Dayee inside the 11th century city of Qala-ye Bost, a half hour drive outside Lashkargah. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018
One of Afghanistan’s most respected journalists, Muhammad Aliyas Dayee, was killed in a targeted attack on 12 November in the Helmand capital, Lashkargah. Greatly admired and loved by colleagues and listeners to his radio reports alike, Dayee’s murder has raised questions about whether the profession is a viable one as the incidence of targeted killings increase. Journalist and guest author Andrew Quilty* worked extensively with Dayee in Helmand, most recently in October during the Taleban’s largest military offensive since the signing of the Doha agreement, and has since spoken to family and friends about the murder. His obituary looks at Dayee’s thirst for creativity that made him an outstanding reporter and raises questions as to what his killing means for the future of journalism in Helmand.
Muzamal, Muhammad Aliyas Dayee’s brother, describes waking at 4am on 12 November: “I had a bad feeling – that something would happen that day. I wanted to tell Dayee not to go out in the car,” he said, “but I didn’t.”
Muzamal, 29, and his family – along with two other families – were staying with his brother Dayee, a 32-year-old journalist with Azadi Radio, in Helmand’s capital Lashkargah. They had been forced to leave the family home in the village of Chahr-e Anjir, a 20 minute drive west of the city, when Taleban fighters converged on the city from the surrounding districts in early October.
At around 9am, Dayee and another brother, Mujtaba, who works for the Department of Youth, part of the Ministry of Information and Culture, left home by car. Mujtaba, who also lives in Chahr-e Anjir, had come to Lashkargah with his family when the Taleban attacked districts and areas around Lashkargah, the previous month, but had returned home when the situation stabilised. He had driven to Lashkargah from Chahr-e Anjir that morning, just for a short visit, and the brothers were on their way to the office of Helmand’s Journalist Association when, only 100 metres from home, a bomb, believed to have been attached to Dayee’s car, exploded.
Muzamal heard the explosion from Dayee’s house. “We knew it was him,” he said. He was at the scene within two minutes. Mujtaba, who was bleeding heavily from his right side, had pulled himself from the vehicle, but Dayee was still in the driver’s seat. Muzamal and a passer-by wrenched the door open and dragged Dayee on to the road. His injuries were catastrophic. He drew one last breath and died there on the street.
From writing poetry to reporting the news: Dayee’s early life
Muhammad Aliyas Dayee, the youngest of three boys among eight older and younger sisters, was born in Chahr-e Anjir, on the border of Helmand’s Lashkargah and Nad-e Ali districts, in 1988. Mujtaba, who was injured in the explosion that killed his brother, was a year older, but in looks, almost indistinguishable from Dayee. Family and friends would often mix the two up. Their father, Muhammad, had moved to Chahr-e Anjir from Washir district when a web of irrigation canals constructed by his employer, the American firm Morrison Knudsen, opened the desert area up to agriculture.
Dayee attended a madrassa in Chahr-e Anjir where he studied secular as well as Islamic subjects until the age of 13. But early in 2001, his father became embroiled in a dispute with a local Taleban commander who had paid to marry one of Dayee’s young sisters. When the commander saw Dayee’s father driving a new car, purchased with the bride price he had just paid for the girl, the commander became furious with envy.
Muhammad and his first wife, Dayee’s mother, left Helmand for Herat. Once they had rented a house there, Muhammad returned to Chahr-e Anjir and, in one night, collected the children and the family’s belongings and left to resettle in Herat. Six months later, however, in late 2001, the Taleban regime had crumbled under the weight of the United States’ military onslaught that followed the attacks of September 11. The family were able to return home to Chahr-e Anjir two months later.
Dayee was enrolled in grade nine at the Chahr-e Anjir school and became close friends with classmate Zainullah Stanekzai, who was five years his senior but also from Chahr-e Anjir. They were more studious than most of their classmates and would write and recite poetry together after school. Dayee’s family earmarked him early on as the son who would put his mind rather than his hands to work in the future. “When I met Dayee,” said Stanekzai, who also became a reporter, with Pahjwok News and later Reuters, in Helmand, “he was doing everything – studying, working in the field, but his family didn’t want him to waste his time working with his hands: ‘He should study and find a real job,’ they would say.” However, Muzamal said Dayee liked working in the fields as much as he liked to study. “Everything he did he wanted to do well.” His friends and brothers say he was always top of his class. Mujtaba remembers wealthy parents of Dayee’s classmates hosting parties for teachers as bribes to get them to award their children high marks. “But,” he said, they still never beat Dayee.”
The idea of becoming a journalist first came to Dayee while he was still at school. He and Stanekzai were already talking about creating their own radio station when the international non-profit organisation Internews ran a week-long course for aspiring journalists in Lashkargah. Stanekzai had a motorcycle and he and Dayee would ride from Chahr-e Anjir to attend the course after school finished at midday each day.
The two friends graduated from grade 12 in 2006. Aziz Tassal, who was hosting a programme on Sabawoon Radio in Lashkargah at the time and is now a staff reporter with The Washington Post in Kabul, recalls Dayee and his brothers writing dozens of letters on the topics he covered on the programme. Dayee tracked down Tassal’s phone number and eventually, said Tassal, “We’d talk every night and quickly became friends.”
In 2007, he and Stanekzai went to a workshop with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Dayee was soon offered a job with IWPR which he juggled with another – in what would become a career-long modus operandi for him and journalist colleagues in Helmand – at the Afghan national radio station Salam Watandar. One of his early reports for IWPR, From Pomegranates to Poppies, published in November 2007, resulted in government action; the provincial government allocated 1,000 acres of government land and fertiliser for farmers to cultivate pomegranates. The next year, Dayee, along with three friends, including Tassal, founded Bost Radio, named after the historical name for Lashgarkar. It was there that Helmandis first heard his warm, growling voice as he hosted the station’s daily news programme. However, it was the light-hearted, weekly talk-back show “Naghma Naghma”, named after the famous Kandahari singer Naghma Shaperai, that established his reputation as an affable joker with empathy for Helmand’s people. It was also in 2008 that Dayee began working for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s (REF/RL) Dari and Pashto-language Radio Free Afghanistan, known locally as Azadi Radio, where he would work until his death. “Our father would cry tears of joy when he heard Dayee reporting on Helmand,” recalls Mujtaba. “‘He’s only young,’” he’d say, “‘but look what he’s doing.’”
Between 2010 and 2014, Dayee studied for a Pashto Literature degree at a private university in Lashkargah while, from 2010 to 2012, he also hosted a question and answer programme, similar to “Naghma Naghma” on the national broadcaster, Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). He worked there again in 2014, but left before the end of the year.
The Helmand press corps, made up of around a dozen male reporters, uses the Helmand Journalists’ Association (HJA) office in central Lashkargah as a communal workplace, rather than one of rivalry, where jokes and tea are shared, as readily as ideas, stories, contacts and interviews. His old friend, Zainullah Stanekzai, now the head of HJA and Reuters’ Helmand correspondent, remembers that with all his overlapping jobs and moonlighting, “if he was busy and couldn’t attend an interview, he would send another journalist to cover it,” and vice versa. The Helmand journalists would also gladly share interviews among one another when they had gaps in their reports. Mujtaba, who worked for a time for the German press agency Deutsche Welle, said Dayee was not only a brother, he was like a father to him and to all the journalists in Helmand. “If you had a journalism problem,” he said, Dayee “was the only person who could solve it. You didn’t have to search Google. He would always know.”
It was in 2016 that Dayee first began working with foreign reporters in Helmand. That year, Abdul Rauf Mehrpour, who had worked as an interpreter for the British forces in Helmand, contributed to Sada-e Azadi, a magazine published by the International Security Assistance force (ISAF) and worked as a journalist and translator for foreign reporters, was granted a UK visa and left for Scotland with his family. Dayee had the best English language skills among the remaining journalists in Helmand and naturally stepped into his shoes. He was a dogged reporting colleague with sound judgment and a knack for detecting falsehoods. Just as importantly, he was great company.
He worked with visiting journalists, and indeed was the key reporter locally for getting Helmand stories out to the international press. Those he worked with included Sune Engel Rasmussen, Anders Hammer, Kern Hendricks, Carsten Jensen, Chris Jones, Najib Khaja, JP Lawrence and Nanna Muus Steffensen, reporting for the likes of The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Intercept, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Pacific Standard, Weekendavisen, Vice News, The New York Times Magazine and The Daily Beast. He also worked with visiting academics and researchers, including Ashley Jackson, from the Overseas Development Institute in London, who described his killing as “beyond heartbreaking.” He was an “incredibly brave journalist,” she said, “with a sharp sense of humour and even sharper insight into what was really going on in Helmand. He will be missed by so many.”
Journalism, amid threats, in Helmand
Dayee had been aware of the risk his profile attracted since he started at Azadi Radio in 2008, but it was around 2016, as the Taleban captured district after district from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – and even threatened Lashkargah – that the threats became more serious. During the 2016 Taleban offensive that saw Lashkargah on the brink of collapse, one of Dayee’s nephew in the Afghan National Police was killed in an ambush while retreating from Chahr-e Anjir. The following year, Dayee’s half-brother Kamal lost a leg to an IED in Bolan, an area close to Lashkargah. While the risk of being caught up in violence as Kamal had been was the same for everyone living in Lashkargah, the threats to Dayee were more acute and personal. As a radio journalist in Helmand, where few among its poor, mostly-rural population, own televisions, let alone have regular access to the internet, Dayee had arguably the largest profile of any journalist in the province. According to Stanekzai, “Most people [in Helmand] don’t know Noor TV or Pajhwok or Tolo News, but Azadi Radio is all over Helmand and everyone knows and listens [sic] to Dayee.”
Dayee shielded his family from the threats he received, but they would hear about them from their own sources. “I’m only 13 months older than him,” said Mujtaba, his face wrapped in bandages after being discharged from hospital in Kabul where he was treated after the attack, tears constantly welling in his eyes, “but look at my beard — you see the white? This alone is from worrying about my brother. For four years we’ve worried about him — that we’d lose him.”
The stress affecting Dayee, himself, was never far from the surface. His mood could be eratic and his suspicion of everyone and anyone around him bordered on what seemed to be paranoia, but was in fact a rational response to real threats. While driving, especially at dusk, his eyes would dart between clusters of men standing by the road and motorcyclists approaching in his rear-view mirror. He would drive quickly along crumbling roads. “Dayee,” I would say, “There are many ways to die in Helmand,” the joke an effort to get him to slow down. He started to carry a pistol and would occasionally, if he sensed a threat, place his palm on the weapon where it sat between us on the centre console.
Checking his car for IEDs became as routine as the threats themselves. He would get on his hands and knees to check the undercarriage each time we got in, whether we had stopped in the bazaar for 30 seconds to buy fruit, or he had parked in an ANSF compound for an interview or outside my hotel before a day’s reporting or on a quiet path near a frontline in the districts. “He had four eyes,” said Stanekzai. “He would check not only his car, but his chair, everywhere.” Mujtaba recalls a time recently that he and Dayee bought fruit and vegetables before riding his motorcycle to the family home in Chahr-e Anjir. After Mujtaba placed the bags in his khorjin, or motorcycle panniers, Dayee removed them and examined the khorjin and their contents. “But it was me who put them in,” Mujtaba remonstrated. To which Dayee replied, “‘I don’t even trust my own mother.’” He was constantly trying to outsmart anyone who might be looking to harm him. When he stayed in Chahr-e Anjir, Mujtaba said, he would place his shoes outside a different room to the one in which he would sleep. But “This time,” said Mujtaba, “they were too smart for him.”
In a country where publicly criticising powerful people can – and has – cost journalists their lives, Dayee was not one to bite his tongue. “He was very serious and spoke his mind on Facebook,” said Stanekzai. He saw challenging officials on behalf of the common people, as he called them, as a duty. Nanna Muus Steffensen, a Danish journalist who had worked with Dayee several times since 2018 and indeed was the last international journalist to work with him, recounted a time when the two were working on separate stories about a Kuchi population in Helmand. When Dayee learned the children did not have a school to attend he was incensed and arranged a meeting between the elders and local authorities, who promptly promised to establish one. His colleagues sometimes worried he was provoking powerful figures in Helmand, including two people whom, they said, I should not refer to in this article, even after his death.
In 2017, the Kabul Press Club recognised Dayee with the ‘Brave Journalist of the Year’ award. The award is dedicated to the memory of Samad Rohani, a journalist with the BBC and Pajhwok News who was killed in Helmand in 2008. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 48 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Dayee, who is yet to be added to the list, will be number 49. Of those, 16, that is, a third, have been killed in the last two years.
For Dayee, the sense of threat was omnipresent and this is mirrored in his friends’ attempts to understand who was behind the killing. “Maybe the Taleban found a common enemy and used them to conduct the killing,” said Stanekzai. “Maybe an official, maybe a family. There are a lot of possibilities.” Just days before his death, Mujtaba called Dayee. He told him that while it was important to look after the displaced families he was hosting, “You also have to look after yourself and your security.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 48 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Dayee, who is yet to be added to the list, will be number 49. Of those, 16, that is, a third, have been killed in the last two years.
In recent years, the stress his work placed on Dayee and his family had worn down his passion for his profession. “He had become tired of reporting,” said Gul Ahmad Ehsan, Salam Watandar’s Helmand correspondent. “But this was his job and he had no other way of supporting his family.” His family also began to resent his profession. Mujtaba said “Journalism is good for society but not for the journalist. You may be able to raise the voices of the people, but in the end you’ll be left with nothing.”
Dayee did have many opportunities to leave the country, his friend Stanekzai said. “He has a sister in the UK and has received many invitations but he would say to me, “Stanekzai, this is our country. Maybe one day I will have a son and he and my daughter might grow up in their own country in peace.” Dayee had also travelled to Uzbekistan to assess the possibility of taking his family there and his bosses at Azadi radio had flown him to Kabul on a handful of occasions when they deemed the threats against him particularly worrying. As for him leaving Helmand, however, Mujtaba said, “I told him many times he should leave the country,” but Dayee would reply: “Helmand is my soul, my mother. I never want to leave.”
In 2018, Dayee’s wife Roshana gave birth to triplets after a pregnancy of just six and a half months. Only one child survived the birth and Roshana, herself, was lucky to live. Her sister-in-law, Mujtaba’s wife, stood in to feed the baby girl in her infancy. She was named Mehrabani, ‘Kindness’: “She was a gift from God,” Dayee would always say.
The birth of Mehrabani prompted Dayee to think more seriously about stepping back from journalism and the risks it attracted. In 2019, he sold a house in Lashkargah and used the money to buy a block of land between Bolan and Chahr-e Anjir. He quickly built a wall and planted 500 peach trees. “In two years,” Stanekzai said he had recently told him, “I’ll have a beautiful garden for my friends and family for picnics.”
Dayee had always loved to work in Mujtaba’s garden in Chahr-e Anjir. He would tell his brother, “My mind is clear among the trees and in the garden.” But even though the area had been under government control since 2018, his brother discouraged him from staying for long periods as Taleban fighters would occasionally appear in the night. However, Dayee’s orchard was closer to Lashkargah – slightly safer – and Muzamal said, “He felt at peace” there.
Before he had his own land, Friday riverside picnics had been a regular favourite routine for Dayee, Stanekzai and other members of the Helmand press corps. In summer, they would take a car battery and a fan to a spot in the ‘jungle’, as they referred in English to a copse on the bank of the Helmand River opposite the Emergency Hospital or off to the side of the Bolan Bridge. In the last year or so, though, although Dayee would tell Stanekzai “I want to buy a goat – we’ll eat kebab and play cricket,” the picnics did not happen as often as they used to.
The last few months
I last worked with Dayee in mid-October, the week the Taleban laid siege to Lashkargah, in a repeat of events from 2016 when I first started getting to know him. Dayee picked me up from Bost Airport on 16 October 2020, as he had by then maybe a dozen times. Several Afghan Air Force Black Hawk helicopters arrived at the same time, depositing a company of Afghan National Army Special Forces sent from Kandahar to stem the Taleban advance around the city. In the previous few days, Dayee had taken in five families who had fled their homes in Nad-e Ali and Chahr-e Anjir ahead of the fighting. He erected a tent in his yard to accomodate the overflow. His brother, Muzamal said, it was like “an entire district” was in his home, “maybe 50 people.” Mehrahbani, now two years old, loved being surrounded by so many relatives, but it added considerably to Dayee’s responsibilities. We joked that reporting from the frontline in Bolan was like a holiday for him in comparison.
But with security forces stretched, Helmand’s capital was more vulnerable than ever to infiltration. Stanekzai was notified two weeks before Dayee’s death that Mawlawi Sharif, who is from Ghorak, Kandahar, and is believed to be responsible for carrying out targeted killings and kidnapping for the Taleban in Helmand, gave an order to conduct attacks against specific journalists, including Dayee, in Helmand. NDS had also notified the journalists of the threat. It was nothing new for Dayee, but he was typically wary, nonetheless. He was driving a new car he and Roshana had bought – a brand-new, low-slung Toyota with dark windows. I said it looked like a Mafioso’s car. “A smuggler’s car” – the Helmand equivalent – he thought. It was ostentatious for Lashkargah and did not fit with his constant efforts to avoid attention, but the couple chose it because, firstly it was nice for driving his mother, whose health and mobility are ailing, for picnics in Nawa and Chahr-e Anjir and secondly, Roshana had liked the look of it more than the others for sale.
The week of the attack, Dayee had been working with Muus Steffensen, the Danish journalist, on a series of radio reports for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. They visited and conducted interviews at the Afghan Border Force’s 4th Brigade headquarters, one of the its smaller outposts in Bolan, the headquarters of Helmand’s Afghan National Police chief and the first checkpoint on the western side of the Bolan Bridge where they interviewed a policewoman. On Wednesday 11 October, Dayee went to the funeral of a friend’s father and then joined Muus Steffensen for lunch at the Bost Hotel, beside the governor’s residence on the most fortified street in the city. He parked his car before the last security gate, roughly 100 metres before the governor’s residence. After lunch, the two crossed the road to the home of Bashir Ahmad Shakir, former head of security for Helmand’s provincial council and a powerful figure in Helmand. Shakir’s three black, armoured Landcruisers with license plates 001, 002 and 003 are often parked outside, opposite the governor’s residence.
There, Muus Steffensen interviewed the commander of the ANA’s 215th Corps, Lt Gen Wali Muhammad Ahmadzai and ate a second lunch. They stayed for about an hour in total, before returning to the hotel at 2:30pm. It was the last time, as far as Muus Steffensen, his journalist friends, brothers and Roshana are aware, that he and the vehicle were outside the walls of his home.
The following morning, on Thursday 12 November, Dayee and Roshana’s house was still busy with three of the families displaced by the recent fighting; two others, including Mujtaba’s, had already returned to their homes. Mujtaba had driven the twenty minute journey from Chahr-e Anjir to Lashkargah that morning to buy medecine from the bazaar. He had brought his daughter Ansala, who was the same age as Mehrabani, so that they could play at the house while he shopped.
At around 9am, Dayee went toward his car, which was parked in the small front garden behind a locked gate. Mujtaba complained that Dayee was always busy and never had time to talk. He decided to ride along; they could chat and he could find the medecine he had come to the city for. Dayee needed to stop in at the Journalist’s Association before collecting Muus Steffensen from her hotel. She had arranged an interview with an local English-speaking woman and, despite telling Dayee she would go alone, he insisted on taking her, himself.
Dayee checked beneath the car as always. According to Muzamal, Roshana would do the same before him, every day, too.
As they left the house and drove toward the city, Dayee was castigating Mujtaba about his neighbours in Chahr-e Anjir who had still not returned home after fleeing the fighting. “You should look after their garden, feed their chickens. They’re poor; if they need some money, just give it to them.” Mujtaba said he heard a loud sound and felt what he thought was a heavy slap from Dayee – “He was always slapping me as a joke.” Mujtaba turned to his brother to ask, ‘Why did you slap me so hard?!’ Dayee was not talking, Mujtaba said. “I couldn’t open the door, but saw the window was broken and climbed out.”
The car, crumpled in on itself and smouldering, windows blown out, was only 100 to 120 metres from the house according to Muzamal. He arrived to see Mujtaba climbing out the window. The driver’s side door was jammed shut. He and a passer-by yanked it open. Dayee was still alive, but when they pulled him onto the road, they knew it would not be for long. His chest and abdomen were open and his legs, Muzamal said, were “like meat.” A three-wheeled Zaranj and a motorcycle had caught fire nearby. Bystanders were reluctant to help lest there be a second explosion. “He didn’t say anything,” said Muzamal. “He just looked at me” and then, “He took one last breath and died.”
The explosion is believed to have been caused by a Magnetic Improvised Explosive Decide (MIED) or ‘sticky bomb’. Photographs of the vehicle taken after the explosion show the worst of the damage around the front right hand (driver’s) side quarter-panel.
Muzamal, who slept in his brother Dayee’s guest room the night before the attack and complained of sleeping little, said it would have been highly unlikely someone could have enterred the yard and hidden the device on the car without being seen or heard. Those staying in the house at the time were all family and both Muzamal and Mujtaba discounted their involvement outright.
Friends and family believe the device was most likely planted on the car while it was parked during one of his errands or while he and Muus Steffensen were conducting an interview in the day or two prior to 12 November and then detonated remotely. Given how thoroughly Dayee would routinely check the car, they believe whoever planted it had enough time and cover to do so with considerable care.
A series of tweets by Hafiz Rashid Helmandi, described by Stanekzai as a former media officer for the Taleban in Helmand, had alluded, beforehand, to the impending attack and afterward, to its success. The tweets were deleted the same day. Qari Yousef, the official Taleban spokesman in Helmand, told Stanekzai he did not believe the Taleban was behind the attack. Media reported Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid neither confirming nor denying Taleban involvement, but saying the incident would be investigated.
Now, at home in Lashkargah, two-year old Mehrabani asks her aunt to carry her to look for her father in his room. “Not there,” the girl says. Then to the front door. “Oh Dayee, Dayee,” she says, as if he was lost and using his name as she used to. She takes her aunt’s phone, looks at photos of her father and kisses the screen. “When she asks about [him],” said Muzamal, “we don’t have any answers.”
Not a single media report has been filed from Lashkargah since the day of Dayee’s death. Stanekzai, the head of the Journalist’s Association, said Helmand’s governor, chief of police and NDS have said the threat against them remains. Even as Helmand’s press corps go to ground, however, a Taleban activist tweeted that there is nowhere for them to hide. “We don’t know what the future is for journalism in Helmand,” said Stanekzai. “It depends on Doha.”
As Stanekzai said, with the vast majority of Helmandis having little or no access to television or internet, Dayee’s radio reports were often the only way for them to know what was happening in their province. Admiration for him also came because he told their stories, often at considerable risk, with such empathy and sincerity. His absence will also make reporting from Helmand for international journalists considerably more difficult – and for some, not viable at all – in the near future. Given Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign backers still, keeping it in the international spotlight was an important part of what Dayee did.
In the summer of 2019, Dayee and I travelled to the tiny island of territory under government control in the northern district of Kajaki and stayed for a week. 80 families have been marooned there since 2016, besieged by the Taleban who they believe consider them government collaborators. In an Instagram post after our trip, beneath a photo I had taken of him with a young boy and girl on the forever-eerily quiet main street, he wrote: “Kajaki’s hardship. Where the souls have turned into the city. We gathered excuses for a smile and then laughed.”
Mujtaba, still in Kabul for treatment for the shrapnel wounds to his right side and face, described hearing a radio report from Ghazni about his brother’s death on the day of the attack while he was being treated for his own wounds. “The young men [being interviewed] were crying,” he said. They were saying, “‘He was such a great voice. Why did we have to lose him?’”
“He died for journalism,” Mujtaba continued. “Not for his father’s mistakes or those of his family, just for his work and no one has even taken responsibility.”
“Finally,” said Mujtaba, “he upheld his promise — that he would never leave Helmand.”
Edited by Kate Clark
* Andrew Quilty is an Australian journalist who has been based in Kabul since 2013. He recently launched an independent podcast: Afghanistan After America.
This article was last updated on 25 Nov 2020