On Sunday morning they said they wouldn't give women visas. On Sunday afternoon said they would give women visas but we would have to leave at night. On Monday they said we could stay at night but we would have to sleep separately from the men. Then the Taliban gave up completely.
So there I was, Tuesday night, sleeping under the starry desert sky of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, in a huge canvas tent with New York Times reporter Nori Onishi (a man), magazine writer Peter Maass (a man) , our fixer/translator, Dusty (an Afghani man) and our driver, Safir (a Pakistani man).
And that was Camp Taliban--an abandoned UNHCR compound nearly the size of a football field with a small building of about four rooms in one corner, a smelly latrine with five toilets and sinks in another corner, occasional running water, an unfinished brick building full of used clothes, lots of dirt, a few cats and now with about 100 foreign journalists uncertain as to what they would be able to see or do.
First things first....find a good spot to pitch a tent. Send your fixer into the bazaar (we weren't allowed out) for things like food, generators, information, etc. And then try to ignore the leering, staring, gawkers‹the hundreds of Afghans who perched atop the compound's mud brick walls, approximately seven feet high, to observe us--the hottest show in town.
Some of them were mere children. Kids who have been born in this country and aren't old enough to remember life before the Taliban. That means they may have never seen television, never heard music, never seen women except their mothers or aunts or sisters without burqas. Suddenly, they climb a wall and peer into another universe. Satellite dishes, computers, sat phones, men in western clothes and WOMEN. Women with their heads covered (due to respect for our hosts, and fear of offending them), but with their faces revealed. Women talking to men. Women carrying cameras. Women writing in notepads. And, during the month of Ramadan, foreigners eating in the daylight hours while Muslims were fasting. Children weren't the only ones observing the spectacle--everything took place under the watchful eyes of armed Taliban guards.
The spectators couldn't be kept off the walls. They would climb up and perch side by side --eyes round as saucers, giggling like schoolgirls. Occassionally, a soldier would climb the wall and hit them with sticks or throw rocks to keep them off, but as soon as the Talibs turned their backs, our audience would pop up again. They'd climb the surrounding trees for a good vantage point when there wasn't room left on the walls. They climbed on top of trucks that were parked on the other side of the wall. In the morning, coming out of our tents into the cold air, rubbing the sleep from our eyes, there they would be: wrapped in wool blankets to ward off the chill, but staring, staring, staring.
You'd think after a day the novelty would wear off but not for these entertainment-starved folks. We carried on, using our four wheel drive landcruiser as an office. I'd sit in the open back at night, using a case of mineral water for a desk, editing my photos, transmitting them via satellite phone. I'd sense something behind me in the darkness and, sure enough, curious Talibs would be peering at my images. They would laugh and smile and nod. Many would ask for their pictures to be taken, like the children on the wall who would make a "chsk, chsk, chsk" noise, imitating the noise of the camera shutter as I worked.
One of the inquisitive Talibs, whose name was Sharafat, wanted to meet each and every one of us, asking 'What is your name?" Ruth is one that they have trouble pronouncing. It comes out 'Roosh' when they can say it at all.
On Tuesday they took us to a nearby refugee camp that housed tens of thousands of people in the worst of straits. They had no money to leave the country or flee the bombing. Elderly people, sick people, women with filthy, barefoot, children, sitting only on a blanket in the sand with their few possessions around them. Not even a tent over their heads. A desperate situation as little foreign aid is reaching them. I saw an NGO from Saudi Arabia giving out some tents but it looked like they wouldn't even come close to filling the need. Later I went to sleep, grubby; the water had run out.
On Wednesday we waited most of the day for a press conference by Tayyeb Agha, the spokesman for Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader. He didn't surprise us--the Taliban, Agha said, would not give up, and they would take us to Kandahar to prove it.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, they kicked us out. Seems they were divided amongst themselves as to what to do with us and couldn't guarantee our safety in Kandahar, or as it turned out, in Spin Boldak. Darn--they had just filled up the water tank again.
They gave us an hour and a half to pack up and get out. Easy for us...we had all our stuff in the Landcruiser anyway and donated our tent to the refugees. CNN and BBC had it harder with all the satellite equipment they had to dismantle. In a convoy, we drove back through the bazaar to the passport office to pick up our confiscated passports, and then onward to the border. Three hours later, we arrived back in the comparative luxury of the Serena Hotel in Quetta, Pakistan and I dove into a hot, hot bath.
I wonder what our audience of hundreds is watching now.
- Ruth Fremson