Beneath the Veil
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up RAWA Kinderarbeit Beneath the Veil

 

 

 

Saira Shah visited the Afghanistan her father had loved, but found only desperation and disintegration in the bizarre world of the Taliban.

 

I would have felt foolish if I hadn't been so scared. Dressed in high-heeled plastic shoes and veiled in a garment with more than a passing resemblance to a tablecloth, I hobbled across the border into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with my foreign passport and $3,000 strapped under my bra. What I was doing was entirely illegal. For me, however, going undercover into Kabul wasn't just the only way to get the story - it was a personal odyssey.Crossing the border

Though I was born and bred in Britain, as I child I was constantly told that I came from another world: my father's country, Afghanistan. Now I was relinquishing my protected status of foreign reporter to enter, for a brief time, the Kafkaesque world of ordinary Afghans. A world I had faintly glimpsed from the vast and squalid Afghan refugee camps that line the Pakistani border.

 

'I saw a girl wearing white shoes,' one woman told me. 'The Taliban came and said to her: "White is the colour of our flag. You have dishonoured our flag." So they beat her.' The woman used to be a schoolteacher. She finally fled Kabul when the Taliban forbade female teachers to go to work.

 

In another camp, a boy of about 10 years old told me how the Taliban hunted him with dogs. His transgression: a haircut they considered decadently Western.

 

Another little girl hid in a bread oven and watched the Taliban kill her father for his wristwatch and waistcoat. 

 

This was extraordinary brutality even by the standards of Afghanistan's bloody history.

 

When I first visited the country in the 1980s, Afghanistan was already at war. The people were struggling against a superpower: the Soviet Union. I saw refugees who were too proud to beg and a people who displayed heroism and humour in the face of incalculable misery. In my idealism, I didn't realise the extent to which those values were already being eroded. As society began to break down - 10% of the country was displaced, two million people killed - so did the values that had held a fragile social system together.More than a decade later, the Kabul I arrived in still bears the scars of the country's seemingly endless war. After the Soviets left, the various military opposition groups fell upon each other. It was a war of warlords who had forgotten how to do anything but fight. In the process they trashed Kabul.

 

  From despair to nightmare

 

The safe house I was taken to wasn't luxurious but, unlike many of the buildings in the capital, it had a roof. The family who lived there welcomed me. They had barely survived the dark days of the warlords' internal fighting.

'Is there a doctor in England who can help our 18-year-old daughter? pleaded the mother. 'She used to be the brightest child I have - but she was so traumatised by the shelling she hasn't been able to speak or hear for five years.'It was in the midst of this despair that the Taliban were born. They had a new ideology - a purist Islamic state. They said they didn't want power - they just intended to stop the fighting and disarm the country. The Taliban had money (Pakistan is believed to fund them), and they could buy off warlords and individual commanders. District after district surrendered peacefully. At first, the social strictures seemed a small price to pay for peace.Four years later, I found people living in a Kafkaesque nightmare - a world where the lunatics have taken over the asylum. 

 

A teacher in an illegal school for girls explained how life in Kabul became dominated by restrictions. Women can't go outside their homes without being covered from head to toe. They are excluded from jobs and medical care. Men may be imprisoned for not having a beard.

 

You can't fly a kite, paint your nails, listen to music or watch television.The lives of civilians have become more poverty-stricken than ever. 

 

My hosts in the safe house used to live middle-class lives. The father trained as an engineer but nobody is rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure, so he ekes out a living tailoring. I was woken every morning at 3am, when the electricity came on. The whole family worked frenetically at their sewing machines until it went off again at 5am. Then all day they toiled to find clean water, and food they could afford in the market.

 

  A punishing regime

 

The Taliban have other priorities. One religious scholar explained in all earnestness that there is a debate raging between Taliban intellectuals: some believe the correct punishment for homosexuality is to throw the perpetrators off a high building while others insist that a wall should be toppled on them.

 

I left my undercover guides with a feeling of profound depression. The Taliban insist their edicts are based on Islam, yet the Islam I grew up with was a tolerant faith, with no place for bigotry and fanaticism. On my trip to Kabul, I found many devoutly Muslim Afghans who did not recognise their own religion in the Taliban's interpretation - and whose freedom to live according to their own religious beliefs had been taken away.

 

Camera shy

To try to unravel the mystery of what the Taliban actually stand for, I went to Kandahar - the Taliban's hometown. This time I was there officially, travelling with my crew: cameraman, James Miller and producer, Cassian Harrison.In Kandahar, shiny Toyotas with tinted windows patrolled the streets. They contained the Taliban's secret police - men from the Orwellian-sounding Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue.

 

When we stopped to film an onion seller, we were spotted and arrested within seconds. We were taken to the ministry. James pretended to switch off the camera, although I knew without having to ask that he was still filming as Cassian was frogmarched into the building.We decided to switch tapes. This involved getting the used tape out of the camera and replacing it with a blank tape under the watchful eye of a Ministry for Vice and Virtue goon. I decided to create a diversion. Propelling myself to the window, I forced the officer to make eye contact while I prattled on in Persian. The Talib, brought up in the segregated society of mosque school, proved no match for feminine temptation. He was mesmerised. In the background I could hear the whirr of the videotape ejecting from the camera. Two minutes later, our precious tape was stowed in the last place I reckoned the puritanical Taliban would look - my knickers.The next morning we were given a dressing down by the foreign office. 'You are not allowed to film anything at all,' an official told us. 'In fact, don't even carry a camera with you.

 

Saved by the tea

 

In Kabul, we were given a government minder and told we could film anything as long as it wasn't alive. After Kandahar, this seemed positively liberal. We tested out our new freedom by trying to film the bunches of confiscated audio-cassette tape that decorate roadblocks. In seconds we were embroiled in a religious discussion with the Taliban centring on whether or not audio tape is a living thing. It was frightening how quickly we had been sucked into the Taliban's world.

Once again, we were frogmarched off. I had a sinking feeling of déjà vu; we were being arrested. We were taken to a room full of shaggy-bearded Taliban. Immediately, an intelligence chief spotted James's hidden camera. For a moment, things could have gone either way. Then the head of security of a district in Kabul offered us tea. I eagerly accepted: the laws of Pashtun hospitality mean a guest may not be harmed once he has eaten or drunk. The tea seemed to take an awfully long time to arrive.

 

This time, far from arresting us for filming, the Taliban wanted us to film them - in defiance of their own edicts. They grinned like children as they showed off cassette recorders they had confiscated and boasted about their network of spies around the city. It was difficult to take seriously a regime of such inconsistency.

 

  Flagging resistance

 

However, we found evidence of the real evil of which the Taliban are capable. The mainly Pashtun Taliban have waged war against Afghans of other ethnic and religious groups - particularly the Shi'a Hazaras in central Afghanistan, and the Tajiks in the North, who still continue to oppose them militarily. We travelled to one of the resistance-held areas of Afghanistan, in the far north-east of the country, and found that in the lands they have occupied, the Taliban have used brutal tactics to keep the people under control - destroying their farms, killing their menfolk, displacing their populations.We arrived to find the military opposition, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, floundering. They told us they did not have enough ammunition to launch offensives. We asked whether we could visit the front line. Somewhat to my surprise, they assigned us an open-topped vehicle within the hour. With true Afghan optimism, our escort, Mohammed was utterly convinced that he would one day shoot down a Taliban jet with his Soviet-made sniper rifle. This, I felt, was an opposition movement held together with rubber bands and string.

 

We journeyed beyond the frontline, into the edge of no-man's land, to the village of Mawmaii. The Taliban briefly held this village before being pushed back again. As in other villages nearby, they rounded up and executed groups of civilian men.

The villagers took us to one house where, the moment I walked into the courtyard, I felt a physical wall of grief. Three little girls were hunched under their colourful scarves, like broken birds. Their father, a wild-eyed old man, told me they'd been like this for weeks. The Taliban shot their mother in front of their eyes. While her body lay in the courtyard, the soldiers remained alone with the girls for two days. It defied all the rules of Afghanistan's segregated society. There was no doubt in my mind that they had been raped. When I asked them what the Taliban did, they just wept and wouldn't say.

 

I left Mawmaii wondering how men who claim to be devout Muslims could do such a thing. I believe the key is that the Taliban do not represent the whole of the country, they belong overwhelmingly to certain tribes in the south. Yet they now rule a country of diverse ethnic groups. Peoples of differing cultures are treated as less than human. That, ultimately, is why massacres can take place.

 

  A broken spell

 

I had one last personal pilgrimage to make - to my own family's district, Paghman. While I've visited Afghanistan before, I've never seen the place I grew up feeling I belong to. As our van rattled up the hill, I felt real apprehension. For as long as I can remember, I have been told that this place is the most beautiful, enchanted on earth. If it was destroyed, I felt something in me would die too. Paghman used to contain pleasure gardens with fountains and trees. I found the fountains cracked and dried out, the trees gone. Like Afghanistan itself, it was still beautiful; the mountains towered majestically above the petty concerns of men. But everything that humans had built had been destroyed by war. It was a metaphor for a country full of such promise, reduced to so much rubble and decay.
 

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