‘Why are you still alive?’

Five years later people no longer stop me in the street and ask: ‘What happened? Did the Taliban kidnap you? Why are you still alive?’ During two strange and chaotic days in June 2004, I was on the front page of Melbourne’s Age, and the second news item on Channel Nine, sandwiched between the war on Iraq and David Hicks. Even CNN mentioned me by name, in a story asking whether the Taliban were following the lead of the insurgents in Iraq and taking Western hostages.

In the beginning, the plan was simple: I would embed with the US military. I had an official letter from SBS’ Dateline current affairs program requesting military accreditation, which stressed my previous work in difficult and challenging conflict zones. As a freelance journalist and filmmaker, I could hardly make many promises to my employer, and so my proposal had been deliberately vague and low-key: I would live with a US military Provincial Reconstruction Team; I would be in a remote part of Afghanistan; I would be away for two months. I had never been to Afghanistan and I had absolutely no idea where I would end up. SBS knew I could come back with nothing but that was a risk they were prepared to take.

As I was negotiating with SBS, arranging visas and dying my hair from blonde to black, I came across a very small news item on the internet. The US marines were slowly sailing across the Pacific and deploying to Afghanistan, though the article didn’t explain what they were doing travelling to a landlocked country by ship. I quickly pulled up a file of images: marines planting a US flag at Iwo Jima, Michael Herr’s description of Khe Sanh in Dispatches, the barking drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the Battle of Fallujah.

Life is rarely like a film script but I knew enough, as a documentary filmmaker, to find an ‘embed’ with the marines extremely attractive. When one is filming, one needs to have material to film. The marines were the first to fight. They usually lived in the worst conditions, ate bad food and achieved more with less money. They were aggressive. They did things. In both a profound and a banal sense, they were photogenic.

In Melbourne, I’d been pessimistic. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq was dominating headlines, and any hope of getting up close and personal with any US unit, let alone the marines, felt a distant possibility. But within one week of arriving in Afghanistan, it was the marines who – incredibly – approached me at the Kandahar Air Force Base.

Why? I was alone: my own producer, cameraman and reporter, all rolled into one. I was also Australian; my country was an important ally in the ‘war on terror’. The marines had trained with Australia’s Special Forces, they told me proudly. They and I quickly agreed that Afghanistan, often referred to in the media as ‘the other war’, did not receive enough coverage.

I had only two hours to decide if I wanted to travel with them, one of the marines said. They were leaving for their Forward Operating Base or FOB. Was I good to go?

The marines’ ideology in Afghanistan was straightforward and uncomplicated. They were the good guys and they wanted me to film them capturing the bad guys. It sounded like a cheesy cop show – but after a few days on the base I was desperate for any opportunity to get out of Kandahar.

At the FOB, the C130 transport plane, nicknamed ‘The Bird’, landed in complete darkness. We were in one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of south-central Afghanistan, in what the marines called ‘Taliban country’. There was no landing strip, only desert. Not even the US air force flew there, a fact the marines wore like a badge of pride. A battalion commander told me a story that made me wonder if the marines hated the air force even more than the Taliban. In Iraq, an air force soldier was asked what he wanted. ‘Cappuccino machines and television sets,’ he replied. When asked the same question, a marine answered, ‘Food and ammunition!’

The next morning I woke up at 4.30 am. Eight-hundred one-man tents surrounded me. Nobody had slept much, for the military transport planes kept us all awake.

I spent the next three weeks living in a city of dirt and sleeping on rocks. Before the marines arrived, a couple of months earlier, there had just been empty desert. The land belonged to Governor Jan Mohammad. In the distance we could see green and the fringes of the main town, Tarin Kowt, the capital of Oruzgan province.

For a month, the marines had been travelling to nearby villages, hunting for Taliban and al-Qaeda. They were working closely with the Afghan militia under the command of Jan Mohammad, whom the Americans paid ‘to be our friend’, according to a conversation I overheard between two marines. Lieutenant Colonel Khan, a Pakistani-American and one of the few Muslim commanders in the US military, led the operations. Khan was upbeat. He spoke of encouraging a ‘celebration of civilisations’. Major Kenneth F McKenzie, who headed the Marine Expeditionary Unit, talked about how the marines were making it safe for NGOs to operate in the area. These were both wildly optimistic and downright unrealistic assessments.

I filmed the marines and their army counterparts dispensing medicine and talking about the upcoming elections but I also observed how cartoon-like their ‘cordon and search’ operations really were. They were a bunch of bumbling eighteen-year-old kids from the midwest who would bang down doors to seize a lone weapon. I followed one marine into a darkly lit traditional Pashtun house. ‘There was a little girl in there,’ the marine said. ‘It scared the crap out of me.’

But the real goon was the governor, Jan Mohammad. He was the local warlord, police force and judiciary. Even in that tightly controlled world, stories started filtering through that Mohammad’s militia were beating up local villagers for no reason whatsoever. On one operation, I witnessed a young man detained and then arrested for little more than having an unlicensed firearm and an album of photos showing young men wearing traditional Pashtun clothing. He was accused of being ‘low-level Taliban’ by Lieutenant Colonel Khan and arrested by the governor. What was his story?

The marines told me that they had killed eighty Taliban in recent operations. As the only independent journalist in south-central Afghanistan, I asked to go and verify their claims independently. The Public Information Office told me there were no more seats on trucks or helicopters. It was only when I directly asked a captain in the landing team for transport and he readily agreed that I realised the marines were denying access to censor me, rather than for reasons of space.

For going outside the marines’ rigid chain of command, I was banished to a hot tent for nine hours and then thrown off the FOB and choppered back to Kandahar. My embed was over.

Back in the capital, Kabul, there was a construction frenzy under way and, of course, commentators wrote that the economy was booming. But that was only a small chapter in a much bigger story. Large swathes of the city had buildings still ruined by the mujaheddin fighting of the early 1990s. Most of the other journalists were happy enough attending the daily press briefings at army HQ and enjoying the comforts of a capital city, however dusty and destroyed. I couldn’t find anybody who was travelling outside Kabul.

I ended up interviewing Major Mansanger, the official US military spokesperson. He gave official numbers, the type of reassuring statistics that his superiors back at Centcom could understand easily. Journalists who had never been outside Kabul could then translate his figures into feel-good stories. In Oruzgan province, Mansanger said, a medical team of marine and army personnel had seen 700 patients; there had been more than a hundred mini-civil-affairs projects carried out.

I told Mansanger that I was sceptical eighty Taliban had been killed when this number could not be independently verified. ‘We don’t like to get into the specific numbers of enemy killed,’ he told me, rather surprisingly. ‘But we can say that, when we put out a number – like I’ve said, in excess of eighty – that means we have confirmed that that many people, many of the enemy, have been killed, through our direct observation of what’s going on.’

His answer hardly reassured me. I pressed him on whether he had figures on civilians who had been killed and his answer was Orwellian: ‘To be honest with you, I think I would be aware if we had any appreciable non-combative casualties during this operation and I am aware of none.’

While I had still been at the FOB jet fighters had flown overhead. ‘They’re off to bomb the terrorists in Daychopan,’ a sergeant told me one night. But unless the raid had been a spectacular and well-documented failure, leading to the deaths of a large number of civilians, the deaths of a couple of ‘non-combative casualties’ here and there would never make headlines.

There seemed an inherent contradiction in what the military said. On the one hand, the US military was conducting firefights in extremely remote areas of south-central Afghanistan; on the other, they claimed that they were then passing through adjoining areas and distributing medicines and radios. It reminded me of two photos side by side in Philip Jones Griffiths’ classic book Vietnam Inc: in one, the military hands out candy to Vietnamese children; in the next, they teach them to brush their teeth.

Mansanger also had a standard response when I questioned him about Jan Mohammad and his militia, who had allegedly beaten up local villagers. What was the governor’s connection with the marines? According to Mansanger, it was more of a ‘cooperative’ relationship. ‘We have heard reports of the same things,’ he added. ‘If you’ve got questions on that, you really should talk to their local leaders.’

I didn’t think Mansanger really expected me to go back to Oruzgan and track down the governor. But that was the whole point. The military’s strategy enforced censorship through fear. If they said it was too dangerous to travel into ‘Taliban country’, most journalists would rely on their official pronouncements.

And yet I wanted to find out more. I was on contract with SBS but I knew I could not telephone them and tell them I planned to return to Tarin Kowt. The military closely monitored every phone call in and out of Afghanistan. I could hardly return to Sydney, have a confidential chat with SBS and then go back to the frontline. I worked for an impecunious public broadcaster, after all. Nor could I send an Afghan to film on my behalf. That would be foolish, gutless and irresponsible. Such footage would be difficult to verify and would be dismissed as partisan or amateur. Of course, many times I’d seen unacknowledged footage filmed by proxy but voiced by a journalist back at the TV station – but in those cases it was always the journalist who gained the kudos and won the awards.

The six-hour journey from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt was long and nerve-racking. I travelled in an ordinary car with a driver, translator and two plain-clothed Afghan policemen hired for protection. They were absolutely terrified there would be a shoot-out with the Taliban. About midway we passed a jutting rock formation where the previous year a Swiss Red Cross worker had been pulled from his marked car and executed.

Tarin Kowt looked very different from behind a blue burqa. When we arrived, we asked directions to where the young man who had been arrested by Jan Mohammad lived.

His name was Jannan and he was extremely surprised to see me. Lieutenant Colonel Khan had called him ‘low-level Taliban’ but Jannan told me that the Taliban had actually destroyed his music tapes.

‘The Taliban come two or three days before the Americans,’ he said, ‘then the Americans just arrest you and me and hassle us … normal people going about their business.’

Instead of cultivating Jannan, the marines had alienated him. The reason his village had been targeted by the militia was because they belonged to a different tribe. ‘Their tribe, in their areas,’ Jannan said, ‘have never been searched.’

On the second day, we decided to leave our two policemen at the militia checkpoint. The less protection we had, the more secure we felt. In the valley we heard rumours of another man who had been beaten – this time by the marines. One week earlier, they had conducted a major operation in the village of Passau, about an hour’s drive from Tarin Kowt. The marines used a sledgehammer to break down the gates and axes to smash through the windows. Thirty-five men were arrested and flown by helicopter to the FOB.

‘They made us sit in the sun from 7 am until noon. Some of us were fainting from the heat but we had to sit there till they finished searching,’ one of the arrested men said. The marines taunted the villagers, repeating the words, ‘Cuba. Guantanamo. Cuba. Guantanamo.’

‘This is based on tribal issues,’ the village elder said, ‘but it’s as if we’re harbouring al-Qaeda.’

At the FOB, the marines processed and tagged the thirty-five villagers. Wali Mohammad spent three nights in detention. ‘They fingered us, beat us and humiliated us,’ he said.

‘I was imprisoned too,’ said Noor Mohammad Lala, his father. He spent three nights in detention. ‘No Muslim should suffer that,’ he said. ‘They tied my hands and then they put me in a container. They removed my clothes. I pleaded through an interpreter that it was against Islam. “Don’t make me stand here, naked.” But they said no. I said “For the sake of Allah and the Koran, don’t do this.” They said, “You can’t get away”. They took my clothes, I couldn’t do anything. I was told to look up and put my hands on the container. I couldn’t see behind me, but someone was fingering me. Some of them were pulling my testicles.’

The village leader said they’d received a report that accused them of providing food and shelter to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. ‘What we went through was a breach of Islamic tradition,’ he said. ‘We are all dead, we have no more honour. We’d prefer death to this humiliation.’

It was ironic: the marines were not capturing Taliban but creating opportunities for their reproduction. If the villagers already believed themselves dead, it was far easier psychologically for them to become suicide bombers.

While I was quietly and calmly travelling around the Afghan countryside, a report emerged on the wire service that a Western woman wearing a blue burqa was seen being led from a car in nearby Helmand province. The source: Afghan intelligence.

I was quickly reported missing and presumed abducted by the Taliban. The Australian and international media went into overdrive. There was a flurry of phone calls. The US military rang the Taliban, who helpfully told them I had not been kidnapped.

When I realised what was happening, I contacted my employer and my family, and I spoke to the UN in Kandahar. After I had completed as many interviews in the villages as I could manage, the UN advised me to head back to the office of Global Risk Strategies (GRS) in Tarin Kowt.

The UN and the US military called GRS an ‘NGO’. But their definition of an ‘NGO’ was one that I had never come across in over a decade working in conflict zones. GRS’s real brief was to provide protection for the UN and it worked closely with the military. It was a shadowy organisation, both an employment agency for retired soldiers and a repackaged mercenary force for the ‘war on terror’.

GRS was hunkered down in the main street of Tarin Kowt. The two European ex-soldiers laughed when I walked into their office, wearing my Afghan garb: a peasant dress I had picked up in the local market, with small shiny mirrors and appliquéd flowers. It was the type of clothing that the dropouts had brought back with them from the hippy trail in the 1970s – a perfect disguise once the BBC Pashtun radio service had started referring to the female journalist wearing the blue burqa.

The men told me that, when I was reported missing, they not only knew that I was in the area but they also knew that I was safe and well. They drove me back to the marines’ FOB. That night, a Hercules was found to despatch me back to Kandahar Air Force Base. I wasn’t surprised to discover I was the only passenger.

We were driven to the one guesthouse in Kandahar that the UN thought safe. Everybody in town knew that all the Westerners slept there. I felt extremely exposed.

When we arrived at the dimly lit guesthouse, a man calling himself Ted offered me a beer. He kept offering the translator alcohol too until I reminded him that Muslims don’t drink. ‘Ted’ was drunk. ‘I know everything about you,’ he said, spacing his words carefully. I wondered what there was to know. Ted told me he had been reading about my life on the internet: that was the extent of his research.

‘The Australian government paid Global Risk Strategies to find you,’ he said, conspiratorially. I pressed him for more information but he declined. How much had the Australian government paid? How much was I worth? I reminded ‘Ted’ that his colleagues in Tarin Kowt had known I was completely safe. But they hadn’t wanted the facts to get in the way of a good story or a hefty pay cheque.

When I eventually arrived back in Sydney, the executives at SBS News and Current Affairs did not allow me into the station. I had to meet with them in a nearby coffee shop. The head of the unit flew down to meet me again in Melbourne to make sure ‘we were all singing from the same song sheet’. It was made abundantly clear to me that my program would not have any publicity attached to it. I was not ‘allowed’ to talk to other journalists.

Why? Management at News and Current Affairs had been terrified of all the media coverage. Unlike other news organisations at the time, SBS employed no risk consultants. SBS did not send journalists on ‘hostile environments’ courses. The management’s response to the crisis had been haphazard. And they were afraid that they would lose their jobs.

I was extremely tired and very confused. Why all the fuss? I was back, I was alive, and I had broken a good story. But SBS was politically spooked. Management told me that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had received an email from the US military complaining about my behaviour. What exactly did the email say? I never found out. But DFAT, ever the loyal US ally, set to work with bureaucratic precision. I later learned that DFAT was ringing SBS weekly to complain about me, something that only stopped shortly before I won a Walkley.

In 2009, the Australian Defence Force is based in Tarin Kowt and, as John Martinkus wrote in Overland 195, no un-embedded journalist has been outside a two-kilometre radius of the town since I left Oruzgan province in June 2004.

© Carmela Baranowska
Overland 196-spring 2009, pp. 85–90

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Carmela Baranowska

Carmela Baranowska has been working on human rights for nearly twenty years. She has written about, filmed, lived and worked in East Timor, Burma, Afghanistan, West Papua and Indonesia. She is currently researching and writing on the relationship between human rights, conflict and media for her PhD at the University of Melbourne.

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