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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 20:24 GMT 21:24 UK
Afghans hooked on the BBC
Refugees leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan AFP
Hundreds of thousand of Afghans are fleeing the country
On an ordinary day, more that 60% of the people of Afghanistan listen to the BBC World Service's broadcasts in Pashto and Persian.

At a time of crisis, the number is believed to be much higher.

How do you imagine a 110-storey building collapsing if you haven't seen it?

BBC Pashto journalist Najiba Kasraee
Afghanistan's media is limited to four or five Taleban-run newspapers, a Taleban radio station, Radio Sharia, and a tiny television and radio station run by the opposition Northern Alliance.

In areas run by the Taleban - about 90% of the country - television is banned entirely.

It is assumed, therefore, that the majority of people living in Afghanistan have not seen pictures or video of the devastation visited on New York and Washington by 11 September's hijack plane attacks.

"How do you imagine a 110-storey building collapsing if you haven't seen it?" said senior BBC journalist Najiba Kasraee.

Najiba Kasraee of the BBC Pashto service BBC
Najiba Kasraee (right): "The BBC is a lifeline for Afghans"
The voices of witnesses to the attacks and collapse of the World Trade Center have been essential in communicating the scale of the events in the United States.

"What we did was interview Afghans living in New York. One taxi driver we interviewed was there when it happened.

"He told us what he saw and how he dragged the injured away. We also had him describe the scale of things and how big the buildings were," Mrs Kasraee said.

Local and international news

In war-torn Afghanistan, the BBC and Voice of America broadcasts are avidly listened to for news of the outside world and for very local news.

After 20 years of war, people are on the move again looking for a safe place, but we fear that there is no safe place

Lateef Lutfullah of the BBC Pashto Service
"Some people have said to me that the BBC World Service and the Pashto service in particular are a lifeline for Afghans," Mrs Kasraee said.

"During fighting between mujahedeen factions, people have turned on the radio to see whether it is safe to go outside. Or when the UN vaccination operation for children is going on, we would inform people that there was a three-day ceasefire to allow the vaccinations to go ahead."

Family ties

Most of the journalists at the Pashto section have family living in Afghanistan. The personal ties complicate the job of reporting on the crisis.

"I have a strange feeling at the moment. On the one hand, I am a British citizen and a BBC employee, and my job requires me to give accurate and unbiased news about Afghanistan," Lateef Lutfullah said.

Lateef Lutfullah of the BBC Pashto Service BBC
Lateef Lutfullah: "I am a journalist but I am also an Afghan"
"On the other hand, I am also an Afghani and I see that the situation is unusually dangerous and I have family there.

"After 20 years of war, people are on the move again looking for a safe place, but we fear that there is no safe place."

Najiba Kasraee and many of her colleagues have personal tragedies to relate about the years of war in Afghanistan.

"My mother and my sister were killed a few years ago. The challenge is to rise above that and be a journalist, but it is difficult because we know that if Afghanistan is attacked, many civilians will be hurt and killed."

'Prime target'

One of the main current challenges for the Pashto section journalists is to communicate to Afghans at home and abroad the atmosphere in the country.

As anticipation builds that Afghanistan will be a target of American military retaliation, hundreds of thousands of people are trying to flee the cities and the country.

"On the night that the US declared that Osama Bin Laden was the chief suspect, I telephoned people I knew to try to get some reaction," Mrs Kasraee said.

"I couldn't get through so I called the telephone exchange operator and he agreed to be interviewed.

"He described how it felt to be sitting late at night in a building that would probably become a prime target.

"He also described people leaving the cities and the empty streets, but he said that there were many people who could not afford to leave."

In response to the latest crisis, the BBC World Service has increased its broadcasts serving Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

It has announced an expanded output in the key languages of the area - Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Urdu - and has reinforced transmissions on medium and shortwaves.

BBC Online has also increased its Pashto, Persian and Urdu services.

BBC World Service Pashto broadcast
The BBC's Najiba Kasraee describes the unfolding disaster at the World Trade Center to Afghan listeners
See also:

18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Profile: Mullah Mohammed Omar
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan exodus gathers pace
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Kabul checkpoints stem refugee exodus
20 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghan ruling on Bin Laden
20 Sep 01 | Americas
The trail to Bin Laden
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