Interview With Yvonne Ridley
- In the Hands of the Taliban: An interview with Yvonne Ridley
Monday, July 03, 2006
YVONNE Ridley made headlines when, following the September 11th
attacks, she was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While investigating for a story, the British freelance journalist had
wandered into the hands of, what much of the world called the most
brutal regime on earth. Freed after ten days of captivity, she
returned home a public figure.
Almost two years after that, the multiple award-winning journalist and
author again made news. On June 30, 2003, Yvonne accepted the faith of
her captors -- she became a Muslim.
In the following interview, she speaks of her experiences and her
thoughts on the state of Western journalism.
Tazin Abdullah (TA): What took you to Afghanistan after September 11th?
Yvonne Ridley (YR): I was working as the chief reporter for the Sunday
Express newspaper published in London. I was writing a humanitarian
report about the hopes and fears of the Afghan people. I had been in
Afghanistan for two days when I was captured by the Taliban and held
because I had entered the country illegally and without a visa.
TA: What happened afterwards?
YR: At first they thought I was a spy and interrogated me for six days
before moving me to a prison in Kabul. Mullah Omar, the spiritual
leader of the Taliban, released me on humanitarian grounds on October
The release came as a huge shock to the West as the US and Britain had
launched the war on Afghanistan the day before. When the bombs began
dropping in Kabul, no one thought they would see me alive again!
TA: You have repeatedly emphasised that the Taliban, the "most brutal
regime on earth", treated you with "courtesy and respect". Tell me
about your captors.
YR: I expected to be executed and each day I thought was going to be
my last. It was a terrifying ordeal. Yet, throughout my captivity, the
Taliban treated me with courtesy and respect.
I went on hunger strike for the full 10 days. Apart from this action
being the only type of control I could enforce, I told the Taliban I
would not eat until they gave me a telephone to call home. This action
caused my captors great distress and over the first few days they
tried several different inducements to encourage me to eat including
the offer of wine with my food.
Despite this I maintained my hunger strike and in spite of my best
efforts, they laid a cloth on the floor morning, noon and night
offering freshly cooked food. Each mealtime, they made a point of
washing my hands and telling me I was their sister and their guest.
Never once did they threaten me physically. In spite of this, I
resolved to be a difficult captive and acted in a very aggressive,
TA: Upon your return, what was the general reaction?
YR: Headline writers across the Western world, anticipating what I was
going to say, had words like 'torture', 'abuse' and 'rape' prepared.
Journalists and politicians were shocked by my remarks. Everyone
wanted a victim. They wanted to hear tales of torture, beatings and
brutality. After all, you can't drop bombs on nice people and Bush and
Blair had done quite a job demonising the Taliban beyond recognition.
I have to say at this point, I could not endorse what the Taliban
stood for, nor could I sanitise their movement, but I have to speak
the truth about their treatment of me.
TA: Did your experiences with the Taliban lead you to question your
own perceptions on the Taliban themselves and by extension, Islam?
YR: I certainly began to examine the demonisation of the Taliban.
I had given an undertaking to a Taliban cleric that if they released
me I would read the
Qur'an and study Islam. At that point, I would have said anything to
get out of jail! But once I was released, against all odds, I decided
to keep my word.
I was engaged covering events in the Middle East so it was only
natural that I should read up on Islam.
TA: What attracted you to the faith?
YR: I found the words of the Qur'an breathtaking and as relevant today
as they were the day they were written. Furthermore, the word has not
changed at all. I learnt that the Qur'an makes it clear that woman are
equal in spirituality, worth and education.
TA: Turning now to Western media and particularly its coverage of the
Muslim world -- do you see a general bias against Islam?
YR: There is a Western media bias against Islam but much of it stems
from lack of knowledge and general ignorance towards Islam by Western
TA: Is it a deliberate attempt by reporters to write/broadcast stories
that toe the official line or the gullibility of some reporters? Or is
it simply reporters acting out on culturally inherited
values/perceptions and seeing what they want to see rather than what
YR: Some journalists are gutless, lily-livered, spineless individuals
who prefer to be spoon-fed by the governments who like a tame news
source. Some journalists are gullible and some are simply ignorant of
the power of the propaganda they are asked to repeat. I wouldn't
single out the embedded journalists most were making the best of the
situation in which they were placed.
In the US after 9/11, anyone who dared question the Bush
administration was called unpatriotic. There are some good journalists
around and, after a recent trip to America, it appears the American
media is now waking up to its duties.
TA: From your experiences in Afghanistan, can you give us examples of
reports from Afghanistan that painted a picture of the situation
contrary to what was really happening?
YR: The so-called liberation of Kabul revealed a shocking aspect of
media lies and manipulation giving a false
image to the West.
Women were pictured burning their burqas while men shaved their beards
what the cameras failed to show were the offers of money given to
these people by the dollar rich western media which wanted to give
'happy' pictures to the people back home.
Enterprising Afghanis were not slow on the uptake and lots of false
documents began emerging outlining Al-Qaida's nuclear secrets. One
foolish journalist parted with 500 dollars for Osama bin Laden's
nuclear plans ... they turned out to be the contents of a physics
student's text book!
TA: In the current occupation of Iraq, do you see most of the media
still toeing the official line?
YR: The media is slowly beginning to break ranks and report on the
Vietnam-style quagmire that has emerged in Iraq. For example, the
dangerous talk of a civil war.
Where has this come from? Paul Bremer, of course. It is in US
interests to promote this but the reality is there has never been a
civil war in Iraq no conflict of Shi'a against Sunni. Yet the media
are falling into the trap of picking up the American whispers and are
printing reports using the explosive phrase 'civil war'. If they don't
stop it could became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Journalism is a powerful tool and can be a weapon of mass deception in
the wrong hands. This has not been lost on various leaders including
Saddam Hussein and George W Bush, who both were determined to win the
battle over the war of words. In many ways, it is as important as the
Yvonne Ridley lives in Central London and is the author of two books
"In the Hands Of the Taliban" (Robson Books), a factual account of her
experiences and "Ticket To Paradise", a fictional thriller with the
real backdrop of 9/11 (Dandelion Books).
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