Wednesday Sep 15, 2021
With the death of Rahimullah Yusufzai, a chapter of journalism in the South Asian region has ended forever. I was lucky to have known him, and, over the years, I had the chance to speak to him at length in meetings. The life story of this international journalist, who was born in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), is full of equally great events as the one he wrote about.
When his father was taken prisoner by Indian forces, in the 1971 war, he felt as if he had been martyred in the battle. He heard on the radio that his father was alive. He might not have realised it at that moment, but this medium became quite important in his career.
Even though his father was from the lower middle class, he gave him a good education at different institutions such as Convent School, Jhelum and Military College Jhelum, Sarai Alamgir. Besides sports, Rahimullah Yusufzai was good at acting, in school. He once shared that his family mourned when he wasn’t selected in the armed forces on medical grounds (weak eyesight). His family was not aware of the fact that fate had something else written for him and that he was born for a great purpose.
Karachi, which, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, is the city of both the richest and the poorest, was ready to receive him. For less than a hundred rupees, he got a job as a (chowkidar) watchman. Later, he went to the city’s prestigious D J Science College on a scholarship. As his family’s responsibilities increased, he took a job as a proofreader at ‘The Sun’ in Karachi. There he felt that he had found his destination. The reason for the love for Karachi was probably that when the burden of practical life fell on him, it was the bustling metropolis that supported him the most.
I once asked him, “Journalism is fine, but how did it come to the idea of going to Afghanistan?” He told me that Mujahid Barelvi, a well-known journalist from Karachi, used to come to Peshawar to meet him and go to Kabul to conduct interviews. He thought that if Mujahid Barelvi could go to Kabul all the way from Karachi, he should too. He made his first trip to Afghanistan and interviewed the then Afghan president, Doctor Najibullah.
Rahimullah had close ties with all Afghan leaders and stakeholders. On one occasion, Mullah Omar called him to ask where Chechnya was. When Rahimullah Yusufzai asked the reason, he said that the country’s leaders had invited Osama bin Laden, and they (the Taliban) wanted to make arrangements for him to go there. Rahimullah told him that the airport had been bombed and destroyed. To this Mullah Omar said, “Okay, we can send him by bus.” Then Rahimullah realised that the Mullah did not know that Chechnya was a faraway country. He then explained to him in a way that Mullah Omar would easily understand, by saying that first they’d have to go to Iran, then Turkey, and so on.
What made people tune in to listen to his show on BBC Radio was Rahimullah’s honesty. Based on his insights, they’d make decisions about Afghan politics and business.
Referring to his life in the war zone, Rahimullah believed that the time when he was present in Nangarhar, Afghanistan with the Mujahideen, and was being bombed from above, was probably the most horrifying moment of his life.
Once, Ahmad Shah Massoud invited him to Bagram. The war was raging in Afghanistan. A friend advised him against visiting the country. He did not leave and was later told that a plot was hatched to assassinate him. It was to spoil Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan for which the planners had chosen Rahimullah Yusufzai as a major target.
I can vividly remember the time when the Peshawar Press Club was talking about the South Asian Free Media Association’s (Safma’s) Afghan chapter. I objected that since Afghanistan is in Central Asia, it was beyond the institution’s scope of work. Rahimullah Yusufzai immediately acknowledged this fact and spoke to Imtiaz Alam, a senior journalist and Safma’s patron. He was good at not only tolerating criticism, but also acknowledging and correcting it.
Rahimullah inherited the spirit of public service from his father. In addition to helping people from his hometown in the Katling tehsil, Mardan, he helped wherever he felt the need. Spirituality had a special effect on his life, and those effects were carried by everyone who met him. However, he was not able to give his family the time they deserved. But being a journalist to the core, he always considered the journalist community as his family. Journalists in Peshawar now consider themselves deprived of a kind family elder.
He was working on a book before he became seriously ill. That book was not published. We journalists who knew Rahimullah, or had at least followed his work, consider ourselves blessed for having lived in ‘the age of Rahimullah Yusufzai’.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist.