Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Limits of Afghan Press Freedom

By aziz.ahmad.tassal

No reporters have been to Musa Qala since the district centre fell to the Taleban in February. It was a difficult decision for us to go there, but we had made contact with the Taleban spokesman, Qari Yusuf, and he told us it would be okay.

We left Lashkar Gah around noon, and made a stop in Greshk, 30 kilomteres away.

When we got there, my colleague made a call to our Taleban contact Taza Gul, who was going to be our guide. He took us to his house, about two km away from the centre of Greshk.

We went by motorcycle. It was too far to walk because Taza Gul, who looked about 45, had an artificial leg. I think he probably lost it during the Jihad against the Soviets.

I was very afraid as we got to the area. When we entered the house, I saw a television set in the corner of the room. Our host told us that this was a centre for controlling the media. The Taleban watch all of the broadcasts, and if they see something they don’t like, they send a warning to the reporter. They tell him that if they arrest him, they will not let him live.

This, of course, made me even more nervous. I do not work with electronic media, but I did not want to tell them that I worked for IWPR. I know how much the Taleban hate foreign organisations.

But Taza Gul treated us well, and we took a pot of tea down to the river, where we sat among the autumn trees and watched the sun go down. I wanted to feel more relaxed, so I began to talk and joke with him. Then we together peformed the afternoon prayer, as evening became night.

When we came back to the house we found other Taleban there as well. Taza Gul has a wife and two children, and he was very hospitable. We sat and talked about religious issues until midnight. Taza Gul talked about things I had not heard of until now. He said that it was illegal to work for foreigners, even to help foreigners.

But Islam says that a man has an obligation to provide sustenance for one’s children, and if necessary, a Muslim can earn money working for foreigners. Taza Gul, however, did not agree.

In the morning, after breakfast, we headed off in a white Corolla car, driven by a man with a white turban. It took us almost two hours driving through the desert to reach Musa Qala.

We saw our first Taleban in the Landay Nawa area of Musa Qala district, at a checkpoint. They stopped our car and laughed at us – my colleague was clean shaven, my beard is not long, and neither one of us wore a hat or a turban.

They told us to get out of the car. We gave them the name of the Taleban governor, but they did not believe us, when we said we had permission to come here. They made a radio call, “Gulab, we have arrested two correspondents, what shall we do with them?”

He asked again and again over the radio, while other Taleban circled us, looking at us fiercely. It was as if lions were hunting a bird.

But Taza Gul called Faizullah, the deputy governor of the Taleban, who asked the men to let us go.

It was another 45 minutes by car to the district centre. Faizullah, the deputy governor, along with several armed people, was waiting for us there. He took us to his home and fed us, then we started taking pictures.

There has been a lot of destruction in Musa Qala, the locals say it is from NATO bombs. The district centre is completely destroyed, as is the mosque. People have to pray out in the open, on bare land.

During the first Taleban regime, Musa Qala was one of the foremost districts of Helmand province, well-known commanders used to live here. Now it is a dusty, empty area. After the Taleban regime fell, the commanders left for Pakistan. But by 2006, they were back. The government was trying to open schools, pave the way for residents to gain knowledge, and learn new technology.

But the time was too short. Now the schools are closed, people are again under pressure. They cannot do the things they had been doing, because they are afraid.

But the Taleban are not as strict as they were six years ago, when they gave people trouble about their beards, about praying, about music and other things.

In Musa Qala, everyone lives as a family. Even in the government centre, children are running in and out as if they are in their own homes. People do not bother each other. Most men wear turbans.

When we began to interview people, crowds circled us, not understanding what we were doing among the Taleban. No one had weapons, although there were a lot of gun shops around.

Abdul Rahim, a Taleban commander, told me that whenever they see NATO troops coming into the area, they go out to take them on. The residents also go, by motorcycle and on foot. Anyone who wants to can take part in the fight against the foreign troops. Old men with white beards, even children, sometimes go along.

We stayed in Musa Qala until sunset. By this time we were no longer afraid of the Taleban. We could take their pictures, we could go anywhere we wanted. We had become friends.

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR reporter.

Link to original story by Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Lashkar Gah. Published in ARR No. 272, 8-Nov-07

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