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...I was sitting in the garden of AFP’s Kabul bureau for better mobile reception, trying desperately to reach a father in the remote Uruzgan province. His “beautiful” teenage son, local elders told me, had been snatched by a police commander to be his sex slave. I had nearly given up when the call finally went through, a jangling Islamic ringtone replacing the “number not reachable” message in Pashto I had become weary of hearing. But to my dismay, when he answered, he refused to talk — perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of shame. “Your report won’t change anything,” he said over the scratchy line, before hanging up. Listening to the birds warbling in the trees, I came to a sobering realisation. I was trying to break through an invisible wall of silence. As a journalist, I have never felt more alone in the quest of a story. A story that no one wants to talk about. A story shrouded in a miasma of shame. Over the next few months, this scenario played itself out multiple times as I searched for victims of child sex abuse. But I felt I had to keep going. The story had to be told. ...TOI on Jan. 17, 2017, 4:39 p.m.
...In silence. I found myself in that godforsaken corner because of an image. Some months ago, I was struggling to stay awake at dawn after reporting another grisly all-night Taliban attack in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter. Slouched in my chair, groggy-eyed, I was poring over photographs by my talented Kabul bureau colleague Wakil Kohsar. One of them jolted me wide awake — an Afghan soldier apparently kicking the mutilated body of one of the suicide attackers, his booted foot in mid-air, frozen in time. The surreal portrait captured the reactionary anger after a horrific spasm of violence. But it was something else about that picture that stayed with me — the bomber’s youth. That image inspired this story on a teenage suicide bomber, a wannabe boxer captured alive in the southern province of Kandahar. His tale offered disturbing insight into how Afghanistan’s roiling conflict has regressed into a hidden war on children. ...TOI on Aug. 3, 2016, 9:13 p.m.