Transformation

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By Roger Harrison

It was an Afghan donkey that gave the game away. If it hadn't bolted, Yvonne Ridley and her two guides would have made it out over the Afghan border and back into Pakistan.

Some weeks previously, Yvonne Ridley was chief reporter for the Sunday Express in London. Like hundreds of other journalists, she was tying to get to New York to cover the events following the events following Sept. 11. While in the airport scrimmage for seats, she received a call from the news editor telling her to get to Pakistan.

A journalist for more than 25 years, she was one of the first into Pakistan to cover the impending attack on Afghanistan.

"There were thousands of us, all being spoon-fed with information. I got fed up with it, and decided to see if I could get into Afghanistan." She applied many times to the Taliban embassy, but to no avail. "Western journalists were persona non grata." Yvonne found two guides and, adopting the cover-all burqa, slipped into Afghanistan as part of a wedding party.

"I was totally anonymous - I simply disappeared from view because I looked and was perceived exactly the same as all the other women in burqas."

She spent days speaking to whomever she could, always aware that the slightest hint could give her away. When she decided to head back to the border, the trio joined a party heading that way. That meant that Yvonne had walked a great deal in the unaccustomed Afghani sandals she wore as part of her disguise, and her feet were badly cut and bruised.

"We managed to obtain the use of a decrepit donkey," she said.

The donkey bolted and Yvonne, in a desperate attempt to stay aboard, grabbed the halter. The camera that she had been carefully concealing under her burqa swung into full view, exactly at the moment that a Taliban soldier was passing.

"At this stage they seemed rather more concerned with the relationship between my guides and I than the fact I might be a spy," she said.

The party she was traveling with continued to move toward the border. She kept moving with them but looked back to establish the fate of her guides. "There was a large crowd gathering and it looked as if trouble was brewing. I felt I had to go back." Walking into the center of the group, she brought the proceedings to a halt by imperiously throwing off her burqa and demanding, "Give me the darn camera back." She and her companions were arrested and hauled off to the local men's prison, where they were separated. "I did see my companions after that," she said, "and they did look as if they had been roughed up."

Her first reaction was to go on hunger strike because she was refused a telephone call. "I was never physically maltreated. They tried to break me mentally by constantly asking the same questions day after day - until nine o'clock in the evening sometimes." Her captors constantly told her that she would be released - only to move her to another cell.

It was five days before Mullah Omar was told that the suspected spy was a woman. He at once ordered her removal to what was by local standards a comfortable room in a women's prison.

"I was detained in the company of six Christian aid workers from Shelter Now International, who had been accused of trying to convert the local people to Christianity. They were certainly very religious - and the Taliban were quite comfortable about allowing them a bible and for them to perform their religious observances in captivity."

Yvonne found out from her captors that they had chosen - albeit unwittingly - to set up their headquarters next door to one of Osama Bin Laden's residences. "I have this delicious image of Bin Laden sitting in the garden plotting, with the sounds of happy-clappy Baptist hymns wafting over the wall."

Yvonne was interrogated for days as an American spy - unaware that her captors were in possession of a file that alleged that she was in the pay of Mossad, amongst others.

"On one occasion, I lost my temper and spat and swore at my captors while I was being held in Kabul prison." The reaction of her captors rather surprised her. "Instead of a hostile reaction they looked reproved and slightly hurt; they insisted I was their guest and their 'sister.'"

The attack by America and Britain on Afghanistan was immanent, and the file in the possession of Mullah Omar could well have been Yvonne's death certificate. "I feel I was set up. The attack needed a trigger. A dead English woman executed by the Taliban regime would have been very useful. It was a crude device and I suspect that the CIA were behind it."

While she was in captivity, she was asked what she thought of Islam. "I gave a non-committal reply - I had no real knowledge of it. I promised I would study the Qur'an."

The bombing of Kabul began while Yvonne was still in captivity. Two days later she was released. "I was quite sure that the one-eyed Mullah had put two fingers up to the world. He saw the file as a transparent provocation and was not buying it," said Yvonne.

"On the whole, the Taliban treated me with great courtesy and respect. I had entered their country illegally - I was totally in the wrong and I could have been put on trial." When she arrived in Britain, the experience in Kabul had a subtle effect on her. "I decided to look at Islam in the interests of academic enquiry and was given an English Qur'an by a Muslim friend."

Over the next few months she began to learn more about Islam. "The first thing I scrutinized when I read the Qur'an closely was the law as it relates to property and divorce." Cheerfully admitting to having been married three times, she was particularly drawn to the way that the Qur'an dealt with what so often is a contentious issue.

Yvonne couldn't put her finger on any single thing that decided her to embrace Islam. "I spoke to more and more people and became more involved. The way that that the faith treats women as exact spiritual and human equals in worth I found very sustaining," she said. "It just felt right."

Whilst the Taliban treated Yvonne - "probably their most difficult prisoner" - with some decency, it doesn't lessen her desire to question them on their more general behavior. "I would really like to sit down with Mullah Omar, who ordered my release on humanitarian grounds. I would want to know why they treat their women so badly." Recently, an opportunity to work in the Gulf with a web-based news organization presented itself. "I decided to take the chance and go," she said. "A couple of days before the flight, I made the decision to say the shahada, and called a couple of close friends as witnesses. It was an intensely spiritual moment and very intimate. The feeling after I had spoken the words was one of community with the biggest club in the world. It was exhilarating."

Yvonne has been accused of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, first described in 1973 when a bond of sympathy was observed developing between hostage takers and their victims.

"It always raises a wry smile with me. The only people I really bonded with, and keep in touch with on an occasional basis, are the girls from Shelter Now International, the ones accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. So if that was the case, I should be in America's bible belt now with my tambourine!"

Reflecting on her behavior when held by the Taliban, she said, "I don't think cursing, spitting and refusing to eat endeared me to those poor men who had to put up with my bad behavior. In fact, when I was released, I don't know who was happier - them or me."

Now the undercover journalist has exchanged the burqah as a disguise for the hijab as a symbol of a new freedom.

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NOTE: This article originally appeared in Arab News, Copyright: Arab News © 2003 All rights reserved.

Roger Harrison is Staff Writer for Arab News.

Yvonne Ridley is a founding member of Women in Journalism, a member of the National Union of Journalists and International Federation of Journalists, a freelance journalist and a peace campaigner. Her book, In The Hands of the Taliban, is published by Chrysalis Books, available for £6.99.