After waiting for years at last, a few days back, I got hold of a copy of Yvonne Ridley‘s wonderful book, “In the Hands of the Taliban.” It was published in 2001 by Robson Books, London just weeks after her captivity in Taliban’s Afghanistan came to end.
This is not supposed to be a book review. I am just sharing a few excerpts that I found interesting.
Speaking of 9/11 and its impact on the Americans she wrote:
I love America and, on the whole, most Americans. I love places where I don’t have to queue for fast food and where service is instant – which rules out most of London. However, I don’t think Americans are as resilient as the British and they must be amazed that anyone outside their country could or would dislike them. The Brits have developed quite a thick skin over the centuries. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, charging into people’s countries with a bible in one hand and a sword in the other? While we have lived with terrorism for thirty years and have developed a sort of devil-may-care attitude, I don’t think the average American will ever recover from this. (p.10)
I have no idea what the author now thinks about Americans and what actually is their current situation. However, it is clear they are doing exactly what, in the view of the author, lead to Brits developing the ‘devil-may-care’ attitude.
Her planned visit to Afghanistan was limited only to a village named Kama. Recollecting her trip she noted:
Although burka-clad Afghan women give the impression of servility, the women from Kama were strong, spirited and resilient. One woman, who has the most amazing almond-shaped, hazel eyes and magnificent cheekbones, gently mocked me when she asked if I had any children and I said ‘one’.
Putting her hands on a fine pair of child-bearing hips she mocked: ‘Only one? Ha! You British and American women can only produce one or two children but I can have fifteen, and when you run out of your boy soldiers to send to war we still have many replacements. Our children are born with guns in their hands. They are fighters and will die fighting. It is part of our life and our struggle. If I have to fight I will and so will she,’ she said, pointing her long, bony fingers at an old woman whose tiny, crumpled frame and toothless smile radiated great wisdom.
I was told she was a hundred years old and that she had seen many wars. She shouted something at me and everyone laughed. She had said of course she would fight the American soldiers and said no one could conquer the Afghan people. I was then reminded of a famous saying, which goes, ‘Anyone can rent an Afghani but no one can own one.’
But this time the woman with the hazel eyes had taken centre stage and through the young translator she said, ‘We heard about what happened in New York and we are sorry so many innocent people died. I hope the Americans think twice before trying to bomb us but whatever happens we are not afraid.’ (pp.101-102)
Talking of her captivity lead to by a dramatic event when she was about to cross the border back to Pakistan, she mentions three men from Taliban who came to interrogate her. They were accompanied by Hamid, the translator. Besides the actual interrogation, of those three men she writes;
They couldn’t even look me in the face and would stare blankly at some other spot on the ceiling. I discovered later that in Afghan culture this was sign of respect. Hamid, on the other hand, barked several times at me, ‘Look at me when I am talking to you.’ He tried to get angry and aggressive but it made me laugh because I felt he was playing out of character. (p.125)
She also reproduces in her book some notes that she managed to ingenuously write “on the inside of a toothpaste carton.” Entry of Sunday, September 30, 2001 continues:
Hamid says everyone is very bothered that I am not eating and asks if there’s something wrong with the food, if I have special diet or would I prefer hotel food. They constantly refer to me as their guest and say they are sad if I am sad. I can’t believe it. The Taliban are trying to kill me with their kindness.
These people are in many ways like the Gurkhas. They are mild-mannered, gentle and considerate yet when it comes to fighting they are among the most fearsome warriors in the world. I wish everyone knew how I am being treated because then I could perhaps relax. I bet people think I’m being tortured, beaten and sexually abused. Instead I am being treated with kindness and respect. It is unbelievable.
Damn. I’ve somehow managed to break the radio so I still don’t know if the world knows of my plight. I did hear a bulletin about eight Christians who have been locked up in Kabul for trying to convert Muslims to their faith. (p.127)
Another diary, undated in the book, reads;
Hamid knocked on the door and said someone had come to see me. I think he said he was a Maulana [someone who is learned in Persian or Arabic] and I could tell by the expression on his face all was not well. A tall, slender cleric with flawless skin and narrow brown eyes entered the room and, counting his worry beads in a calculated fashion, he asked me what was my religion and what did I think of Islam. My mouth went dry as I told him I was a Christian and he wanted to know what sort so I replied Protestant.
He smiled in a such a sinister way I felt I was being led into a trap. I then continued that I thought Islam was a fascinating religion and admired the way its followers held such a great passion and belief. I added that I would make it my business to look into the religion further on my return to London. Another smile followed and then he asked me if I wanted to convert then and there.
I panicked thinking if I said ‘yes’ he would think I was fickle and order that I be stoned. On the other hand I could risk execution just by saying ‘no’. I thanked him for the offer but said I could not make such an important life-changing decision while I was in such turmoil and confusion. I thanked him again and waited for his next question. He responded with another smile and got up and left. (pp.137-138)
In the narrative of her release and crossing back into Pakistan, she wrote:
As I stepped out I was suddenly hit by the glare of television lights shining into my face. I could not see a thing and was momentarily dazzled. A voice shouted out, ‘How did the Taliban treat you?’ All the memories and mind games of the last ten days flowed through my head and I replied, ‘With courtesy and respect.’ (p.171)
She writes about her conversation with Paul Ashford, Editorial Director of Express Newspapers;
He asked me what I really thought of the Taliban and I said, ‘It’s very difficult because we know they’re brutal and yet they treated me with kindness and respect. People won’t like but I have to tell the truth.’
He agreed, adding, ‘No, people won’t like it, but I have to say they were honourable. They gave an undertaking that you would be released and they stuck to their word. They came across having their own kind of integrity. Richard [Desmond] gave me an open cheque to get you out but I knew right from the start that offering them money could cause great offence.’ (p.185)
In the same vein she recounted;
Then I remembered a conversation I’d had with the retired Labour MP for Chesterfield, Tony Benn, after the BBC’s Breakfast with Frost show. He had read my account of my time in Afghanistan in the Sunday Express and said it was a good piece of journalism.
You’ve put a human face to the Afghans while the West has spent weeks trying to demonise these people,’ he told me. ‘It’s much easier to drop bombs on an evil regime. You have done very well.’ (p.208)
Another interesting memory she shared goes as;
… after 10 days of being treated with respect and courtesy by my captors I was shocked when I got a black cab in London, The East End driver recognized me.
‘You’re that bird that got locked up by them Taliban people aren’t you?’ I nodded and he continued. ‘Did they rape you?’ I shook my head and then he added. ‘It’s hard to believe. If I’d been out there I’d have given you a go.’
I couldn’t believe it. I think he thought he was giving me a compliment. ‘Welcome back to civilization, Yvonne,’ I thought. (p.204)
During captivity she had no clue about her guides for mission into Afghanistan. Later Pasha, the man who facilitated her in Pakistan and arranged for her trip to Afghanistan, informed her on call about their release.
Then in the book once again we find the mention of Kama, the Afghan village she went to:
… American bombs blasted the tiny village of Kama, in the Kama district, off the face of the earth. I will never forget that feeling when I heard the words, ‘Madam, I have bad news for you. The Americans have bombed your village. Kama has gone and some of the people you met have been killed.’
Naively, I told him they must have been stray bombs that had accidentally hit civilian targets. ‘But madam,’ he protested, ‘then they have accidentally bombed Kama three days running.’
I closed the line and a great aching sob erupted deep from within me. The woman who had sung ‘Rule Britannia’ so triumphantly on the night Kabul was hammered was now cursing the war. I had been to Kama and it had no military or strategic significance at all.
I called my mother and sobbed: ‘Those bastards have bombed my village. Kama has been wasted, it no longer exists.’ I called my news editor Jim and anyone else who would listen. I was grief-stricken. (p.214)
And towards the end she sums up her thoughts and feelings about Afghanistan;
I have fallen in love with many countries and cities around the world and it has always been easy to explain why: New York is exciting; Rome and its cuisine are divine; Venice is breathtaking; Paris is so chic.
However, my heart has been stolen by Afghanistan, a wild, unforgiving country whose contrasts of people are reflected in stormy history, politics and geography. (p.215)