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Afghanistan female journalist has notebook, will report

Mina Habib has been waiting for half an hour at police headquarters, preparing for a showdown with the chief of criminal investigations.

She sits on a plush sofa and adjusts her head scarf as a dozen men parade past. None of them pays much attention to Habib, 25, despite her striking shock of auburn hair, amber eyes and iridescent pink lipstick.

She eavesdrops as the men demand that the police investigate rape allegations, neighborhood disputes and runaway wives. (She perks up at the mention of runaway wives; she smells a story.)

But first, she has to confront the chief about Massoud Khalil.

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The 16-year-old had been detained on burglary charges and died two weeks earlier at Kabul’s juvenile detention center, she says. The medical examiner told her that Massoud had been beaten with blunt objects and his head bashed against a wall.

Habib interviewed police officers stationed outside the juvenile facility, who told her they had seen Massoud being pummeled by other detainees, older youths from powerful, well-connected families. Two of the detainees were later charged with murder.

Habib believes she has evidence that police and guards at the facility failed to protect Massoud as he resisted the youths, who allegedly were trying to sexually assault him.

An armed guard arrives. The chief is ready.

***

Habib is one of a small but growing cadre of Afghan female newspaper reporters in the Kabul press corps, women who brave death threats and family disapproval to expose corruption and strengthen their country’s fledgling democracy.

She is something of a latter-day Nellie Bly, the pioneering turn-of-the-20th-century American journalist who capitalized on being taken for granted to penetrate institutions and champion the poor and voiceless.

The guard ushers Habib across the thick rug in the chief’s office. The chief arrives, scowling in his rumpled gray suit, and sits across the room from Habib, two gleaming cellphones in hand, one silver, one gold. On the glass coffee table between them, she places her constant companion, a battered Panasonic tape recorder.

She speaks first, in a calm, even tone. She has come to ask about the 16-year-old’s death.

The chief gives her a tired look.

“That is not our department,” he says, reminding her that police guard the outside of the juvenile center and the Justice Ministry is responsible for the inside.

Habib makes a sour face that says, “Come on, you can do better than that!”

“These police in the juvenile center, they are not well-trained. There is mismanagement. Everything is going wrong there,” the chief says, gaining momentum. “They should be taken before the attorney general’s office.”

Habib jots quick notes in Dari, silver fingernails fluttering over the page. This she can use.

The chief’s silver cellphone rings. He takes the call and wraps up the interview.

“If anyone is beating the boys, they are committing a crime,” he says.

Habib is haunted by the memory of interviewing Massoud’s father, who wept as she asked him about his son’s final days.

“We could have saved this boy,” she says softly.

***

Habib rushes out of police headquarters and straight into traffic to hail a taxi. She has a news conference to cover.

On the way, she snaps photographs through the taxi’s window of boys in tattered clothes scavenging on the street. She already has dozens on her digital camera for another story she is working on.

She doesn’t have children of her own, though her father, a former Afghan Defense Ministry official, has been pressuring her to get married. Potential suitors always want her to quit her job. And so, of course, she rejects them, she says.

Habib grew up in a country at war, one of seven children in a middle-class family. Her parents wanted her to become a doctor, but she had other ideas.

“Journalists have a close connection with people, so I decided to become a journalist to convey their problems and voices to the government,” she said.

When she took the journalism entrance exam at Kabul University, Habib said, she received the highest score in her class.

She went on to win awards for tackling controversial topics. She wrote front-page stories in the daily newspapers Chiragh and Mandegar about AIDS patients, sexual predators, drug addicts in the security forces, police who beat young beggars, and a boy suffering from skin cancer who was denied treatment by the government and was reduced to begging.

She directed one headline at President Hamid Karzai: “In your land, children die to get bread to eat.”

After her stories ran, she found treatment for the boy, and the government banned child begging and increased drug testing for members of the security forces.

Afghan society, steeped in formality and respect, is still adjusting to the notion of homegrown women journalists, let alone investigative reporters who challenge authority.

Habib’s neighbors in the conservative Arzan Qimat district on the outskirts of the city whisper about her “immoral work,” how she travels the capital all day talking to strange men, often arriving home after dark. She carries a body-shielding black chador in her shoulder bag and makes sure to swathe herself in it before returning to the neighborhood, but it cannot shield her from gossip.

Her relatives complain that journalism is a hazardous profession, which is true. Last year, Habib received several threatening letters demanding that she quit. She was also threatened by police while photographing them beating street children, and she was wounded when a bomb exploded while she was covering a suicide bombing at a Kabul grocery store.

But she cannot stop reporting. For one thing, it helps support her family. Her father is unemployed, her mother partially paralyzed by a stroke.

She is fiercely proud of her stories. Her brother instructed her to tell people she is a teacher. Habib goes along with the ruse near home, but not in downtown Kabul, where she feels accepted and brags to taxi drivers about her work. They praise her courage.

“Sometimes, because there are lots of problems, I think I should leave my work,” she says as she takes a red plastic hand mirror from her bag and checks her makeup. It’s still flawless, despite the dust cascading through the taxi’s windows.

***

Habib works for Chiragh and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a London-based nonprofit that trains and pays journalists in conflict zones.

IWPR has trained more than 1,000 Afghan journalists since 2002, many of them women. But editors have trouble keeping Afghan women on staff, especially in outlying provinces.

“We had 200 women graduate in journalism in Herat, but you cannot find one woman to work. It’s the security situation,” says Habib’s editor, Hafizullah Gardish. “Same in Mazar-i-Sharif. Same in Jalalabad. No one defends the female journalists.”

Habib checks in with Gardish after returning from the news conference, then calls up the story about Massoud on her computer. She will file it to Gardish in Dari; he will edit and forward it to editors at IWPR headquarters in London. There, the final version will be translated into English and posted on the website iwpr.net.

Habib has an hour and a half to file before she has to leave. She has a party to prepare for. Her family is celebrating: not her story, but an aunt visiting from the provinces. Sometimes, she wishes they would celebrate her.

“I encourage myself,” she says. “I try to satisfy myself by doing my job properly. I know I can serve the people through my profession.”

She wants to add a quote to the story from her interview that morning. As a male coworker makes tea, Habib scans her black notebook, flipping through pages of flowing script.

In a matter of minutes, she finds what she needs and types it up. Then she is off, tucking herself into her black cloak, in search of a sympathetic taxi driver to spirit her home before dark.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Molly Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer. Aimal Yaqubi is a special correspondent for The Times.


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