Ehtesab, a Kabul-based startup, emerged out of a personal security-related incident that Sara Wahedi, a former Afghan government employee, experienced in May 2018. After witnessing a suicide bomb attack firsthand, Wahedi rushed home, where she could see militants roaming the streets from her balcony. The city was put on lockdown for 12 hours and left without electricity. No one, Wahedi said, knew when the electricity would be restored or when roads would be cleared. The authorities were of little help.
“Since that moment, I kept pondering about the idea of accountability and information provision. I jotted down a few words in different languages for accountability, namely Dari and Pashto. That was the moment the term Ehtesab came to my mind.”
Ehtesab means “accountability” in Dari and Pashto, and the app, formally launched in March 2020, offers streamlined security-related information, including general security updates in Kabul to its users. With real-time, crowdsourced alerts, users across the city can track bomb blasts, roadblocks, electricity outages, or other problems in locations close to them. The app, which generates push notifications about nearby security risks, is supported by 20 employees working out of the company’s Kabul office, according to Wahedi.
Despite the company’s single-minded focus on security, the Ehtesab team was caught off-guard by the sudden collapse of the Afghan government over the weekend. “It was inevitable that there would be a significant shift in governance … but we weren’t expecting the Taliban to come in within the first eight hours of the day,” Wahedi said.
Wahedi said her Kabul-based team is working around the clock monitoring and providing security updates across the city. But the nature of their service also makes it a target for any sort of crackdown. “We do not feel safe,” Wahedi told Rest of World. The service is currently avoiding any mention of the Taliban in its security notifications. In light of the security risks, the team is obscuring the identities of female staff members and the company’s entire staff is working remotely. Wahedi is currently out of the country.
The following interview, conducted on August 16 and 17, has been edited for clarity.
Given the unfolding situation, what is your current status? Where are you and where are your employees located? Is everyone safe?
We are still operating, but everyone right now is working remotely. Our development team is still in Kabul, all the members of my team are still in the city. I’m the only one who is out of the country since I’m going to start school in the U.S. soon.
My focus right now is to get my team out of the country, if possible. Nobody has visas. It is evident that anyone who is involved with media reporting, or raising issues of accountability, is seen by the Taliban as a direct threat. They are raiding homes and cracking down on journalists, [and] also whoever is involved with the aspects of reporting.
We don’t feel safe in the current climate considering our job is to report on issues of accountability. So we are not explicitly writing and posting about the Taliban, but we are still providing information about security risks, such as roadblocks, gunfires, looting, traffic points, electricity shortages, and gas prices. Since the app’s focus is on accountability, we are keeping the citizenry updated with those aspects of daily life.
My team has explicitly requested assistance to leave, and I’m trying my best to get them out of the country. But there are team members who can’t leave due to their parents, or because they are a minority, such as Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. And especially the women, who won’t be protected. They have been vocal and their faces have been shared on social media. Right now, we are in contact every minute of the day to make sure they are safe.
What are your immediate plans for the team?
Everyone is working remotely, but at the Ehtesab office in Kabul, we follow all the security protocols carefully for the entire team.
There are members who come from different parts of the city. Some of my team members are also from a settlement in Kabul called Dasht-e-Barchi, which is home to the Hazara ethnic group, who are also constantly under attack. We ensure that everyone stays connected and has access to Wi-Fi facilities. I’m grateful for the fundraiser that we have set up for Ehtesab. We aim to provide a generator if needed, but we haven’t seen any major outages so far. But we don’t know how stable the power supply is going to be in the coming days.
How are the women on your team coping with the current situation right now?
Afghan women have made it clear that they need more attention than others. Why? Men have the capacity to run and flee through crowds. Women don’t — they have children with them. Even the act of running is a danger. It is unjust that the international community has put women in a situation where they cannot flee and there are significant barriers to their ability to seek safety and refuge. How can one expect women to climb over concrete barriers with barbed wires? Are we in a situation where all the money invested in women’s empowerment cannot even be used to help women escape and seek refuge?
There are young Afghan women who are pursuing non-traditional roles such as in tech, and now, the right to safety and refuge for them is being disregarded. I have removed all evidence that there are women in my team. The morning we knew that the Taliban were near Kabul, we wiped their photos, videos, and digital information to mitigate any safety risks. The second measure we took was to make sure they were working remotely. We also limited their workload, so that they were not under added stress or being tracked.
Over the last decade, Kabul became home to a nascent startup scene. How important was the startup and entrepreneur community to a new vision of Afghanistan? Have you heard from entrepreneurs in the area and what their plans are?
The startup community is very important for Afghans. We are resilient people, and all we aspire to do is to gain control of our lives and lead ourselves. We have grown up in an environment constantly ravaged by war.
Afghans are very much attracted to entrepreneurship and startup cultures, since they allow you to mould, innovate, and play with a lot of new ideas. They have adapted unorthodox approaches in understanding the startup culture like watching videos to learn Java and Python.
The startup community keeps in touch through a Facebook group called CodeWeekend. It is a very tight-knit group. But at this very moment, security is very important for all of us. It’s a huge hindrance for the entire startup community. Without stability, foreign direct investments are harder to get. The outsiders view Afghanistan as a liability, and for technology to succeed, that liability factor needs to be erased.
The benefit of the startup culture is the fact that we become so good at modifying and working with the situations at hand that we are able to adapt quickly.
What is the future of Ehtesab with the Taliban in power? Can you describe that vision?
The [takeover by the] Taliban has actually made our work at Ehtesab even more clear. Our focus is accountability, be it the government or the Taliban. If an entity comes to govern, terrorize, or lead the people, and confronts us in any form, there is a platform out there already.
Looking at the Taliban, they themselves enjoy these Western technologies. We see them tweeting and using social media. In that regard, I don’t see social media and internet access being taken away. There is no way they can limit that — people will protest. If the Taliban decides to decimate the city, then we can’t do anything. But if the Taliban does what they claim to — establishing a transitional government and [refraining from violence], if there is a difference in their governance, then our work will continue. We will post updates in the city, and will continue advocating our mission by providing real-time updates to our users. But all of this will also mean we have to be secretive about our team, and act accordingly.
We are still working and trying our best, even today.
We are providing information on accountability in a discreet way and revising our strategy on how to proceed. What we are doing now is using words and sentences that may indicate an emergency. For instance, a roadblock may indicate that there might be danger, but of course we can’t directly say that there is danger. If we are accused of constructing a narrative against the government, then we can assert that we provided information about a roadblock and nothing else, since it affects people’s movement. That is the strategy we are adopting. We don’t want to create any problems with the government. We are not political, we are not affiliated with anyone, but that doesn’t mean we should lose our aim of providing information to residents in Kabul as needed. Our team will do everything we can to provide information related to accountability, but of course we are adapting ways to keep ourselves safe as well.
All my team members are young, all of them are under 25, and they are working day and night for Ehtesab. They have never been outside the country, and right now, we see an environment where they cannot thrive in their work or their personal life. At the same time, we have created an environment from which they cannot escape. It feels like a jail for this young generation, who are extremely resilient — these generations have grown up in war. And now again, they are under an archaic group, they have to hide themselves and their faces. War has become a cyclical aspect in their lives; it has become the main pillar of their life. The Afghan youth now [question whether] they will ever have the capacity to control their own lives, since their lives are constantly dictated by these circumstances. The international community is dead silent. This silence gives the Taliban an upper hand.