'Death sentence': Denied entry home, pregnant journalist turned to the Taliban
When the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan after US forces unceremoniously pulled out of the country last year, a blonde, female journalist stood up in front of the world at a press conference with the country's new leaders and asked a question.
"What will you do to protect the rights of women and girls?" she asked.
The answer to that question would soon impact her more than she could have ever known at the time.
The journalist was New Zealand-born Charlotte Bellis who was reporting from the Middle East for Al Jazeera.
"What no one has known, until now, is that I conceived a little girl a week after that press conference," she wrote in an open letter published this weekend.
She was based in Doha, Qatar, and was absolutely floored by the realisation she was pregnant because doctors had previously told her she was unable to have children.
"But imagine if I was? It is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar," she wrote.
After making up a story about purchasing a pregnancy test for a married friend, the "miracle" was confirmed.
Stuck in Afghanistan, Ms Bellis has now become the centre of the story. Her open letter, published Saturday in the New Zealand Herald, was addressed to the Kiwi government after she was denied entry to return home due to the country's ongoing Covid-19 policies.
As an unmarried woman, her situation is considered illegal in a number of strict Islamic nations.
When she went to see a gynaecologist in Doha, she was met with an ominous message: "I can't treat you and I can only say you need to get married or get out of the country as soon as possible," she was told.
'Save my life': Aussie dad's plea to PM after being beaten by Taliban
China's extraordinary rebuke to the West as it eyes Afghanistan 'prize'
With the expectation the New Zealand government would open to citizens in February, her and her partner went to his home country of Belgium.
But because of her non-resident status, there is a limited amount of time she could spend there. So with very few options, they turned to the Taliban and organised a meeting with a "senior Taliban contact" because Afghanistan was the only place where they both had visas to live.
They said it would be safe for her to return but asked Ms Bellis to lie about her marital status.
"When the Taliban offers you - a pregnant, unmarried woman - safe haven, you know your situation is messed up," she wrote.
'We were devastated'
New Zealand has since delayed its relaxation of border rules, leaving the couple with no choice but to apply for an emergency MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) spot with the government.
"We were devastated," she wrote in the open letter.
After supplying documents including ultrasounds, bank statements and expert medical advice, Ms Bellis and her partner received an email on January 24 informing them they had been denied entry, in large part, because they had not demonstrated the medical need to return home.
"I thought I would cry, but I was in shock. I had done everything they asked. What was the threshold? What more can I do? How did they want me to prove that giving birth was a scheduled, time-critical medical treatment?"
Due to the standard of maternity care in Afghanistan, some 70,000 women a year die from pregnancy-related issues. "Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence," the journalist lamented.
We had provided 59 documents to MIQ and Immigration NZ including letters from obstetricians, our due date, medical documents and that we were in Afghanistan. What more evidence did they need for time critical, medical treatment?
— Charlotte Bellis (@CharlotteBellis) January 28, 2022
'Compelled to speak out'
In Australia, the harsh border controls imposed by the Queensland state government until earlier this month, and those still being enforced by the West Australian government, provided no shortage of stories of heartbroken Aussie trying to reach vulnerable or dying loved-ones, or simply trying to return home to be with family.
In New Zealand, such cases of people being stranded abroad have organised under the tag 'Grounded Kiwis', with a private Facebook group boasting more than 15,000 members and countless legal challenges on behalf of citizens trying to return home.
With her application now "under review" Ms Bellis – who has been outspoken on social media since penning the letter – said she felt "compelled to speak out" about the seemingly capricious decision making when it comes to who is allowed into the country.
"I am writing this because I believe in transparency and I believe that we as a country are better than this. Jacinda Ardern is better than this. I am writing this to find solutions for MIQ so that New Zealanders both at home and abroad are safe and protected," she wrote.
Quarantine official responds to open letter
A New Zealand official and the Head of MIQ, Chris Bunny, responded to Ms Bellis' open letter, explaining she could only apply for an emergency entry if her flights were within 14 days.
"We have not received any subsequent confirmation that Ms Bellis intends to bring her flights forward.
"We have a team of people who manage emergency allocation requests and the team keep a close eye on applications, and Charlotte's location of Afghanistan came to their attention," he wrote in a statement published by the NZ Herald.
"They reached out to inform her that if she intended to change her flights to an earlier return date, that more supporting information would be required to process a subsequent application and they highlighted the evidence requirements."
For now, she remains in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.