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Sunday, September 30, 2001

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Bereft of hope


DEMONISING the Taliban for the consumption of the West is easy. They give you enough cause. Particularly difficult to stomach was the picture of them that emerged from the Channel Four film, "Beneath the Veil" which CNN aired last weekend. Saira Shah, daughter of an Afghan father and English mother, shot it with a hidden camera, and with help within the country from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Her occasional piece-to-cameras, shot by her crew, revealed in the background the bombed-out landscape of a country where there is nothing left to be deprived of except life. She describes Kabul as a city without buildings or joy. It is an understatement.

Shah makes her point pithily when she says, "They are trying to make women redundant." Indeed they are. If you teach female children to read or write, you are breaking the law. If women work, they are breaking the law. Never mind if there are 40,000 widows created by years of fighting, whose children will starve if their mothers do not work. The camera catches a woman buying scraps of bread with mould on them. They are meant for animals, but she scrapes off the mould, pounds the bread into powder and gives it to her seven children to eat. Tenacity makes the women here fight back in their own way. They have created an underground in which girls are taught to read and write and women run beauty parlours so that under their veils women can keep their spirits up.

The camera catches what looks like bunches of black ribbon fluttering from posts along the streets of Kabul. These are ribbons of tapes from cassettes. The Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue sets VCRs and TV sets ablaze, punishes people for cutting off their hair and beards, and closes down the shops of those who miss congregational prayers. Both this film and RAWA's website (www.rawa.org) are ways of telling the outside world why people inside Afghanistan are at the end of their tether.

There is much that is horrific in "Beneath the Veil". Glimpses of the victims of mass murder, some skinned after being killed, the look in the eyes of three young sisters into whose house men from the Taliban moved in after killing their mother, glimpses of executions including those of women. What you take away from it is an image of the Taliban's Foreign Minister replying with macabre humour when he is asked why a stadium constructed for people to play football is being used for executions. "Help us to build a place to conduct executions," he says, "and we will not use the stadium."

The film's tone is one of urgency bordering on hysteria. There could have been a lot more context but perhaps that would have deprived it of the effect it is intended to create. CNN, however, was at pains to point out that it was made well before the World Trade Centre attack, and even scheduled for telecast before the attack.

A discriminating television viewer looking for a clear-eyed retelling of recent history will turn not to CNN but to the BBC or the Discovery Channel. Over the last fortnight, the Discovery Channel mounted a two-hour special on terrorism which was made in collaboration with the BBC. The first hour did not disappoint. The rise of the Taliban and the concomitant nurturing of the bin Laden brand of terrorism was traced unsentimentally and meticulously from its inception in Afghanistan. It was followed through with links in the story from Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Somalia. How did American strategists decide they would get into the act in Afghanistan? The number one enemy then was the Soviet Union and in the memorable words of the then United States' President's national security adviser, he saw the opportunity to help make Afghanistan the Soviet Union's Vietnam.

Americans supplied stinger bombs to attack Soviet helicopters. The CIA trained bin Laden and others. It was a gambit that succeeded beyond the wildest American dreams and, in the not-so- long term, it also helped to bring down the Soviet Union. It succeeded, but it took 11 years and ruined Afghanistan. When the Russians left, the U.S. did not stay to rebuild the country they had used and left the warriors they had created to their own devices. And that was a fatal mistake.

Having created a Vietnam that bred a Taliban, the U.S. now returns to further ravage Afghanistan with the media gearing up for action. Writes a freelance journalist from Pakistan on e-mail to a mailing list of fellow journalists about the media circus building up in her country, "The performers are not just the usual suspects: CNN, BBC, CBS, Fox, Star, Sky etc., but representatives from all the major European, Japanese and Arab channels. They tell me this is the biggest story since World War II - and unfortunately, the focus is on Pakistan and the Taliban. The media, smelling blood, is hyping itself up for the strikes - sadly, no one is asking the most crucial question: WHY? What evidence is there to prove that Osama bin Laden is responsible for the WTC bombing? And why should the people of Afghanistan have to suffer for an act they did not even commit?"

Suffer again, she might have added. They have already suffered because America found them useful. Twenty-five years ago, before the Soviet invasion, I travelled through Afghanistan. One saw the gracious neighbourhoods of Kabul, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the town of Mazar-e-Sharif and the grave of Babur, near Kabul. The people were simple, open, and good-hearted. Sitting in a bus, when we joked and laughed among ourselves, peasants with picturesque faces would laugh along with us, though they understood not a word of what we were saying. Bread was plentiful and cheap, so even the poorest looked well-fed and had clothes to wear in the bitter cold. Near the Kabul river were shops laden with fruit, and restaurants selling kababs. Vegetable sellers sold brinjals and tomatoes in carts, much as our subziwalas do in the cities.

I do not know if TV networks have footage of the old Kabul and the old Afghanistan. To see it and then see Saira Shah's incredible shots of a totally building-less Kabul would show the world that a country can be destroyed by super powers, as brutally as the towers of the World Trade Centre were destroyed by terrorists.

Seinfeld: Some 10 years after this show became a rage in the U.S., Zee English has brought it here. From Mondays to Fridays at 10 p.m. you can watch this wacky, very Jewish American, stand up comedian-turned sitcom character do his own thing. "Seinfeld" has been described as a show about nothing. It is funny, and is a lot like "Friends", spinning engaging situations out of well, nothing. Jerry Seinfeld is the creator and writer of the show as well as its star. Worth catching.

SEVANTI NINAN

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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