Memos From Pakistan

I wrote the stories below about my experience in Pakistan where I was sent on assignment three weeks after terrorists flew two jets into the World Trade Center on September 11, 200I. I returned to New York City in late October, just a few months before Daniel Pearl was kidnapped while researching a story on Richard Reid. He’s the guy who allegedly tried to blow up an airliner with a bomb in his shoe.  Pearl was betrayed by someone he trusted whom he thought was taking him to an interview. Instead his betrayer delivered Pearl to a group allied with Al Qaeda. The kidnappers held the former Wall Street Journal reporter for nine days before killing him. I’ve always thought that could have easily been me.

On the morning I left for Pakistan, as I putting the final items into my suitcase, the phone rang. The man on the other end said he worked for a company that had been contracted by Bloomberg News, my employer at the time, to give security briefings about how to behave in hostile environments. He had this advice for me. Never go anywhere by myself, never talk to anyone about politics (I'm a reporter, what am I supposed to talk to them about?), bring my own hypodermic needles in case I encountered a medical emergency and never get into a car with someone I didn’t know. Basically he was telling me to go to my hotel and never leave my room.

I arrived in Islamabad on a Thursday in the middle of the night and on Friday after prayer the prayer service had ended at the Red Mosque, I covered a demonstration there organized by religious leaders. Surrounded by thousands of men, I listened to speakers on flatbed trucks call George Bush “A dog who drinks dog's milk” and watched protesters wave signs accusing America of being “The Big Terrorist."  The core of the anti-American sentiment seemed to focus on U.S. support for Israel. Protesters wanted to know why America was calling Afghanistan a terrorist state and bombing innocent civilians when we befriend Israel?

I was asked these questions surrounded by a tight circle of angry men.  Although I was wearing a scarf for modesty, I was the only woman in sight. Organizers demanded that I leave. When I refused to go, I made my stand near a line of police officers who were holding big guns and wearing tee shirts that said "The Anti-Terrorist Squad" in big letters on their backs.

Shouting and pushing towards me, protesters told me that Muslims were not responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. That was a fabrication to defile Islam. They insisted the Israelis had flown the planes into the Towers. The proof was that 4000 Jews who worked in the buildings had stayed home from work on September 11th because they knew this was a Mossad plan.  

The anti Semitism astounded me. I had never heard this theory expressed in NY. Even if people felt that way, they didn’t feel comfortable saying it. Although I chose not to hide the fact that I'm American, I decided that while I was in Pakistan, it might be better not to mention the fact that I'm Jewish.        

Pakistan is a country of men. Women were absent from the demonstrations at the Mosque and also hard to spot on the street and the clothing they wear provides varying layers of invisibility. There are head scarfs and face veils.  And some women in the countryside wear sack-like burkhas that totally hide a woman’s body.

In Peshawar, a wild and raucous city about 40 miles from the Afghan border, I met a woman named Weeda Mansour. Mansour had left Kabul just before the U.S. bombing raids began. She was an activist with RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which operated in secret and was the only organization inside the country devoted to improving the welfare of Afghan women.  

Mansour told me that she had walked over the mountains in a burkha in order to reach Pakistan. The way she described the journey, "It's not the kind of trail that's pleasant for hiking. If you slip, you die." Since there are only pinholes near the eyes, it was difficult for her to look down and see where she was going.

Mansour, who had a Master's degree in Persian literature, was the mother of 3. She sent her children to underground schools that operated out of peoples’ homes. Her husband was an engineer.  When I asked her about the middle class in Afghanistan she said distinctions between the classes no longer existed.  The rule of the Taliban had made everyone equal. The way she put it, "Everyone is poor and hungry. We are all the same.”

The Taliban were in Pakistan, too holding press conferences in Islamabad on the lawn of the Afghan embassy. Along with hundreds of reporters from Germany and Turkey, Latin America and Africa, I would sit on the ground and wait for them to begin while men with beards were setting up microphones on the porch.

Three bearded guys in their early thirties, black turbans covering their heads, were now sitting at a long table. From the slow, deliberate way they spoke to one another, they seemed to want to convey a sense of seriousness yet seemed amused by  all the journalists hanging on their every word.  These men had gone from outlaws to players on the world stage and you could see this sense of surprise on their faces as if they wanted to say, “Hey look ma, I’m running a country.”    

And they had something else in common.

All of them were maimed. 

One guy wore a black patch over one eye. The one in the center only had one finger on his left hand. The other digits had been cut off at the first knuckle. The guy sitting closest to the door had an artificial hand, the color of a kid’s doll that fit on his arm above the wrist. These men were fighters. They had probably been wounded fighting the Northern Alliance, whose defeat had brought the Taliban to power. 

 The guy with the missing fingers began speaking in a low voice that was difficult to hear.  

He was reading in Pashto while the guy on his left translated.  

“The righteous Taliban forces have inflicted much damage on the infidels,” he said with a slight lisp. “34 invaders have been sent to their deaths by the brave Taliban forces who repel every incursion. Though the infidels use chemical weapons on innocent Afghans, we will fight them till the last invader has gone to their just reward.  The U.S. with all its evil ways want to take over Afghanistan and Pakistan too as it goes on its way to dominate the whole world.”

He looked up, nodding slightly.

Someone a few rows behind me called out.

“Excuse me, sir. “What proof do you have that the Americans or their allies are using chemical weapons in Afghanistan?”

The man with the eye patch leaned over and whispered to the translator.

“We have our ways to know. The righteous, they speak only the truth.”

I raised my hand.

“Sir, I said loudly, “Can you comment on why so few countries in the Muslim world are supporting the Taliban. No one has stood up and taken your side. Why is that?”

Now, it was the turn of the guy with the fabricated hand to answer.  In a low hum, he responded in Pasto.

The translator said, “We have many friends who will make themselves known when the time is right.”

Then the men stood and walked to the door that led into the house. The press conference was over.