On a Perilous Reporting Journey to Southwestern Afghanistan
A Pakistani journalist is held by the Taliban, then faces a challenging trip back to the border with information rarely obtained by reporters.
Retaining one's independence as a journalist provides strength in confronting restrictions and in coping with difficult circumstances. It also means that a story, once reported, will provide readers with information they can trust. This is why I have always chosen to work as an independent journalist in the conflict zones of Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Never have I tried to embed myself with armies, nor with fighting militias. And always I try to dig out the facts on the ground and stay in touch with all sides in a conflict to act as an independent observer.
To work independently means finding my own route into a story. Often I travel on my own without any protection. Twice I have traveled into Afghanistan (including trips to Kabul, Jalalabad and Wardak) and dozens of times I've reported in Pakistani tribal areas (including North Waziristan, Chaman and Pashin) in the mountainous border region separating my country from Afghanistan, as many other journalists have done. What I wanted to do, however, was to travel deep into the area of southwestern Afghanistan, a region where journalists usually avoid going, especially after the Taliban's spring offensive in 2006.
Traveling to the Taliban
It was an accepted fact among non-Afghan journalists that if they traveled beyond Girishk in Helmand Province, they faced the possibility of being abducted or killed. In this area there are no Afghan government troops or NATO forces. Believing there was an important story to be told from here, it was in Girishk that I began a reporting journey that would result in a six-part series of articles called "In the Land of the Taliban" that I wrote for Asia Times. I traveled there with my interpreter, Qamar Yousufzai.
In the fall of 2006, I decided to cover the entire Taliban-controlled area up to Bagram, the city at the end of Helmand Province that is the Taliban's command and control. This was a place where no journalist — either Afghan or foreigner — had paid a visit. In doing this, I tried to go to all of the important battlefronts, including Musa Qala, Nauzad and Sangin. I talked with commanders and with village people I met along the way. With the Taliban field commanders, I talked about the Taliban's strategies for the spring of 2007, and with the people I asked them about the possible bloodshed that future battles might bring to them. Of course, everyday life in this region is not easy; food must come from the earth and survival in this merciless climate relies on makeshift shelter. Then there are threats of air strikes by NATO aircraft and visits from the Taliban who always suspect any non-native of being a spy. If such a charge is proven, beheading is the punishment.
Nevertheless, I accepted these challenges, not imagining at its start how truly hazardous my reporting trip would be.
The district of Bagram is under the control of the Taliban. In the last week of October, Taliban leadership appointed a young man, Matiullah Agha, to be district administrator (olaswal). This meant he runs the district with the advice of a local council (Shura) of tribal elders and former mujahideen commanders, who fought against the former Soviet Union. When I arrived, I became the guest of a tribal elder in Bagram — Commander Khuda-i-Rahim — a war veteran who had lost his two arms and one leg and now moves with artificial limbs. He is greatly respected in this region, a rich man who owns huge poppy fields and is known by everyone as Haji Lala. Other well-regarded former commanders live here, however none has been able to influence much of what goes on since the Taliban took power.
On the morning of November 22nd, a meeting was scheduled with members of local Shura in one of the valleys of Bagram. When we came to the meeting's site, there were a few dozen men positioned on rooftops and mountaintops with mortars and machine guns and other artillery. Of course, this set-up of Taliban troops seemed to be for the benefit of our photographer and not a usual positioning. All of the armed men belonged to Moulvi Hamidullah, a local commander and member of the Shura.
After the briefing took place about Taliban rule in Bagram, Hamidullah used his satellite phone to call the district administrator. I overheard their conversation. Hamidullah was letting him know about a guest who speaks English. It is true that I'd briefly spoken English while we were taking video footage of Shura. (Only the next day did I learn that in talking in English, Hamidullah mistakenly portrayed me as a British man.) Many hours passed and, when he did not hear back from the district administrator, he called him again. And then Hamidullah gathered his men in a corner for a discussion.
Since Taliban use code words when they talk on satellite phones, the Taliban leaders in Bagram had the impression that Hamidullah arrested somebody who was British. This misinformation was also immediately transmitted to Taliban's command of Helmand Province. There seemed to be concern that soon NATO aircraft would come and bomb the place, so the men went into hiding.
Late that afternoon, a band of armed men — Taliban police — arrived. Our host took them to the side, and after an hour of conversation they came back to us. The (Taliban) police were apologizing repeatedly to Hamidullah. I was completely in the dark about what was going on. I sensed that the apology was related to their late arrival; only later did I learn that they had come to arrest me, but Hamidullah clarified that I was a guest who wanted to interview Matiullah Agha, the district administrator. In trying to save face, he tried to explain that what had been said earlier had been a miscommunication.
Arrest of a Journalist
Soon I was taken to the district headquarters of Bagram to meet with Matiullah Agha, a man of short, skinny stature with a dim complexion. His physique hardly bore any marks of physical strain, but his eyes were shaky. I interviewed him and took photographs of his veiled face. Then, during our meeting, he stood up suddenly and dialed a number on his satellite phone and handed the phone to my colleague, Qamar. The person he had reached — who we later found out was secretary to the Taliban "governor" of Helmand — asked about my credentials: Where had I come from? Which publication did I represent? He then insisted that we need to produce a permission letter from Taliban headquarters in Pakistan that deals with the news media. Without such a letter, he argued, there were no grounds by which to believe that we are journalists. Therefore, he instructed by phone for the Taliban administrator to detain us unless it could be proven that I am a journalist.
Now a new discussion began between our host and Matiullah Agha, who insisted that he would arrest us. Our host asserted that to do so he'd have to go through him and his men. The 45-minute long debate in this dusky valley was enough to remind me of what chilly winter is all about. Our host, Haji Lala, refused to hand us over to the Taliban, and finally we returned to his home. However, the situation was not yet resolved.
Our host told his friend, Moulvi Hamidullah, a fellow member of the Shura, to pass on a message to the Taliban administrator. His message was a bold one: Even if Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, sends instructions from him to surrender his guest, he would not do so, and he would fight the Taliban. In the evening, my interpreter and I were sent to a hiding place. During the night, we were to be provided with a vehicle that would take us away from Bagram, but this plan could not be put into effect because the Taliban placed their men around the area and sent a warning that if they saw anybody fleeing they would open fire.
After a lot of negotiation, it was finally agreed that the court would decide the matter. So on November 24th, we were presented in a local mosque at the district headquarters of Bagram. An elderly man with a white beard, a judge (Qazi) saw us, and a meaningful smile appeared on his face as he was told the story of a British alien turned Pakistani. Haji Lala made quite clear before the proceedings began that "from one corner to another corner of Bagram I do not see anybody who would dare to stand before me, and only because the elders of the area asked me to present my guests in court is why I am here."
In front of the judge, Olaswal Matiullah changed his version of what had happened and accused me of being British and coming to the area without permission. "We have a lot of respect to Haji Lala and his friends, but we were informed by some anonymous sources that they are spies of the Afghan government, and we need to investigate," he claimed. "If the elders of the area, whom we respect a lot, intervene in our functions, then what is the need of this administration? Remove us and take the power in their hands."
The judge observed we were Pakistanis and Muslims, not British, and said somebody had created doubt with misinformation about us being spies. The matter should be checked, he said, and in the meantime, as the accused, we could not leave Bagram. Instead, we would remain here as "guests" for one night. Olaswal protested when he heard the judge talk about our one-night detention and asked the judge to give him as much time as he required for the investigation. Qazi then altered his decision and said that we "would be guests here until the investigation is over and would surrender all our belongings to the Taliban for their investigation." Soon our cameras, cell phones, notebooks and diaries were taken away from us.
One concern we now had was that the Taliban carry a grudge against elders in the area whom they want to keep as subservient. We were now caught in the middle of this feud, and I had a strong feeling that this grudge would result in the Taliban administrator letting the investigation go on for a long time to make us sweat as much as he could.
The next day I asked Haji Lala for a way to communicate with my family; I wanted to let them know that I was not hurt. Haji Lala let me use his phone. In that phone call, I asked my family to leak word of my situation to Hameed Haroon, the chief executive officer and publisher of the Dawn Group of Newspapers in Pakistan and pass along the satellite phone number. Haroon called me within in few minutes, and then I told him where I was and what was happening to me. I asked him to coordinate things with the resident editor of Dawn Peshawar, Ismail Khan, so that he could communicate to the Taliban that I am a journalist.
Soon Ismail Khan was in contact with me, and he spoke to our hosts, too. Soon he spoke to Dr. Mohammad Hanif, the Taliban's media spokesperson, and by eight o'clock on the evening of November 25th we were told we were free to go. We could collect our things the next morning and then travel to wherever we wanted to go.
As news of our captivity leaked, my situation became headline news in the international press. Afghan villagers receive their news only by radio, and the Pashto-language radio services broadcast the story. This meant that everyone was looking to us throughout our 15-hour journey to the Pakistan border, and it was too dangerous for us to travel at night.
The next night, when we were in Musa Qala, we heard a radio broadcast that was about our recent arrest and contained some shocking words. "The Star [the evening newspaper published by Dawn] disowns Syed Saleem Shahzad. Therefore it seems that he is not a journalist and in fact a spy." I started my career in journalism with The Star and I never severed my association with that paper, yet I was not on assignment for The Star at this time. I'd been sent to Afghanistan by Asia Times, a publication located in Hong Kong, for which I am its accredited bureau chief by the government of Pakistan.
We were now confronted with a new situation: We'd been declared to be spies by a radio broadcast. This meant we could be a potential target of any group who wanted to kidnap us for ransom or by corrupt Afghan policemen who might kill us or take our money and belongings, with the blame for these actions going to the Taliban. So we planned a new strategy: We would travel separately and meet at the Pakistani border. This way, if one of us was endangered, the other one would inform those who could offer help.
By separate routes, each of us reached Pakistan unharmed. Only then did we come to learn that the reason behind the radio broadcast we'd heard was an Associated Press report by a stringer in Karachi. I could only speculate from what I knew of his background — he is a Pashtun with political right-wing leanings — about why he might have issued this false report about us. In part, I felt that he did so out of jealousy for our coverage of this story in Afghanistan.
In his report, he quoted a person named Faiza Ilyas, whom he identified as news editor at The Star. But this person was only a junior subeditor. And this report was published at a time when The Star was running daily headlines about my situation, and the Dawn group had issued an official statement asking for our release. This reporter also knew that I was affiliated with Asia Times and on assignment for that publication. But he called my home and said to my wife that if I was in the captivity of the Taliban, then why would I be allowed to call?
This was another case when the transmission of misinformation endangered our lives. It was upsetting for us and also for family and friends. But having returned from all of this unharmed makes me realize what a remarkable opportunity I had to share with readers an inside look at what is going on today in this off-limits region of Afghanistan. I certainly learned more about how the tribal system works, as I experienced firsthand some of the circumstances in which people in this region are finding themselves as Taliban leaders assume even greater control over their lives.
Syed Saleem Shahzad serves as the bureau chief in Pakistan for Asia Times Online and is the South Asia correspondent for Adnkronos International.