Inside Afghanistan: Behind the veil
Land of my father

It's not easy for a woman to go to Afghanistan to make a film, as Saira Shah discovered

Guardian, June 26, 2001
Saira Shah

There is a photograph on my bedroom wall. It is yellowed with age. I am three years old, sitting on my father's knee. In the picture, he looks like a kindly, wise old elephant. He is telling me a story. I am following his gaze with an expression of particular determination; as if I am searching the air for the vision he is creating.

I remember the tale he is telling me. It is about a garden - more wonderful than any in the Arabian Nights - a place of fountains and fruit trees. The best part of the tale is this: the garden really exists, half a world away, in a country called Afghanistan. It is where my family comes from, the place I really belong.

Ever since I can remember, I have been determined, one day, to visit that garden in Afghanistan. But the country has been at war since the Soviet Union occupied it in 1979. Nearly five years ago, the Taliban, a militia of religious students, rose to power. In the name of Islamic purity they have forced men to grow beards and denied women access to schools and medical care. Asked to make a documentary about the Taliban for Channel 4, I decided that, by hook or by crook, I would visit my family's lost homeland, a place called Paghman.

Cassian Harrison, the producer and director, was more used to making historical documentaries, but he did understand the importance of mythology. He not only agreed to take me back to Paghman - disturbingly, he suggested that we film the process.

In Pakistan's squalid Afghan refugee camps, I glimpsed brutality very different to the proud, hospitable Afghanistan that my father described to me as a child. "I saw a girl wearing white shoes," one woman told me. "The Taliban came and said to: 'White is the colour of our flag. You have dishonoured our flag.' So they beat her."

A girl of about 12 told us that she had hidden in a bread oven and watched the Taliban kill her father for his wristwatch and waistcoat. Another boy said the Taliban hunted him with dogs. His transgression was a haircut that they considered to be decadently western. As we crossed the border into Afghanistan, a Taliban guard gave me a contemptuous glance, then looked away. Over the next weeks, I grew used to being ignored; in Afghanistan, women have become invisible. We had entered a world where I was no longer allowed to paint my nails, uncover my head, or travel around without a male escort.

Heading for the capital, Kabul, we passed roadblocks, decorated with fluttering banners of confiscated cassette tape. The Taliban have banned music and this was their way of showing it. Checking the restrictions attached to our visas, we discovered we only had permission to film inanimate objects. We debated whether fluttering cassette tape counted as animate or inanimate. This is the kind of surreal discussion you could only have in the Taliban's Afghanistan.

As James Miller, an experienced war cameraman with a brilliant eye for detail, began to film, a Taliban guard spotted him and giggled. We took this as a sign that things were going well. Then, still tittering, the guard picked up a medium-sized artillery shell, pointed it straight at James, and began bashing the percussion cap with a pair of pliers. The Taliban's plethora of rules and regulations irrelevant. I learned then that, when lunatics take over the asylum, anything can happen to anybody, at any time.

We had nearly reached Paghman when we heard rumours of atrocities we could not leave unexplored. So we boarded a United Nations aeroplane and detoured to the far north-west of Afghanistan, which is still in the hands of the Taliban's military opposition. They were not doing well in the fighting. A harassed local political agent dispatched us to the front line. He even supplied us with our own personal bodyguard - a youth called Mohammad. This, it turned out, was no small sacrifice. Mohammad, the proud owner of a Soviet-made sniper rifle, played a pivotal part in the opposition's dwindling air defences. For the next few days, whenever Taliban jets screamed over and bombed, Mohammad would crouch behind a boulder, peer through his telescopic sight, and try to shoot them down with his rifle.

The countryside reminded me of the unspoilt Afghanistan that my father knew. It was a landscape of indescribable peace and beauty. The lush hills of early spring were thronged with shepherds and their flocks. The country is a mosaic of different tribes, cultures and ethnic groups. Until the Taliban arrived, the different peoples of this area lived peacefully side by side.

We passed the frontline, and headed for no man's land. We had been told that, earlier in the year, the Taliban briefly took a group of four villages, before being pushed back. No reporter from the outside world had been to find out exactly what they did while they were there.To get to one of the villages - called Mawmaii - we had to cross the river Koksha on a raft made of inflated goat-skins, close to the Taliban positions. Mohammad helpfully pointed out the minefields on either side on the river.

The villagers took us to a courtyard. As we stepped over the threshold, a wall of grief hit us like a physical blow. Three little girls were hunched under their colourful scarves, in a row, like broken birds. Their father, a wild-eyed old man, sat staring into space. He told me they had been like this for weeks. In a clear, piping voice the middle sister, a little girl of 12 called Fairuza, said that the Taliban had 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. When I asked what the Taliban did in that time, her 15-year-old sister wept, silently.

On a nearby hillside, one man told us how he found the bodies of seven men, dotted over the field. "I saw the bodies, lying here like sheep," he said.

The villagers told us that when the Taliban withdrew they loaded dozens of male civilians into pick-up trucks and took them to prison. There was no room for the last seven men, so they shot them. We found the same patterns of killings in village after village. In one community the local wedding photographer had filmed the villagers burying their dead. Yet when I interviewed the Taliban's foreign minister, Wakil Motawakil, he denied that any massacres had taken place. The opposition, he claimed, had made it all up.

After what I had seen in the north, I couldn't remain just an outside observer. I was finally ready for my personal pilgrimage. My father never made it back to the garden he told me about. He died in 1996, just after the Taliban took power. As we approached Paghman, I felt vulnerable. If it was destroyed, something inside me might die as well.

Tactfully, the crew let me wander around on my own. I could make out the outlines of the flowerbeds and where the paved paths had been, and the watercourses. But the fountains were cracked and dried out, the trees chopped down for firewood, the pagodas pockmarked with bullet holes. 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: ruined by a war without meaning or end. It was a metaphor for a country full of such promise, reduced to so much rubble and decay.

Beneath the Veil will be broadcast tonight on Channel 4, 9pm

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