British reporter ‘disappears’ behind burqa to cover war

“I was told if I put a on burqa, I would become invisible,” a British journalist, who was captured by the Taliban regime, told an audience of about 250 people at USF on Tuesday night.

In 2001, after the United States started its campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Yvonne Ridley made her way to the soon-to-be war-stricken nation to report for The Sunday Express, a British newspaper.

Ridley said she wanted to go to Afghanistan to find the “real stories from the real people.” So after all western media outlets were banned from the country, Ridley was told by two local guides in the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that in order for her to get into the country unnoticed, she would have to wear a burqa, a female-Muslim dress.

At first, Ridley joked with the audience about the fact that she was delighted to see men in Afghanistan go grocery shopping but said it was because women were not allowed, under Taliban rule, to go anywhere without a close male relative.

Later, she said she found the Afghan people’s hospitality to be overwhelming.

“Once they realized I wasn’t there to harm them, they opened up to me,” Ridley said.

She shared stories about various Afghan women, young and old, who had different perspectives on what kind of effects the war on their country would bring upon their communities.

“Before this whole conflict started, I was going to become a doctor,” a young Afghan woman told Ridley. Another older woman, a mother of 16 children, told Ridley about her wishes to defend her country herself with her own “pots and pans.”

At that moment, Ridley said she realized that the Afghan people she had met had no knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks ever taking place because, under Taliban rule, people were not allowed to watch television either.

After traveling on foot for a few days along the border of the country, one of the guides Ridley had hired advised her to ride a donkey to finish the trip due to the sore and bruised condition of her feet. She took his suggestion and proceeded to mount the donkey while wearing a full dress burqa, which, according to Ridley, spooked the animal. The “beast” as Ridley called it, started running desperately while she was trying to calm the animal down. In the process, her camera had fallen out of her pocket and by the feet of a Taliban officer.

Although Ridley said she doesn’t quite recall how she came off the donkey, she does remember raising her head to see the same Taliban officer staring right at her while he stood inches away.

“I remember thinking ‘the game is up,'” Ridley said.

The two guides, along with Ridley, were thrown in a vehicle while, she said, she had no idea where these Taliban officers were taking her. The vehicle later stopped in the “middle of nowhere” as Ridley was taken out and placed in what appeared to be a dirt circle surrounded by rocks. Ridley said she thought she was going to be stoned to death by the Taliban officers who had apprehended her. While standing in the circle, many men approached and stared at Ridley, who at that point had taken off her burqa.

“I really thought I was living the last seconds of my life as I was standing there,” Ridley said.

After that she was taken to the Taliban intelligence headquarters where she was held for 10 days.

Ridley said the officers who in charge offered her food, which she declined to take because they failed to provide a phone with which to call home.

They washed her hands every day and insisted she had to eat something in order to survive, she said.

The whole time she was held, Ridley said, she had bought into the “Bush-Blair propaganda” of the Taliban being the most evil, brutal regime in the world until she was released.

After 10 days under Taliban forces, she was released to Pakistan officers on humanitarian grounds. Shortly after arriving in Pakistan, she was received by many members of the international press, who according to Ridley, asked her about the treatment she experienced while in the Taliban’s custody.

“They treated me with dignity and respect,” Ridley said she told reporters. She said they were enraged because the press wanted some kind of negative spin to what she had experienced.

“They wanted a victim. They wanted bruises. And they didn’t get (that) with me.”

Returning to England became a mission for Ridley who said she studied the Quran and subsequently became a Muslim.

The event, which was sponsored by the USF Muslim Student Association and the Council on American Islamic Relations, took place in the Communication and Information Sciences Building in Room 1048.