Remembering Rahimullah Yusufzai, a master of journalism

On 9 September, Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Pakistani journalist considered by his colleagues in the international press as one of the most authoritative voices reporting on Central and South Asia, passed away on the eve of his 67th birthday. He was an expert analyst of geopolitical and security developments as well as having a profound understanding of the social, human and cultural factors underpinning all the issues.

Based in the city of Peshawar, Yusufzai spent the last forty years devoting particular attention to covering Afghanistan. He started reporting on it during the 1979 Soviet invasion, which ushered in a cycle of wars that lasted until a few weeks ago. His work, VOA’s senior editor Nafees Takar told Dawn, opened “a window onto Afghanistan for four decades,” for both journalists and the public of the Western world as well as local journalists. In the testimony recorded for the Pakistani newspaper by Ijaz Ali, his colleagues agreed in praising Yusufzai’s professional abilities, but what emerged above all was the sense of his outstanding human stature. According to Ali, this was bound up mainly with the “sagacity” of the journalist, capable of projecting himself into the human situations he recounted and giving a voice to the marginalised, the most profound part of society in his own country and neighbouring Afghanistan.

This was Yusufzai, a keen and tireless professional in his powers of expression, a reporter in the tradition of the great masters of journalism, capable of combining analytic depth and the ability to recount the reality on the ground. In  this respect he belonged to a small group of journalists, such as Ryszard Kapuściński, Robert Fisk and a few others. Talking to Fisk in an interview published in the Independent in 2010, Yusufzai stressed that his professional work, which had seen him present in the field during the first offensive by the Afghan Taliban in 1989 and often in their “spiritual capital” Kandahar, was mainly conducted in the  existential peripheries of countries accustomed to living with wars and suffering. He declared that each single person could tell a unique, unrepeatable story of adaptation and survival. “I have only visited Kabul once,” Yusufzai said then, hardened by more than thirty years of field service. His vocation was to tell the forgotten stories of those who live where history is being made. “Whenever we write about families who have suffered – civilians or soldiers – we find these stories profoundly engaging. You cannot detach yourself from their suffering,” he declared, stressing his experience in regions such as Peshawar, Wazirstan or the refugee camps on the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Strong in his knowledge of the world around him, Yusufzai was free from prejudices or preconceptions of any sort. He knew how to analyse even the most problematic situations with professional insight. He would express his opinion, conduct analysis and criticism, but he never simplified or demonised. We see this in Yusufzai’s account of two unique professional experiences he had in the years when Afghan was in chaos: his interviews with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. In 2001, writing in the Guardian about these meetings a few weeks after 9/11, Yusufzai spoke not only of his face-to-face encounters with the figures considered the supreme representatives of terrorism in the West, but also of the social, political and human motives that had driven Al Qaeda and the Taliban to gain a support base among the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prophetically, he stressed that a war of aggression in reaction to the attacks would result in “an enormous provocation” to Afghanistan and its people, who could hardly all be identified with extremist groups, and it would ultimately led to disaster. An analysis confirmed by the facts twenty years later.

A personal memory unites us directly to Yusufzai as man and journalist. In May 2019, in the magazine that marked the transition from The Eyes of War to Inside Over, we had the honour of publishing his analysis of the future of Afghanistan, then divided between the central government, the resurgent Taliban and the new threat of ISIS. At that time we had the opportunity to inaugurate a new journalistic adventure with the voice of a professional with few equals in our time. A man who taught how to look beyond every barrier to make information capable of creating awareness, a civil conscience and freedom of thought. The very qualities that the press needs to steadily foster and develop. Rahimullah Yusufzai’s example, thanks to his teaching, will never fail. And we will always be grateful to him for that.