Charlotte Bellis, a 35-year-old pregnant New Zealand journalist abandoned in Afghanistan by her own left-wing government due to its coronavirus quarantine rules, said on Saturday she had no alternative but to ask the Taliban for help.
After several days of consternation and embarrassment, New Zealand finally agreed to let Bellis come home on Tuesday.
Bellis published an op-ed in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday chronicling her ordeal. In the piece, she ruminated on the irony of being the female journalist who dared to ask the Taliban regime what it would do to “protect the rights of women and girls” on the day of its “inauguration” last summer – only to find herself pleading with that regime for help half a year later when New Zealand refused to let her return.
“What no one has known, until now, is that I conceived a little girl a week after that press conference. For years I had been told by doctors I would never have children. I threw myself into my career and made my peace with it. Now, during the fall of Kabul, a miracle,” she revealed.
— nzherald (@nzherald) January 28, 2022
Bellis was in Afghanistan working as a video reporter for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network. She discovered her pregnancy upon returning to Qatar – where it is “illegal to be pregnant and unmarried,” a point stressed to her by a gynecologist who refused to treat her, but also kindly refrained from calling the police on her.
Bellis explained that she could not simply return to New Zealand, even though she is triple-vaccinated and was ready to comply with quarantine demands, because the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern effectively sealed its borders with an extremely strict coronavirus admission system called Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ).
Not even citizens of New Zealand can get through the clogged system, a state of affairs denounced by critics as a violation of their constitutional rights, while supporters credit the incredibly strict travel ban with keeping the island’s coronavirus cases down. The MIQ system is so slow-moving and overloaded that the government distributes slots on the waiting list with a lottery.
“I immediately started playing the MIQ lottery, waking up at 3am and staring at my computer, only to miss out time and again,” Bellis recalled.
Her situation was all the more maddening because she had to keep her pregnancy secret, making her frantic efforts to get back home at all costs seem irrational to her acquaintances.
“I resigned from Al Jazeera in November, losing my income, health insurance and residency. I can’t tell you the number of questions I got: Why now? Why are you leaving? It doesn’t make sense? I clearly wasn’t very convincing in my ‘just time for a change’ answers,” she wrote.
Bellis’ partner Jim Huylebroek, a Belgian photographer working for the New York Times, struggled to get out of Kabul. He eventually succeeded and the couple flew to Belgium, encouraged by news that New Zealand would allow citizens to begin returning in greater numbers in February.
Unfortunately, while Belgium does not arrest unmarried women for getting pregnant, it also does not allow foreign visitors to linger for more than three months. Worried that the clock would run out before she could return to New Zealand and wanting to “keep time up our sleeves for an emergency,” Bellis found herself bizarrely compelled to relocate to the only other country where she held a visa: Afghanistan.
And the Taliban, unlike the Ardern government, welcomed the pregnant Kiwi with a smile:
I organized a meeting with senior Taliban contacts, “you know how I am dating Jim from The New York Times, but we’re not married, right?” “Yes, yes we respect you both and you are foreigners, that is up to you.” I nervously continued. “Well, I am pregnant and I can’t get back into New Zealand. If I come to Kabul, will we have a problem?” One translated for the other and they smiled. “No we’re happy for you, you can come and you won’t have a problem. Just tell people you’re married and if it escalates, call us. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up.
As Bellis and Huylebroek had feared, New Zealand scuttled its plan to reopen the border in February as the omicron coronavirus variant dominated headlines, and in fact shut down the MIQ lottery entirely.
“We had read the horror stories of pregnant women being rejected, seen the statistics of just 5 percent of Kiwis being approved if they are unable to stay in their current location and only 14 percent being approved if there is a risk to their health and safety,” Bellis recalled.
Sure enough, her appeals for an emergency pass through the MIQ system were rejected, even after she furnished letters of recommendation, her vaccination history, a letter prepared by her lawyer, and even an ultrasound of her child.
Bellis described herself as “shocked” by the rejection, a feeling that spread among other New Zealanders, and around the world, as her story spread over the last week in January. She noted her appeal was rejected on bizarre bureaucratic grounds, including a comment that she had provided no evidence of needing “time-critical” medical treatment in New Zealand that she could not obtain in her current location.
“Our current location being Afghanistan,” she noted sardonically, remembering that her own reporting included stories about maternity wards in Kabul delivering babies by the light of cell phone screens because there was no electric power.
Bellis pulled what strings she could and took her fight into the media, at which point the Ardern government began changing its tune, mysteriously changing the status of her “de-activated” application back to “in progress” and suddenly granting Huylebroek the visa it had previously denied him.
In her weekend op-ed, Bellis said she is still desperate to get home for her baby’s sake and thankful that her chances were looking better than zero, but she was angry that only the threat of legal action and unwanted media attention could pry the gates of New Zealand’s authoritarian coronavirus regime open for a pregnant woman.
“I am not the first to experience such scapegoating of liability,” she wrote. “My lawyer has taken MIQ to court eight times on behalf of rejected, pregnant Kiwis. Just before the case, every time, MIQ miraculously finds them a room. It’s an effective way to quash a case and avoid setting a legal precedent that would find that MIQ does in fact breach New Zealand’s Bill of Rights.”
“The decision of who should get an emergency MIQ spot is not made on a level playing field, lacks ethical reasoning and pits our most vulnerable against each other,” she charged.
“MIQ has set aside hundreds of emergency rooms for evacuating Afghan citizens, and I was told maybe, as a tax-paying, rates-paying New Zealander, I can get home on their allotment. Is this the Hunger Games? Pitting desperate NZ citizens against terrified Afghan allies for access to safety?” she asked.
At the time of her writing, Bellis did not know if she and her partner would be allowed back into New Zealand. She wryly admitted she might be “poking the MIQ bull” by speaking up, but felt compelled to tell her story.
The MIQ bull did indeed rouse itself, as the New Zealand Herald reported receiving swift responses to Bellis’ op-ed from “Covid Response Minister” Chris Hipkins and MIQ chief Chris Bunny. Bunny essentially accused Bellis of misunderstanding the responses she received from the MIQ system and insisting his team was aware of her plight as a pregnant woman in Afghanistan all along.
“This is ridiculous. It is my legal right to go to New Zealand, where I have health care, where I have family. All my support is there,” Bellis insisted to the Associated Press (AP) in an interview on Sunday, after receiving an email from the New Zealand government inviting her to submit her emergency application for admission again.
Bellis said she did not want to reapply as a “person in danger” because she did not want to “exonerate the government of responsibility for her earlier rejections.” She praised the Taliban for showing her more hospitality than her own homeland.
“I appreciate this isn’t official Taliban policy, but they were very generous and kind. They said ‘you are safe here, congratulations, we welcome you,’” she told the AP.
Hipkins talked to the UK Guardian on Monday and insisted the system he oversees was functioning properly:
I understand she wanted to return on a specific date and that officials reached out to her for more information shortly after looking at her application. The emergency allocation criteria includes a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days. Ms Bellis indicated she did not intend to travel until the end of February and has been encouraged by MIQ to consider moving her plans forward.
I understand officials have also since invited her to apply for another emergency category. I encourage her to take these offers seriously.
I also understand she was offered New Zealand consular assistance twice since she returned to Afghanistan in early December.
On Tuesday, Bellis said she was finally granted permission to return home “at the beginning of March to give birth to our baby girl.”
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson announced Bellis and Huylebroek would be given a room at a state-managed quarantine facility.
“There is a secured place for her, with a flight arrangement alongside it, that has been communicated to her today. I urge her to take it up,” Robertson said.
Bellis issued a statement thanking New Zealanders for their “overwhelming support” and “kind words and encouragement,” but said she was still “disappointed it had to come to this.”
“I will continue to challenge the New Zealand government to find a solution to border controls to keep New Zealanders at home and abroad safe and their rights respected,” she declared.
Despite all of its draconian “zero-Covid” measures, New Zealand’s coronavirus cases began spiking in late January as the omicron variant came ashore. Prime Minister Ardern herself is currently in “self-isolation” after passengers aboard her aircraft tested positive for the coronavirus, and has canceled plans for her own wedding as the country returns to red-alert pandemic status.