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Authors: Daniele Mastrogiacomo

Days of Fear

BOOK: Days of Fear
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Europa Editions 214
West 19th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10011
[email protected]
www.europaeditions.com
Copyright © 2009 by Edizioni E/O
First publication 2010 by Europa Editions
Translation by Michael Reynolds
Original Title:
I giorni della paura
Translation copyright © 2009 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Design by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
Cover photograph © Robert Patrick/Corbis Sygma
ISBN 978-1-60945-966-6 (US)
ISBN 978-1-60945-964-2 (World)

Daniele Mastrogiacomo

DAYS OF FEAR

A Firsthand Account of Captivity
Under the New Taliban

Translated from the Italian
by Michael Reynolds

INTRODUCTION

 

 

 

 

O
ne is inclined to use the word “Conradian” to describe
Days of Fear
. Daniele Mastrogiacomo is a reporter and this is a work of reportage. It is not fiction. Daniele recounts an ordeal that was lived firsthand. When he describes being flogged by the Taliban he makes us feel the lashes on his skin. He makes us feel them on our skin, too, and we know that his pain and humiliation cannot be the fruit of imagination. They are reality, as real as the blood that flows from the decapitated body of Sayed, pushed into the river to disappear, carried away by the current. And equally real, though Daniele is not in a position to describe it for us, is the fate of Ajmal, the young Tajik, Daniele's interpreter and friend. Daniele believed that Ajmal had made it safely back home. Instead, after a staged liberation, he, too, was assassinated. Daniele was in Italy when he learned of Ajmal's death; he was at home, celebrating the end of his terrible adventure which has now become a superb piece of reporting.

The portrait of the Taliban that Daniele painstakingly composes step by step, day by day, observing them during their insane dashes over the Afghan desert, or during anguishing hours spent in makeshift prisons with his feet and hands bound, has an extremely rare authenticity, one that is not often achieved by journalists, whose profession frequently turns them into voyeurs, removed from events and from their subjects. Daniele's portrait of the Taliban is one that only a prisoner can make, a hostage, a victim, someone who is prey to all the fears that a brush with death of this kind provokes, but who never loses his reporter's gaze. The sinister simplicity of the young Taliban soldiers, suspended between mysticism and cruelty, smiling yet ruthless, like fanatical clerics from some medieval morality tale, is described with a directness that needs no special effects to rivet the reader's attention.

Daniele's account smacks of Conrad because the deaths of Sayed and Ajmal are always looming in the background. Daniele is not Marlow. Daniele is Lord Jim himself. A Lord Jim who speaks to his listeners directly, without intermediaries, modestly allowing the sense of guilt he feels for the deaths of his two companions to seep into his story. Like Lord Jim, Daniele cannot be accused of anything. It was not he who abandoned to their fate his interpreter and driver, collaborators for whom war correspondents have always been honor-bound to take responsibility. There was nothing Daniele could have done for them.

Yet between the lines of his story emerges the moral wound that he still carries and which this book does not in any way attempt to erase. I recall what Conrad wrote in 1917 about his Lord Jim: he was “one of us.”

 

Bernardo Valli, veteran foreign affairs correspondent for Italy's leading daily newspaper,
La Repubblica

June 2009

  

 

 

 

 

 

They affectionately call me the Resurrected One. But it is thanks rather to a series of fortuitous and random circumstances, and to the actions of several men and women that I made it back home alive.

They deserve special thanks and it is to them I dedicate this book.

 

Luisella Longo Orihuela

Ezio Mauro

Elisabetta Belloni

Massimo D'Alema

Romano Prodi

Gino Strada

Rahmatullah Hanefi

 

And the ninety thousand people all over the world who signed the appeal for my and Ajmal's release.

TWO YEARS EARLIER

 

 

 

 

A
gha Srawiz has no time to make bread today. His young assistants are gathered around a gaping mouth of fire opened in the dirt floor. He sends them home and closes the bakery. It's Wednesday, June 1, 2005. He leaves his shop and walks, his eyes focused on a fixed spot in front of him. When he reaches the great mosque in the center of Kandahar, an Afghan city lying eighty kilometers from the border with Pakistan, it is 9:30 in the morning. Inside the mosque, they are commemorating the death of Mullah Abdul Fayez, former head of the regional Islamic council.

Fayaz had raised his voice in his final sermons. He had roared his disapproval of the Taliban, who were becoming increasingly active in the city, and had thrown his weight against Mullah Mohammed Omar, born and raised in this part of the country, supreme spiritual guide and uncontested leader of the Qur'anic student movement. Three days after what would turn out to be his final speech, Fayaz was killed. A car bomb. Now, they have hastened here to remember him. The upper echelons of the national police are at the ceremony, as is the chief of the Kabul police, Akram Khakrizwal. He has received death threats of late but he's tough as nails and has become hardened to them. Khakrizwal's presence is crucial: the government institutions that emerged out of Afghanistan's first democratic elections must show people that they are here, that they exist. And so he has come. He is in front of his mat, in the first row, praying.

The baker stands in a corner, lost in the crowd of brethren who have not been able to find a spot inside. He waits for the service to end. Chiefs, division heads, and ordinary police officers begin to flood out of the mosque. The man walks over to a disorderly pile of shoes on a mat at the entrance. An accomplice points out the chief of police's black moccasins. The man picks them up and elbows his way through the crowd until he reaches the chief of police. He kneels, kisses the man's hand as a sign of respect and reverence, slips the shoes onto his feet, and pulls a metal ring that triggers a detonator. The belt of TNT he is wearing under his coat explodes. The attack wreaks havoc on the official entourage. The body of the chief of police is pulverized. It is a dramatic act, a bona fide provocation. The entire country is rocked, but shock waves are felt most keenly in the government of Hamid Karzai, the nation's first democratically elected president, which finds itself in an increasingly weak and difficult position.

The following days pass to the rhythm of attacks, dozens of them, in cities all over the country's southern provinces. After four days a group of Taliban claims responsibility for bringing down an American fighter jet in Khost Province—also in the south but on the other side of the country. A DVD with footage of a land-to-air missile striking a military jet bearing the insignia of the US Air Force is sent to an Afghan news agency.

The episode is kept under wraps but colleagues in Kabul call to give me the news. They also send me the short video, which I immediately have analyzed by an expert. He tells me that the footage is real: it hasn't been retouched. My first thought is of Ajmal Naqshbandi, my friend and interpreter. I haven't seen him for a year. I get occasional emails in which he talks about his life and his work. He's a freelance journalist—not an easy thing to be in a country like Afghanistan, where there's plenty of news, but it always seems the same and doesn't interest the foreign press too much.

I decide to call him. This series of attacks is an important sign. Until recently, the Taliban were considered all but vanished, defeated; now they seem to be back. Ambushes, firefights, car bombs—this is how they announce their return. I need confirmation. I want to know if these are symptoms of some type of change, to understand if it is the old mullahs routed out during the international coalition's invasion of Afghanistan who are behind the incidents, or whether new blood is running through the Taliban's veins. Very few people are talking, even fewer are able to gather reliable information. The Qur'anic students live in the shadows, shrouded in mystery. But if I want to continue reporting on Afghanistan I must try to discover how strong they are, how much territory they have under their control, how much influence they wield in southern Afghanistan. Who is paying them, who is training them, who is supporting them? I want to know them better. My profession demands it. My position obligates me to tell the story of this war that the world feels is far away, to measure reality against what passes for reality in the official bulletins from the central command of ISAF, the international coalition under NATO leadership. According to these reports, the resis­tance posed by the Taliban is weak, almost inevitable, predictable; it is no cause for concern.

The suicide bomber-baker demonstrates that the reality in Afghanistan is different from what the Karzai administration, for reasons of political opportunism, does its utmost to portray. Something big is happening in the country that I first got to know five years back. There is a new and important element: for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, suicide bombers have appeared on the scene. An alien body in the culture of a people made up of fighters who have never submitted to a foreign army in centuries and centuries of bellicose history. I think of the return of the Arab-Afghans, legendary figures grown somewhat pale, held at a distance, viewed suspiciously by the local mujahedeen. They flocked here to join the international jihad brigades during the Taliban offensive towards the end of 1994, at the culmination of the civil war between Ahmed Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hematyar, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the three great leaders of Afghan fighters. Perhaps they're back. My interpreter can help me understand.

 

I met Ajmal Naqshbandi in November 2001. A Tajik from a middle-class family, he was twenty-three years old and had ties to the Northern Alliance, led by Massoud, the “Lion of Panshir,” betrayed and murdered on the eve of the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. Ajmal had experienced the cruelty of the Shariah firsthand—he'd been found more than once in the wrong place at the wrong time with his beard too short and his hair too long, and had gotten himself arrested. He laughed these episodes off.

And Ajmal laughs now when I ask him if he still sports a goatee and hint at my plans to meet the Qur'anic students. He is overjoyed. In his soft voice, he politely asks me the ritual questions about my life, family, and health, and then says he can't wait to see me. “I wait for you. Like always,” he replies when I mention my return to Kabul. “I have many more contacts now,” he hastily adds, almost as if he wants to help me to make up my mind. “The others have their merits, but these days I am the only one in all of Afghanistan who can obtain something big with the Taliban. They call me often on the telephone; I have been to places where no one has ever been.”

 

I haven't been to Afghanistan since 2005. I've always had mixed feelings about that country. It fascinates me with its majestic mountain ranges covered in snow almost year-round, its long bumpy roads, its immense valleys, and its mountain peaks that seem to touch the sky. But Afghanistan also inspires unease, almost fear, certainly dread. It is an open-air prison where an estimated ten million landmines scattered throughout thirty-four provinces make free movement impossible, and it oppresses for this reason. An entire country punctuated by death.

Many have helped sow these lethal seeds: mujahedeen, criminals, warlords, Red Army soviets, and western military forces. Over the years, whoever has tried to clean up that hail of explosives has worked with an overwhelming sense of resignation. More than one bomb-disposal expert has told me that there are no up-to-date maps of the antipersonnel mines, and that even many of the outdated ones have now been lost.

I haven't seen Kabul since the kidnapping of Clementina Cantoni, a young Italian volunteer worker with Care International. People who have been there for work tell me that the situation has changed since May 2005. “In many ways,” they tell me, “Afghanistan is more dangerous than Iraq.”

 

It's January 2007. I call Ajmal again. I tell him I can't leave for Afghanistan right now, but that the trip has only been postponed. That country is part of me by now; I have many contacts, I've read dozens of books—old publications found at used bookstalls. I tell my Tajik interpreter to move ahead with our project: he must arrange a telephone interview with a Taliban military commander.

“They'll be interested,” I explain. “Few people are willing to risk publishing the ideas of the Qur'anic students. But we need to get them on tape in order to understand who they are, how numerous they are, what their plans are. I can imagine their position, they're light years away from the way we see things. But in order to really understand, we need them. And I, we, you, yourself, Ajmal . . . We all need to understand.”

My journalist friend wastes no time. A week later he sends me an interview via email with Doctor Ibrahim Hanifi, once tied to Abdul Hai Mutmahin, Information and Culture minister during the reign of the mullahs, the Taliban's spokesman, universally recognized as re­sponsible for the movement's relations with the media. Hanifi is currently serving time after having been arrested in Pakistan on January 17, 2007, and a Taliban death sentence hangs over his head. Among the crimes of which he is accused by the Movement's leaders is his concession of an earlier interview with
La Repubblica
in which he gave a detailed description of the Taliban military structure and the new strategies they are developing. I remember nothing about him or his rather shocking revelations.

The newspaper publishes this second interview, too, and when I talk to Ajmal on the phone he is ecstatic. He says it sent shock waves through the Taliban movement and that he has benefited from its publication. They've contacted him several times; they seek him out, they use him as a conduit with the outside world. They now consider him a trusted contact and he has access to precious sources. He uses this position during the detention of Gabriele Torsello, the freelance photographer captured by a group of criminals on the road between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, in southwest Afghanistan.

I don't follow the Torsello story. Without an entry visa, I am forced to stay in Rome and then the newspaper sends me to Somalia, where the Islamic Courts Union has been routed by the Ethiopian army, intervening in support of the transitional federal government. Ajmal is a little disappointed. He needed the work my visit would have guaranteed him. He calls every so often to give me news of Torsello's kidnapping, confirming that it is the work of local bandits, and that there is nothing political to it. The Taliban themselves, slighted by an action that gets so much attention and was carried out in a territory that they consider theirs, offer to collaborate in the liberation of the Italian photojournalist.

Ajmal is sure that he can satisfy my request be­cause he has already tested the waters. As it turns out, a week before we are captured by the Taliban, Ajmal will travel to the same area with a colleague from the English-language branch of al-Jazeera. And with another reporter from a private television network in London, Channel Four, he will contact Mullah Dadullah, emerging leader of the military wing of the Taliban, one of the ten members of the Supreme Shura, the executive political branch of the movement led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. He and the English reporter conduct an interview that makes a lot of noise. Ajmal returns to Helmand Province with a French colleague, and, yet again, with three Afghan journalists. He considers himself an expert on the Taliban. But it is with the foreign correspondent from Channel Four that he gets his biggest scoop. “There are three thousand suicide bombers ready to blow themselves up here in Afghanistan,” announces Dadullah, a commander who is known to be as rebellious to­wards the leadership of the Qur'anic student movement as he is ruthless with his victims. Concerning the legend that has been circulating throughout Afghanistan for years, Dadullah reveals the following: “Bin Laden is alive. We don't see him, but we are in contact with him. He is ready to act; he is studying a new strategy with us. He follows our developments and advises us.”

 

The international press, including
La Repubblica
, picks up the story the following day. I write a brief piece for the foreign news section. The Taliban will talk to me often about this interview during our days of captivity: they considered it the only interview, among the countless others given but never aired or published, that faithfully reflected the ideas of the military commander of Helmand Province.

BOOK: Days of Fear
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