Afghan's difficult journey to S'pore

Afghan's difficult journey to S'pore
Mr Mirwais Jalalzai, an Afghanistan journalist, a recipient of Asia Jounalism Fellowship. He was the only second Afghan across Asia to be selected for the Fellowship – an initiative of Temasek Foundation and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

As Afghan journalist Mirwais Jalalzai went to a Kabul travel agency last month to book a flight to Singapore for this year's Asia Journalism Fellowship, he heard three gunshots.

He ran outside to find that British-Swedish reporter Nils Horner had been shot in the head and chest by a Taleban splinter group. The 51-year-old died later of his injuries.

The tragedy shook Mr Jalalzai's sense of security in his profession, yet he remained determined to take part in the Fellowship as he wanted to become "a better journalist".

However, worse was to come. On March 14, he set off for Singapore but got only as far as Dubai when local officials refused to let him board the flight here - despite him having the correct paperwork.

After 30 hours, Mr Jalalzai was sent back to Kabul, where he found his close friend and fellow journalist, Agence France-Presse reporter Sardar Ahmad, waiting at the airport to meet an acquaintance.

Five days later, as Mr Jalalzai was working out new travel plans to get to Singapore, Mr Ahmad, 40, his wife and two of their children were shot dead in a nearby hotel. His two-year-old son survived.

Mr Jalalzai was left stunned and considered abandoning plans to leave for Singapore, in order to investigate his friend's killing. But colleagues convinced him that the Fellowship could sharpen his journalistic skills and aid his quest for answers, so on March 29 he set off to fly here via India.

As he was about to board the plane, clashes broke out near the Kabul airport over last week's presidential election.

All flights were cancelled amid what Mr Jalalzai described as "gunfire, heavy machine gun fire and rocket fire".

Two days later, he finally got on the plane and arrived in Singapore last Tuesday, half a month late but to a warm welcome. He is only the second Afghan to be selected for the Fellowship - an initiative of Temasek Foundation and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) - in its six-year history.

It brings together 16 journalists from across Asia at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for three months of learning and exchange.

Mr Jalalzai, 27, who works for the likes of Kabul Press and Radio Afghanistan, hopes it will help him develop his skills so that when he returns home, he can get to the bottom of his friend's death.

"(Ahmad's) death unbalanced my plans to come to Singapore," he said. "My journalistic instinct was to follow the story all the way. As a friend, I also felt an obligation to his family, but the Fellowship is also important for me.

"When I return to Kabul, I will find more answers why that killing took place."

Straits Times associate editor Ivan Fernandez, who was on the eight-member Fellowship selection committee, said: "It takes courage to stand up for what you think is right in a war-torn country."

hpeishan@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 7 in The Straits Times.

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