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Moderated by David Broder
November 13, 2002
William D. "Bro" Adams:
My job is a very simple one this evening, which is to introduce and then to move along the conversation among three very distinguished people. I will introduce them a little bit more fully as each of them takes a turn in introducing for eight or 10 minutes each their thoughts about the challenges that journalism faces at this point. But just in case anyone in the room is in any doubt, on my immediate left is Ann Cooper, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Next to her is the distinguished columnist, reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner from The New York Times Anthony Lewis. And at our end is a young woman that I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time this evening, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah.
Noreen has a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She worked on a daily suburban paper in Chicago and then joined the Chicago Tribune in 1999. Her beat, she tells me, was covering education in the Chicago suburbs, but after September 11th she stepped up and decided that she was going to help the paper cover the backlash against Chicago area Muslims. She volunteered, more than once she tells me, to cover the war and headed overseas on the day that the U.S. began air strikes in Afghanistan. For nearly three months, then, she covered the war from Pakistan and was one of the first reporters to enter Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban. She returned to the region for six weeks this spring covering the former king Zaher Shah's return to Kabul and at that time she also wrote about covert U.S. operations in Pakistan and other developments in the region. Noreen.
Obviously there are practical hazards that come with the job and I made my share of crazy mistakes. For example, I pushed a scared driver to drive through the night into Pakistan's wild countryside where bandits and highway robbers lurk, because I wanted my story. I drove through the pass from Jalalabad to Kabul in a mad dash journey to the Pakistani border. This was the same road where journalists were killed months before and everyone else was avoiding because there was no army here, no security. I drove deep into towns deep in the Afghan mountains simply because I would hear a tip that the residents of this town were harboring al Qaeda. And, of course, I went only with my driver and my guide. After we first entered Kandahar I walked through the remains of Mullah Omar's home, going through his cabinets, desk drawers, bedroom dressers, walking into rubble of bombed out remains. There could have easily been undetonated devices there. These were places that could have been easily booby-trapped for stupid journalists like me. I did other things, like trust people who I perhaps shouldn't have trusted so easily, like going into places that I perhaps shouldn't have gone. But now in retrospect I'm six months older and perhaps I would have done things differently.
For all these hazards there are equal pitfalls in searching out the truth and ferreting out the truth. People talk of the fog of war and boy, in this war the fog was really heavy. We were covering a war in southern Afghanistan, a war in which we were not even in the country--we were covering it from across the border in another country. We would interview people that would come across the border--refugees, victims from hospitals, victims of air strikes in Afghanistan who had made their way to the hospitals in Pakistan--and they would describe how their town was not harboring al Qaeda. Their town was not hiding Taliban officials. Yet, they were attacked. Yet, they lost loved ones. And they would give specific details.
For example, in this one scenario there was a young boy whose uncle told me about how this one town on the outskirts of Kandahar was attacked at 11 at night. He gave me the name of the town. He gave me the location of the town, the time that this happened. He described how these helicopter gunships came into the area. They flew into the area. This one family hovered in their bedrooms and then the strikes began and somehow, when the gunships went overhead and they began striking various targets, the owner of this one home, the taillights of his car went on. And so he figured, the taillights are on. I'm going to be an easy target. He ran outside to turn the taillights off. As he ran outside he was gunned down. His eldest son saw his father being killed and ran out after him. He was gunned down. The mother saw both her husband and her eldest son being killed. So, she ran out and she was gunned down and she was carrying a small child. When she fell she fell on top of him and he was the sole survivor of this family.
Now there are many stories like this, but what do you do with a story like this? Who do you confirm the story with? You're ferreting out the truth. Whose truth is it? In this scenario there was nobody in Pakistan, no U.S. military who we could confirm this with. The people in northern Afghanistan wouldn¹t talk because everything was coming out of the Pentagon. When we had our Pentagon reporter bring up the scenario again he gave details‹time, location, etc. What we got was a very generic answer. What we got was, "Yes, we are carrying out air campaigns in Afghanistan and we're hitting targets where we believe the Taliban or al Qaeda are hiding out," but nothing specific about this one location or why they were attacked. And so when you talk about ferreting out the truth, who do you believe? This was one of the main problems that we had in Afghanistan. We could report things out till their end. We could tell the story and in the end we would have to let the readers decide what was the truth because we could not determine it for ourselves. We were not there in Afghanistan. We did not know what town was being hit, what town was being targeted and whether or not they were secreting Taliban or al Qaeda.
In this war we had to have an inordinate amount of trust in people. We had to trust the Pentagon for telling us the whole truth, supposedly. We had to trust guides and drivers, virtual strangers, to protect us in areas we were unfamiliar with. We had to trust our translators for translating properly. Many times we would get to the border--this was our main area of trying to figure out what was going on in southern Afghanistan‹we would drive two and a half hours every day to the border area and we would talk to stragglers coming in across the border carrying in their belongings. We would ask them, "Why are you leaving? What happened? Which town were you in?" These local people would talk in Pashtun very vigorously, very passionately. They were pointing to their kids and they were pointing to their belongings. They were moving their fists up and down. And when it came time for the translator to translate he would just turn around and he would simply say, "bombardment."
You wouldn't think that being a woman was a peril, but it was, in this part of the world. In the early days when we were in Pakistan trying to get into Afghanistan, the only way to get in was by organized convoys, convoys that were organized by the Taliban. Would you believe it, but there was never a woman that ever made it onto that convoy. Surprise, surprise. In news conferences in Islamabad at the Afghan embassy, female reporters would wave their hands vigorously trying to get a question answered and would be ignored. Eventually many of us would have to turn to our male reporters, our male counterparts, and have them ask the question for us. Once we entered Afghanistan things were worse. The Taliban had left but we were in the heart of Pashtun territory. Many reporters, including me, refused to wear the burka, so what this meant was every time we walked out into the main square in the main city we would have a crowd that would form around us.
There was this one incident in which we were in the main market square in Kandahar. There was a religious holiday that was going on and there were circles that had formed. It looked like there was either cockfighting or card games or fortune telling--something was going on in the middle of these circles‹and I wanted to find out what was going on. So, against the better judgment of my guide I got out of the van. I started walking toward these circles. Sure enough, within a couple seconds the crowd had formed around me. I was in the center of the circle. Not only that, but the crowd started pushing and shoving me and my translator. Then they started picking up rocks and throwing them at us. We ran back into our van and they tried to turn the van over, but we got away.
But while you think that being a woman was a peril and it was a detriment in some situations, it was also my trump card, especially in Pakistan. There¹s a lot that you can do by acting naive and young. You can get away with a lot and tears help. You can get a permit. You can get a visa. You can get somewhere you're not supposed to be getting. It all works. Inside Afghanistan, being a woman got you into places where I think many male reporters could not go into--people's homes, into the women's residential quarters, talking to the women. When we were out on the streets sometimes we would just be parked somewhere and would have the van door open and little kids would come up. They would just want to touch my face or touch my hand. And it was because they had never seen a woman's face before, except for their mother or their sister. Thank you.
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