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Journalist Saira Shah: Life in Afghanistan under the Taliban

Saira Shah
Saira Shah  

Saira Shah is a freelance journalist. She was born in Britain, of an Afghan family. She first visited Afghanistan at age 21 and worked there three years as a freelance journalist, covering the guerilla war against the Soviet occupiers. Later, working for Britain's Channel Four News, she covered some of the world's worst trouble spots.

CNN: Welcome to Saira Shah. Thank you for joining us today.

SAIRA SHAH: Hello to everyone who's logged on. It's great to be here.

CNN: Saira - tell us a bit about "Beneath the Veil" on CNN Presents this Sunday evening and why this story is so important to you.

SHAH: Well, the film is a story of a journey three of us made, me and two crew members, earlier in the year. It's important to me personally, because my family originally came from Afghanistan. What we tried to do was return to the area where my family came from, which I'd never seen before. I remember when I was a child, my father would tell me stories of a garden in the area where my family came from, and I was told it was the most beautiful place in the world, with fountains, fruit trees, and wonderful things. We thought we'd try to go there, and see what happened to it now, and understand along the way what's happening in Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Please tell us about the financial situation of the government of Afghanistan and its capability to provide basic services to its people.

SHAH: I assume that you're talking about the Taliban government, because they control most the country, 90 percent, but not all. The strong impression I got was that the inability or the unwillingness of the Taliban government was not connected to the financial situation. They clearly have money to pay troops, etc., but what they're not doing is rebuilding infrastructure. They're not concentrating on humanitarian projects to feed ordinary Afghans, and the World Food program is helping to feed people. I don't think it's a financial problem, but a political problem as well.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you see any future for women in Afghanistan?

SHAH: Obviously, women are half of Afghanistan's population, so there must be some future for women. If that's a happy one, that's a different question. There are grave problems there for women. One thing I did in the film is travel with a group of Afghan feminists undercover. It was the only way to get access to ordinary women living under the Taliban. It was shocking. One thing was the hospitals for women, where women doctors are supposed to be allowed to work…there are so many social restrictions that most have fled or can't get to work.

So, the hospitals are filthy, and there is little personnel for women. Male doctors are not allowed to treat women, so there was insufficient medical attention. Another distressing things was young girls being taught in secret schools, and the level of risk they were taking of punishment or imprisonment. Also, the number of women beggars on the streets. There are about 40,000 widows because of the conflict. Many have no menfolk to support them, and they are not able to have jobs under Taliban law. So the laws that the Taliban believe will protect women have actually driven them into the streets to beg.

CHAT PARTICPANT: Ms. Shah, were you ever fearful for your own safety?

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SHAH: Yes, of course I was. And also for the safety of my crew. At times the whole crew was fearful. Afghanistan is an unpredictable and violent place. I was on my own during the undercover trip and was fearful. It was difficult and was the first time I really saw what it's like to be an Afghan in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, you never relax. If you are involved in social activity, they won't approve. There was a large network of informants. I was in a safe house, but had to be careful about people tipping them off. I only did it for five days, but the other women live that way all the time. This Afghan feminist group, RAWA, has political activities all the time and have risks all the time.

CHAT PARTIPANT: Does the Taliban actively, that is financially, support terrorism, or does it just provide a save haven for Islamic fundamentalists?

SHAH: That's a difficult question to answer. Of course, they deny that they support terrorism, but it's well known they've helped bin Ladin. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Taliban is helping to train a wide range of people, including people fighting at the moment in Kashmir and other conflicts throughout the world, the Islamic world. The concern is that some groups may move on to other targets.

CHAT PARTICPANT: Ms. Shah, I've been profoundly disturbed by some of the images I've seen for the show on Sunday. Is there any image that stays with you more than others?

SHAH: Yes, there is. I assume you're talking about the gory images in the film, and those are not the ones that stay with me. The thing I keep remembering from real life is three little girls we met in the village, whose mother has been shot. The Taliban came and tried to take over their house, and the husband had already been detained, and she was alone with her children. They shot the mother, and left her body in the courtyard. The girls were traumatized and shy, but it emerged that the Taliban stayed in the house with them alone for two days, which is unthinkable in that culture. The 15-year-old was wrapped in a shawl, rocking and crying. That was very upsetting. They were upsetting.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I'd like to know some of the fundamental beliefs of the Taliban. I'm trying to understand how hundreds of thousands of woman can be maimed, killed and subjected without human rights intervention.

SHAH: That's two questions, really, isn't it? The Taliban's fundamental religious beliefs are hard to pin down, because they're not a homogenous organizations. Many Muslims say, and I agree, that many of the Taliban don't know much about Islam. Many are uneducated. Some are very educated. It's a diverse group. For example, we met a woman who said that she was walking with her friend, and a group of Taliban came and beat her friend up because she was wearing white shoes, saying she'd dishonored their white flag. That's not Islam. Many things imposed by Taliban are against Islam.

I was brought up with a moderate view of Islam, my family thought that Mohammed said that women are the twin hearts of men, and given equal opportunities. I would say that there are many Muslims that do not agree that this is Islam, or that this is the only form. On the question of human rights intervention, it comes down to international will. Afghanistan used to be important, but so many things have happened there, and things have happened because Afghanistan was used as a pawn in the '80s. There is now no international interest in Afghanistan. People have to care about Afghanistan around the world, and maybe a head of steam will be built that can do some good.

CHAT PARTICPANT: How did your stay in Afghanistan affect your perception of your cultural identity?

SHAH: I have been to Afghanistan before, but never visited my family's home area. This trip did affect my perception a lot. I have always had a strange relationship with Afghanistan, knowing it's where I came from, but seeing how it's changed, not for the better. There is more violence, and people are more crushed every time I go. This was the first trip I saw the Afghan sense of humor had disappeared. People are too worn down to joke and laugh. I found that very hard.

The other thing is that we talk of the developing world, and when I go back, I see that Afghanistan has regressed. Particularly in the cities, I see the mass trauma, I don't know how to describe it. People are traumatized there. Everyone has someone in their family that has died. Everyone has suffered, has seen violence. Whole generations have seen nothing but war, and the effect is very dreadful on the culture as a whole, and I find it very hard to watch.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the country doing about all of the orphans?

SHAH: Again, that's a difficult one to answer, because there are many situations. The country is fragmented. I've seen orphanages on the border where many children are helped. Often there is a big extended family, and if a child is orphaned, they're kept in the family. Many boy orphans have to defend themselves more. There's an orphanage I've visited in a very interesting state, where the children have no stimulus, no freedom. There are many children in the towns, begging on the streets. It's a diverse situation.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

SHAH: I have been amazed when this film was shown in England, at the response of people, and how people wanted to help, be involved. For me personally, I couldn't wish for anything better, because for years I've wanted people to care, and I'm grateful that this has happened. I'm grateful to the United States and CNN for showing this film, and hope that something can be done about the impossible situation.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Saira Shah.

SHAH: Thank you!

Saira Shah joined Newsroom via telephone from Colombia. CNN provided a typist for her. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, August 24, 2001.

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