Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS



Unholy War: A Return to Afghanistan

Aired November 17, 2001 - 20:00   ET



SAIRA SHAH, JOURNALIST (voice-over): We're setting out on a journey deep into Afghanistan, to the heart of a new kind of war. We will travel through some of the world's most hostile terrain to find out what's changed for people since the bombing campaigns begun. For me, there's also a personal quest. Six months ago, I met three young girls. The Taliban shot their mother in front of their eyes. Now, their village is on the front line. I want to find them. I want to know if they're safe.

We come to Peshawar in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, the gateway to Afghanistan. Last time, my journey took me into the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, an area impossible to penetrate now. This time, we're going to try to get into the part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. It's not going to be easy. Since I was here last, the borders have been sealed. We'll need to find somebody to help us get across illegally. That could take days. Just after we arrive, U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan begin.

(on-camera): He said that he was a mujahideen, fighting the Russians for 20 years. So now he's going back to jihad, holy war against the Americans because he says, "Why have they hit our country? " Why have they bombed us?"

(voice-over): In Pakistan, anger explodes on the streets. I was brought up in Britain from an Afghan family, so where does all this leave me? In Pakistan, these demonstrations are scattered and these men are still a minority. But I find their anger terrifying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our holy war will go on until the last day of the world. God is great! God is great! Death to America, death to its friends!


SHAH: We're searching for a way into Afghanistan. The frontier areas, controlled by Pashtun tribesmen. They don't recognize the border. If anyone can get us across, it's them. The Afredi (ph) Clan is into all sorts of cross-border activities.

(on-camera): OK, and what are these?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a -- for self-defense not...

SHAH: This -- it looks like an RPG.


SHAH: OK, grenade.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a rocket that...

SHAH: Repeater rifle.


SHAH: So you guys, you really grow up with guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes; this is our religion. Like when a woman wear the bracelet and necklace, this is sort of harmony for our people.

SHAH: It's a position like women wearing bracelets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they're gold jewelry -- they're sort of jewelry for our people.

SHAH: Yes.



SHAH: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a problem. Look, see, look, see, look, see and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SHAH: Oh yes. So this area really is free of the government?


SHAH: The tribesmen are quite independent of the government here; is that right?


SHAH: Yes. And so, we -- tell us about where we are going. We are going to a weapons reserve. Will you tell us about that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you can buy -- anything, sell any sort of weapon here.

SHAH: Can you buy an antiaircraft weapon?


SHAH: Can you buy a stinger?


SHAH: You can?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But this is not available here because the present crisis, after 11 September.

SHAH: So they -- where are stingers then?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stingers are -- the stingers are sold to -- one with -- be with you in one second.

SHAH: Stinger antiaircraft missiles because he says they will sell to the Afghan mujahideen again.

(voice-over): Since September the 11th, the Taliban have been their best customers.

In the tribal lands, we have made a contact. He says he can help us get across the border into Afghanistan. It will take time to arrange.

As the U.S. bombing intensifies, refugees struggle into Pakistan. If all goes to plan, we'll soon travel the opposite way, into Afghanistan. It took the Zahir (ph) family five days to cross the mountains from Afghanistan and arrive here in Peshawar. Their lives were grim under the Taliban. But when the U.S. bombing of Kabul began, they were in the line of fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Three of our family were killed in the city of Kabul. And now, I told that America's planes would come and bomb people's houses, flatten our homes and kill me and my children. I accepted this hunger and difficulty to save myself and my children's lives. I made myself a refugee from my own soil and came to a foreign land.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We fled from rockets, from fighting. Do you think there is anybody in the world who isn't frightened of fighting? Everybody was crying and screaming and running away. These children were screaming, and were frightened when the planes were coming. When the planes dropped bombs, everyone tries to hide from them or to run away. They grab the Koran and pray to God.

SHAH: This Afghan family feels war will take a much higher toll.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The Talibans are not in the desert. They are not in the mountains. They are among the people. They are in the city under (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of Kabul.

The Americans, say they are only against the Taliban, but they are wrong.

SHAH: At last, our journey to Afghanistan begins. We are heading for opposition-held territory. We hope to sneak across the frontier through the inaccessible terrain of northern Pakistan. (on-camera): It's frightening. There have been lots of anti- western demonstrations in Tetrol (ph), the area we're trying to get to. So the Pakistan will purge and have banned all foreigners from that area. They're afraid for our safety.

What we are going to try and do is dress in local clothes, and sneak through, towards the border. We hope that once we get to the border area, we will be able to use the smuggler's routes to get us inside Afghanistan.

(voice-over): James, the director has to disguise himself as a woman. If we're spotted, we'll be turned back.

I have no idea whether the three young girls I'm looking for are where we left them, in their village on the front line, if they're alive or dead. Reaching them will be an epic journey, hundreds of miles. We'll have to dodge border patrols, travel on foot by night, and cross one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, the Hindu Kush.




SHAH (voice-over): At last, we are on our way to Afghanistan to find the little girls' village. We are about 50 miles from the border. Our guides say it's too risky to travel by daylight.

(on-camera): We are in Tetrol (ph), in northern Pakistan. We're waiting for it to get dark. When it does, we're going to head for the Afghan border. We've heard there are a lot of checkpoints on the way, and so we're going to have to walk around them. But we're hoping we're going to be able to get inside Afghanistan tonight.

(voice-over): If all goes well, we'll enter Afghanistan's opposition-held area, just north of the Taliban frontline. Our guide thinks he sees something. If we're caught, we're in trouble. But it's only people smuggling goats to market. No one on this route is up to any good -- guns, drugs, gems all pass along this way.

We see a Pakistani army patrol. We are worried we might have been spotted, so we abandon our car. Our guides soon lose their way. We waste hours looking for the bridge across the river. It's minus 10 degrees centigrade. There's no other way. We have to wade across. At these temperatures, frostbite sets in quickly. My wet feet are frozen solid.

(on-camera): Eight hours from the border. God knows how we're going to make that.

(voice-over): With the same height as Everest's base camp -- we know that if we see sunrise, we'll survive.

As dawn breaks, we're finally in Afghanistan. The cold and altitude have made even speaking difficult.

(on-camera): The problems with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are is it's very high. We've about 5,000 meters and it's very cold. We've been out all night. Our plans have gone horribly wrong. Our guides missed the bridge. I just can't talk. Our guides missed the bridge over the river, so we ended up having to transport the river. We all got soaking wet. We've been out all night, riding our horses in temperatures of about minus 10 degrees. And now, they're saying police are -- we have keep quiet.

(voice-over): Throughout history, these mountains have been a graveyard of armies. The British, the Greeks, the Soviets all met their match. This is where the west is considering a ground war.

At last, we come across some people, a group of traders. They've crossed the frontline at night, bringing smuggled goods from the area controlled by the Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The Taliban don't allow us to transport these goods. They say we are smugglers. If they catch us, they take our money and goods. Sometimes, they even take our women to the hills and rape them.

The Taliban are afraid of the American missiles. They're fleeing with their families, going back to their own cities. They are about to collapse; even the senior ones have fled.

SHAH: Northern Alliance solders pass on their way to the front.

Well, we've made it into northern Afghanistan. And the one thing the journey has taught me is how difficult this terrain is, not just for us, but for any military personnel. If there are any Special Forces, British or American in Afghanistan at the moment, they must be having a really rough time.

But for us, the fact that we're here means that we can now set off to try and find the three little girls that we met in Mawmaii.




SHAH: The next morning, we reach a road where we can get hold of a vehicle. September the 11th put this remote region in the world's spotlight. In our journey, we want to find out from ordinary people how the west's war is affecting then.

We've been traveling for hours. We are looking for a village. When we find one, we head straight for the teahouse. This is where the men gather to discuss the news of the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I heard on the radio, the Americans have hit Kabul and Kandahar. That's what the radio say. We listen to it every day. SHAH (on-camera): They don't seem to have heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, but they have heard that Osama Bin Laden killed their leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

(voice-over): Today, the big news is that a prisoner has been captured. Northern Alliance soldiers are interrogating him now. He is a Pakistani volunteer. He's been caught fighting alongside the Taliban at a front 50 kilometers away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This war is not only in Afghanistan. Osama has grand long-term plans. We have said many times to America and to the rest of the world that terrorism is not only Afghanistan's foe. It is he enemy of the world.

SHAH: Nobody seems sure what will happen to him. They say he'll probably go to jail.

The allies are pumping weapons into this area. Even as they mourn him, Ahmed Shah Massoud's followers are preparing for a big push on the frontline.

Perhaps the girls have already fled. Years of fighting have forced millions of Afghans to leave their homes. As we get closer to Mawmaii, the little girls' village, we stop at a camp for people displaced by the war, to see if the girls are here. We're engulfed by the human cost of 20 years of conflict; the country destroyed, a people scattered.

If the war ended tomorrow, it would take years to rebuild their lives. Now, the weather is getting colder.

(on-camera): She's pretty sick. They say it's jaundice.

(voice-over): They can't go home. The Taliban have occupied their villages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The Taliban have burned our homes. The whole village was on fire. We took children by the hand and fled. We have no life. We left it behind for the Taliban.

SHAH: The war on terror has disrupted the little help they usually get from aid organizations. It's also raised dangerous expectations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are happy that our area is about to become free. We can't bear this life. It all couldn't bear the things that we fortunate refugees have to bear here. I think it will take us a victory term.

SHAH: In the camp, we come across one man who's trying to help the refugees. John Weaver is an American from North Carolina. He works for Shelter Now International, a U.S. relief organization. He's the only American who stayed on in this area. The local people say that the Taliban have put a price on any U.S. aid worker's head.

(on-camera): These people displaced by war in Afghanistan, have things changed for them since the American action?

JOHN WEAVER, SHELTER NOW INTERNATIONAL: Not a whole lot. They've been displaced for the past year. We along with other international NGOs have been trying to help them. So their situation, yes, it's not improving, but it's not really because of what happened on September 11. They've been refugees because of the terrorism and the civil war and tyranny that's in Afghanistan.

Winter is coming. But first, we hoped that they would be able to go backs home. Now, it looks like they're going to be stuck here. So it's going to be even worse for them. They're going to need more shelter. They're going to need more wood for the winter. They're going to need blankets. They may need tents. They're going to need more food. So it could be very difficult for these families, if they have to stay here for the winter.

SHAH: So do you think we might find some families from Mawmaii who've come out here already?

WEAVER: There's the possibility we could find some families here from Mawmaii. We can ask and see.

Kozagard (ph), it's near Mawmaii. It's just the other side of Mawmaii actually.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We came here because of the Taliban. They made us homeless. They left nothing for us. There is no life. We crossed the river, suffered many difficulties, and hardships.

SHAH: Does he know whether the frontline has changed over the last five or six months? When we went there, they were right on the frontlines. Does he know whether that frontline's moved?

WEAVER: So he says, in Mawmaii, about five months ago, the frontline was basically right there at Mawmaii. But it has -- it has...

SHAH: It's moved back a bit.

WEAVER: It has moved back a bit.

SHAH: Ah, good. Did he say about kilometers back to those?

WEAVER: One guy said a kilometer. He said it's farther than that.

SHAH: He thinks it's gone further back?

WEAVER: It's gone further back.

SHAH: That's the good news then because this has changed everything. It's moved back the other way.

(voice-over): They say, the other day, they saw American planes dropping food. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We have to try and get some food, but we couldn't get any. Soldiers fired on us. They stop us taking it.

SHAH: It was the Northern Alliance soldiers who reached it first.

WEAVER: OK. So he's saying that when the planes came, the people who were involved in the military, they knew before anyone else that the planes were coming. So when the first things were dropped, the first people that got it were the soldiers. But there were people that actually took the stuff to the bazaar -- regular trade people that were traveling through. And so, really, most of the refugees that got that stuff from the airplane bought it from the bizarre.

SHAH (on camera): So, I mean, you distribute food, we've just seen you distributing food there; how does that make you feel?

WEAVER: Not so good, especially since it's coming from my own government. So, I mean, the American air drops are great, that they want to help people, but it's very ineffective. I'm sure that the American desire is to help people, to provide assistance for people, and to communicate that they're not against the local Afghan people.

This war is not about them. It's about terrorism. It's about the Tierney of the Taliban. And it's about helping these people to become free.

SHAH (voice-over): The West's war won't stop them from spending another hungry winter on the mountainside. It's heartbreaking to know we can't help all these people. But we might just be able to do something for the three little girls, if only we can find them.

We have to move on.




SHAH (voice-over): Six months ago we met somebody we need to find before we can continue our journey.

(on camera): Then what'd he try to shoot with this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He want to try to shoot the Taliban -- a Taliban airplane.

SHAH: He's trying to shoot down the airplane with this?

(voice-over): He's a young Northern Alliance fighter. He took time off from trying to shoot down Taliban jets with his sniper rifle to become our guide.

If we're going to get back to the village of Mawmaii, we need to track him down.

(on camera): We're headed to Mawmaii because we think that this is where we're going to find Uhzmann (ph). He's the man who first took us to Mawmaii, where we met the three little girls.

(voice-over): We've heard that Uhzmann is now fighting on the front 20 miles from Mawmaii. As we arrive, the Taliban make their presence felt. Two shells land on the road we've just been on.

Uhzmann is manning the Northern Alliance mortar. Today, the Taliban have been shelling every few hours.


SHAH: He says that since we left, there's been a lot fighting along this line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Two months ago, we attacked the Taliban position. We fought for four hours. Then the Taliban retreated -- ran away. We destroyed three of their tanks and captured one tank. We also took two mortars. One hundred and fifty of the Taliban were killed, and we captured 20 prisoners.

Now, there's a window for peace in Afghanistan. The United Nations should disarm the country. If it doesn't use this opportunity, we might have another 100 or 200 years of war in Afghanistan.

SHAH: The front line fighters couldn't be more different to the exhausted men we saw six months ago.

They've been given new spirit by the allied bombing of their enemy, but the Taliban aren't beaten yet.

(on camera): They can't fire from that position because if they did, they'd be an enormous amounts of smoke. The Taliban would know where their gun was and would fire back at it.

(voice-over): In the trenches, we found Macmoud Essa (ph). He said he was 15; he looked younger.

He's been fighting for two years.

MACMOUD ESSA (through translator): I've seen fighting, tanks firing, rockets going off; dead people, corpses without hands or without heads -- so what.

SHAH: Even though he fights for the Northern Alliance, Uhzmann sees their thoughts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The Northern Alliance is well. We'll flip up (ph) when they capture Kabul.

God forbid that the Northern Alliance should ever return to the anarchy and lawlessness which it brought about when the Communist government fell. Then, every street of the capital was in the control of a different commander. Some commanders may not support peace because they fight for money.

When there is no war, they have no income. Therefore, they want war to continue.




SHAH (voice-over): Uhzmann agrees to leave the front and take us to Mawmaii.

The last time we crossed the Coctu (ph) River, it seemed the Taliban might return and take the village any day. Now, the west faction means the village is safe from that threat, at least. But things haven't got any better.

A woman mourns her son, shot by the Taliban.


SHAH: This time, we find deserted houses and streets. Anybody who has the means to flee has done so. Only the poorest remain.

Something else must have happened here.

Last time we were here, a group of men told us how the Taliban killed their brothers and fathers in a field. Now, they say, they have a new enemy. Children are dying, but it's not the Taliban killing them. Their crops have failed. It's the worst drought in living memory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It is nearly three years that we didn't have enough rain to farm. The farmer who had six children became so poor that he had nothing. He couldn't feed his family. He didn't even have wheat or anything else. Not even a piece of bread. He cried for his children and then threw himself over the cliff.

SHAH: We pay a visit to another person we met last time, Ibi Johns (ph). The Taliban killed one of her two sons. We find her barely surviving. All she has to eat are handfuls of wheat. Her second son smuggled it across the front line in the Taliban-held area.

IBI JOHNS (through translator): Of course I'm afraid. How could I not be afraid? They killed my son. I'm not afraid for myself, but for my only remaining son. I fear for him and beg him not to go, but he says we have nothing at home. I cannot sleep nights, fearing that they might take him away. I tell him that I will be all alone and abandoned.

SHAH: At last, the family we've come to see may be just down the road -- the three young girls whose mother was shot in front of their eyes. The Taliban soldiers remained in the house with the girls for two days. When we asked what the men did to them in that time, they wouldn't say.

Now we're on the verge of finding them.




SHAH (voice-over): We've traveled hundreds of miles for what might turn out to be a vain hope. The three little girls might be gone.

But when we arrive, we find 10-year-old Farzana, 13-year-old Fairuza and 16-year-old Amina sitting in the house where we left them. They're still afraid that soldiers will come any day. The West action hasn't protected them, and it won't feed them over the winter.

Their father can't go out to find food because he doesn't dare leave them alone.

FARZANA (through translator): The lands are barren. There's no harvest. But where can we go? We are afraid. The Taliban are close by.

FAIRUZA (through translator): We are alone. We have lived through a revolution and war. That's why we are afraid. We are afraid of the Taliban. They're just around the corner. We are afraid of the Taliban.

FARZANA (through translator): I am filled with sorrow. They killed my mother in front of my eyes. That is why I am filled with sorrow.

SHAH: I ask if they know the Americans are bombing.

"Yes," she says. She's heard about it.

FAIRUZA (through translator): Of course we're happy that the Taliban will be wiped out. Why shouldn't we be happy?

SHAH: I ask if they're afraid if they're afraid of Northern Alliance soldiers too.

FAIRUZA (through translator): Yes, we are afraid of them as well. They just walk into houses. But we can't leave our village. Who's going to provide us with food and shelter?

Tell me, who can be comfortable among foreigners? What is the point of going to a foreign land where my father cannot get work for our upkeep, to a place where we will have no home?

SHAH: I ask them what they want in life. Would they like to go to school?

FAIRUZA (through translator): I understand that going to school is good. That education is a good thing. But how can I think about studying when there's no school around here? There's nothing in this barren terrain. Where could we go to study?

AMINA (through translator): We will just continue to suffer in silence. I want nothing from life. We will just suffer in silence.

SHAH: Just 20 kilometers from their village, we come across a miracle, what seemed like the answer to our prayers: a girl's school.

The students have all been displaced by the previous years of fighting. But they're not afraid to dream of the future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The girls wish to become doctors, engineers or, perhaps, like you, Saira, journalists to bring about change in our underdeveloped country.

Most of these girls are living in tents. When it's windy and cold or raining, they help with their small hands. They make mud to cover the tents and protect it from the rain and wind, although they are just little girls and shouldn't be doing such heavy work.

Afghan women are courageous and cannot be beaten, whatever the odds.

SHAH (on camera): We saw a school today in this area, which is very close Mawmaii. It's a girl's school. There are about 400 girls there, mostly learning to read and write.

It has really good atmosphere and more and more, I'm beginning to think that this could be at least part of the answer for the three young girls in Mawmaii. If we could somehow provide them with an education, we would actually open up a path to a new life for them. And also, they might be able to have jobs in the future. They might even be able to take part in any possible rebuilding of Afghanistan.

I don't know if their father will agree to it. But if he did, I think it'd be the right thing to do.

(voice-over): The next day, we went back to Mawmaii. We offered to put the girls into school and to pay for the family's relocation.

We weren't prepared for their father's answer.

MOHAMMED AMIN ARBAB (through translator): I can't leave this house. If I leave it unattended, it will be looted. There is a war on. I'm worried that vandals will destroy the house. They'll even steal the roof.

SHAH: We try to persuade him.

ARBAB (through translator): How can I take them there? You tell me?

SHAH: We'll pay for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's one-day walk to go there and come back.

SHAH: But you won't be going there every day, only once a week or so. We'll rent a house for you.

ARBAB (through translator): I told you before that I couldn't leave my home to go there. I can't leave here to go there.

I will be happy if a school is set up in this area and teachers come here to the village, but there I can't go. Now that I have no wife, my mind is not working. I can't think.

SHAH: It's awfully frustrating. I just wanted to help three little girls in this sea of misery. I couldn't even do that.

I've learned this is no place for quick fixes.

Six months ago, the world didn't care about Afghanistan. Today, a new war has just begun.

As it seeks to wipe out terrorists, I wonder if the West has also got the patience, the stamina to help rebuild lives.





Back to the top