From Kabul, pregnant reporter fights NZ govt to come home

ISLAMABAD — She reported on the difficult conditions mothers and babies face just to survive in desperate Afghanistan. Now, a pregnant New Zealand reporter has chosen Kabul as a temporary base for her uphill fight to return home because of her country’s strict COVID-19 entry rules.

Charlotte Bellis, 35, is expecting her first child with her partner, freelance photographer Jim Huylebroek, a Belgium native who has lived in Afghanistan for two years. Bellis, who is 25 weeks pregnant with a daughter, told The Associated Press on Sunday that each day is a battle.

She said she has been vaccinated three times and is ready to isolate herself upon her return to New Zealand. This is absurd. My legal right is to travel to New Zealand where I am able to access health care and where my family lives. She said that all her support was there.

Bellis first wrote about her difficulties in a column published in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday. After trying unsuccessfully to get into New Zealand through a lottery system, she applied for an emergency leave.

Thousands of New Zealand citizens wanting to return home have faced delays due to a bottleneck of people in the country’s border quarantine system.

On Monday, New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said officials had suggested Bellis amend her application or try again under different criteria.

“I want to be clear, there is a place in Managed Isolation and Quarantine for people with special circumstances like Ms Bellis. Hipkins stated that no one is saying there aren’t. Hipkins stated that while there were difficult decisions to be made by officials, the quarantine system saved lives and prevented the system becoming overwhelmed.

However, Bellis insists the decisions have been arbitrary. She said she sent dozens of documents to the New Zealand authorities, including ultrasounds and physicians’ letters specifying her due date is around May 19. Yet she said she was rejected because she was told her pregnancy didn’t meet the criteria of “threshold of critical time threat.”

“If I don’t meet the threshold as a pregnant woman, then who does?” she asked.

Bellis had worked as an Afghanistan correspondent for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network. She resigned in November because of Qatar’s illegal ban on unmarried and pregnant women. Al Jazeera didn’t immediately reply to my request for comment.

Bellis then flew to Belgium, trying to get residency there, but said the length of the process would have left her in the country with an expired visa. While she was waiting to have her child, she said that she could have traveled from one country to another on tourist visas. This would have been expensive and could have resulted in her spending on unsupported or poor-quality health care while she tried to get back to New Zealand.

In the end, she and her partner returned to Afghanistan because they had a visa, felt welcome and from there could wage her battle to return to her home. She said that they have an Afghan house and she had “evaluated all options” before returning to Kabul.

Bellis said she has set herself a deadline for leaving Afghanistan once she is 30 weeks pregnant, to protect the health of herself and her baby. She said, “I’m giving myself until February.” She will have about a month on her Belgia visa, so she could re-enter New Zealand if she doesn’t return by then.

She said she tries to stay calm as she wages a paper war with New Zealand’s quarantine system, but that she worries about how the stress she has been under will impact her baby.

“I am very concerned about a premature birth and … also the implication of stress,” she said.

Bellis has found an Afghan gynecologist, who promised she could call her if she wakes up in the night with a problem. Bellis visited the clinic, which includes one incubator. Bellis was told by the doctor that her incubator is frequently occupied.

Bellis has found a lawyer who is handling her case pro bono and has submitted over 60 documents to the New Zealand government, answered countless questions, only to be rejected twice for entry to her home country.

On Sunday, she received another email from the New Zealand government, this one telling her to apply as a person in danger and that this will get her home, she said.

Bellis said that prior to returning to Afghanistan, she sought permission from the Taliban. According to her, she was concerned that arriving in Afghanistan “with just a bump” and not being married could prove problematic.

Instead, the Taliban response was immediate and positive.

“I appreciate this isn’t official Taliban policy, but they were very generous and kind. Bellis said that they said “you’re safe here, congratulations and we welcome you”.

The Taliban have come under international criticism for repressive rules they imposed on women since sweeping to power in mid-August, including denying girls education beyond sixth grade. They have stated that girls and all women can attend school following the Afghan New Year, which will take place at the end March. Although women are allowed back to work at the education and health ministries, many female civil servants were not permitted to resume their duties.

As she ponders her next move, Bellis said she is contemplating whether to take the latest option offered by New Zealand — applying as a person in danger — because it would exonerate the government of responsibility for her earlier rejections.

“It gives them an opportunity to deny any responsibility and frankly that is not true,” she said. The government’s current COVID-19 policy has left “how many stranded around the world with no pathways to get home.”

Hipkins, the New Zealand minister, said officials had offered Bellis several options. Bellis stated that Sunday’s invitation to Bellis, as a person considered in imminent danger, was her only option.

“I encourage her to take these offers seriously,” said Hipkins.

Associated Press reporter Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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