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‘I’m here but my mind is always there:’ Ontario woman returns home from Afghanistan

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Heartbreak and guilt are all Zakia Zarifi has been feeling since she returned to her home in Ontario from Afghanistan.

“I’m happy to see my family here, but it’s torture for me because I couldn’t bring my parents with me,” the real estate agent from Brampton said over the phone.

“It was the hardest goodbye ever, but deep down I have hope that I can bring them here.”

The single mother says she was beaten, shot at and barely dodged a bomb outside Kabul airport during the chaotic journey. All she thinks about now is helping the people left behind.

“(A) genocide … is happening right now in Afghanistan and no one is talking about it. That’s why I’m here but my mind is always there.”

Zarifi, 50, arrived this week to tears and warm hugs from her three grown children. They frantically worked to bring their mother home after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August. She had gone there to try to get her aging parents out of danger.

Before she got out herself, Zarifi was critical of Canada’s evacuation of its citizens from the region.

She told The Canadian Press while she was stuck in Afghanistan that she twice tried to escape before the U.S.-led military mission’s Aug. 31 deadline, but was beaten by Taliban members and pushed away from the airport’s gates.

She was angry Canadian officials told her and others to meet at dangerous locations, while other countries helped their citizens get to military planes using safer routes. Ten days after Canadian Forces left the region, and as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced criticism for mishandling the evacuation, Zarifi got another call from Global Affairs Canada, she said. This time the plan was better. “They told me to be at (Kabul) Serena Hotel and then, from there, the Qatari government was in charge of taking us to the airport. We had a flight with the Qatar airline (to Qatar).” By Tuesday, she was on a plane from Doha to Canada.

“The first flight that left Afghanistan (had) all different citizens from all over the world. On the second flight … there were, I believe, 10 Canadians.”

She said others on the flight home told horrifying stories about the Taliban knocking on their families’ doors and taking their men.

“They took their birth certificates, and took them to this place. They are all vanished,” she said.

“Someone even came to knock on my parents’ door. The guy who looks after them (said), ‘No one lives here,’  and they left.”

Zarifi said her parents are a target because they are from the northeastern province of Panjshir, the heart of military resistance in Afghanistan and where her father fought against Taliban rule.

While she waited for a flight, she and her family helped other Afghans, she said.

They gave away items in their home, distributed 120 blankets and provided food supplies to 500 families. Many Afghans they helped are among thousands who are religious and ethnic minorities who worry the Taliban’s return to power will lead to oppression or death.

Zarifi recalled a similar journey she made in 1987 during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. She escaped to Pakistan from Kabul. Two years later, she moved to Canada.

“Afghans … a majority of them are refugees and they’ve all found a way to get out before and through significantly worse times,” said Zarifi’s daughter Marjan.

“When my mom first came to Canada, she had to walk two days, two nights to get to where she needed to go. They were being directly shot at. So she has done this twice.

“She keeps a lot of strength and says, ‘It’s gonna be OK,’ but every day we can’t think straight … Everyone just kind of moves on with life, but my mind is constantly with my family and what’s going on.”

Despite her frustration with the Canadian government, Zarifi said she’s thankful Trudeau did not forget her and other citizens.

“I just hope that the Liberal (government) do their best to bring people, because their life is in danger,” Zarifi said.

“When I moved here, I worked 20-hour days. I worked as a bookkeeper, did accounting, night shifts at Walmart. I worked hard. I made a living for myself.”

She said she prays that other Afghans will have the same chance at a new life. For her part, she plans to continue helping people in Afghanistan in whatever way she can.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17. 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

Storytelling is in our DNA. We provide credible, compelling multimedia storytelling and services in English and French to help captivate your digital, broadcast and print audiences. As Canada’s national news agency for 100 years, we give Canadians an unbiased news source, driven by truth, accuracy and timeliness.

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Crime

Buffalo suspect: Lonely, isolated — and a sign of trouble

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By Bernard Condon And Michael Hill in Conklin

CONKLIN, N.Y. (AP) — In the waning days of Payton Gendron’s COVID-19-altered senior year at Susquehanna Valley High School, he logged on to a virtual learning program in economics class that asked: “What do you plan to do when you retire?”

“Murder-suicide,” Gendron typed.

Despite his protests that it was all a joke, the bespectacled 17-year-old who had long been viewed by classmates as a smart loner was questioned by state police over the possible threat and then taken into custody and to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation under a state mental health law.

But a day and a half later, he was released. And two weeks after that, he was allowed to participate in graduation festivities, including riding in the senior parade, where he was photographed atop a convertible driven by his father and festooned with yellow-and-blue balloons and signs reading, “Congratulations” and “Payton Gendron.”

That account of Gendron’s brush with the law last spring, according to authorities and other people familiar with what happened, emphasized the same point school officials made in a message to parents at the time: An investigation found no specific, credible threat against the school or any individual from that sign of trouble.

That same young white man bought a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, traveled three hours to Buffalo and went on what authorities say was a racist, livestreamed shooting rampage Saturday in a crowded supermarket that left 10 Black people dead.

Gendron, now 18, was arraigned on a state murder charge over the weekend and a court-appointed public defender entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He remained jailed under suicide watch as federal prosecutors contemplate hate-crime charges.

Even as the FBI swarmed the comfortable home where Gendron lived with his parents and two younger brothers, neighbors and classmates in this community of 5,000 near the New York-Pennsylvania line say they saw no inkling of the young man now being described on television.

And they say they saw nothing of the kind of racist rhetoric seen in a 180-page online diatribe, purportedly written by Gendron, in which he describes in minute detail how he researched ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of Black people, surveilled the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, and carried out the assault to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people into leaving the country.

Classmates described Gendron as a quiet, studious boy who got high marks but seemed out of place in recent years, turning to online streaming games, a fascination with guns and ways to grab attention from his peers.

When school partially opened again early last year after COVID-19-related shutdowns, Gendron showed up covered head to toe in a hazmat suit. Classmate Matthew Casado said he didn’t think the stunt -– he called it “a harmless joke” — went down well with other students.

“Most people didn’t associate with him,” he said. “They didn’t want to be known as friends with a kid who was socially awkward and nerdy.”

Gendron excelled in sciences, once earning top marks in a state chemistry competition. But he was known for keeping to himself and not talking much. And when he did talk, it was about isolation, rejection and desperation.

“He talked about how he didn’t like school because he didn’t have friends. He would say he was lonely,” said Casado, who graduated with Gendron last year.

At one point last winter, Gendron’s mother called Casado’s mother with a request: Please have Matthew call Payton because he had no friends and needed to talk.

The two boys ended up going to flea markets together, watching YouTube videos and shooting guns on nearby state land over the next few months. Casado said that he had never heard his friend talk of anything violent.

“I didn’t think he would hurt a fly,” he said.

Some neighbors had a similar view, seeing the family as happy and prosperous, with both Paul Gendron and his wife, Pamela, holding stable jobs as civil engineers with the New York state Department of Transportation, earning nearly $200,000 combined, according to online records.

Dozens of their Facebook posts over the years show the parents and their three boys — often dressed in matching outfits — enjoying amusement park vacations, going on boat trips, shooting laser tag guns and opening presents on Christmas morning.

Carl Lobdell, a family friend who first met Gendron on a camping vacation a dozen years ago, said he was shocked that Payton was identified as the suspect in the mass shooting.

“He was very friendly, very respectable,” said Lobdell, adding that his family had grown so close to the Gendrons that they even attended Payton’s graduation party last year. “When I heard about the shooting … I just cried.”

The family did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, nor did Gendron’s attorney. No one answered the door Monday at the family home, surrounded by a neat, spacious lawn. Near the front door was a tiny right hand pressed in concrete with a heart symbol and the words, “PAYTON 2008.”

One parent of a Susquehanna Valley High student said she was furious that the student who was investigated for making the threat last year — whom she later discovered was Gendron — was still allowed to participate in all graduation activities. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared harassment.

According to a recording of a conference call of federal and local law enforcement officials Monday that was obtained by The Associated Press, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Gendron’s comments he made in school in June 2021 were “generalized statements” and not targeted at anyone in particular or at a specific location, which is why no criminal charges were filed. He said the state police “did everything within the confines of the law.”

Gendron enrolled at Broome County Community College and later dropped out. The school wouldn’t say why. And according to online writings attributed to him, he began planning his assault on the Buffalo supermarket beginning at least in November, saying he was inculcated into his racist views online.

“I was never diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder, and I believe to be perfectly sane,” according to one passage.

A new, 589-page document of online diary postings emerged Monday that authorities have attributed to Gendron, and some of its passages tracked with the account AP’s sources gave of his high school threat investigation.

“Another bad experience was when I had to go to a hospitals ER because I said the word’s ‘murder/suicide’ to an online paper in economics class,” said one entry. “I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns.”

“It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”

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Condon reported from New York. Eric Tucker in Washington, Michael R. Sisak in New York and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]

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International

Clinton campaign lawyer sought to ‘use’ FBI, prosecutor says

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By Eric Tucker in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who is charged with lying to the FBI early in the Trump-Russia probe sought to “use and manipulate” federal law enforcement to create an “October surprise” in the final weeks of the presidential race, a prosecutor alleged Tuesday at the start of his trial. Defense lawyers told jurors he never lied.

Michael Sussmann is accused of misleading the FBI during a September 2016 meeting by telling the bureau’s top lawyer that he wasn’t acting on behalf of a particular client when he presented computer data that he said might connect Russia to then-candidate Donald Trump. In reality, prosecutors say, he was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client who had provided him with the data.

He lied, prosecutors told the jury, in hopes of generating an “October surprise” of FBI investigations into Trump and negative news coverage of him, and because he knew the FBI would consider the information less credible if it thought it was being presented on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

“He told a lie that was designed to achieve a political end, a lie that was designed to inject the FBI into a presidential election,” said prosecutor Brittain Shaw.

But Sussmann’s lawyers sought to counter each of the prosecution’s allegations, presenting him as a well-respected attorney with deep experience in law enforcement intelligence matters who never lied to the FBI and never would. The fact that he represented Democratic clients was well-known to the FBI and not anything he intended to hide.

“He was someone the FBI knew represented partisan clients,” defense lawyer Michael Bosworth said in his opening statement. ”The FBI knew that he represented the Clinton campaign that summer. The FBI knew that he was an attorney for the DNC, the Democratic Party itself.”

In any event, Bosworth said, it would be impossible for prosecutors to prove that Sussmann had lied because only he and the FBI lawyer he met with, James Baker, were present and neither took notes. Five and a half years after the meeting, Baker’s memory of what was said is “clear as mud,” Bosworth said.

Sussmann’s trial is the first arising from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s original probe into Russian election interference and potential ties with the Trump campaign. Though Durham was thought to be focused at least initially on misconduct by government officials during the course of the Russia investigation, the Sussmann case alleges wrongdoing by a tipster to the FBI rather than the FBI itself.

In an early recognition of the politically loaded nature of the case, Shaw urged jurors to put aside any feelings they might have about Trump, Russia or Clinton.

“Some people have very strong feelings about politics and Russia, and many people have strong feelings about Donald Trump and Russia. But we are not here because these allegations involved either of them, nor are we here because the client was the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Shaw said.

Rather, she added, “We are here because the FBI is our institution. It should not be used as a political tool.”

At issue is a Sept. 19, 2016 meeting in which Sussmann presented Baker, the FBI’s then general counsel, with computer data gathered by another of his clients that purported to show furtive contact between computer servers of the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank.

That connection, if true, would have been explosive at a time when the FBI was examining whether the Trump campaign and Russia were conspiring to sway the election.

The FBI did investigate the data but found nothing nefarious, and the communication instead reflected what Shaw described as a “spam email server” used to send out marketing.

“The server did not reflect a crime,” Shaw told jurors, “nor was it a threat to national security.”

Bosworth said he took the computer data seriously because it appeared to show “weird contacts” between Trump’s business organization and Russia and because it was given to him by Rodney Joffe, a client who Bosworth said was such a respected technology executive that the FBI had asked him to be an informant.

He said Sussmann had sought out the meeting to give Baker a heads-up that a story about the computer data might be published imminently by The New York Times. Shaw, the prosecutor, had a different take, saying Sussmann had grown frustrated that a reporter he’d been working with had not yet written about the data and wanted to prompt investigations by the FBI that could ensure news media coverage.

But after the meeting, the FBI asked the newspaper to delay publication. That’s the opposite of what the Clinton campaign would have wanted, Bosworth said, suggesting that he wasn’t acting on the campaign’s behalf when he scheduled the meeting.

“The FBI meeting was something that they didn’t authorize, that they didn’t direct him to do, and that they wouldn’t have wanted,” Bosworth said.

Durham was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for any misconduct as the U.S. government was examining potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. An investigation by an earlier special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign though it did find that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election bid.

The Alfa Bank matter was a peripheral part of the FBI’s investigation and the allegations of potentially secretive contact were not even mentioned in Mueller’s 2019 report.

Durham’s work has resulted in three cases. Only the one against Sussmann has reached trial.

In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on research files of anti-Trump information known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.

Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.

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Follow Eric Tucker on http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP.

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