Pregnant New Zealand journalist stranded by quarantine rules says she turned to Taliban

Charlotte Bellis says group offered her safe haven while quarantine backlog prevented return home

A pregnant New Zealand journalist says she has had to turn to the Taliban for help after being prevented from returning to her home country due to quarantine rules.

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday, Charlotte Bellis said it was “brutally ironic” that she had once questioned the Taliban about their treatment of women and she was now asking the same questions of her own government.

“When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up,” Bellis wrote in her column.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, told the Herald his office had asked officials to check whether they had followed the proper procedures in Bellis’s case, “which appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation”.

New Zealand has managed to keep the spread of the virus to a minimum during the pandemic and has reported just 52 virus deaths among its population of 5 million.

But the country’s requirement that even returning citizens spend 10 days isolating in quarantine hotels run by the military has led to a backlog of thousands of people wanting to return home vying for spots.

Stories of citizens stranded abroad in dire circumstances have caused embarrassment for prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her government.

Last year, Bellis was working for Al Jazeera covering the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan when she gained international attention by questioning Taliban leaders about their treatment of women and girls.

In her column on Saturday, Bellis said she returned to Qatar in September and discovered she was pregnant with her partner, freelance photographer Jim Huylebroek, a contributor to The New York Times.

She described the pregnancy as a “miracle” after earlier being told by doctors she couldn’t have children. She is due to give birth to a girl in May.

She said she resigned from Al Jazeera in November and the couple moved to Huylebroek’s native Belgium. But she could not stay long, she said, because she was not a resident. She said the only other place the couple had visas to live was Afghanistan.

Bellis said she had spoken to senior Taliban contacts who told her she would be fine if she returned to Afghanistan.

She said they told her: “Just tell people you’re married and if it escalates, call us. Don’t worry.”

She said she had sent 59 documents to New Zealand authorities in Afghanistan but they rejected her application for an emergency return.

Chris Bunny, the joint head of New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine system, told the Herald that Bellis’s emergency application did not fit a requirement that she travel within 14 days.

He said staff had contacted Bellis about making another application that would fit within the requirements.

“This is not uncommon and is an example of the team being helpful to New Zealanders who are in distressing situations,” Bunny wrote.

Bellis said that after talking to lawyers, politicians and public relations people in New Zealand, her case seems to be moving forward again, although she has yet to be approved passage home.