Friday, April 29, 2011

Paul Refsdal


Paul Refsdal is an independent Norwegian journalist who has spent the last 26 years covering some of the world’s toughest conflicts from the side of the opposition. He started his ballsy freelance career in 1984 when, at the tender age of 20, he went to Afghanistan to hang out with the Mujaheddin. The rest of his resume is just as impressive–in 1985 he went to Burma with the Karen rebels, he spent 1986 in Sri Lanka with the LTTE before heading to Nicaragua with the Sandinista forces, and the 90s saw him in Peru with the Shining Path and Kosovo with the KLA, among other really fucking scary adventures. Most recently he embedded with the Taliban and then got kidnapped. Paul has made a documentary film about that experience called Taliban: Behind the Masks.
Vice: How and why did you embed with the Taliban? Isn’t that sort of a crazy thing to do?
Paul Refsdal: We have spent the last nine years exposed to very strong anti-Taliban propaganda, so I was curious to see for myself who these people were. I knew Dawran, an old school commander I worked with during the war against the Russians in the 80s, and he agreed to receive me as a guest. I wanted to spend a month with them. Unfortunately, there was an attack that killed some commanders and several of their children, so I had to leave after nine days.
Was it easy to gain the trust of the combatants?
The first day I looked like an alien to them, but the second day they started making jokes and taking off their masks. I finally managed to achieve my goal of becoming an invisible observer of that group’s everyday life.
Some people have accused you of “humanizing” the Taliban.
If anyone has a problem with that, it means that they find it uncomfortable to accept we’re fighting human beings and not demons. I went with an open mind, ready to film whatever I saw. The Taliban didn’t understand that I wanted to show their ordinary day to day, they just wanted to look like powerful warriors. I insisted that I didn’t mind the weapons and, above all, that I did not want them to carry out any attack because of me. That was exactly what the Mujahideen used to do in the 80s.
From your unique perspective, who would you say the Taliban are?
I can only speak of what I witnessed there, but I think we’re talking about a very heterogeneous group. There are fanatics, but also those who listen to music, smoke cigarettes, and shave. Moreover, commander Dawran believed that women should study and said he would never carry out an attacks on Afghan troops. Apparently, his position was that of someone struggling against the forces that have invaded their country. He also said he despised the Americans not because of the war itself, but for what he called a “total lack of respect for tradition and Islam–using metal detectors on women, entering people’s houses with a kick,” etc.
You show the Taliban chatting, joking, and even playing among themselves, but you also shot them fighting, is that right?
In the area where I was there were bombings every day, mainly from the Predators, but the Taliban didn’t seem to care that much. The group kept a position over a road used by the Americans to transport supplies and they would fire on their vehicles with heavy weapons around three times a day.
Despite the apparent confidence and mutual respect, you were still kidnapped. What happened?
The Coalition launched an offensive that killed several commanders and two of Dawran’s children, so I was forced to leave the battalion. Omar, a younger commander, gave me his phone number and invited me to his position. We met a few weeks later. After walking for a whole day, someone who claimed to be from Al Qaeda accused me of spying for the Americans and said he should kill me. I was left in custody in the house of an armed family, but they promised to protect me from the kidnappers. There I realized that if I ran away I would put their life at risk. My kidnappers expected the Norwegian government to pay $500,000, but I managed to convince them that Oslo would never pay the ransom of a journalist who had embedded with the Taliban. I told them that the most they could hope for was $20,000, which I could personally gather if they let me make some telephone calls. During this process, I called a friend of mine at Al Jazeera, who immediately informed Dawran that I had been kidnapped. He called Omar, who released me immediately because of the pressure he received from Dawran as well as from the Taliban’s spokesman and some other people in Pakistan.
You mention Al Qaeda. How do they fit among the local insurgent groups?
There are many groups operating there–mainly Al Qaeda, Hizb-e Islami, and the Taliban. I don’t think there is a conflict between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but personally, I doubt they are fighting together. During my abduction it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, who wanted to kill me.
What differentiates the Afghans who fought the Russians from those fighting today against the Coalition troops?
I went to Afghanistan with the Mujahideen in 1984 and 1985, when the Afghan fighters were hailed as heroes. They were literally swimming in weapons, to the point that they even used RPGs to cut firewood. They had Stingers (U.S. anti-aircraft missiles) and, of course, the unconditional support of Western media. Both factors helped to balance the war in their favor. Today, Afghan fighters are completely demonized by the media and they only have guns–nowhere near the firepower they had in the 80s. But they are facing the biggest military machinery in the world, so I think they are much more committed, probably due to the lack of resources mentioned before.
Restrepo, a documentary film that shows the life of a battalion of marines in eastern Afghanistan, has recently received several international awards, but your work doesn’t seem to have had the same media coverage. Have you been deliberately ignored?
What I find most striking is that we have had to wait for nine years to get a view of the Taliban like this one. Strangely enough, we were there at the same time, and just two kilometres from the position where Restrepo was filmed. However, I am happy with the circulation my documentary has had because it has been broadcast by the major networks in 14 countries. I think that within a year we will see many films like mine.
Most journalists cover the war with the army, but you do it from the other side, why?
All insurgent movements are different, but they have two aspects in common–they have fewer resources and, of course, far less propaganda. I witnessed something similar to Afghanistan in Peru, where the demonization of Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) was complete. However, I witnessed numerous atrocities at the hands of the Peruvian army–families that had been shot, fighters whose jaw had been removed to extract their gold teeth–if you want to denounce the army’s atrocities you always need to provide solid evidence. It’s just much easier to denounce the insurgents, no matter if it’s Sendero Luminoso or the Taliban. Peru and Afghanistan are two very similar examples of how war propaganda works. This is the typical scenario of an armed conflict where everyone lies.
You are an ex-military guy with a rank of Second Lieutenant and four years of service. Have you ever been accused of switching sides?
I’ve never had any problems with that. Sometimes I’m even asked to give lectures to the military about my experience as a hostage. They have a big interest because they need to know what to do if they’re abducted at some point. Besides, the military appreciate my feedback because it’s interesting for them to see who they are actually fighting.
How do you see the future of Afghanistan in the short term?
Both sides know they can not win this war. I think that today everyone agrees that peace in Afghanistan will come through a negotiation, a peace process that leads to a sharing of power. The keys to such negotiations revolve around whether the Taliban should take, let’s say, four, five, six, or seven ministries. I think that the current surge of troops in Afghanistan is meant to strengthen a position ahead of upcoming negotiations. In short, people are fighting so the Taliban will get just four, and not seven ministries in the future Afghan government. It’s something I’ve seen in other wars like El Salvador, where both sides fought from ‘93 to ‘99 in order to gain a strong position before a negotiation process. It’s very sad because many innocent people are killed in these processes.
The Taliban seem to be in an advantageous position regarding the occupation forces.
The Taliban are winning because they can withstand more casualties. Coalition troops have had 700 casualties in 2010, it has been their worst year since the invasion of the country. The difference is that the opposition can hold many more casualties. And we should not forget that the Taliban today are more realistic, more pragmatic than those before 2001. I do not believe that the pull out of foreign troops would imply the country falling into the hands of the Taliban. The latter understand that they can’t conquer the whole country, they never thought they could, and I think they would be happy if they were given control of the areas where they are strongest, like Kandahar, Helmand, etc.

Paul, being a total badass in Chechnya.
Do you think that journalists like yourself have a future in the midst of a crisis that is also wreaking havoc on the media?
The quality of war reporting has fallen dramatically in the last ten years. On the one hand, it’s our countries who are at war today, and this obviously affects the objectivity of the information. Secondly, I think that too much emphasis is being put on the safety of the journalists. Many people think they can cover a war from their hotel room and occasionally hire local journalists for the dangerous tasks. I remember the so called “disposable Chechens” in Chechnya. They were given a camera and $50. If they returned alive, they were given another $50 to continue rolling. But if something happened no one would take any responsibilities for them. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the future of independent journalists like myself. We do not need security advisers, no bodyguards, no armored cars… we work on our own and often get the best stories.

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