"Beneath the Veil" redux

Documentary filmmaker Saira Shah returns to Afghanistan to find hopeful soldiers and starving children. Her film of the journey is called "Unholy War."

Published November 16, 2001 8:13PM (EST)

"Beneath the Veil," an astonishing television documentary by British-Afghan filmmaker Saira Shah, was among the most influential documents to shape American perceptions of the Taliban in the days after Sept. 11. The film, which was in heavy rotation on CNN all through September, recorded grisly public executions, the underground activities of the RAWA feminist organization and the plight of three young Afghan girls whose mother had been murdered by the Taliban.

Shah traveled through Afghanistan last year, often undercover and always in great danger, to film "Beneath the Veil." She got out only after a brush with authorities that nearly led to the confiscation of her film -- a hair-raising experience that makes her decision to go back last month even more amazing. But Shah did not hesitate, as she watched the terrorist attacks unfold on the news, to begin planning another trip to Afghanistan, specifically to record the impact of the escalating conflict on the country's inhabitants, already the victims of terrible suffering. The documentary of Shah's recent trip, called "Unholy War," premieres Saturday on CNN.

The first time Shah visited Afghanistan, she drove across the border with the Taliban's grudging permission; this time, Shah had to use smugglers' routes through the Himalayas to reach Northern Alliance territory. Her goal: to follow the plight of the three girls she had met during her last visit, who were now "bang on the front line that was being militarized." En route, Shah spoke with Western aid workers, who were attempting to do their jobs with a war raging around them; with Northern Alliance soldiers determined to crush the Taliban; and with Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan, whose fear of the Taliban was matched only by their fear of American bombs.

At its heart, "Unholy War" is the story of how Shah finds the three little girls featured in the first documentary living at the bloody edge of an international crisis. Shah spoke to Salon about her heartbreaking experience trying to offer aid to the traumatized family, and about what their tale forebodes for Afghanistan's future. As Shah puts it, "The girls really become a metaphor for Afghanistan, and how difficult it is to rebuild this country."

What had happened to the three girls in the year since you left?

They were in a very bad way; they were still very upset and traumatized [by their mother's death and the atrocities the Taliban inflicted upon them in the days afterward]. But we found that the new killer in their village was not the Taliban, it was the drought. The men of the village, who had told us before how their fathers and brothers had been shot in the hills by the Taliban, were now telling us about how young children were dying because the drought was so severe; and how one man had thrown himself in the river because he couldn't bear to look in his children's eyes because he couldn't feed them.

The three young girls were in a very similar situation: Their father had a little bit of land and their crops had failed, so there was very little for them to eat. Their father couldn't go out and try to find food because the girls were too frightenend to be left alone in the house -- not just because of fear of the Taliban, although they were very afraid that the Taliban would return, but fear that soldiers from any side would return, Northern Alliance included. They were stuck in their home with very little to eat in a hopeless situation.

It was very hard for me. When we did find them, we had to think how we could make their lives better: There's no point in turning up and then not being able to do anything for them. By their standards, we have lots of money; I thought, we can't rescue everyone in Afghanistan -- we saw desperate poverty along the way -- but I'm sure we can just help these three little girls.

After talking to them, it seemed the thing that was right for them would be to arrange for their education, so that they could have hope for the future and maybe help rebuild Afghanistan some day. We left the village and went to try and find a school, and amazingly, almost miraculously, we found a local girl's school about one day's walk away; we arranged for them to be able to go to the school. We patted ourselves on the back in a Western way and thought, "At least we've saved these three little girls."

We went back to talk to the father and said we'd found a school, and that we would rent him a house next to the school and he'd be able to go visit his village anytime he wanted. And he replied, "You don't understand. If I leave my house for even a day the house will be looted; they'll rip the roof off and steal the wooden beams. They'll take everything I've got."

We said, "Surely your house can't be worth so much." He said, "I built it by myself from mud and water I brought from the river; all my people are in the village. If I left this area I could never come back; and I would always be a stranger in any other area I went to."

I couldn't believe that we couldn't help them and that money wouldn't solve their problems. But he said no, the only thing that would help is if we could build a school in their village. So we went to some aid workers we knew and asked if it was possible to build a school there; but they said no, because the village is right on the front line. It would be tremendously irresponsible to build a school in an area where you should be encouraging people to leave.

That was a real revelation for me. I rather arrogantly, in a very Western way, assumed that I could solve their problems because I had good will and money. It taught me that their problems are more complex. It also taught me a lot about what's needed in Afghanistan, and how frustrating it is rebuilding a country that's been destroyed to the extent that Afghanistan has.

I realized how much care and love and time and ability to deal with complexity whoever takes this country on is going to have to invest. If I do have a fear, it's that the West is very goal-oriented -- right now, it's wipe out bin Laden, wipe out the Taliban. Actually, the goal maybe should be rebuilding after the collapse of a structure that has created these evil things. It's always much easier to destroy than to build up; it's a thankless task to rebuild people's lives and it's one that takes years and is utterly, utterly frustrating.

By that tiny example of the girls' family, I got a glimpse of how frustrating it is. All the people of Afghanistan have got some story like that. It's not going to be so easy to help them but, God, is it important to try.

What was the general sentiment there about the United States' bombing? Did the Afghans support it?

We heard different things from different people. The people we met in Pakistan mainly came from areas controlled by the Taliban, and those people -- even if they were against the Taliban -- tended to be very ambivalent about the bombing. One refugee family we spoke to said they hated the Taliban but had to flee because they were afraid they would be killed by American bombs. Some were very anti-American.

In the Northern Alliance territory, most people were overwhelmingly supportive of the U.S. action, but almost too supportive: Their expectations were quite unrealistic. People would say to us, "This is wonderful, now we don't have to worry about our problems anymore because the Americans will sort it out for us. We will be home next week." These are people living on desolate mountainsides, with nothing to eat and winter coming on; and no, they won't be home next week.

What changes did you see in Afghanistan since you were there last? Has the allied campaign affected their hopes?

In the Northern Alliance area, the main difference was the difference in morale -- it was much better: They were heartened by the allied actions. When I was last there it was a little pocket of resistance in northeastern Afghanistan, and it semeed inevitable that the pocket would fall. That had dramatically changed.

There was a huge weight of expectation and hope, but there was an undercurrent of fear as well. People worried what would happen after the military campaign, whether there would be enough investment of money, time, care, attention by the world. People said, "The last time the Soviet Union was here and the West helped us get rid of them, but then the West forgot all about us. Will they forget all about us this time?"

Did you visit any of the RAWA women, to see how their anti-Taliban efforts had progressed?

No, they are based around Kabul, and I didn't go there. I did meet up with some in Pakistan, and they are still filming, amazingly, inside Kabul, through the war. But I didn't go back undercover this time. I felt that security had been tightened up by the Taliban and it would be irresponsible; the chance would be good that I would get caught.

When I wrote about your first documentary, some people complained that the footage of the woman being executed by the Taliban was extreme -- that she was, in fact, a murderer -- and didn't reflect the Taliban's range of behavior. Others worried that the footage was being used as war propaganda to support allied bombing. What's your response to these criticisms, and did it bother you that your film was being used as war propaganda?

It's something I've thought about. From the responses I've had, the message of "Beneath the Veil" has been correctly understood: The message is not "Let's go in and bomb them," but "Look how people are suffering." It's more a humanitarian plea: These are human beings just like you and they are suffering intolerable misery.

Yes, the argument that somehow women's rights is a superficial side of the Taliban is something that comes up again and again; but I would rebuff this by saying this film isn't just about women's rights, which is important enough, but human rights. I can't begin to describe how awful this regime is. I think it's counterpropaganda, the people who go around and say the Taliban is fluffy and nice, and why shouldn't they put people under veils? If the only thing the Taliban did is say women should wear veils, I would feel a lot less angry than I do at the moment. But the fact is that I've witnessed the systematic social control of women, the massacres. They are a nasty regime.

Also, we used the football stadium execution picture really to highlight the method of execution. And the fact is that the woman didn't have a fair trial.

How do you feel about the Northern Alliance seizing control of Kabul? There are reports of music in the streets and women going out without their burqas; yet the Northern Alliance also has a rather nasty reputation.

We spoke to an interesting young man in the Northern Alliance, who became our guide the last time I visited. He fights for the Northern Alliance but is a very bright kid. He took me away from the other men, because he didn't want them to hear what he was saying. He said that "when the Northern Alliance take Kabul, the veil will fall off their faces; please, God, don't let them return to the lawlessness and anarchy that was in Kabul when the same men took it last time, when literally every street in Kabul would have a different commander and the human rights situation was terrible."

He said that one of the main problems with Afghanistan is that there are thousands of small commanders, each with his own band of men, each of whom is armed to the teeth. Because Afghanistan has been at war for so many years, these are men who have never seen the country at peace. If there wasn't war, they would have nothing to do. It is their vested interest to keep the country at war, even if they fight each other. It's got nothing to do with ideology. They'll fight for whoever pays them to, and if nobody pays them they'll fight each other or civilians. It's a terribly complex, difficult situation; unraveling that militarized culture is fundamental to solving the problems of Afghanistan.

I have to say that my happiness at the apparent defeat of the Taliban is tempered by real worries that what is very important now is that we bring back a stable Afganistan to put in its place. These factors include a political solution that will last -- it's difficult to see what form that will take, whether a government that's broad enough to represent all the Afghan people will also be stable enough to last. Also, we need the humanitarian rebuilding of Afghanistan, without which there will be no enduring peace. And finally, we need the demilitarization of the country -- and God knows that's a difficult task indeed.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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Afghanistan National Security Taliban