Pregnant New Zealand reporter who turned to Taliban for help can go home after government climb down

Charlotte Bellis with her partner Jim Huylebroek.

A pregnant New Zealand reporter who was forced to return to Afghanistan because of her country's stringent Covid-19 entry rules will be able to go home after the government offered a quarantine room. 

Charlotte Bellis, who is 25 weeks pregnant with a daughter, said she has sent dozens of documents to her government in her battle to return home and had to turn to the Taliban for help in the meantime.

New Zealand after officials had earlier insisted that needed to reapply for a spot in the country's bottlenecked quarantine hotels, but deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, said Ms Bellis had been offered a voucher for a room.

“I will be returning to my home country New Zealand at the beginning of March to give birth to our baby girl,” Bellis said in a statement. “We are so excited to return home and be surrounded by family and friends at such a special time.” 

Charlotte Bellis said the Taliban told her she was safe in Afghanistan

Ms Bellis, 35, is expecting her first child with her partner Jim Huylebroek, a Belgian freelance photographer who has lived in Afghanistan for two years.

Earlier, she told The Associated Press that authorities in New Zealand were offering to bring her back as a “person in danger”.

The journalist said she has been vaccinated three times and is ready to isolate herself upon her return to New Zealand.

“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,” she said.

She first wrote about her difficulties in a column published in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday. She had tried without success to enter New Zealand via a lottery-style system and then applied for an emergency return, but was rejected.

Thousands of New Zealand citizens wanting to return home have faced delays due to a bottleneck of people in the country’s strict border quarantine system, known as Managed Isolation and Quarantine, or MIQ.

The leader of the New Zealand National Party, Leader of the Opposition, Christopher Luxon, said Ms Bellis' situation should be resolved, but that there was a larger question about all the other cases which have not received the global attention that Ms Bellis has.

Leader of the Opposition Christopher Luxon said more also needs to be done to help others New Zealand stuck in the same situation elsewhere

Ms Bellis had worked as an Afghanistan correspondent for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network. However, she resigned in November because it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar. Al Jazeera did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ms Bellis then flew to Belgium, trying to get residency there, but said the length of the process would have left her in the country with an expired visa. She said she could have hopped from country to country on tourist visas while she waited to have her baby.

She said this would have meant spending money on hotels without support or health care, while she fought to return to New Zealand.

In the end, she and her partner returned to Afghanistan because they had a visa and felt welcome, and from there could wage her battle to return to her home.

They have a house in Afghanistan and after “evaluating all of our options”, returned to Kabul, she said.

Ms Bellis said it was her 'legal right' to go home to New Zealand to give birth. Credit: Jim Huylebroek via TVNZ

Ms Bellis has set herself a deadline for leaving Afghanistan once she is 30 weeks pregnant, to protect the health of herself and her baby. “I am giving myself to the end of February,” she said.

At that time, she will still have more than a month left on her Belgian visa so that she can re-enter the country, if she fails to get back to New Zealand by that time.

“I am very concerned about a premature birth and … also the implication of stress,” she said.

Ms Bellis said conditions in maternity wards in Kabul's hospitals were dire

Ms Bellis said she was rejected earlier because her pregnancy did not meet the criteria of “threshold of critical time threat”.

“If I don’t meet the threshold as a pregnant woman, then who does?” she asked.

Ms Bellis said that prior to returning to Afghanistan, she sought permission from the Taliban. She said she had feared arriving “with a little bump and not married” could be problematic.

Instead, the Taliban response was immediate and positive.

Ms Bellis has set herself a deadline for leaving Afghanistan once she is 30 weeks pregnant. Credit: Jim Huylebroek via TVNZ

“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,'” said Ms Bellis.

The Taliban have come under international criticism for repressive rules they imposed on women since sweeping to power in mid-August, including denying girls education beyond sixth grade.

However, they have said that all girls and women will be allowed to attend school after the Afghan New Year at the end of March.

While women have returned to work in the health and education ministries, thousands of female civil servants have not been allowed to return to their jobs.

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