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A journalist's journey: From Nova Scotia to the front lines in Afghanistan


Sitting at his computer overlooking Halifax’s Northwest Arm, Matthieu Aikins types out his thoughts.

The 38-year-old journalist, who is originally from Nova Scotia, is piecing together more investigative stories he gathered in Afghanistan for The New York Times.

“We're actually still able to get access to the country for now,” Aikins said. “So I think it’s really important to keep the spotlight on what’s happening.”

His work published during the past 18 months is getting a lot of attention.

When the Taliban took over in the summer of 2021, Aikins was in Kabul.

Days after a deadly attack at the Kabul airport, a U.S. military drone missile hit a vehicle and killed Zemari Ahmadi and his family – including seven children.

By gathering footage and interviews at the scene, Aikins and his team at The New York Times exposed how U.S. officials thought the vehicle was carrying a bomb and posed an imminent threat to troops at the airport, but Ahmadi was actually an innocent aid worker.

“We were able to prove that with some video evidence and eventually the military had to apologize and admit that they had killed those innocent people,” Aikins said. “That was a moment when you were at the right place at the right time and able to make an impact.”

The New York Times’ video investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting, as well as an Emmy.

But Aikins’ book published last February, which documents Afghan migrants’ underground journey to Europe, is also receiving a lot of attention.

Time Magazine and The Economist listed “The Naked Don’t Fear The Water” as a must-read for 2022. It’s now being translated into nine languages.

It’s a story of friendship and love but also hardship and risk as Aikins goes undercover posing as an Afghan refugee to follow his friend – who he calls Omar – on the underground route out of Afghanistan to Europe. 

Despite working as an interpreter during the war in Afghanistan, Omar didn’t have the documents he needed to get a visa to leave. Instead, he decides to cross illegally through Iran, Turkey and Greece in the hopes of eventually returning to Afghanistan for the woman he wants to marry.

“There's no guarantees when you're putting your life in the hands of criminals, smugglers,” Aikins said.

“But at the same time, you have to. I mean for Afghans who have the worst passport in the world when it comes to being able to travel without visas, they can't leave their country. They can't get visas, especially now because there’s not really any western embassies working in the country.”

The harrowing journey took more than three months and meant trusting smugglers with their money and lives.

“You’re prey, not just for smugglers who might kidnap you, but for border guards,” Aikins said.

The two crossed a portion of the Mediterranean in a small inflatable boat packed with other people only to end up in a crowded refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos where most migrants found themselves stuck.

As Aikins observed and wrote about his experience, he was struck by the migrants’ courage and willingness to put up with unimaginable situations to secure a better future.

“Mothers with their children trying to keep their kids healthy in disgusting camps that are set up by the European Union,” he said.

“How they did it with so much dignity. And even humour.”

Omar and Aikins both did eventually get to Europe’s mainland after many twists and turns.

“The book is not just a story of misery and suffering. There’s a lot of moments of beauty even and love certainly,” Aikins said.

Matthieu Aikins can be reached on Twitter or on his website. Top Stories

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