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Saira Shah: Pursuing Truth Behind Enemy Lines

By Tom White

Clockwise, from top: Journalist Saira Shah with Northern Alliance soldiers in Afghanistan, from <em>Unholy War</em>; Journalist Saira Shah; From <em>Unholy War</em>.

When we consider the long history of war correspondents, we think of Edward R. Morrow, Peter Arnett, Sydney Schanberg, Chrstine Ananpour, among many others who have dared to infiltrate the front lines—and often enemy lines—to get the true story.

And now, we think of Saira Shah, the London-based journalist whose documentaries Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, which both aired on CNN and Channel Four last fall, have crystallized our understanding of the people of Afghanistan and the wars that have decimated their country for the past 25 years. The International Documentary Association honored Shah in December with its first-ever Courage Under Fire Award, for her exemplary pursuit of truth in the face of extraordinary danger.

Shah, like her predecessors, appreciates the dangers of getting to the truth behind the war. Her work as a journalist has taken her to Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet Union, to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War and to troubled spots in Africa, Asia and South America. But Beneath the Veil and Unholy War were as much personal crusades for her as they were documentary projects. Her father, who died in 1996, was Afghani and would tell her stories of her ancestral homeland in northern Afghanistan, a land once rich with gardens and fountains and fertile land.

Last spring, Shah and her crew—producer/director Cassian Harrision and producer/cinematographer James Miller—set out to document what had happened since those utopian days. “Beneath the Veil was a story that we felt should be told,” she recalls. “And it was a story that the world didn’t know about and didn’t care about, and that they should, if possible, be made to care about.” It is the story of the Taliban, the brutal totalitarian regime that had ruled the nation for five years, and its impact on the Afghan people, and it is the story of the Afghan people themselves—some devastated and spiritually and emotionally broken, others resolute and courageous. The Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), for example, had already been documenting—on Mini-DV cameras hidden in their burkas—examples of the Taliban’s terror: public executions in a football stadium in Kabul, and mutilated victims of massacres in villages. This footage appears in Beneath the Veil.

Shah herself went undercover for five days with RAWA, filming an underground school for girls and a beauty parlor. “It was the first time that I’d attempted anything like that,” she recalls. “It seemed very easy, but actually when you’re there and you’re on your own, half the time it was so frightening. I had two cameras with me—both tiny Sony handicams, one of which went into a handbag, with a hole in it. And I had another camera inside the burka…It wasn’t that good because when I moved, the fabric moved, so it was really quite tricky. Mostly I used the bag camera, and I felt very conspicuous in the streets because Afghan women hide their bags under their veils. Of course I had to hold it outside the veil, and to keep it really steady, I had to hold it in a funny way because it had a huge lens hole in it.”

Shah and her crew were actually arrested and detained by the Taliban on two separate occasions—once in Kandahar, by the so-called Ministry for Vice and Virtue, to whom the crew gave a blank tape, and once in Kabul, in which the Talibian actually invited the crew to tea, then, surprisingly, consented to be filmed. In one particularly unnerving interview with a Taliban official, he shrugs off the public executions in the football stadium, inviting the international community, which had built the stadium, to fund another one exclusively for football.

For Shah, as both a woman of Afghan descent and a foreigner, getting the Taliban official to engage her as a journalist was a challenge. “I think I was so weird to him that I don’t think he was even computing it,” she recalls. “He was really surprised that I was talking to him in Persian. But it does two things—sometimes it can be incredibly productive because Afghans love it when you say, ‘Well, look I come from this part of Afghanistan.’ I was born in Britain and I’ve never really been accepted in a way that I would be accepted in Afghanistan. But it can be counter-productive, particularly among people like the Taliban, who actually believe that women should stay in the home. Then you’re actually worse as an Afghan woman [being a journalist] than you would be if you were a Western woman doing that.”

When Shah finally reached her ancestral homeland in the north, where few reporters had been before, she discovered a land ravaged by violence, courtesy of the Taliban. She comes upon three little girls who had witnessed their mother’s murder, an exhausted but determined corps of opposition troops and survivors of village massacres. “The film was a journey of discovery because we couldn’t believe what we were discovering,” Shah asserts. “We were just more and more angry and incredulous as to what was going on. The world really had no idea at that time what was going on, and I think that what comes through in Beneath the Veil is that we have to tell this story, we have to get them to care about Afghanistan. Of course, none of us could have foreseen …that the world would care about Afghanistan. I think that gives Beneath the Veil a new resonance, a hope that the underlying message is that these are human beings. They have hopes and dreams like you; please care about them.”

Shah returned to Afghanistan six months later with her crew, including director/cinematographer James Miller, shortly after the US had started bombing in early October. Channel 4 and CNN had commissioned the team to make a follow-up documentary to Beneath the Veil—in just six weeks. The challenges were different this time around, but no less daunting. Access to Afghanistan was all but impossible, save a smuggler’s route over the 17,000-foot-high Hindu Kush to northern Afghanistan. The trek took four days, in sub-freezing temperatures, which left Shah with a mild case of frostbite as she struggled to address the camera to report on the journey.

The goal for Unholy War, according to Miller, was “to find out what the effects of both the war that had been going for 25 years and the West’s recent involvement in it were to the ordinary Afghan, the really ground-level people. Throughout the film, you can find out all sorts of things about what’s actually the bigger picture, but the goal of the film was to look very small-scale.” And those ground-level people include the three young girls who appeared in Beneath the Veil. Shah’s search for them is the story that drives Unholy War, and when she does finally find them, the result is heartbreaking. Although they’re still alive and in the same village, they barely have enough to eat due to the drought, and the nearest school is 20 kilometers away. Shah wanted to help them, and she approached their father and offered to put the girls in this school and pay for a home near the school. But the father declined her offer, fearing the repercussions of leaving his village and his home. “I just wanted to help three little girls,” Shah says in the film, realizing the complexity of trying to solve even the smallest of problems. In the end she asks, “Does the West have the patience and stamina to rebuild?”

“In some ways, Unholy War was more observational than Beneath the Veil,” Shah comments. “Beneath the Veil had a thesis it was trying to support. It was saying, ‘We’re going to tell you about the Taliban, and we’ll tell it this way: they do this, they do this, they do this…’ This all adds up to something. Unholy War really wasn’t trying to do that; it was trying to say, ‘We’re just going to be a mirror and show you and try to let you feel what it’s like. We’re not going to give you a line one way or another. We’re just going to make this really inaccessible area accessible to you.”

Shah has signed on with Knopf, among other publishers, to write a book about her journeys to Afghanistan. And she plans to return to observe the rebuilding process there. “ It’s going to be a long, difficult process,” she admits. “And it’s actually too early to go in now. I’d like to go in when the press begins to get tired and frustrated. I’m sure I’ll make sense of it then. In a few months, people are really going to want to understand why things are not working in the way that people in the West assume that they’re going to work.”


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.