When Kabul fell on Sunday, 20 young Afghan techs followed the Taliban advance and broadcast real-time reports of gunfire, explosions and traffic jams in the city through a new app.
The app, called Ehtesab, is based on ground-level reports from a vetted team of users to a private WhatsApp group.
The reports, which are then verified by the app’s fact-checkers, range from security incidents, such as fires, gunfire and bombings, to road closures and traffic problems to power outages. Sara Wahedi, the app’s 26-year-old founder, said the team tried to confirm the messages with the Interior Ministry “when it existed”.
On Sunday morning, Wahedi and her team were supposed to upload the new version of their iOS app, but instead faced an increasingly frantic stream of reports.
“Breaking on the @ehtesabaf App: Taliban have entered Arghandi, Paghman District. South Gate of Kabul. ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] attacked,” Wahedi wrote on Twitter at the time.
She said that as the Taliban advanced through Afghanistan, Ehtesab had developed a reliable way to “get reports from many different security structures,” including police, the government and international organizations.
The team soon received reports that the Taliban had taken Bagram prison in the former US military base just north of Kabul.
“At that point, our reporting mechanisms were still in place, so it was easy to talk to our security team and all of our reporters. We followed minute by minute, talking to different police districts and following the Taliban mile by mile at that time,” she said.
“But by the time they reached the city center, everything was quiet, there was nothing online, there was no way to talk to each other. People have deleted their messages or turned off their phones. When the Taliban reached the president’s office, it was like, ‘Okay, now we have to work alone’.”
Ehtesab, which means “responsibility” in Pashto and Dari, is co-owned by the Afghan company Netlinks, which has invested $40,000, and Wahedi, which said she put in $2,500 of her own money.
“I didn’t want to register as an NGO, benchmark or be restricted by the United Nations or the United States. This is an Afghan led and funded, wholly 100 percent Afghan team working on this,” she said.
Users of the app can choose to receive phone alerts based on their location, warning them to avoid certain areas, buildings or businesses. They can also report incidents themselves via the app, which turns on your camera and microphone so that you can send video images to the Wahedi team. The goal, she said, is to provide local communities with live information to respond to.
Ehtesab is still active and Wahedi said she wants to continue operating it as long as possible, although she is currently outside of Afghanistan. She has managed to raise nearly $15,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, part of which she will send to her team in Kabul as an emergency fund.
Her plan is to build a nationwide alert system, not just through the apps, but also through SMS alerts. Their office in downtown Kabul remains closed, with employees working from home, but they plan to upload a new iOS version as soon as they can get back to their desks.
“We just want to allay some of the concerns Afghans have in these uncertain and volatile times,” she said. “We’ll find different ways to collect data about the city and security… That’s the beauty of technology, it knows no boundaries,” she said.
Wahedi founded the company in 2018 after spending two years working for President Ashraf Ghani’s office on Afghanistan’s social development policy, but insists she is not affiliated with any political group.
She had returned to her hometown at age 21, having escaped Taliban rule in her native Kabul to go to Canada as a refugee at age six. Two decades later, the Afghan entrepreneur was once again on the run from the Taliban. This time she doesn’t know if she will ever be able to return. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” she said.
Today, she uses what she calls the “privilege” of escaping Kabul to try to put her friends and family on charter flights from Afghanistan.
“I’m grateful to be with my mother, but the guilt is paralyzing when I think about my home, when I think about the fact that I’ll never be able to go back to the Kabul I’ve known for so long,” she says. said. “I don’t think any of us will ever be the same again.”
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