As a baby, Yalda Hakim’s parents paid people smugglers to get them out of Kabul. Now she’s a star foreign correspondent who has reported from Syria and Ukraine, but it’s Afghanistan — and the plight of its women under the Taliban — that keeps drawing her back.
Yalda Hakim routinely informs her 217,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter) exactly how many days have passed since the Taliban banned teenage girls from attending school in Afghanistan. She began her count on the 10th day after the insurgents swept into Kabul as American forces withdrew in 2021, panic swept the city and residents rushed to the airport to try to escape.
On the morning we meet, the tally has reached 686 days.
“People ask, ‘Why do you do that? Why do you count?’ " Hakim says. “And I say, because when the Taliban first came to power in the 90s, we know girls didn’t go to school for five years but we don’t know really how many days that was. We say, ‘Oh, for the duration of the time the Taliban were in power, girls didn’t go to school.’ But when you give that number every day, it’s a reminder that there is a child in that country who is being denied their most basic right. We saw the disruption the pandemic had on children in this country. Imagine that happening for almost two years.
“This country and much of the Western world were invested in Afghanistan and fought for those basic things, for those children. Now women and girls in that country feel abandoned, forgotten.”
Afghanistan is on Hakim’s mind every day. She was born in Kabul in 1983 and was 6 months old when her parents — with intricate plotting, a good deal of cunning and the services of people smugglers — fled the country on horseback, first to neighbouring Pakistan and eventually Australia.
“I could have been one of those children in the 90s that didn’t get an education or one of those women today who is hidden away from the public eye and doesn’t have the right to have a voice, a job, an education, the right to freedom or to live.
“Instead, I represent everything that is not. So I want to use my platform to highlight those things and highlight that number and not to forget, as we did in the 90s. For however long the Taliban is in power or until that is reversed, I want to ensure that the world doesn’t forget.”
Hakim’s platform is built on her role as one of the lead presenters and reporters on the BBC News channel — though this rising star has stunned the corporation with the announcement that she is moving to Sky News this spring.
In its never-ending dance of indecision and confusion over impartiality (such as over sports broadcaster Gary Lineker), I wonder if her BBC bosses disapproved of her using her X feed to take such a forthright public stance.
“We’ve had conversations about the day count, and the feeling is that as long as it’s factual, as long as the tweets that go out about the issue are based on the facts, it’s okay.”
Hakim had already established a foundation to provide Afghan girls with a university education in Kabul and, when the city was falling two years ago, had to juggle rolling news with helping evacuate her students to the United States. The foundation now has a scholarship link with Oriel College, Oxford, and last summer Hakim addressed the UN Security Council on the educational deprivation faced by girls in Afghanistan.
“I was there as a journalist, not an activist,” Hakim insists, but I suspect that if the BBC had told her to stop tweeting or speaking, she would have point-blank refused. Highlighting the plight of the people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule is a non-negotiable.
We are talking over coffee at a hotel in Mayfair, London, where the velvet sofas are way too soft and the piped jazz-funk far too loud for a Monday morning. It feels an incongruous place to be discussing the arbitrary cruelties and restrictions of Taliban rule.
Hakim, 40, who arrives in denim shirt, jeans and green Adidas trainers (she will be walking to Broadcasting House after our interview), lives in London with her husband, an avionics engineer, and their 4-year-old son. The family has not long returned from a holiday in the United States, visiting Yellowstone National Park and Montana.
“I love to see parts of the world that my job doesn’t necessarily take me to,” she says in her voice that is BBC English with an Aussie undertow.
Hakim is acutely aware how “privileged” she is not to be living under the Taliban and how things might have been very different had her parents not made a life-changing decision and undertaken a perilous journey four decades ago.
Afghanistan was in turmoil the year she was born. It was four years after the Soviet Union invaded the country to prop up the communist regime in the face of a mujahidin insurgency.
Her father, Wali, an architect, had returned a few years earlier from Czechoslovakia, after several years’ professional training. Of the large group of men who secured Eastern Bloc scholarships, he was one of the few to return, drawn back by his duty to his young wife, Zabrina, who by then had two children.
After his return, her father was conscripted into the army but because of his education was regarded as a “prized possession” not to be sent to the front line. He became a military engineer and was given a special pass to travel to and access bases across the country.
That pass proved useful in the escape plan, as did a letter he acquired, for payment, from a mujahidin leader stating he had to leave the country to receive medical treatment.
In the early hours one morning, “dressed as locals rather than an urban Kabul family”, they caught a bus east to Jalalabad.
“On the journey the mujahidin could jump on the bus at any time. You’re not supposed to escape. You’re meant to stay and serve. He needed that letter to say we’re going for medical treatment and we’re sympathetic to the mujahidin. He also needed the special military pass in case the communists jumped on the bus.”
Arriving in Jalalabad, they knocked on the door of a family friend to ask for a hiding place. The horrified man said, “Absolutely not. If you’re trying to escape, we are all going to get killed. You can’t stay here.”
Hakim says, “My father said, ‘Look, I have a baby 6months old and two small children. I need somewhere to shelter until I can figure out the people smugglers.’ This man worked at a bank and he gave my father a space in the basement of the bank to hide until he could figure out how to contact the people smugglers. So my mother and myself and my siblings stayed in the basement and my father was wheeling and dealing for three or four days, trying to figure out how to get out.”
The next leg of the journey was by four-wheel-drive to what turned out to be a military compound. Alarm set in until Hakim’s father realised the base commander was in league with smugglers helping people escape across the border.
Hakim’s mother was put on horseback with her, the baby. Her siblings mounted another horse, while her father and the smuggler walked as they set off into the hills towards the border.
“They walked and morning turned into night. And then my mother completely panicked and was like, ‘Where are we going?’ They kept asking this man, ‘Where are we going?’ And he wouldn’t say. Then he abandoned them in the middle of nowhere.”
Navigating mountain tracks alone now, the family came upon an isolated farming community and were told the smuggler they had been with had a reputation for selling travellers to the mujahidin. The farmers helped them find a route to the border and eventually to the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
The Hakims lived there for two and a half years. Wali, who was in his 30s, found work in an architect’s practice and Zabrina, in her late 20s, was employed as a midwife by an NGO. Their fourth child, a girl, was born in Peshawar.
Hakim says her father “ambushed the Australian ambassador” almost daily, seeking permission to emigrate there. Australian diplomats were so taken by his tenacity they eventually granted him authority to travel.
Through a friend of a friend, her father had found a sponsoring family in Sydney and the Hakims turned up on the doorstep of Syed and Nancy Sibtain.
“Nancy remains a family friend. She is really my inspiration because she’s a journalist — she’s still compiling cryptic crosswords for the Sydney Morning Herald at the age of 93. She had met her husband in London and had worked on Fleet Street, so my whole life I heard this sort of romantic story of journalism.”
The Hakims settled happily in Sydney, living a “quintessentially Australian life”. Education and opportunity were family priorities; Afghanistan was not forgotten, but only rarely mentioned.
“They didn’t talk about their own migration story. They didn’t talk about how they fled. There would be moments where I’d hear my mum and dad talk or discuss or reminisce. But the whole escape was never really sort of explained, especially not to my youngest sister and me.
“We knew my parents had emigrated, that they had come from somewhere else. But how that happened was a conversation that I really had with my father only a few months ago.”
His telling of the escape story has given Hakim a personal perspective on reporting the global migration crisis and a much clearer understanding of her parents’ appalled reaction when, aged 23, she told them she was going to Kabul on her own to make a film.
In her quest to be a journalist, Hakim had become a useful nuisance at Dateline, the award-winning documentary series at Australia’s SBS network. She started with work experience and essentially decided not to leave.
“The executive producer said, ‘I don’t care how you get inside the building; but if you can get inside, you can stay.’ "
So she convinced one journalist to let her come in on Fridays and begin transcribing interview tapes. That progressed to taking boxes of VHS tapes home and spending the weekend writing transcripts. Then she began taking wads of documents amassed by reporters and whittling them down to two or three pages of essential information.
“I was doing the legwork. I became invaluable in the office,” she says.
She bought a small video camera and began wandering around Sydney teaching herself how to use it. Stubborn persistence secured her an internship. Then, in 2007, she told her family she was going on a road trip to India with her camera.
From Delhi she telephoned home and sold her parents the fiction that SBS was sending her into Afghanistan on assignment. “They freaked out. ‘This network is irresponsible. You’re 23. You have no idea what you’re doing. What security are they providing?’
“I didn’t have a fixer. I didn’t have any security. I didn’t have a place to stay. But I was going to get a story because I wanted a job as a journalist. I wanted SBS to take me seriously. So my parents jumped on a plane and turned up in Delhi, and for the next three weeks my father was my fixer in Kabul. He was going into drug dens with me, negotiating at checkpoints, wrangling security, getting interviews with ministers for me.”
When they returned to Sydney three weeks later, her father said, “Never again — that was so stressful.” It had also been an ordeal for her mother, who had become “a proud Australian” with no wish to return to a country she fled in fear in her mid-20s.
Hakim took her package of stories to Dateline, where it was the turn of the editors there to “freak out” about how she had spent her summer holiday.
“Then they started going through the tape and they were like, ‘Wow.’ I was walking through a drug den and using techniques that now are kind of commonplace, like turning the camera onto myself and saying, ‘This is where I am; this is what I’m doing,’ and filming the whole journey. They called it Yalda’s Kabul. They ran it. And it was the highest-rating story of the year.”
The programme was syndicated and Hakim used her slice of the fee to fund further freelance trips to Timor-Leste and Indonesia. In time, Dateline had to offer her a job and, by the age of 26, she became one of the show’s presenters.
When she talks to journalism students now, Hakim tells them to be “enterprising and entrepreneurial”, which in her case, she concedes, also covers “fibbing to my parents”.
“I tell this to budding journalists, people who are aspiring to enter this field — you have to find a point of difference. Everybody has a point of difference. Everybody has something that makes them unique in this very competitive environment.”
And sometimes that is “about rolling the dice, taking a risk and, you know, not getting too comfortable”.
Hakim is back at the career roulette table right now. After a decade at the BBC, which lured her from SBS in 2013, she is on her way to Sky to become lead world news presenter.
She will be presenting an hour-long primetime foreign affairs programme five nights per week and will continue to report from the field. A podcast will accompany the new show.
But why leave the BBC at a time when it has been losing big names and flagship presenting roles could be opening up?
Coverage of the announcement of her departure in July suggested Hakim (and others) were unhappy at the “hotchpotch” and “mishmash” of home and international news after the distinct BBC World News channel was merged with the domestic 24-hour channel.
The Times reported Hakim was “understood to have become increasingly unhappy with the direction of travel at the channel”, and had clashed with managers “as she pushed for a clearer delineation between domestic and global stories”.
She is, unsurprisingly, far too diplomatic to say any more. Hakim stresses that during the summer she was in Ukraine, interviewing President Zelenskyy, going into bunkers, visiting the site of a missile strike.
The Beeb, she says, “remains very committed” to foreign news coverage. But Sky, which Hakim feels is more “nimble” than the sometimes bureaucratic BBC, made her “an incredibly unique offer”.
Hakim says, “I get to front a nightly programme working with this team of world-class, fearless journalists who want to help the British public understand that what goes on in the world has a direct impact on them. Whether it’s energy prices or the cost of living, the flow of migration … We shouldn’t view foreign news like this kind of other.”
What was noticeable when she announced she was leaving on social media was the wave of regrets and good wishes from colleagues across the BBC.
“So sorry to see you go,” wrote the veteran foreign correspondent Lyse Doucet on X. “You brought so many strong voices and stories to [the] BBC.”
In a line of work that (take it from me, after nearly 40 years in journalism) has more than its fair share of monstrous egos, it is impressive to see so many fond farewells.
There is a stern side to Hakim. Take a look at her face, and the very hard stare she deployed, when interviewing the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood after he had lauded the Taliban in an online video and described Afghanistan as a “country transformed”.
“Security has vastly improved,” Ellwood enthused, “corruption is down and the opium trade has all but disappeared.” He called for the British embassy to be reopened and for the government to engage with the Taliban.
Hakim took him to task on air and a flustered Ellwood spluttered, “Have you visited yourself?”
The presenter fired back that she had been to Helmand, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul.
“When did you go?” asked the MP.
“I was there in February of this year,” replied Hakim.
There was an uncomfortable pause from Ellwood before he ploughed on into an ever deeper furrow. Two days later he deleted his video and apologised for “my poor communication”. Subsequently he resigned as chairman of the defence committee following criticism of his video. “He jumped before he was pushed,” one committee member said.
Hakim believes the Taliban “rolled out the red carpet” for a British MP. “Certain things have changed but the basic rights for people are worse. You saw musical instruments being burnt just a few weeks ago. Artists, writers, journalists — there really isn’t a media sector any more. Those big things are gone. They’ve disappeared. They disappeared overnight.
“Tobias Ellwood says he was able to travel across the country and there were solar panels and there weren’t checkpoints. Yes, that is true. He’s right. Those things have happened because the insurgents have formed the government.”
How did she keep her cool when interviewing him? In the same way, she says, she held steady when anchoring rolling news coverage of the fall of Kabul in August 2021 and a Taliban spokesman’s name flashed up on her phone.
Hakim was rushed in to front the coverage on a Sunday and was dealing with an ever-changing list of interviewees as chaos engulfed Kabul. Some who suddenly appeared before her, in distress, were people she knew and had met.
“There were moments where they just had to run a VT [a pre-recorded insert] just so I could compose myself, because it was heartbreaking for me to see what was unfolding and what would happen to these women. And suddenly my phone started to ring.
“It was a member of the Taliban. I was interviewing an ambassador who’d served in Afghanistan and I just said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m going to have to cut this interview.’ And I pressed the green button and everyone in the gallery was saying, ‘What’s going on? Where’s she going with this?’”
The floor manager placed a microphone up to Hakim’s mobile and she began a long interview with the Taliban official.
“The next 40 minutes were not about me or my anger or my hurt or my heartbreak. It was about holding the only people the world wanted to speak to at that point accountable and asking them what on earth their intention was.”
In comparison, dealing with a Tory MP who has been hoodwinked by the Taliban was easy.
“I’ve got to ask tough questions. That was my responsibility with the Taliban as it was with Tobias Ellwood. The responsibility I have is to help the audience understand what is going on and why this member of parliament has viewed things in this way and wants the embassy reopened, and then challenging him with the issues that I found on the ground.”
She is determined to keep reporting from Ukraine, across the Middle East and wherever the news takes her. Hakim travelled across Syria when her son was 6 months old with a breast pump in her correspondent’s luggage. She has had blow-dries in hair salons in Iraq, Syria and Sudan because that is where she meets ordinary women and hears stories from “under the veil”.
“These women talk to me about their children, marital issues, childcare issues, you know, issues with their in-laws, issues at school with their kids. And you suddenly realise, ‘These are things that I talk about with my girlfriends in London.’ "
Above all she will keep going back to Afghanistan, where many refer to her as “the daughter of the nation” and the Taliban authorities don’t know if she is “a man or a woman or a third gender or what to do with me.
“It’s the only place where I constantly feel like I’m looking into some kind of mirror. I’ve met Afghan journalists who are a few months younger than me, born in the same hospital as me, their families lived down the road from my family and have had to leave the country. How different could my life have been had my parents stayed?”
Written by: Sean O’Neill
© The Times of London