New app helps Afghans navigate Taliban-controlled Kabul

Afghan-Canadian tech entrepreneur developed app to help people deal with security threats

Kabul has been rocked by devastating attacks that have altered the fabric of the city for years, making the simple task of walking home a challenge.

Now an app allows Kabul residents to navigate the city’s rapidly changing landscape by alerting them of security hazards.

On a smartphone screen, dozens of pins emblazoned with flames show users the location of security threats in Kabul, many dropped near Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Clicking on the red fire icon, a message pops up warning users of “sporadic gunfire” and urges them to avoid the area if possible.

The app, Ehtesab (meaning "accountability" in Dari and Pashto), is the brainchild of Sara Wahedi, a 26-year-old Afghan-Canadian tech entrepreneur.

Ms Wahedi moved with her family from Kabul to Vancouver, Canada, when she was six years old, but she returned to Afghanistan in 2016.

In May 2018, Ms Wahedi was walking home from work in the capital when a man ran by shouting “his vest isn’t working".

With no time to think, Ms Wahedi followed the running crowd. Moments later, an explosion rocked the city.

“I felt a push from behind me and I looked back up behind me [and] there was a mushroom cloud,” she recalled.

She managed to arrive at her apartment right before another explosion ripped through her neighbourhood, only 100 metres from her home.

During the ensuing 12 hours, chaos unfolded as ISIS carried out a series of attacks in the Afghan capital.

“It was explosions and it was grenade attacks,” Ms Wahedi told The National.

Looking back on the event, Ms Wahedi saw a need that no one had yet met.

“For a country that's always in chaos, for a country that's always experiencing explosions and IEDs and suicide attacks, why don't we have a [website] that the city government is updating about [emergency] numbers and contacts and services?” she asked.

Over the next three years, Ms Wahedi built a team, found investors and developed Ehtesab to provide locals with up-to-date, verified information about security threats.

The team gathers information from government sites, media reports and social media to create alerts about events such as explosions, traffic accidents and gas leaks.

The app also has a function that allows users to report incidents, something she said people have gravitated towards in recent days.

Ehtesab launched right as the Taliban began an aggressive offensive that ended with them taking Kabul, making the app more necessary than ever.

To protect the app and her team, many of whom are still in Afghanistan, there is no mention of the Taliban anywhere — instead, the app lists the locations of checkpoints or “incidents” and urges users to be cautious.

While the app takes off, Ms Wahedi, who moved to New York this summer to study at Columbia University, has been frantically trying to bring her team of about 20 people to safety.

Speaking to The National by phone, she repeatedly had to jump off the call to help strategise and network, searching for ways to bring her team members to the airport so they could board planes out of the country.

“It's heartbreaking,” she said. “These are just extremely talented Afghan youth who have been investing in their country, who have been investing in Afghan education and who took a chance on innovation like Ehtesab.”

She said that, for the moment, her hands were tied, and all she could do to help was phone as many people as possible in positions of power around the world and try to convince them to help her team.

The Canadian government has committed to taking in 20,000 Afghan refugees, but Ms Wahedi said that number applies to people who have already been screened and taken to third countries — not those currently trapped in Afghanistan.

“They were not even going to help people who are on the ground. So, they completely just tricked the public, which I'm so furious about,” said Ms Wahedi.

Despite the problems facing her native Afghanistan, she finds some solace in knowing her app, which launched in July, is contributing to keeping Afghans informed as they navigate the tense security situation.

“We had a user who was going to the part of the city called Paghman, and there was an IED explosion that had happened in the area, and he was on his way to there. I think he was maybe about a kilometre away, and he's got a push notification on his phone that says, OK, please, you know, watch the area, there has been an explosion,” she said.

“He got back to us and he said to one of my team members, ‘You guys literally could have saved my life.’”

While the Taliban asserts control over the country, Ms Wahedi is confident her app can continue to flourish regardless of who runs the government. "There will be absolutely no way the Taliban could even get their hands on it, or try to infiltrate it or anything like that," she said.

Ehtesab's servers are located outside of Afghanistan and the app was designed to use as little data as possible, meaning even in areas with weak network, it can function.

Updated: August 25th 2021, 8:03 PM
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