January issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Journalists rarely look back. They are always charging ahead, in search of the next story. Newsline, though, asked four of the country’s finest journalists to pause for a moment and recall their best stories. These journalists, from both the print and electronic media, reveal how they got the stories, what hardships they faced and what impact the stories had.



Click on a journalist’s name to read their story:

Zahid Hussain on sneaking into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban in 2001

Saima Mohsin on the plight of war-ravaged IDPs from Swat

Rahimullah Yusufzai on his famous three-hour interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998

Mariana Baabar on Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi leading forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh

Zahid Hussain

“I sneaked inside the Afghan border as part of a humanitarian organisation, disguised as a doctor. The embattled Taliban regime had banned foreign journalists and even the slightest suspicion could have landed me in serious trouble.”

Zahid-Hussain2Reporting is never easy in any conflict zone, but it was much harder in the extremely complex situation that prevailed in South Asia. I have travelled extensively throughout the region, including Afghanistan, to report on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime. I witnessed the last days of the tyrannical, fundamentalist Islamic regime pitted against the world’s most powerful military.

On November 8, 2001, just four weeks into the US-led coalition forces’ air strikes in Afghanistan, I sneaked inside the Afghan border as part of a humanitarian organisation, disguised as a doctor. The embattled Taliban regime had banned foreign journalists and even the slightest suspicion could have landed me in serious trouble. The risk was huge, but so was the scoop. I remember receiving frantic calls on my way to the Torkham border, from The Times’ London  deputy editor Ben Preston and foreign editor Bronwen Maddox, who were worried about my safety. Though not fully convinced by my decision, they nevertheless assured me of complete support.

The day-long stay in the war zone was, indeed, the most dangerous venture of my entire journalistic career. The trip was also the most revealing. I witnessed thousands of Pakistanis, pouring into the southeastern city of Jalalabad in response to the Taliban’s call to arms. The youngest and the most fervent had already been dispatched to the front. The older men, who had lived in Pakistan’s lawless Frontier, waited for their marching orders. The Taliban were routed a week later, but the war on terror was far from over.

Being one of the few reporters present at the time was a great honour and my story made the front page of The Times.

One year later, I met Taliban fighters on Pakistan’s northwestern borders waiting for the call from their leaders to join the resistance against the occupation troops.

After 9/11, I closely followed the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leaders and travelled many times to Pakistan’s lawless Waziristan tribal region to report on the military operation against the militants. One of the world’s most difficult terrains, Waziristan has become the new base for international terrorism and a possible lair for bin Laden and Zawahiri. Thousands of Pakistani troops have been locked in an impossible war in this high, mountainous region against the fiercely independent tribesmen refusing to hand over their foreign guests. I have written extensively on Islamic militancy, the Pakistani military and Pakistani politics while covering the region for the international media for more than 20 years. My particular focus has been the Pakistani militant groups involved in what they perceive as the “holy war” in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts of the world.

Direct interaction with the jihadi groups has provided me with a unique insight into their operations and their links with the Pakistani military. I came across hundreds of Islamic fighters, many of them in their teens, eager to achieve martyrdom. I met the radical Islamic leaders, who believed that jihad was the only way to end the oppression of Muslims across the world and establish the dominance of Islam. They were the product of Islamic madrassas as well as secular educational institutions.

As luck would have it, on several occasions I happened to be at the right place at the right time, which gave me a rare insight into some of the most important events. I was present at Kandahar Airport on December 31, 2000, when Masood Azhar, one of Pakistan’s most feared militant leaders and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born militant, were exchanged to secure the release of passengers of an Indian Airlines plane hijacked by Kashmiri militants. A week later, I saw Azhar resurfacing in Karachi and delivering a vitriolic speech from the pulpit of a mosque.



Click on a journalist’s name to read their story:

Saima Mohsin on the plight of war-ravaged IDPs from Swat

Rahimullah Yusufzai on his famous three-hour interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998

Mariana Baabar on Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi leading forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh

Saima Mohsin

“I left the camp feeling hurt and frustrated. I couldn’t believe people had to go through this kind of suffering with minimal support from the local government, international community and other Pakistani citizens.”

DAWN-SHOOT-EZU-004Asking someone like me to pick just one thing is a question I’ve never been able to answer. Just one? I do everything in threes. So whenNewsline asked me to pick the best story of my career, I found myself in a tailspin. I’ve been torn on what to share because, being a journalist, every story you cover is one you want to share with the world.

The rise in militancy is a story that has permeated every single bulletin, every single day and casts a shadow over Pakistan. But it’s not one of the countless bombings or attacks I’ve covered I’d like to share; but the fallout and consequences of this battle that has impacted the lives of millions of innocent people that live in the NWFP and FATA. It may not be the best story of my career, but it is certainly the most important. Above all, it’s the one story that has impacted me the most.

In July this year, I travelled to Jalozai, home to the largest IDP camp in Pakistan — more than 100,000 people. Here I met people who had literally run for their lives — unwittingly caught in the crossfire between Taliban militants and the Pakistani military in the biggest and most successful operation against the Taliban. I talked to women, grandmothers, husbands and sons who had fled the fighting with no time to gather their belongings, lock up their homes or take their only form of wealth: the animals they kept. But bricks and mortar were of little consideration for some. One woman I met had lost her son, another couple their young daughter, as they made their journey out of the place they called home, which had turned into a living hell.

The journey to Jalozai was made by helicopter. I’m afraid of flying so you can only imagine what I went through to get there, much to the amusement of my outdoor producer, cameraman and the pilot. I was lucky enough to be flown across a host of camps in the region by the head of the army’ special IDP support group, General Nadeem. It was the bird’s-eye view of the camps that shocked me. Hundreds, no thousands, of tents; each housing dozens of people in hot, sticky conditions, children playing in the fields, out of school, out of the comfort of their homes.

A year before this trip, I had filmed a NewsEye special at a camp in Nowshera and heard similar stories of loss and trauma. But something had changed this time. There was a sense of hope and collective responsibility. People understood they had made this move and sacrificed their livelihoods to rid their neighbourhoods of militancy. They had humble and simple lives to begin with, but had been forced to live in the most basic of conditions — conditions that none of us reading this would ever want to endure. But they were willing to go through this for a better future.

In my previous trips to camps, we discovered there was little food and water available, up to three families crammed into one tent and nowhere to wash off the dirt and dust. Here’s where something else had changed. This time round, the organisation at the camps and distribution of aid was impressive and encouraging. In Swabi, I saw queues stretching as far as hundreds of metres. Queuing is something we Pakistanis are not very good at. But this was a well-organised operation. People were registering themselves for aid and those without ID cards had the opportunity to finally get one and become recognised citizens of Pakistan.

In fact, along with all the hurt and anger, I saw plenty of hope and opportunity. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund had set up a vocational training centre at Jalozai. Men were being taught masonry, carpentry and plumbing, skills many of them told me they’d never considered learning before. One man said he’d now be able to go back and rebuild his home. In fact they were all planning to help each other rebuild their homes and businesses.

Women, some of whom had never left their town or village in the Malakand division, were being taught sewing and embroidery (a Swati specialty) so they could make their own clothes or even earn some money by working from home when they got back to Swat.

But the most poignant of encounters that day was the time I spent speaking to the children, young girls and boys who had witnessed scenes most of us could not bear to watch on our TV screens. They had been in the midst of fear and terror. These traumatised young minds had been slowly coaxed out of their shells. Teachers used painting and poetry as a way to help them deal with what they had been through. We filmed a girl reading out her poem — asking who is to blame and saying this isn’t my fault, this isn’t your fault, so let’s work together to make things better.

The day was long and exhausting and as we drove back to Islamabad to play out our recorded interviews forNewsEye that night, our driver took a wrong turning and we almost missed the 9 p.m. deadline. The team in our Islamabad bureau was fantastic at rushing around to load tapes, edit pictures and get scripts in. That’s the buzz of live news. Every day brings with it a fresh and new perspective. But, as I said, this is a story that has stayed with me long after we came off air.

I left the camp feeling hurt and frustrated. I couldn’t believe people had to go through this kind of suffering with minimal support from the local government, international community and other Pakistani citizens. These people had not been shown the same level of compassion or support the earthquake victims had. Yet they, too, were victims of a force beyond their control.

The work being done at the camps must continue in homes and towns across the NWFP and FATA. Rehabilitation and vocational training are as essential as the battle being fought around us. Without it we’ll be creating yet another generation of Pakistanis who have been left behind and forgotten by the rest of us.



Click on a journalist’s name to read their story:

Zahid Hussain on sneaking into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban in 2001

Rahimullah Yusufzai on his famous three-hour interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998

Mariana Baabar on Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi leading forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh

Rahimullah Yusufzai

“He was tall and lean, his beard slightly greying and his head covered by a turban. He was soft-spoken but his voice would rise whenever provoked or wanting to emphasise a point, more so while criticising the US.”

Journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai (right) sitting with Osama bin Laden in 1998.

Journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai (right) sitting with Osama bin Laden in 1998.

On a chilly Kandahar night in southwestern Afghanistan on December 23, 1998, I was asked to accompany a group of Arabs who had come to fetch me after a six-hour wait. I hadn’t slept the previous night, having travelled from Peshawar to Islamabad by road and then taken a long UN flight to Kandahar with stopovers in Jalalabad and Herat. Arriving in the afternoon and fasting as it was Ramazan, I wished the interview with Osama bin Laden was delayed till the next morning so that I could get some sleep.

This was the reason I was in Kandahar, the birthplace and spiritual capital of the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who controlled access to the Al-Qaeda head, had given approval for my interview with bin Laden.

Among the group of Arabs I accompanied on the journey to meet bin Laden was Sheikh Taseer Abdullah, a well-built Egyptian police officer who was later killed in the US bombing in Afghanistan in 2001, and Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, also from Egypt and leader of the Islamic Jihad organisation. At bin Laden’s press conference, which I had attended at the Al Badr camp in Zhawar, in Afghanistan’s southern Khost province on May 26, 1998, he had introduced Abdullah, also known as Mohammad Atef, and Abu Hafs as his right-hand men. It was after his death that Zawahiri became a deputy to bin Laden and is now considered as Al-Qaeda’s ideologue. As he spoke good English, he was also going to be my translator during the interview with bin Laden.

Incidently, it was at the news conference in Khost that bin Laden announced the launch of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders and blamed the US and Israel for the sufferings of Muslims all over the world.

After a two-hour drive on the Kandahar-Herat road in a sturdy Land Cruiser driven by Abdullah, we took a detour onto a dirt track in the desert that appeared to be somewhere in the Helmand province. On the way, both Abdullah and Zawahiri had declared that they were neither afraid of death nor America. They argued that the US would not face opposition from the Muslims if it stopped Israel’s occupation of Palestine and did not allow it to interfere in the affairs of Islamic countries.

The sight of some lights at a distance was a welcome relief and it turned out to be our destination. Three big tents pitched in the desert, glowing firewood on which food was being prepared for Sehri meals and a generator producing electricity announced bin Laden’s makeshift camp.

The larger tent where bin Laden received me provided relief from the biting winter cold. There was some commotion when bin Laden entered the tent and everybody stood up as a mark of respect. He walked with the help of a stick, reviving memories of our last meeting in Khost in May. At the time, his companions had explained that he was suffering from a backache and needed the cane to keep his balance.

He was tall and lean, his beard slightly greying and his head covered by a turban. Everybody was dressed in shalwar kameez. Bin Laden and his aides spoke some words of Pashto and Persian; however, he preferred to answer questions in Arabic. He was soft-spoken, but his voice would rise whenever provoked or wanting to emphasise a point, more so while criticising the US. Two Taliban foreign ministry officials who had accompanied us from Kandahar, and a dozen bin Laden men, including his teenaged son Mohammad, listened in rapt attention as he spoke.

Bin Laden, sitting cross-legged on one of the warm mattresses in the big tent, was pleased to meet me again and was happy that his interview would be carried by Time magazine, ABC News, BBC and The News International. He obviously wanted a wider audience and that was a major reason why I was chosen to interview him.

Over the next three hours, bin Laden sipped green tea from a kettle that was regularly being refilled, praised Allah and His Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) before starting a sentence and calmly answered every question. Just before dawn, I embarked on the return journey to Kandahar.

Zawahiri explained that they had insisted on doing the interview at night to enable bin Laden to drink water and take tea as he couldn’t do so while fasting during the day. I wished it was done in daylight to get good pictures of bin Laden. My problem was solved by bin Laden’s own technicians, who assisted me with the video camera and put on the headlights of two pick-up vans to provide light for filming.

From his appearance — shy and mild-mannered, with delicate hands — one could never imagine this was a man accused of sponsoring acts of terrorism.

In that interview, bin Laden, for the first time, came close to indirectly accepting responsibility for the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam. He said his International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders had issued a fatwa calling on the Muslim ummah to carry out jihad to liberate occupied Islamic countries, including the holy sites in Palestine. He claimed that Muslims the world over had responded to his Front’s decree. “If the instigation for jihad against the Jews and the Americans in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy Ka’aba is considered a crime, let history be a witness that I am a criminal!” he declared.



Click on a journalist’s name to read their story:

Zahid Hussain on sneaking into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban in 2001

Saima Mohsin on the plight of war-ravaged IDPs from Swat

Mariana Baabar on Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi leading forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh

Mariana Baabar

“I set out to meet Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi, whose name surfaced repeatedly in all the conversion stories. ‘Recently, three Hindu girls were brought to me. I named them Benazir, Sanam and Nusrat,’ he revealed, with the righteous air of someone who had bestowed a favour.”

Mariana Babar's cover story on forced conversions for Outlook.

Mariana Babar’s cover story on forced conversions for Outlook.

The frequency of such incidents was alarming enough forOutlook to request me to do an in-depth report from Sindh, where 95% of Pakistani Hindus lived.

An excerpt from the article:

Soon, a frisson of excitement sweeps through the throng, as a police van drives through the gate. Inside it is Mariam. She’s 13 years old — and married! Mariam was Mashu, and Hindu, till the night of December 22, 2005. I pick my way through the jostling crowd. Mariam is in a red burqa, her gold nose ring sparkles. She tells me, “I’m happy. I don’t want to return to my parents or brother.” What’s the fuss about, I wonder. It’s quite another story under the pipal tree of the court compound. Huddled under it are the villagers of Jhaluree, 20 km from Mirpurkhas. Among them is Mashu’s father, Malo Sanafravo.

He says that at 11 p.m. on December 22 four armed men barged into their room. One of them was Malo’s neighbour, Akbar. They picked up Mashu and bundled her into the waiting car. She was taken to Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi’s village in Somarho tehsil. “There Mashu became Mariam and was married to Akbar.”

The story would never have come together without the help of BBC’s Ali Abbas whose contact was passed on to me by Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad. It was Ali who introduced me to a representative from the HRCP who had been following these cases all along and so access was easy.

As I spoke to the Hindu community, they questioned these conversions and asked that if these were indeed voluntary, how come Hindu boys rarely ever converted to Islam?

Interestingly, I saw that there was freedom to worship. There are 10 temples in Mirpurkhas which bustle with devotees through the day; yet Hindu girls here are kidnapped and converted — and the community humiliated.

I set out to meet Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi, whose name surfaced repeatedly in all the conversion stories. The drive from Mirpur Khas to Sarhandi village, Somarho tehsil, was through a picturesque landscape. Peacocks danced in the field and gypsies pitched their tents for the night. Even the Pir appeared tranquil, his white flowing beard and winsome disposition camouflaging his mission.

mariana-babar-2

Mariana Baabar

Forced or economically enticed, the Hindu converts in no way symbolise Islam’s appeal. Rather, they represent the state’s failure to provide succour to the poor and protect their religious rights. Perhaps it’s also symptomatic of the sickness afflicting the Pakistani state. As they say, the condition of the minorities is an indicator of a nation’s health.

The story, since it was also posted online, led to several comments on people’s blogs, most of which were unbelievably critical. As if coming down with a severe bout of malaria after my trip to Mirpurkhas was not enough, now there were threats being hurled at me. Well-wishers warned me to “be careful.”

Familiar warnings those — I’ve heard them many times before in my 30-year-stint in journalism.



Click on a journalist’s name to read their story:

Zahid Hussain on sneaking into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban in 2001

Saima Mohsin on the plight of war-ravaged IDPs from Swat

Rahimullah Yusufzai on his famous three-hour interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998

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