Trading Control For Interviews In Afghanistan

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson i i

NPR Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in a burqa during a recent reporting trip to Kunar province. Roohullah Anwari for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Roohullah Anwari for NPR
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

NPR Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in a burqa during a recent reporting trip to Kunar province.

Roohullah Anwari for NPR

The key to reporting in a war zone like Afghanistan is to be in control. I figure out who I want to talk to, and when and where I want to meet them.

Always, I make sure my team and I have an escape plan in case things go bad.

Yet, control was the first thing I had to give up to get an interview with a judge in insurgent-held territory. I needed such judges for my story on frontier justice in Afghanistan. After all, Taliban courts are a key method of dispensing civil and criminal justice in remote areas where the government has little control.

Nawab Momand, the abducted Afghan TV reporter in my story, became my conduit and "fixer," as we call the locals who help Western correspondents do stories here. He maintains close telephone ties with insurgent commanders in his line of work even after almost being executed by them.

Momand handed my request over to an Afghan businessman who lives in Pakistan and deals routinely with the Taliban to set up a meeting.

We settled on doing the interview in Kunar, a province where my contacts' tribal ties would afford some level of protection against any abduction.

But I was not allowed to know where we would go in Kunar, nor whether I would get to interview one or more judges or see a Taliban court in action as I'd requested. Not an ideal scenario, especially when a Dutch journalist had been kidnapped days earlier when she went to interview the Taliban just outside Kabul.

"Put on your burqa and don't speak English. They can't know you are American or we'll all be dead," Momand warned me as we left Kabul in his well traveled Toyota Corolla. (I speak Dari, one of Afghanistan's languages).

In Jalalabad, a fairly safe Afghan city near the Pakistani border, the plan quickly fell apart. The Afghan businessman, it turns out, had other things on his mind besides arranging my interview.

While Momand went to repair his car, the businessman took me to a tiny hotel room where I was to stay the night. The businessman told me Momand could not accompany us to the room because he'd gotten the room for his "wife."

Pashtun culture bars any man from being in the same room with a woman not closely related to him.

But the businessman would not leave. He kept asking me personal questions. He repeatedly told me to take off my burqa and sit next to him on the cushions on the floor. When he finally left the room to get some tea, I grabbed my cell phone and called my fixer in Kabul for help. He called Momand.

Momand, in turn, called the businessman, who was angry when he returned to the room. He told me to gather my things and drove me to an intersection where Momand was waiting. The Pashtun code of conduct prevented him from taking me anywhere else.

Not surprisingly, the businessman told us the meeting with Taliban judges was off.

So much for Plan A. And there was no Plan B. At least, not yet.

The next morning, we drove to Kunar province where Momand left me inside his brother's walled compound with the family's women.

Momand was adamant. He told me I could not be involved in seeking out the judges. Such a scenario would scream "foreigner" and heighten the risk of attack or abduction. No Afghan woman — even one draped in a burqa — would ride around in a car looking for insurgents.

Momand and his brother sought out new intermediaries. One, who it turns out I'd met on an earlier trip with the U.S. military to Kunar, agreed to phone an insurgent commander. The commander agreed to send a judge down the mountain to the mouth of the volatile Korengal Valley for us to meet him that afternoon.

He wouldn't be a Taliban judge, but a local one with the Salafi insurgent movement. The Salafi militants are allied with the Taliban and dominate the Korengal Valley.

I put on my burqa, left the walled compound, and headed to Tantil, a village some five minutes from a small U.S. military post. Our new intermediary and an acquaintance of his with insurgent connections crammed into the car with Momand, his cameraman and me.

The young judge with a thick black beard and wool cap met us in an abandoned schoolhouse across the Pech River, a five-minute hike from the car. He was accompanied by two unarmed and jittery young militants. One used a walkie-talkie and the other was glued to his cell phone.

I asked the judge my questions in Dari, the language official Afghan business is conducted in. Momand translated into Pashto, the one spoken by Afghanistan's majority and preferred by insurgents even when they know how to speak Dari.

Twenty minutes later, after repeated admonitions by everyone to hurry it up, the interview was over. The judge invited us to join him for dinner and more conversation farther up in the Korengal Valley. He told Momand that lookouts had been posted on four mountaintops, so that we'd be able to dine in peace without interruption by American troops.

Momand and our intermediary didn't even ask me what I wanted to do. They quickly and firmly declined.

"You can forget Pashtun hospitality if these guys find out you're American," Momand warned.

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