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CNN Presents

Beneath the Veil: The Taliban's Harsh Rule of Afghanistan

Aired August 26, 2001 - 22:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Brutal, repressive, an entire nation shrouded in mystery, until now.


SAIRA SHAH, JOURNALIST: The Taliban has all but closed the country, but with one last Pakistani checkpoint cleared we're finally in.


HARRIS: A personal and perilous journey into one of the world's most secretive police states.


SHAH: The spies watch everything, as we soon find out.


HARRIS: Good evening, and welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Leon Harris.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban rule with the machine gun and a radical ideology. Under the Taliban, executions and floggings are public events, and women, according to observers, are reduced to little more than shut-ins. It is a dangerous and secretive world, one that journalist Saira Shah risked her freedom and her life to uncover. What she found "Beneath the Veil" is unimaginable.


SHAH (voice-over): Veiled women hunched in the back of a pickup truck. Football stadium in Afghanistan, a place of entertainment turned into an execution ground. Secret pictures showing scenes the country's rulers want to keep hidden. We are trying to uncover the truth behind Afghanistan's veil of terror.

The (UNINTELLIGIBLE), gateway to the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan. I'm trying to find out more about one of the most repressive and mysterious places in the world, Afghanistan.

The country is ruled by the Taliban, an Islamic militia. In 1996, these former religious students seized power and imposed a strict Islamic regime. They have made the headlines by blowing up the country's ancient Buddhist monuments. What the world doesn't know is what they are doing now to their own people.

For me, this is personal. I was raised in Britain, but my father was an Afghan, and I grew up with a very different vision of Afghanistan. He used to tell me stories of my family's homeland, a place called Paghman. He described gardens and fountains, a kind of Eden. I have never been to Paghman. Now I'm trying to get there. I'm hoping my journey will help me understand what is happening to my father's country.

My journey begins this side of the border, in Pakistan. I find a human disaster. These are the biggest refugee camps in the world, almost four million Afghans have escaped two decades of war, but thousands more are now fleeing famine, drought and their own government, the Taliban. Everyone has a story to tell.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I was hiding in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I could see the Taliban, but they couldn't see me. They asked my father for a huge sum of money, or else they would kill him. He said, "Where could I make that much money? I'm a simple shopkeeper." And then they killed him.

SHAH: I asked these children how many of their parents were killed by the Taliban.

(on camera): Seven out of 10 had their parents killed by the Taliban.

(voice-over): Three-quarters of Afghan children have lost a relative since the Taliban took power. But it's also from the most vulnerable, children and women that the first voice of protest has risen.

This is RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. They are everything the Taliban hate, highly political, left-wing Afghan feminists. They are determined to fight for human rights in a country where women have been forced under the veil. But the Taliban are powerful even in Pakistan.

Suddenly, the Taliban supporters appear from nowhere.

(on camera): Behind me are an extremist Islamic group, and they're shouting "Long live the Taliban." And it's driven the women (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

(voice-over): The peaceful demonstrations turns into a street battle. The police struggle to contain the crowd. In seconds, there is tear gas everywhere. A moment later, the police lose control. More and more Taliban supporters appear. RAWA run for their lives.

Afghan brutality spilling out onto the street of Pakistan. What could drive such aggression? Why terrorize this one tiny opposition group?



SHAH: I've just been picked up by RAWA. I don't know where we're going now, because even here in Pakistan they are under threat from the Taliban. But I think they might be able to help me find out what is going on inside Afghanistan.

(voice-over): We arrive at their secret headquarters. RAWA tell me they have an underground opposition network inside Afghanistan's capital Kabul. The operatives use hidden cameras as their most powerful weapon.

Their pictures reveal the destitution created by the world's most stringent restrictions on women. They show women forced to beg on the streets because their own government has forbidden them to go out and work. Their children go hungry. This is no ordinary third-world poverty; it's been created by the Taliban's social policies.

But RAWA's most shocking images reveal how the Taliban have turned sports stadiums into execution grounds. In today's Afghanistan, you can be executed for anything from adultery to murder, even for prostitution or homosexuality. RAWA have risked their lives to take these images.

Speen-Bovak (ph) border crossing, Pakistan. It's taken over two months to get visas for Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Taliban have all but closed the country. Most of all, they want to keep out journalists like us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No filming? No filming.

SHAH: But with one last Pakistani checkpoint cleared, we're finally in. I'm now getting closer to Paghman, the family home I've never seen.

Our first stop is the southern city of Qandahar. Everywhere on the streets are men in back or white turbans. Some are from a place called the ministry of vice and virtue. It's not a joke: These are the feared secret police.

(on camera): It's almost impossible to film here. We've been told we are not allowed to have a camera to film anything at all, so we're trying to film covertly from inside our van. There is the ministry for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue, and these are the really the religious police.

(voice-over): Simply driving past the headquarters of the Taliban's notorious secret police is enough to terrify our translator, and us. Their spies watch everything, as we soon find out.


SHAH: Minutes after arriving in Qandahar's marketplace we're in big trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want me to shut it off?

SHAH: The Taliban arrest us on the spot for filming illegally. We switch to a hidden camera.

(on camera): Why are we going to the police station? Can you translate?

(voice-over): We find ourselves heading back to the ministry for vice and virtue, the very same building that terrified our translator earlier. This time we go straight through the gates. Things don't look good.

But then are our arrest is interrupted. It's time for the most feared men in Afghanistan to say their evening prayers. Only then do they lead our producer inside, but not me. Women are banned from the building.

(on camera): Can I not be your guest here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Only man, man, man.

SHAH (voice-over): The last person the Taliban caught filming them secretly was thrown into jail. An hour passes; but this time we've been lucky.

(on camera): They demanded all our tapes off us. They demanded to know what we had been filming. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but they knew we'd been filming in the market. We managed to slip them a blank tape and they let us go, but they're escorting us back home.

(voice-over): We couldn't have had a better illustration of the power of the religious police. They've made it clear we should get out of town.

The next day we hit the road for Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.



SHAH: Arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, is a shock. All this damage was caused by civil war before the Taliban came. When they took over, people hoped life would get better. But four years later, nothing has been repaired. We have come to a city without buildings, without joy. The Taliban say they have other priorities.

WAKIL MOTAWAKIL, TALIBAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): The rest of the world has misunderstood us. It used to be no law. In the past four years, we have brought law and order. Our government has disarmed the population, brought security, improved commerce and created jobs. We have proved we are a proper government.

SHAH: There is no sign of jobs, but there's plenty of security. Every few hundred meters, we pass roadblocks, they are decorated with confiscated cassette tapes. Even music has been banned.

We try to film it. And again, it seems we are in trouble. They force-march us into a derelict building. Inside, we find a Taliban security chief sitting with his friends. To our surprise, they invite us to tea. Then unexpectedly, they ask us to film them. This time, far from detaining us, they take us on a tour to boast about their rigid control on the city.

(on camera): The man in the front seat is the head of Taliban intelligence in the capital. I know he is responsible for the information which is that of the hanging of at least two men. But now he is driving through this district of Kabul that he is responsible for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): My duty is to watch for opponents. If they enter this area, I can find out about it. If only upon entering this area, we find them and arrest them within minutes.

SHAH: Who exactly are you looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Anybody, Afghan or foreigner, who is involved in political activities. Anybody that even speaks against the Taliban or causes problems for them, we arrest these kinds of people.

SHAH (voice-over): We escape the hospitality of the intelligence chief. Now we are heading to the place where some of his victims have ended up. This is where the Taliban enforce their extreme religious laws. It's the symbol of their repression, the football stadium.

(on camera): It's an extraordinary feeling, because I have actually seen pictures of women being shot at this penalty area here that we are just coming up to. And also, I have seen pictures of men being hung from this goal post.

This stadium was actually financed by the international community to try to raise the spirits of the people of Afghanistan after the Taliban took power. Instead of using it for football, this is now their public execution ground.

The thinking was what it must be like when these stands are all full of people and they are all shouting and screaming, and the Taliban drive their victims in through the entrance and do a parade around.

And the women who they executed here were not allowed to take off their veils. So, they must have had hardly any idea of what was happening. They must have been very confused. They must have been hearing the crowd screaming. They were pushed up to the penalty line and made to kneel down.

Just the concept that you can pack a stadium with people baying for the blood of another human being, and then shoot them on the pitch.

(voice-over): The Taliban leadership is proud of the things they do here.

MOTAWAKIL (through translator): The football stadium is a place of leisure, a place for playing games, a place for joy. When justice is done on behalf of a victim, that too is a joyful event, which brings order and security to society.

SHAH (on camera): But the international community paid for the football stadium. They wanted the Afghan people to play football there. Instead, you are executing people there.

MOTAWAKIL (through translator): I will make the international community an offer. In Afghanistan, everything has been destroyed. If they help us to build a separate place suitable for carrying out executions, we have no problem with that. When they criticize us 10 times, they should at least help us once. They should build a place for executions and get financial support so that football could be played at the stadium and our work can be done as well.




SHAH: Todays's Afghanistan is a world away from the liberal Islam I grew up with. So far, I've been an outsider here. Now I want to get inside the world of ordinary Afghans. It's time to meet up with the secret opposition network of RAWA, the women's group I met in Pakistan.

I'm going undercover. From now on I'll live the life of an Afghan woman. I'll have to go alone and leave my crew behind.

(on camera): As a foreigner, I do at least have a little bit of protection. As an Afghan, which I will be travelling as, I'll have no protection at all.

(voice-over): But I can enter the Kabul foreigners don't see. Under the Taliban the World Food Program must help feed up to a third of the city's population.

I discover a man selling scraps of bread with mold on them for animal feed. A woman buying a handful at a time. But she is not feeding it to animals. She grinds it up for her seven children.

She has invited me home to film her to tell me that since the Taliban stopped women going out to work she has to beg.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): There is nobody in the household who can work, and so there is no money. I give this dry bread to my children to get them quiet. It's all we have to eat.

SHAH: The Taliban say they encourage women to stay at home for their own protection. But women aren't just forbidden to earn a living. They're deprived of access to basic things like medical care. Mal-Alai (ph) Gynecological Hospital. A higher percentage of women die in Afghanistan than almost anywhere in the world, and one in four children die before theirs fifth birthday. I find filthy wards and lavatories. There is barely a doctor to be seen, few medicines. This is what happens when one half of society has been shut down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The government of Afghanistan is trying to make women redundant, and they don't want them to work in the hospitals at all. In this hospital, there are not enough female doctors, as a large number of them have fled Afghanistan. This has made the condition in the hospital very poor.

SHAH: My escorts, RAWA, are one of most be wanted opposition groups in Afghanistan. Even traveling by taxi could blow my cover; taxi drivers act as Taliban spies.

Now RAWA are taking me to see their riskiest activity: not a bomb factory or undercover newspaper, just a class for girls. The Taliban have made no education available to girls over the age of 12. Every woman in the room is breaking the law.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): All our courses have to be secret and underground because of the Taliban. If they find out, they could hang us all. All our girls are left uneducated because of their cruelty.

I used to be a teacher in a school. I was made redundant (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Taliban stopped woman from teaching.

SHAH: Excluded from every part of society, but some women are still holding on to their dignity. I was led past overflowing sewers, through what were once luxury apartment blocks. My destination: the most subversive place of all. I have been invited to a secret beauty parlor. If they are caught, these women will be imprisoned, but they still paint the faces they can never show in public.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): This is a form of resistance. We are defying the Taliban. It means that whatever the circumstances, we will carry on doing thing we want to do like studying, doing our job -- you know, all these things.

SHAH: Women trying to keep life normal in a world gone completely mad. That was the image RAWA left me with.

(on camera): If you're living here, the trivial things that are imposed on people lead to serious things that are imposed on people like torture, death, execution. There are no minor freedoms, but there are no major freedoms either. And this is really an incredible serious, terrifying place to be if you are an Afghan.

(voice-over): But I was soon to discover just how terrifying life under the Taliban can be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Mass murder was committed by the Taliban in our village, in our district. SHAH: This man has just fled from Yakalang (ph) in central Afghanistan. He is telling me that when Taliban fighters took his village last month they massacred 150 civilians.

This footage was filmed by locals in the same village a few days later. It shows the hospital smashed and devastated, and mass graves. The bodies of civilians executed, some of them in truly horrific ways.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): From my own family, 11 people have been killed. There was a boy of 17 or 18 whom they even skinned. They skinned his head. The Taliban, they skinned him with knifes and bayonets. I even saw it with my own eyes.

Then those of us who had survived the killing got together and went to collect our dead. We picked up and removed the dead with the help of women and old men.

SHAH: The man I spoke to is now safely in Pakistan. But was his story unusual, or part of a wider pattern of atrocities?




SHAH: Up until 1996, the Taliban held only a fraction of the country. Now they have almost all of it. But there are still people opposing them. They are an alliance of different ethnic groups. They are fighting a last-ditch battle for their own culture and identity, and they claim that the Taliban have massacred civilians in this area, away from the eyes of the world.

(on camera): We finally arrived at the northeast corner of Afghanistan. The opposition forces have been pushed right back to here, and the frontline is there, right directly behind me. There are plumes of smoke going up there at the moment, because there is an artillery battle going on between the Taliban front and the opposition front. We have to try and get up there, because these are where our witnesses are likely to be.

(voice-over): The opposition forces are barely managing to hold these positions. Their commander points out the Taliban trenches on the far side of the valley. In between lie four villages, caught between the frontlines.

He tells me that a few weeks ago the Taliban briefly took these villages before being pushed back. The commanders heard disturbing rumors that dozens of civilians have been massacred. Atrocities that have never been reported to the outside world. To find out the truth, we must get even closer to the Taliban positions and go down into the valley itself.

The countryside here reminds me of the Afghanistan my father knew. There has never been a single Afghan culture, no one version of Islam. It's a mosaic of different ethnic groups. The peoples in this area have lived peacefully side by side for centuries, it's a world the Taliban are intent on destroying.

We soon come across our first witness. He says that when the Taliban entered his village, Bahi Zahra (ph), they killed unarmed civilians. He describes how he found the bodies of 11 men.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): There were two bodies where they must have taken them all captive. They had tried to escape, and they had been shot on the spot. The others had been taken away to the center of Bahi Zahra (ph). Their hands and feet had been tied, and they had been tortured and then killed.

SHAH: He tells me a story of what seemed to be organized violence -- soldiers running from house to house, pulling out any man they found, shooting on the spot anyone who dared resist. For 10 nights, they ran wild while the village men were held captive. As they left, they lined up 12 of their prisoners against a wall, and shot them in the head.

An old man from the same village corroborates his story. As he does so, there is a reminder of just how close we are to the war, the Taliban jet.

From now on, our journey will get even more dangerous.


SHAH (on camera): He says there's mines over there.

(voice-over): We decided to try to get to one of the four villages. A place called Momai (ph). The village is close to no- man's land. To get there, we have to cross the Coctu (ph) river, a mile upstream from the Taliban guns. No reporter from the outside world has been here to report on these massacres.

As soon as we arrive, villagers rush out to greet us. They take us to see an old woman called Bibijon (ph). When the Taliban came, she was at home with her two sons, both civilians.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): They shot Umder (ph). It was my little boy who I brought up. The other one they captured and took away. I was standing here when the Taliban came, my son was standing over there. He couldn't speak their language, and they the shot him. They shot him here in this place, we took his blood and covered it up. It was here we covered over the spot where he died.

SHAH: Then, the villagers take us to another house, a place veiled in sorrow. The first person I see is an old man staring into space. Then I see three girls of 9, 12 and 15 years old. Their father says they have been crying for weeks ever since the Taliban came to their home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The Taliban told my mother to leave the house because they were going to make it their headquarters. My mother cried and pleaded with them. She said, "You have taken my husband prisoner, where should I take my children in the snow?" And then, they shot her. I heard the shot. My younger sister was watching from the doorway. She said, "they have shot my mother." I ran over and found that she was dead.

SHAH: I asked them how long the Taliban stayed in the house while their mother's body lay in the yard?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The Taliban, after shooting my mother, they stayed here for two days.

SHAH: I asked what the men did to her and to her sisters in those two days. They won't say.




SHAH: Finally, the villagers take us up to a nearby hill side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This is where they took them and killed them.

SHAH: They demonstrate to us how they found seven bodies bound with their own turbans. They say the Taliban lined them up, then killed each with a single shot. The men say that when the Taliban withdrew, they loaded most of their captives into pickup trucks. There was no room for the last seven men, so they simply shot them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I saw the bodies aligned like sheep, and I called, "come here, they're here." Then everybody came here. All the people came here. Everybody said, "that's my father, that's my brother." Then we took them, weeping. We took them home, our brothers and our fathers.

SHAH: We found the same pattern of massacres in village after village. In one community, the local wedding photographer captured the scene on video.

The Taliban say no massacres took place, that their enemies have made up evidence like this.

MOTAWAKIL (through translator): I don't accept this, that except for wars that Taliban are killing women and children. The reason we don't accept this is because Taliban commanders are religious figures. You know that except for someone who is fighting a war, be it a woman or a child or regular folks, that they are human beings. They have livelihoods. We believe in judgment day.

SHAH: In the graveyards, white flags mark the Taliban's victims, unarmed civilians killed not for the sake of Islam but because they come from a different ethnic group to the Taliban.

In their trenches, the opposition soldiers -- old men and young boys -- are exhausted, unable to protect the villages or to withstand the next Taliban onslaught. The Taliban claim they are bringing peace and uniting the country, but here they are destroying lives.

Unlike the Afghans I've met, I'm only passing through. But before I leave, I still hope to visit the place my family is from, my father's home, Paghman.

(on camera): This is the first time I have seen Paghman, it's the place I was told I come from, and I was told that it was the most beautiful place in the world, I was told it was pleasure gardens, there were waterfalls, there were fruit trees. It was a place where the people would come up from the capitol Kabul and have picnics on a Friday afternoon. It was a place of pleasure, these were pleasure gardens.

What I found was bombed out, any wall or building has been bombed. The mountains are here and it's beautiful and the view over Kabul is beautiful, but the gardens are gone. Anything made by human beings is gone.

(voice-over): During the Cold War, Afghanistan made headlines across the world. Now, my journey has brought me to a land where the government publicly kills its own people, where civilians are slaughtered, and the outside world no longer seems to care.

But I have found courage where I least expected it, among the poor and the weak, living their lives as best they can, struggling to survive as best they can. This is their daily victory against tyranny.


HARRIS: The Taliban show no signs of loosening their stranglehold. Afghanistan recently banned a wad of imports, including chess boards, playing cards, lipstick, and neck ties. Computer discs, movies and fashion catalogs have also been deemed as un-Islamic.

That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Leon Harris. We'll see you next week.