The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Saira Shah: returning to Afghanistan

Early this year, Saira Shah secretly filmed under the noses of the Taliban. Now she is back in Afghanistan to witness the effects of the bombing
Back beneath the veil by Saira Shah
Thursday November 8, 2001
The Guardian

I had been determined, since I was tiny, to visit Afghanistan. My father, who had left his war-riven home many years earlier, would tell me stories about the village where he grew up. Earlier this year, asked to make a documentary about the Taliban for Channel 4, I decided to try to visit my family's lost homeland, a place called Paghman.

I succeeded and saw the bitter, beautiful contrasts of the region. In Pakistan's squalid Afghan refugee camps, I glimpsed brutality very different to the proud, hospitable Afghanistan my father had described to me as a child. "I saw a girl wearing white shoes," one woman told me. "The Taliban came and said: 'White is the colour of our flag. You have dishonoured our flag.' So they beat her."

But our travels up to the Koksha river in the north reminded me of the unspoilt countryside that my father must have known. It was a landscape of indescribable peace and beauty. The lush hills of early spring were thronged with shepherds and their flocks. The moment that I heard about the attacks of September 11, I had an overwhelming desire to return there. When the allied bombing began, that desire redoubled.

Reports started filtering through that the Koksha river and the nearby villages, where we had been filming, had become a main front line in the current onslaught. Last spring, in one of the villages, Mawmaii, we had met three little girls whose mother had been shot by the Taliban in front of them. Meeting them touched me deeply and I wanted to find them again.

Last time we visited the village, we had passed the front line and crossed the river on a raft made of inflated goat skins, close to the Taliban positions. The villagers took us to a courtyard. As we stepped over the threshold, a wall of grief hit us like a physical blow. Three little girls were hunched under their colourful scarves, in a row, like broken birds. Their father, a wild-eyed old man, sat staring into space. He told me they had been like this for weeks. In a clear, piping voice the middle sister, Fairuza, a girl of 12, said that the Taliban had shot their mother in front of them. While her body lay in the courtyard, the soldiers remained alone with the girls for two days. When I asked what the Taliban did in that time, Fairuza's 15-year-old sister wept silently.

Last week, the film's director, James Miller, and I went back to find out what had happened to the girls, and to learn about how the allied action was affecting people's lives. We wanted to see what had changed, through their eyes. We made a film of that journey.

Pakistan was the obvious place to start our journey. The north west frontier province is a good place to take the pulse of what is happening inside Afghanistan - the region's violence spills out on to the streets of the provincial capital, Peshawar. I was shocked by how much had changed in six months. This was seen as a war between east and west. As a woman born in Britain but of Afghan stock, I was caught between the two positions.

Flying over the border was no longer feasible, so we decided to make the arduous land journey instead. Pakistan has sealed the border, so the only way to get in is illegally, with a group of people smugglers. The journey nearly killed us. We travelled from Chitral, in northern Pakistan, where the mountains are extremely high - about the level of base camp at Everest - and so are impossible to police. We walked over the border through the night and by dawn were in Afghanistan, exhausted and nauseated by the altitude. After another day, we reached a road. The terrain was very rough and at one point we had to climb on to some passing smugglers' horses because we could no longer walk - you cannot stop or you will freeze. I was hallucinating because I was so cold and weak, and almost wished we had run into border guards. Our priorities shifted - from not wrecking our schedule by getting caught and sent back, to staying alive.

I had no idea what I would find when we arrived. I had heard rumours of fighting around the girls' village. When we left them last time, the Taliban were said to be about to clean up this last pocket of opposition, so I left feeling deeply concerned for them and all the people in that area. In the preceding months, the Taliban had systematically moved forward, burning their houses and pushing them further up into this tiny area. It seemed it would not be long before there was a final, devastating massacre.

In some ways, international intervention has been a great opportunity for these people. Nothing else could have changed the dynamic of the war and I knew the front line would now start moving back in the other direction. But what use is that at this moment for those three girls, who remain in danger on the front line, regardless of which way it is moving?

I had no idea if they were going to be there. There are about 4m Afghan refugees outside the country, but less well known is that there are about 1m displaced people within the country. If they had left their village, finding them would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

We did see the impact of the allied action on internal refugee camps around the Koksha river. This area had not been under fire, but aid distribution was severely disrupted.

I was told by refugees again and again that they had seen US planes dropping food, but that the Northern Alliance soldiers, with their trucks and radios, beat them to it and fired at refugees who tried to take the packages. The food ended up either with the soldiers or on sale in the local bazaars.

The atmosphere in the country had completely changed. Last time, it was a despairing place, where people who had been living under plastic sheeting for the past 18 months felt that time was running out. Now the pendulum has swung back almost too strongly in the other direction. People who lived in such miserable conditions are now saying: "It's fine, the Americans have taken over and we don't need to worry about the Northern Alliance's military and human rights record."

They believe fervently that the US will overthrow the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, and that they will have their homes back by next week. It was worrying, because they are not going to be home before winter, the drought is persisting, there is no food and the aid effort has stalled.

None of this squares with this desperate expectation that everything is going to be all right. The blind hope of the people has made me all the more concerned about the West's quick-fix objectives.

And the young freelance commander I met, who listens to tape recordings of battles to unwind, is not alone. Many of these men had neither family nor education. They grew up in refugee camps and have already lived through 25 years of war. They have a vested interest in keeping the country at war, any war, because without one they have no job, no status and no purpose. If no one pays them to fight, they will steal from and terrorise the locals. It will take years to start repairing these damaged souls, and their rehabilitation is just as crucial to the future of the country as mending the roads.

On the front line, we found Usman, a Northern Alliance fighter we met on our first visit. When I interviewed him this time, he insisted that we stay out of earshot of his colleagues, as we were speaking Persian. Like me, he can't see how a broad-based government will be stable enough to last. He wants international intervention to stop Afghans fighting among themselves. We could hear shells pass over our heads and every time one landed, the fighters started singing and dancing to show they weren't afraid.

I met a boy who claimed to be 15 but looked 13. "What do you think I've seen?" he said in answer to my questions. He told me about people with their heads blown off. He said life would be great after the war because: "We can go back to our old jobs." But he couldn't tell me what his old job had been, because he obviously hadn't had one. He was simply repeating what he had heard the adults say.

Despite the war, it is still a beautiful country. I would be lying if I said that women there had wonderful lives with all the freedoms I would like them to have, but at least they can be educated and have dreams. Life there is very hard for everyone.

I wondered what my father would have made of it all. I cannot make my mind up about what I have seen. Whether the allied action will turn out to be salvation for Afghanistan - or open the way for more years of war, largely depends on what happens months after this military action is over. Because of my background, this is much more than another story to me. Whenever I spoke to people, they would spot my Afghan name and ask where I came from. When people realised that I wasn't just another western journalist, a light came into their eyes. Then they would say "From Paghman? Our Paghman? You are Afghan."

I was touched. It gave them hope: "She's an Afghan and look at her now..."

Saira Shah's new film, Dispatches: Unholy War, will be shown at 9pm on Sunday on Channel 4.

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