Since 2018, Sara Wahedi has made it her business to help keep fellow Afghans safe. Her mobile app, Ehtesab, crowd-sources verified reports of bombings, shootings, roadblocks and city-service issues—giving residents of Kabul clarity in moments of chaos.
That work became even more essential when the Taliban began making rapid advances across Afghanistan, eventually taking control of the capital on Aug. 15. It has also become dramatically more perilous for the 20 Ehtesab employees in Afghanistan, many of whom belong to ethnic minority groups and so face increased threats from the Taliban.
Within hours of the Taliban takeover, Wahedi, 26, shut down Ehtesab’s office and had the team working remotely. Despite the risks, Wahedi says, “they want to keep working and serving Afghans.”
Wahedi says that because the app can largely be run from abroad, she is trying to get all of her team members out of the country—but it’s a daunting challenge. The company began without any big international groups backing it, so she is working with humanitarian organizations that can help arrange safe passage.
Wahedi was particularly worried about Ehtesab’s chief technology officer Niloofar Karimi, a woman who belongs to the Hazara minority group. Hazara people have been repeatedly targeted by deadly attacks, including the bombing of a school in Kabul earlier this year that killed 90 people, mostly schoolgirls. Karimi was able to leave Afghanistan in late September after living in hiding for weeks. Wahedi believes that her other employees face less immediate threats.
Read more: What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose
Meanwhile, Ehtesab—which loosely translates as “accountability” or “transparency”—is walking a fine line to avoid provoking the Taliban so it can continue providing its vital service under the new regime. When Taliban fighters were suspected of detonating IEDs before the takeover, Ehtesab did not name the group in its alerts. And as the Taliban conducts public beatings and house raids and sets up checkpoints, Ehtesab issues alerts on the violence—without saying who is behind it. “For us, the entity is irrelevant. Safety is the priority,” Wahedi says.
When Afghans hear a distant explosion, it’s not always clear what’s happening—or what they can do to stay safe. Wahedi experienced this in 2018 when she found herself near a suicide bombing and struggled to learn details of what had happened. “I was like, ‘Is this a joke? How is it you don’t even know what’s going on?’” she says. And that’s when the idea for Ehtesab crystallized. “It’s really to provide a sigh of relief,” she says.
Before Ehtesab, there wasn’t a reliable and easily accessible source of safety information. Many used Facebook groups, where anyone could provide unverified details, and pages would often devolve into misinformation. “The disinformation was infuriating for me,” Wahedi says. “It could be very dangerous because it could tell you that an explosion was somewhere and you may be going somewhere else. And then you realize, ‘Whoa, actually the explosion was here.’”
Ehtesab’s interface looks similar to the U.S. app Citizen, which maps out 911 alerts in real time. After receiving a report of an explosion, Wahedi’s team verifies it by monitoring specific trends in posts, and if they find 10 or more, they send an alert. For other incidents, they typically locate two or three sources on social media—ideally ones that include photos, video or audio—to corroborate the incident. If they can’t find them, they wait for a reputable news organization to confirm the event.
Read more: How You Can Help People in Afghanistan
Wahedi moved to the U.S. in August to study human rights and data science at Columbia University, but much of her focus remains with Ehtesab in Afghanistan. “My work every day, other than school, is like: explosion, explosion,” she says.
Watching the Taliban takeover from thousands of miles away has been painful for Wahedi, who grew up in Afghanistan and Canada. “I’ve lost my country. And I can’t have that again. There’s nothing to go back to,” she says. But she’s determined to do her part from afar. “I do feel an innate sense of responsibility because I have the capacity to do something,” she says. And she’s inspired by the post-2001 generation of Afghans. “They have grown up in war,” she says. “They’ve just learned to respond to whatever’s brought forth to them in the most resilient ways.”
In addition to helping to get her staff to safety, Wahedi is working to expand access to her app. Her company has now raised enough money for SMS text alerts to start in 2022, which would allow Ehtesab to work with simpler phones—like Nokia handheld devices—typically used in rural areas. The goal, she says, is to keep even more Afghans safer.
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