Since 2018, Sara Wahedi has always made it her business to help keep fellow Afghans safe. Her mobile app Ehtesab, crowd-sourced reports of bombings, shootings, roadblocks and city-service issues verified, giving citizens of Kabul clarity in moments of chaos.
That work became even more vital when the Taliban began making rapid advances across Afghanistan and eventually took control of the capital on Aug. 15. It has also become significantly more perilous for the 20 Ehtesab employees in Afghanistan, many of whom belong to ethnic minority groups and 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 risks, Wahedi says they want to remain 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 large humanitarian groups supporting it, so she is working with humanitarian organizations that can help arrange safe passage.
Wahedi was particularly worried about Hazara - Minority Group s Chief Technology Officer Niloofar Karimi, a woman who belongs to Ehtesab. 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 her other employees face less immediate threats.
Meanwhile, Ehtesab – which loosely translated as accountability or transparency — is walking a fine line to overcome the Taliban so it can continue 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. The gov's army conducts domestic raids and private raids as the Taliban conducts public beatings and checkspoints, Ehtesab issues alerts about the violence without saying who is behind it. The entity is irrelevant to us. Where safety is the priority, Wahedi says.
When Afghans hear a distant explosion, it s not always clear what is 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 thought it was a joke. What are the facts? she says. I mention it in a small line and some parts I are talking. And that was when the idea for Ehtesab crystallized. It is truly to have a sigh of relief, she says.
Before Ehtesab, there was no efficient and easily accessible source of safety information. Many uses the Facebook groups where anyone could provide unsolicited details, and pages would often devolve into misinformation. Wahedi's disinformation was infuriating for me. It could be very dangerous because it could tell you that an explosion was somewhere and you may be going somewhere else. Ehtesab's interface looks similar to the U.S. GPS app Citizen, which maps 911 Alerts in real time. After receiving a report of an explosion, Wahedi's team monitors the explosion by tracking specific trends in posts and if they find 10 or more, they send an alert. For other incidents, they typically find two or three sources on social media — ideally ones that incorporate photos, video or audio — to corroborate the incident. If they can t find them, they wait for a reputable news site to confirm the event.
How can you help other countries in Afghanistan?
Ms. Ehtesab moved to America in August to study human rights and data science at Columbia University, but much of her focus is with Wahedi in Afghanistan. My work every day, other than school, is like: explosion, explosion, says she.
Watching the Taliban takeover from thousands of miles away has been painful for Wahedi, who grew up in Afghanistan and Canada. I lost my country. There's nothing to go back to, she says. 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. Und 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 given 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 raised enough funds for SMS text alerts to start in 2022, which would let Ehtesab to work with simpler phones — like Nokia handheld devices – often used in rural areas. The goal, she says, is to keep even more Afghans safer.