Afghan public health chief settles in UK after kidnap by Taliban

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Dr Mohammad Haqmal, who developed groundbreaking health initiatives in Aghanistan, granted refugee status

Dr Mohammad Haqmal said he is hoping to work in the public health sector in the UK. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

A senior Afghan government official has been given sanctuary in the UK after being kidnapped and tortured by the Taliban.

Dr Mohammad Haqmal, 42, is a public health chief of international standing, who developed a series of groundbreaking programmes in his home country. He was forced to flee Afghanistan after his kidnap. On Monday he was awarded Public Health National Hero 2019 – the second time he has won the award – in absentia for his work by the Afghanistan parliament.

Haqmal said that his case raised questions over Home Office guidance that states it is safe to forcibly send some asylum seekers back to parts of Afghanistan including the capital Kabul, where his attack took place.

“Kabul is not a safe place,” he said. “There are thousands of examples of people being targeted by the Taliban there including asylum seekers sent back from the UK. My government could not protect me.”

Journalist and political adviser Mena Mangal was recently shot dead in Kabul.

Haqmal completed a medical degree in 2003 in Afghanistan and has 15 years’ experience in public health management and research. Along the way he has acquired three master’s qualifications in health research, including one from University College London.

In Afghanistan he developed an initiative called the $1 project, which aimed to provide universal healthcare in remote areas. His work saved the lives of 2,500 mothers over an 18-month period in two districts with the poorest health indicators in the world. He has presented his research at prestigious international public health bodies including the International Health Economics Association and American Public Health Association.

Like Malala Yousafzai, who also defied the Taliban, Haqmal is a passionate advocate for the rights of girls and women and for access to education for them. “Everything links together – health, education and the rights of women,” he said.

Haqmal’s achievements are particularly remarkable because of his impoverished childhood and the various tragedies that have blighted his life.

He first fled Afghanistan for a refugee camp in Pakistan at the age of five after Russian troops burned his village and killed more than 72 people. Most of his family were not in the village at the time. He and his mother were the only two who survived the attack and managed to escape.

“This was my first tragedy,” he said. “As a human being it is difficult to forget something like this but sometimes it can make you stronger and more resilient.”

As a child in the refugee camp he was resourceful and began buying ice and glasses so that he could sell chilled water to people. The money he earned helped him get through school and get to medical school despite living in dire poverty.

After excelling in public health work on the ground he was offered a role at Afghanistan’s ministry of public health. He survived various suicide bomb attacks by the Taliban, who targeted government buildings.

His real problems began when he defied Taliban requests to assign their prisoners in prison hospitals “untreatable” status so they could be released. This status was given to prisoners suffering from terminal illnesses or other very serious medical conditions. Taliban leaders were exerting pressure on doctors like Haqmal to sign these relatively healthy prisoners out of jail so they could return to fighting.

Because he refused to do so when there were no clinical grounds to justify the decision, he began receiving threats and on 5 May last year he was seized by four armed men on motorbikes just 20 metres away from a government checkpoint. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and driven to a house 30 minutes away where he was held in a basement. He was told he would be killed for refusing to agree to Taliban requests to release their prisoners.

“They tortured me both mentally and physically,” he said. They continually put a knife to his neck indicating that they were about to execute him.

Haqmal believed he would die during his kidnap ordeal. He was saved by the sound of vehicles because his captors feared it was the Afghan police and ran away. He managed to untie his hands, which were bound with a kind of plastic chain, by biting through it, escaped barefoot and ran until he reached the road and found a taxi.

Now the Home Office has granted him refugee status in the UK he is hoping to work in the public health sector. “I don’t like to stay with social benefits. I want to have a dignified life, I’m addicted to work. I like to work 16 hours a day,” he said. “What I want to do most of all is change the lives of poor people.”

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