a wall, the “first thought I had was of my kids back home.”

He was literally all over the place in Afghanistan. It was his credibility and his association with BBC Pashto that made him a household name in Afghanistan. From leaders of the Afghan Mujahideen to the Afghan Taliban leaders, he had the trust of all of them. The first time Rahimullah visited Kandahar to meet with Mullah Omar, he found the reclusive Taliban leader paddling his way up to the airport tarmac to meet his guest from Peshawar. “You are a leader, you should be driving in a four-wheeler,” Rahimullah recalled telling the Taliban spiritual leader. “I don’t know how to drive,” Omar retorted. “Then find a driver,” Rahimullah said.

Often, when my boss was away in Afghanistan or some other place, I would deputise for him, receiving umpteen calls from the Taliban leaders in Kandahar, right up from Mullah Omar to senior figures down the ladder. This was perhaps the reason why they listened to Rahimullah’s advice and agreed to take down the bodies of Afghan President Dr Najibullah and his brother. At the time, Rahimullah was in Kabul and would regularly call in to read out his dispatch on the satellite phone, holding the phone close to his ear in one hand and using the other to punch his story on my keyboard. As he tried to convince the Taliban, there was no one, either from the family of the slain Afghan leaders or the UN in Kabul, to talk to. I managed to get a contact for one of Najib’s cousins who had taken shelter in Peshawar. I still remember that late September night in 1996 when we managed to persuade the Taliban to take down the bodies and hand them over to the elders from Najib’s Ahmadzai tribe. That was Rahimullah, a compassionate human being who was there for everybody. He helped so many people in so many different ways. A couple of weeks before his death, when I visited him at his residence and posted his photo on my Twitter handle, an Afghan journalist called from Kabul. “Please convey my best regards to Rahimullah sahab. He helped me with money when I came to Peshawar as a refugee.”

This towering figure looked so weak and pale as he walked slowly to sit beside me in his verandah holding newspapers under his arms as he always did. “I want to be able to write again,” he said, barely able to speak. “Sir, there is plenty of time to do that, you need to get better,” I said, holding his hands. I wish I could hold his knees out of sheer respect for the man who was not just my mentor but also an elder. As I stood before his body, wrapped in a white shroud, my mind raced back in time. There was a flood of memories. How he would gently adjust his glasses with a smile and call my name “Ismail Khan.” His elder son, Arshad Yusufzai, standing nearby wrapped his hands around me, crying. “We are orphans.”

Ismail Khan is Resident Editor, Dawn, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.