December 1, 2001 - Andover Bulletin Online: Morocco RPCV Sarah Chayes spends A Night in the Taliban Kitchen

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 12 December 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: December 1, 2001 - Andover Bulletin Online: Morocco RPCV Sarah Chayes spends A Night in the Taliban Kitchen

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, October 14, 2002 - 7:24 pm: Edit Post

Morocco RPCV Sarah Chayes spends A Night in the Taliban Kitchen

Caption: Sarah Chayes of NPR and Adam Brooks of the BBC, after the fall of Kabul, but before the Taliban fell, in a town just inside Afghanistan called Spin Boldak. People on the walls stare at the journalists while they apply sunscreen to their faces.

Read and comment on this story from the Andover Bulletin by Morocco RPCV Sarah Chayes on her trip to Afghanistan as a journalist after 911 at:

A Night in the Taliban Kitchen*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

A Night in the Taliban Kitchen

It didn’t take much pondering to realize a piece called “My Night in the Taliban Kitchen” wouldn’t go over so great with my National Public Radio audience back home, but that was the site of an amazing and surreal experience.

It started with a mad rush of journalists at the Afghan consulate in Quetta, Pakistan, after rumors they were issuing visas. No one knew for how long or to go where.

Of course everyone dreamed of going to Kandahar, but I predicted, skeptically and correctly, that we’d go to the border town of Spin Boldak for a press conference spinning the Taliban line.

At first we were told no women would be allowed, but the saintly perseverence of the Los Angeles Times’ Alissa Rubin paid off, and soon I was handing in my passport and forking over $30. But not without some foreboding.

“If I were Al Qaeda,” I kept telling colleagues, “I would mass some artillery on that road and take out 100 foreign journalists.”

Inayatullah, my bear-like, protective, street-smart, funny driver, said he wasn’t going: He has a family. But he quietly started letting his beard grow as prelude to the trip.

After another flurry of confusion the next day at the Pakistani Home Secretary’s office and a third in the exit stamp office on the border, we got under way in a big convoy. Crossing into Afghanistan, we ran a gauntlet of yelling, kicking, stone-throwing people. Our back window was shattered, and I felt bad for Inayatullah, who, of course, had come.

Finally the convoy turned in at a compound where the BBC, CNN and some others had already staked out ground ... tents pitched, satellite dishes lined up parallel and pointing south. There were flies buzzing everywhere, no electricity, not really any water and no suitable place to sleep. Crowds of locals had jumped up on the compound walls and squatted there staring and mocking us as Taliban tried to protect us by chasing them off with sticks or ropes. It was a sign, Inayatullah said, of slipping control: In the past, people would have been too scared to defy the Talibs.

What is crucial to understand is that this place had been utter mayhem in the time between the Soviet withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban. There were 30 check points between Kandahar and the border, manned by robber barons. Bus passengers were shaken down, truck drivers had to pay exorbitant tolls, people were hauled off and murdered or raped. At least part of the Taliban’s rise had to do with imposing some law and order in the name of the only ethics going around here: Islam. Unfortunately, most say, over time the Taliban turned, getting increasingly repressive, arrogant and grasping.

The Taliban press conference, which took place on the second day, was interesting, even if much of what was said was disingenuous (“Forget about Sept. 11; that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”) I was impressed by the Taliban spokesman, a poised 25-year-old who answered even provocative questions in measured tones. At one point, an official admonished me that two questions was enough. However, when I saw the guys getting five and six, I waded back in, to looks of frank, but smiling, astonishment from the Talibs, who I am sure had never seen a woman participate in a public event before.

But the stunner was this: When word got out I was fasting for Ramadan, our Taliban hosts positively fell in love with me. Najibullah, the security chief, invited me to break fast with him. A scraggly-beard young Talib in his group gave me his fountain pen. Another solemnly brought me an apple during the night as I sat under the one electric light writing my story, which I filed by the light of a kerosene lamp, huddled shivering between two tents of snoring colleagues.

The best were the two Tajik cooks who adopted me, made me sit in their warm kitchen, gave me their bed and served me endless cups of hot green tea all through the night as I worked. I snuck them apricots for the 5 a.m. meal as everyone filed in to take dishes of rice in a din of clanking pots and clattering plates. How incredibly surreal—an American (Jewish!) female the pampered pet of the Taliban during the death throes of their regime.

The final day was a textbook study in what’s wrong with journalists. There had been some notion the Taliban might take us to Kandahar. But by the next day, it was clear they wanted us to leave the country.
“Expelled!” said some TV folks, furious that they wouldn’t get a shot at the only story in town. And they proceeded to put the screws in the Taliban, demanding they take us to Kandahar, or at least let us stay in Spin Boldak for a couple of days. Meanwhile, I started packing.

It seemed to me pretty clear, after four journalists had been taken out and shot on the Jalalabad road, that if your hosts—who have every reason to feel hostile toward you—ask you to leave for security reasons, then you do so. Knowing how dicey the situation was, I thought it would be insane to contemplate doing anything other than going back to Quetta. But I heard journalists offering to pay drivers anything to go to Kandahar: $1,000, $5,000, it didn’t matter. Meanwhile, the crowd on the walls was getting hungrier-looking, and we heard rumors they had been encouraged to come and loot.

Then a tall black man—Nubian-looking, from Sudan or East Africa—appeared. The Talibs crowded around him, and a few minutes later came the order that everyone was going back to Quetta. A well connected local staff member working for the L.A. Times told me, “Don’t look at the Al Qaeda guy.” (“Where is he?! Where?”). Meanwhile, my driver, Inayatullah, learned the man had talked to Mullah Omar on the satellite phone, and that’s where the order for us to leave came from. Hearing this, a BBC correspondent said, “Well that’s that, then,” and wisely set to breaking down camp.
But CNN went ballistic, actually calling Quetta to talk to Pakistani Taliban and religious figures there, trying to exert influence. At one point an Italian journalist came barreling out of a building, fighting with one of the Talibs. Apparently the reporter had been trying to interview unauthorized people, which was expressly forbidden, and the tough crowd that had come in with the Nubian man was laying down the law. I threw myself at the Italian, shouting, “Are you out of your mind? These people are our hosts. You do what they say, especially with the situation as tense as it is.”

He said the guy wasn’t a Talib, “just some driver” who was arrogantly breaking up a friendly conversation. Yeah, driver. The driver of the spokesman of Mullah Omar.

When we finally set off, after two trucks of stick-wielding Talibs cleared the way, Inayatullah gently took a disk bearing a traveller’s prayer he has hanging from his rear-view mirror between thumb and first finger.

“It’s like you people cross yourself,” explained my interpreter. I didn’t need it spelled out. And we roared out of the gate, in a cacaphony of beeping horns.

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