In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious; the Most Merciful. Brothers and sisters Asalam Alekum. It seems there are many Non Muslims here as well. Don't be afraid I am not Islam's Billy Graham. I am only going to share my story with you so that you may learn more about Islam. The title of tonight's talk is "From Kabul to the Kaaba", but let me take you a little bit earlier to September 11. I bet that everyone in this room would remember where exactly they were. Who they were with and what they were doing, when they heard about the September 11 attacks. The Muslims that I have talked with, who saw the events unfold on television; the moment the second plane hit the tower and realizing it was a terrorist strike, their first reaction was "please God do not let this be the work of Muslims". I was in my newsroom in Fleet street in London, when I noticed that people were gathering around the television sets that were there. I already you about the reaction of Muslims and my immediate reaction was that this is big news, bigger than the assassination of J.F.Kennedy and even bigger than man landing on the moon. I have got to get out to New York. Obviously my reaction was different from that of the Muslims. By the time I got to Heathrow Airport, the twin towers had imploded; Pentagon had been hit and a plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. America was at war; under siege. Her airspace had been closed down. Her borders had been sealed. I, physically, couldn't get into the country; no matter which airline or route I looked at. It was impossible. So I hung around in and out of Heathrow for the next four days. Finally, I got the ticket to the first flight out to New York. As I was making my way to the departure lounge, my phone rang and it was my boss, the News Editor. He has there has been a change of plans. We want you to go to Pakistan. I was furious, the contacts that I had been making were in New York. The clothes, I had packed were for New York. I had never been to Pakistan. I probably needed injections. What is this country, why do you want to send me there? It is a Middle Eastern thing. Why don't I go to the Middle East. He said, "no the story is going to unfold in Pakistan and the neighboring Afghanistan. Within 12 hours I got down at Islamabad, dressed for New York, which went very well as you can imagine. Over the next few days, I was writing about the hopes and the fears of the people for the impending war, which was going to happen in the neighboring Afghanistan. Where the richest country in the World was going to bomb the poorest country in the World. By the end of the week about three thousand journalists from around the World had joined me. They were in Peshawar, Islamabad and down in Quetta. Thousand of journalists from all over the World, form Print, Radio, TV, Internet and every form of communication you can imagine. I worked for the a Sunday newspaper. I was the Chief Reporter of the Sunday Express. And I was trying to second guess what the news would be at the weekend; would I get a chance to be more analytical. I am not a journalist, who has ever been spoon-fed from governments. I don't trust them. So I began to think that the best story was probably in Afghanistan from the ordinary Afghan people. I wanted to know what their expectations and fears were. What life was for them living under the Taliban. We had read a lot of news. According to Bush and Blair, the Taliban was the most evil, brutal regime in the World. They subjugated and oppressed women; they killed them randomly. The tales that were coming out were terrible. I distinctly remember Tony Blair says, "these people are so evil that they would even not let their children fly kites. So I decided that I need to find out this myself. I went to the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad three times and I tried to get a visa and all three times, I was rejected. I had got two or three guides. So I decided to sneak into Afghanistan with my guides. The idea was planted in my mind by BBC's chief correspondent John Simpson, who had put on a Burqa and put his toe into Afghanistan. And had said, "Hey look, I have become invisible." So I thought, well if BBC's gargantuan correspondent could become invisible, so surely it will be easy for me. So we devised a plan that we would be part of a wedding party. I would go in with two guides. One would be from the Pakistani province NWFP (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the other one was born in Afghanistan. We went in as a group. I put on a Burqa. We drove through Khyber Pass. That was another eye opening experience, I imagine. It was 30 miles long, winding dramatic mountainous roads; amazing scenery. Traces of British imperialism everywhere. Then we went down right into a dust bowl known as Tourkham. And there was no man's land. We got out of the car and started to walk towards the Taliban checkpoint, where very scary looking men with big beards, big turbans and Kalashnikoves were sitting waiting. Suddenly, I could hear my heart thumping in my ears and I am beginning that may it is not such a good idea. I wanted to turn around and run away, but I had gone beyond the point of no return. But it was as I had predicted; I had become invisible. I didn't even attract a first look, never mind a second look as went across the Taliban checkpoint. I think, I got across on someone else's ID card. I went across, jumped into a taxi and headed for the first major city, which was Jalalabad.
Yvonne Ridley Sneaks into AfghanistanI was very tense and very excited as well as I was going to see first-hand, how life in one of the major cities in Afghanistan, in this male-dominated regime where women were subjugated and oppressed according to Bush and Blair. When we went to the market-place, I was really surprised. Because who were doing all the shopping there? The Men! You can't get the Western men into the supermarkets to do shopping and there were all these men doing the shopping. I thought, well this is a good sign. The reason behind this was that under the Taliban rule women could not talk to any strange man. In fact, no other man except her father, brother, husband, son and close male relatives. So things as simple as buying a pack of sugar was impossible, unless she was related to the shopkeeper. There were women around and they were all wearing the Burqa. They were in the company of their 'Mahram' (male companion). I sat on the edge of the market-place and watched. There were lots of Taliban around and people seemed very excited and happy. They didn't seem as though they were going to be bombed by the most powerful nation in the World. People seemed relaxed and I was quite surprised. Our party then went with provisions to a tiny village, not even the size of this hall (the hall in which she is delivering the lecture). We went into the village and there were lots of cheers and laughter as one of their own had returned. And he had brought with him his cousin from NWFP with his wife and children. Then they asked, "Who is that?" Appointing to me. He told them in Pashto and I could tell from their reaction that were not at all happy. Why on Earth have you brought a Westerner into our midst at a time of war? That day, the Taliban Spiritual Leader, Mullah Omar had announced that anyone helping a Westerner will be executed. So naturally, they were angry, nervous and agitated. But after half an hour, the natural hospitality, curiosity and exuberance of the Afghan people overcame the villagers and they started talking to me. The first was a young girl in her 20s. I asked her, "what do you think about this impending war?" And she said, "I am so angry, I should be in a hospital qualified as a doctor and ready to help my people; ready to save lives. People are going to be wounded in this war and I could help and save them." So I asked her what her problem was. She said that her training had stopped a couple of years ago, the Taliban had closed down her training center and sent all instructors home. "And here I am rotting in this village, whereas I should be helping my people." I could feel her frustration and felt very sorry for her. That was one ambitious girl, whose life seemed to put in limbo. Just then, her elder brother came in. And he started talking to me through the translator. He also had been training in the same medical and when it had closed down for financial reasons, he too had been sent home. So it wasn't only the girl, who was affected; her brother was affected as well. And as we were talking with the help of the translator, an Afghan lady walked in and she looked at me very carefully; she put her hands on her hips and asked through the translator, "have you any children?" And I answered that I had one daughter. She confirmed, "only one daughter?" I replied, "yes!" She pushed me very strongly. I lost my balance and I went the other way. She said, "You English and you American women, you are so pathetic! All you can ever have is one or two children. Me, I can have fifteen and when you run out of male soldiers, I would be producing more. Don't think that Afghan women are shy retiring creatures." I thought; if this is what the women are like, then how on Earth are the men like. I asked that weren't you afraid of America and American soldiers. She said, "Dare one American soldier come in my village and I will get those pots and pans and I will fight him myself." And I thought she probably would. Then she said, "I am really sorry about this mishap. We are very sorry, but this mishap in New York has nothing to do with us." And she kept calling 9/11 a mishap and I thought that it was very provocative, really offensive and insulting. 6000+ people have died; that's what we thought at that time. And you are calling it a mishap!? And then I realized that under the Taliban televisions were banned. Nobody saw the dramatic images that we saw, which were plays on our TVs everyday, day and day out for about two or three weeks. Whipping the anger, the hysteria and the fear; watching the towers being hit, imploding. They didn't see any of that. They lived in single story buildings. So trying to convey to them the horror of someone trying to jump from the 101st floor, rather than face the inferno inside was very, very difficult. That is why the Afghan people kept referring to 9/11 as a mishap. They said, "we are very sad and what does it have to do with us and why the Americans want to bomb us. We didn't do it." And her argument had some logic to it. As the afternoon progressed, I could sense that people were getting more and more nervous by my presence in the village. We took some photographs after some persuasion and then we left. We thought we would get back early. But by the time we got back to Tourkham, the gates had closed, big metal gates. And we could not get through. Apparently Pakistan had sealed the border. They weren't letting anybody in or out. We stayed overnight and the next morning we went back to the area of Tourkham and again the gates were closed. I told my guides that if I didn't get back by a certain time, the news editor would raise the alarm and there will all sorts of panic. One of the guides suggested that we could go through a smuggling route. My eyes let up at this as I found it very exciting. This would give me something to write about and add to the humanitarian report that I would be doing. I agreed and thought that we would going through narrow mountain passes, ducking bush to bush and it would be very exciting. Because the border with Afghanistan is 1400 km long and there are said to be 300 to 400 smuggling routes. So you can imagine how porous the border is. We went to this area called Darababa, but there was nothing secretive about it. In fact, there were more people in Darababa than there are in this room tonight. There were camel traders, donkey traders, people selling refreshments, people selling carpets. There were Afghan families with all their goods packed in handbags going towards Pakistan. Unable to bear facing another war in their country, wanting to get to the safety of Pakistan. And there were lots of young men striding over from Pakistan looking for Taliban recruiting officers because they wanted to sign up and fight alongside Taliban against the Great Satan, as they referred to America.
Yvonne Ridley Gets Captured by the TalibanBy this time the Afghan shoes that I was wearing were cutting into my feet and they were bleeding. So I complained. One of my guides told me that we were only 10 minutes away from the border, but we can go by donkey. And he asked, "can you ride a donkey?" Can I ride with a donkey? Of course, I can ride with a horse and jump with a horse and look at these donkey, they are the same shape, but much smaller. And probably even easier to control. So of course, I can ride a donkey. So we set off and did a deal with this man. How we were hiring it or how he was going to get his donkey back. But he was happy to part with the donkey. I got on its back and I don't know whether it sensed that it had an infidel on its back or what. But it bolted! It tore through the area and my feet were waving; my arms were waving. The window caught the Burqa that I was wearing and blew the Burqa. It made the donkey even more frightened and it ran even faster. I was screaming with my arms waving in the air, looking a giant bat trying to control this wretched beast. And as I tried to move forward and get hold of its strings to control it the camera, the only piece of equipment that I had taken with me and that was banned by the Taliban, slipped out of the folds of my Burqa right into the passing view of a Taliban soldier. He saw this and went crazy. I don't know whether the donkey stopped and threw me off or whether he stopped the donkey and pulled me off. I really don't remember what happened, but all I can remember is that I hit the ground at a great speed. And then picking myself up and as I drew myself up, I looked straight into the face of this Taliban soldier through the grill of my Burqa. He was screaming and shouting at me. When I got back to London, some of girl friends said, "what was going through your mind at precise moment, when you knew that the game was over?" And I said that for a nano second and it was a nano second that I looked at this Taliban soldier and thought, "O my God, you are gorgeous!" He had the most amazing green emerald eyes, very high cheekbones and a great big beard with a lot of live of its own; very, very striking. But I say it was a nano second and then I thought, "Oh I have been caught." So I took my camera off and handed it to him. Then I closed my eyes waiting to be shot in the head, but when I opened my eyes after a few seconds, he had gone. He had gone over to the man, who hired the donkeys. He wanted to know that who is in charge of this woman and then he would get to the bottom of the camera. I was glad that I could get away as he still does not realize that it is a Westerner under the Burqa. I turned and went to attach myself to another group to follow them over the border. As I walked away, I looked behind and by this time a group of about hundred men had surrounded my guides. A soldier was in the middle screaming, shouting and waving the camera at the guides. One of the guides had been smacked across the face and he had a bloody nose and the other one was trying to calm the situation. I looked and thought that I couldn't leave them behind, although we had agreed that things went wrong, none of us knows each other. I couldn't abandon them, so I went back. I tried to push my way through the group of these very angry men and they pushed me back. This was man's business and had nothing to do with women. At the end, I removed my Burqa and said in a very loud voice, "will somebody let me through?" You could have heard a pin drop and then there was a parting like the Red Sea. As I walked through towards the handsome Taliban soldiers, who had caught me; but by this time he was looking quite gormless. His jaw had just dropped as he saw a Westerner, blonde blue eyes come towards him. Well I thought that he would so happy to have got his hands on a Westerner that he would forget all about my two guides. As I passed, I shot a sideways glance at my guides and I could see from the full horror on their faces that just when they had thought that things couldn't get worse, they had. I went up to the soldier and demanded the return of my camera. And once he had recovered, he got three of us and we were bundled into a vehicle and taken into the direction of Jalalabad. During the journey, the driver and the Taliban soldier had a fierce exchange and they kept looking back at me. Arguing and looking back and suddenly the driver did an emergency brake. The soldier asked me to get out of the car and then he took me to this raised piece of ground and asked me to stand on it. And I stood on this raised piece of ground and then he went off. Went marching off to my left and I thought where he was going. I was standing on that tiny hill wretched with fear and I did not move from there and was looking around and all I could see were stones and pebbles and rocks. And I thought that it was the stoning corner. I am going to be stoned. He has gone off to get a crowd. He has probably gone somewhere to say, "hey, I have got a Westerner Stoning in ten minutes!" So I am standing there looking down and all I could see was blood-ridden nail polish coming out from my toes. I had lost my socks and shoes and I thought oh no nail polish is banned under the Taliban and if they see my toes, they will chop them off one by one. So tried to cover my toes. I don't know what it is about Afghanistan that the place could be deserted in one minute and then there could be a crowd in 20 seconds. And about 20 seconds later there were 80 scary looking men staring at me. And they were getting closer and closer. I thought, they were getting closer to get a better aim when the stoning starts. I kept looking around them to find a kind face, maybe a hero who would come to my defense and I couldn't see one. Everyone looked very hostile. Of course, the reason they were getting closer and closer was to get a closer look because under Taliban's rule, no Afghan man saw any woman's face unless she was the wife, mother, sister, daughter or a really close female relative. So seeing me would be like seeing a panda in the zoo for the first time. So that's why they were getting closer, but I thought that they were getting closer to get a better aim when the stoning starts. Well we can have a laugh about it now, but at that time I really thought that the last moments of my life were being played out in this God-forsaken area. As I looked around, they say that your life flashes in front of your eyes, but mine didn't. I was only thinking how could I get out of this situation and then I remembered my time as a Sunday School teacher. There was a Biblical scene of stoning, where Jesus had said that let him without sin cast the first stone. So I thought, " right! I would say that." Of course, it didn't occur to me that they won't understand me. So I was playing that in my mind, but then thought that maybe that was not such a good idea because maybe someone pious would come out and say I am that and start the stoning. While all this was playing out in my mind, the Taliban soldier came with a lady in a Burqa. She comes; turns me around very briskly and starts to frisk me. So I thought, "Oh they are not going to kill, not just yet anyway." They are just trying to find out if I am carrying any weapons. This is strange that he has gone to get a woman, why wouldn't he just search me himself. Obviously showing more courtesy than British police. All the fear and terror that I had felt, just melted away with relief and I became very angry. Those men had made me feel as though I was going to die. So I pulled away from the Afghan woman and I swung around to these wretched men. My Burqa had gone, but I was wearing shalwar kameez, a trouser and an orange dress down to the knees. I swung around to these men and said, "I am not carrying any weapons." And to emphasize this, I picked up the helm of my dress and said, "look!" There was a collective shock, intake of breath. Then they all turned around and ran. Of course, it was highly inappropriate behavior for a woman in Afghanistan as I was going to find out. The lady wearing the Burqa, swung me back around and whacked me across the face. She was in such a state of shock at this vulgar display. Anyway having established that I was not carrying any weapons, I was bundled back into the car and driven off to Jalalabad.
I was taken into the Intelligence quarters and introduced to the head of Intelligence, who understood a little bit of English. I apologized for causing any inconvenience. He asked me to write down my details and personal phone contacts to prove that I was a Journalist. After I did that, he said, "we are about to eat and you must have something to eat." I said, "that is very kind, but I have to use the telephone." He told me that I could not use the telephone. So I said, "in that case, I would not eat either as a guest or a prisoner of the Taliban, until I can use the telephone." So what started then was a "war of nutrition", which was to last 10 days. Now you would think that the most brutal regime in the World couldn't care less if one of their prisoners had gone on hunger strike, but these men were very, very upset. Despite my protest, saying that I am not eating, every morning and noon and evening they would bring me food. They would spread a cloth on the floor (beautiful carpeted floor by the way) and they would put some bread, stew and rice. They would bring a jug of water and a bowl and they would wash my hands. Then they would tell me in broken English, "you are our sister, our guest and we want you to be happy." And I thought what kind of evil brutal regime is this. Don't they understand the job description. And I am thinking this is just a trick to soften me up and then the really bad guys would come in with the electrodes. In fact, isn't it strange that everything I thought would have happened to me under this so-called savage primitive regime, happened to prisoners in Abu Guraib, Guantanamo Bay and other US holding facilities. This always prompts me to say that thanks God I was captured by the most evil, brutal regime in the World and not by the Americans. By the third day, they called the doctor. Not that I was feeling unwell at all, but they called the doctor. The doctor came. He was a little man, who trained in Germany. He looked in my eyes, ears, mouth, took my pulse and I thought they do this in death row in Texas just before they are going to execute somebody. They like to make sure that they are fit and healthy. And then he took my blood pressure and something bothered him because he took it again. I said, "Yeah, I know I have high blood pressure." And he said, "No you don't. Your blood pressure is normal." I said, "Don't be ridiculous! How can it be normal? I am about to be killed by the Taliban. How on Earth can my blood pressure be normal?" He said, "look" and he did it again and it was normal. I said, "There you go, three days with the Taliban and you have cured my blood pressure. Thank you very much!" On the fifth day, there was a little guy called Hamid, the doctor's son who acted as translator, came running into my room very excited. He said, "You are on the front page of papers" and he brought in the weekly paper from Jalalabad. Although pictures had been banned under the Taliban, there were two pictures of me from the Reuters on the front page with a little story and the headlines took over half the page. The headlines looked longer than the story. I asked, "What does the headline say?" He read it out and said that the headline said, "The Taliban have cured the blood pressure of Yvonne Ridley and she is very happy." Not the catchiest of the headlines! During those 6 days in Jalalabad, a procession of fierce, very scary looking men into the room and asked me questions through Hamid (the translator) and the interrogations would go on and on till 8 or 9 o'clock at night. They never physically threatened me. The worst thing that they said to me was that if you don't tell us the truth, you would be here for 20 years. I assured them that they would get sick long before I did. I had decided on quite a risky strategy. I had decided to be "the prisoner from hell". I had bought into the propaganda that it was the most evil, brutal regime in the World and no matter what I did or said to them, they were going to kill me at the end of the day whenever they wanted to. So I thought, if I am nice they are gonna kill; if I am nasty they are gonna kill me. So I am just gonna go down fighting. So I was very abusive and aggressive and the harder I pushed them, the nicer they were. They would say, "why are you angry? You are our guest. You are our sister." Hamid had to translate my words and one day he said to me, "I am terrified of these people and you should be as well. It is not nice for me to translate your words, I get scared." On the sixth day, Hamid came to see me and his face was nearly black with fear and his mouth was so dry, he could hardly talk. He said, "You have a very important visitor." I asked who he was. He told me, "I can't tell you, but you must be respectful." I asked, "well, who is he? Mullah Omar or?" He said, "Just be respectful, you have to show some respect. This is a very, very important person." I wondered who he could be. Ten minutes later, there was a knock on my door. Although I was the prisoner, I had my own key. So I unlocked the door. Opened it, Hamid stood aside and there in front of me was a man, who made my blood run cold. The hair on the back of my neck lifted. For six days, I had avoided talking about religion and there in front of me was a religious cleric. Everything in Afghanistan is dirty, ripped and torn and dusty; but he was wearing an immaculate ivory gown, one which went right down to the ground. The Taliban's clothes were above the ankles and this man's clothes were right down to the ground. You couldn't see his feet and he had a great big ivory turban. A very modest beard by Afghan standards, light brown modest beard and brown eyes. He had beans, like rosary beads, which he moved two at a time. There was something else about him that I thought was weird this guy was that he had a shine on his face. It was like a light in the inside coming out. I had never seen anything like it before. I was told by my Muslim friends back in England that this was the Noor, the light that comes out of somebody, who is very pious, a very practicing Muslim, a very good person. I didn't know it at that time, I thought it was something weird and spooky about this guy. After I recovered, I moved aside and invited him into my room. He was so graceful and elegant that he didn't even seem to walk, he glided in and glided down. I sat opposite him and Hamid acted as the translator. He asked, "What is your religion?" I thought, now here we go. I answered that I was a Christian. He said, "Yes, but what sort of Christian are you, a Roman Catholic or a Protestant?" I answered, "A Protestant from the Church of England." Smiling and moving his beads; he asked, "What do you think of Islam?" I said, "Oh it is fantastic! It is absolutely wonderful!" Of course, I knew nothing about Islam and the little I knew was totally wrong. I went on for 2 minutes praising his faith that I knew so little about. And he smiled and moved his beads and when I ran out of adjectives and stopped; he said, "Islam is a very beautiful religion." Oh! I couldn't agree more and again I went on praising Islam. He moved his beads and listened as Hamid translated and I said that people around here are so passionate about their religion that they pray 5 times a day, I know because I have watched and counted it. He must have thought, you stupid women because I did not know that Muslims were required to pray 5 times a day. He moved his beads and asked, "so would you like to convert?" I thought he has led me into a blind valley here. If I say, "Yes I want to convert", he would accuse me of being fickle and insincere and he would say, "take her away and get her stoned." And if I say, "No I am not interested", he would say, "How dare you insult Islam? Take her away and have her stoned." So I tried to come up with the right answer. At the end, I said, "Look I can't make such a life changing decision, while I am imprisoned. But if you let me go, I promise that I will read the Qur'an and I will study Islam." I smiled and did not say anything more; rose up and glided out of the room. He went after him and returned a few minutes later and said, "You are going home on a Red Crescent Plane." I punched the air with my hand and congratulated myself for having dealt with this religious cleric in such a clever way. Within minutes the goods that I had were in a bag and off I was in a truck towards Kabul. After a 7 hour dusty, bumpy ride; we came to Kabul and drove straight past the airport. But I was well with it because I thought there were other Westerners being held by the Taliban. We are probably gonna pick them up. All I know is that I am going on a red crescent plane. That night, I was to find another aspect to the character of the Afghan people that they don't like giving you bad news. They don't like telling you anything that will upset you or cause an adverse reaction. So we drove past the prison into a really grim prison. Everything that you would imagine a third World prison to be. I was asked to get out and I got out and we walked down this dark dingy corridor and they pushed open this little metal door with a little spy-hole in it. There sitting on the concrete floor were two Afghan women, one with a baby and the other heavily pregnant. They said, "Tonight you will stay here." I said, "No, no, no! You have made a mistake. I am going home on a red crescent plane." Well of course the thing is when you lead someone on, you have deliver the bad news at some point. So the bad news was delivered to me then. You are a bad woman. You had a fake passport. You entered our country illegally. You have to be punished. I screamed and shouted; there was no way I was going into that cell and to take me out to the airport and I said to them, "You can't do this to me. I am British." And they smiled. Just then another cell door opened and six women wearing hijabs came out. One of them asked me if I was from the Red Cross. I said, "You speak English!" She told me, "I am Australian. These three are Germans and the other two are Americans." And I went, "Oh, You are the Christian charity workers, who were arrested for trying to convert people to Christianity." They replied, "Yes!" I told them that there had been a terrible mistake. That I was supposed to be going home on a red crescent plane and if she would tell this to these people? The women spoke the language and I could tell from the heated conversation and the expression on everyone's face that I was going nowhere that night and certainly not on a red crescent plane. Diana Thomas, the Australian girls invited me to stay in their cell. I thought that I did not have family company for 6 days and these girls spoke my language and just in case if I got out of this pit-hole, I would have a better story to write about. So I agreed and followed them into their cell. I looked around and it was so grim, a typical third World prison. Suddenly I broke down and started to cry and finally thought that after stopping my tears for 6 days, the Taliban had finally broken me down. I felt for cigarettes because though cigarettes were banned under the Taliban, but when they realized that I smoke, they gave me lots of cigarettes. So I took cigarette out and as I was about to lit it, I asked if anybody would mind if I smoke a cigarette. I was sobbing and tears were rolling down my eyes, when I was about to lit my cigarette and the girls told me that it was a "No-Smoking cell". How could I be so unlucky to be in the only "No-Smoking cell" in the whole of Asia. They told me that if I wanted to smoke, I would have to go out to the courtyard as they were going to have a meeting in the cell. Suddenly my craving went and I asked, "a meeting?" And they said, "Yes, we have two meetings a day!" I looked around and thought what happens there that they have two meetings a day?" O, oh! This is the escape committee. They are digging a tunnel and this is a progress report. So I asked, "Would you mind, I listen to your meeting?" They said, "No, not at all!" So I forgot about my cigarettes for the time being and sat at the edge of a bunk bed. The six girls sat in a circle on the floor and pulled out their Bibles. I couldn't believe it. They had been charged under Sharia Law for trying to convert Muslims into Christianity and they are in serious trouble. They could be executed and now they are taking their Bibles out! I was expecting the Taliban to come bursting in and beat them up or do something really horrible to them, but nothing happened. And as read the Qur'an later, it states clearly that we should protect the people of the Book, Jews and Christians and we must allow them to carry on, carry out and perform their faith. And this was exactly what the Taliban were allowing the Christians, although I didn't realize it back then. So they loudly read from the Bible a passage appropriate for their situation. After 20 minutes, they put down their Bibles and took out hand written pieces of paper. And then they started to sing. Let me tell you that I was a practicing Christian in those days. By practicing I mean that I went to the Church maybe twice a month, which in some people's eyes is bordering on fanaticism and we would sing these Victorian hymns. These girls started singing very loud, very robust, happy-clappy, full on, Southern Baptist style Hallelujah type of singing. I went out into the courtyard and I smoke three cigarettes off the trout. Adhaan, the Muslim call to prayer started and I thought, I don't believe it. I have Muslims fundamentalists on that side of the wall and I have Christian fundamentalists inside that cell, no wonder why that religious cleric smiled as he left me; he must have thought if she does not convert, feed her to the Christians. Although I make fun of them, but I would have to say that those six girls were incredibly strong in their faith, which got them through their ordeal that last much longer than mine. After they finished singing, they started praying and again it was full on, in your face, Hallelujah type of praying. In fact they were shouting different things, at one point I could hear the American girl, Heather shouting; "Lord Jesus, Show me the way out of here!" I have a very gallous sense of humor and I felt like shouting back, "Straight down the corridor, turn left; but there is a great big Talib there!" That night I slept on the concrete floor with a vapor thin mattress and when I woke up the next morning, I was given a change of clothes. In fact, I am wearing the prison clothes now (during her lecture). Nobody put me in an orange jump suit, shaved, shackled or abused me or raped me or sodomized me or videoed me for the gratification or pleasure of others later on. As you can see from what I am sharing, my experience was completely different from those, who fell into the hands of the Americans. So that morning with a new change of clothes, I set about washing the old ones. One of the German girls took me into the courtyard and gave me a metal bucket and took me to a hand-pump and said that I could get my water from there. I looked at this contraption, which looked as though it had come from one of those old Western movies. I started cranking it and eventually some water came out. I thought this is amazing, how do they heat it underground. She started laughing and told me that it is cold. I was given soap and sat about washing my clothes. Then I hung them up on the washing line in the prison courtyard. Within 5 minutes as sat down enjoying the last days of the summer sun, the prison governor came in, a great big man with a huge beard and a really scary looking dude. He came in and growled at me in broken English, "Remove those garments!" I said, "I can't. I am washing my clothes. We dry our clothes on a washing line." He said, "well cover them up!" I looked and said, "You stupid man, you have obviously not done washing you whole life. How on Earth, will it dry if it is covered up." He stood there for a couple moments and then said, "Well take those items down". He looked the other way and not looking at the clothes, sort of pointed. And I realized that he was talking about my underwear. I said, "No, this is the female wing of the prison and if you don't like what you are seeing, then clear off." He said, "Remove them!" And I said, "No, if you don't like them, you remove them." He then went storming off and returned fifteen minutes later with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan. These people are about to be bombed by the most powerful country on Earth and a diplomatic incident was unfolding as a result of my underwear. The Deputy Foreign Minister said to me, "will you please remove your undergarments from the line?" And I said, "Look! This is the female wing of the prison and there are no male prisoners here. You both are the only men here, so if you clear off there will no men around." He said, "Yeah, but the Taliban soldiers live above the female wing of the prison and if they look out and see them and have impure thoughts." I said, "There is an easy solution to this." He said, "I knew, there would be." I said, "Tell you soldiers, not to look out of the window." He said, "No that is not possible." I thought, I can not believe this. America did not need to fly over in B52s and bomb these people. They should have just parachuted in a regiment of women soldiers, waving their underwear and the Taliban would have fled. But it gives you a great insight into the modesty of these people and the way they felt about issues such as women's underwear. The argument continued and went on long after the clothes had dried. Nobody emerged as a surreal winner, but I did get my dried clothes back. The next day (the 9th day), I was feeling really crotchety. I had 3 or 4 really lousy sessions with the Christian services. In fact, though the Taliban had banned singing and music, they allowed the Christian girls to sing, but they drew the line at music. And I am eternally thankful till this day that they had confiscated their guitars. Some feeling really wretched and bad tempered that I can't take any more of that overcame me. The Deputy Foreign Minister came with his sidekick, a man I used to call the smiling assassin. He said, "We want to ask some more questions." I said, "No, I am done with answering questions. I am finished with you people. I have had enough with you people." And then I launched into a series of insults and curses and swearing. Then I coupled it with something, I had never done in my life and you get sent off the football pitch for doing it; I spat at them. Then I went into my cell and started shaking; a couple of Christian girls asked, "Did you really do what we thought you did?" I said, "Yes, I have gone beyond the line and am in serious trouble. I can sense it." Just then the female prison officer came and said (which was translated for me later on), "Let this English woman know that she is gonna be flogged for it. She can't do this to high-ranking people." I stood there, wretched with fear, cursing myself and my big mouth; wondering if there will be a public flogging and will Al Jazeera be there to cover it. What is gonna happen? About 10-15 minutes later we heard the gates being open in the courtyard. Heather the American girl ran in, saying they have returned and Yvonne is going to be flogged. Just then 3 of the Christians threw themselves at me and grabbed at my clothes and started saying, "Lord Jesus, don't let Yvonne feel any pain!" And I am standing there looking at them and thinking, you are making it worse. Just then the smiling assassin walked in and he had in his hand, the one thing that I wanted. The very thing, I had gone on a hunger strike for 9 days earlier, he had in his hand a Satellite Phone. He strutted around the cell showing everyone the Satellite Phone and said, "All of you can ring home. You can all ring your families today apart from this English woman, she is horrible. She spat at us and she has to be punished." It is interesting, this is how the most evil, brutal regime in the World punished me. They allowed my cell mates to call home, which was fantastic for them since they had not talked to their families for 2 months, but did not allow me. One of the German girls went to him and made a special plea and said, "Yvonne needs to talk to her daughter, so please let her call home." And he said, "No, she is a horrible woman and she has to be punished." So that was my punishment and looking back, I say that it had a degree of wisdom and insight on their part, which is more than can be said for my behavior and my only mitigation was that look I had not eaten for 9 days and I was getting fractious. That afternoon, the senior officers came and removed me with prior warning; got my things together and said, "You are going." Then they took me out of the prison and upstairs into the Taliban sleeping quarters. One of the senior officers had vacated his room and said, "You complained about the prison. Is this good enough for you?" It was a very good room by Afghan standards. He said, "You are going home tomorrow, InshaAllah!" And I said, "What is this 'InshaAllah', you people keep using after every sentence and it never happens?" Of course, now I know that this 'InshaAllah' means 'God willing'. They put me in this room; they gave me the key and I locked myself in. I had a fantastic view over the city of Kabul. Looking up to the Kabul hills, where all the anti-aircraft units were. I sat on the bed, contemplating my future and wondering how genuine their claims of letting me go tomorrow were, as they kept saying InshaAllah and InshaAllah it never happened. why had removed me from the Christians? Is this my last night on Earth? Will they execute me tomorrow? I didn't know anything and all this was going through my mind.
America and Britain Attack AfghanistanSuddenly there was a huge rip; as if though someone had torn the sky open. There was a great big light. It was the start of the war. That night America and Britain dropped 50 cruise missiles on Kabul. You can hear a cruise missile from 20 miles away. These were coming from a quarter of a mile away from the prison. I had covered wars before and I don't know why it had not occurred to me before. But it certainly occurred to me that night. These bombs do not discriminate. There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide. These bombs can not tell the difference between civilians, military, man, woman or child. I am going to be blown by a British bomb and I have no doubt that Tony Blair will blame the Taliban. And that would be the end of that. It was truly terrifying and I also thought there is no way, the Taliban will let me go now. Absolutely no way at all!
The Taliban Release Yvonne Ridley on Humanitarian GroundsThe next morning, there was a knock on my door and I was told that there was a vehicle outside and they were going to release me. I couldn't believe it. But sure enough there was a vehicle. They put me in it and we drove down from Kabul through Jalalabad and down to Tourkham and eventually I was handed to the Pakistan authorities. As I walked back across no man's land to Pakistan, the camera lights went up and the journalists started shouting, "How did the Taliban treat you?" In truth, up until the point I was released, I still didn't trust them at all and I thought that everything they were doing, had a hidden motive. It was only at the point that they released me that I thought they were an honorable bunch of guys. So when this journalist shouted out at me, "How did the Taliban treat you?" I thought for a while and then said, "With respect and courtesy!" This is not what the Western media wanted. The Western media wanted Abu Guraib like tales. They wanted abuse, rape, torture. They wanted to scars and tears. There was nothing, I could give them other than the truth. But sadly for some people the truth is never enough.
US and British War Crimes During the Afghan WarWhen I got back to London, two weeks later one of my guides from the Pakistan called me. He said, "Madam, the village that you visited has been bombed by the Americans." That was the village 'Kama', which was smaller even this hall that we are in (the lecture hall). And I said, "Look Pasha! I know these terrible things happen in the fog of war and it is awful, but these accidents do happen." He said, "But Madam, how can you accidentally bomb a village such as Kama for 3 days in the running." Now the American were telling us all about their strategic strikes, their surgical strike. Their B-52 bombers flying coming at 30000 feet, Kama would have even looked like a dot from 30000 feet. It was quite clear to me that it was indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilian areas. In many ways the Talibans were to blame because they kicked out all of the Western journalists. Whatever you may think of the journalists, but we do have our functions and our roles. We are the eyes, the ears, the witnesses and by kicking out Western journalists, they made sure that Britain and America could and would bomb indiscriminately across the country slaughtering innocent civilians, which Britain and America did. It propelled me into the anti-war movement and made me become very, very active as an anti-war campaigner.
Starts Studying Islam and eventually converts to IslamAt the same time, I remembered the promise I had made to the religious cleric. Well I thought against all the odds they had kept their word, while they hung on to the Christians they let me go. Really I should keep my promise know and I started to read the Qur'an. Soon groups of Muslims found out and somebody gave me a wonderful English translation of the Qur'an written by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, with an index on the back. So I thought, great I will get down with very soon. I am going to cherry-pick and read all about the subjugation and oppression of women and what promotes people to slam planes into towers. So I started cherry picking and reading all about women's issues and I had other Islamic literature to support my reading of the Qur'an. I couldn't believe what I was reading. The Qur'an makes it perfectly clear, crystal clear, without any second opinion that women are equal to men in spiritually, work and education. Furthermore the first convert to Islam was a woman. First martyr to Islam was a woman. Women played major roles right from day one in Islam. They fought alongside the men. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) singled out one woman for praise in the battle of Uhd and he said, "Everywhere I looked, this woman was there protecting me; fighting alongside me." I thought, from where did we get this idea that women are oppressed and subjugated? Who put this poison in our minds? Where did we get this from? Then I started looking at property rights, inheritance rights, divorce rights; what is yours is yours and what is his half of it is yours. Yeah, Brilliant! Much of it could have been written by a Californian lawyer, in fact this is from where they probably their inspiration. All these tales in the tabloids about these superstars having prenuptial contracts and teams of lawyers drawing up and thrashing out these prenuptial contracts, they were available to Muslim women from day one. So I began to see Islam in a totally different light. But I thought, OK this is right, but what are the people like? So I went out to the Muslim communities, specifically to meet the sisters. And it didn't matter, where I went in the World, whether it was Pakistan or it was Saudi or Canada or America or Australia and now even in New Zealand, the Muslim women that I have met whether they have been formally educated or not they are very resilient, strong, politicized, internationally aware, multi-skilled, multi-talented. A few years ago, I would have looked around this room and picked out everyone who was wearing Hijab and I would have thought, look those poor oppressed women. How did they manage to sneak out of their homes to get here? Now I am looking and trying to find out, who is a doctor; who is an engineer? Who is the lawyer? Who is the teacher? Who is doing Ph. D? I see incredibly diverse women. I remember a sister in Canada, who said to me, "Yvonne, my head might be covered, but my mind is not." The most valuable lesson that I learnt from the sisters that I met is that never ever would I judge a person's liberties and freedoms from the length of their skirt. So this was wonderful. The other thing that I learnt about the Muslim community is that they have a very gossipy community network. I would visit someone in Glasgow and the next day I would get a phone call from someone in Karachi saying, "I heard, you were in Scotland. How did it go?" The communication is amazing. But sometimes there were tiny whispers and people had false information that I had taken my Shahadah, the oath to become a Muslim. One day, I got a call from Sheikh Abu Hamza Al Masri, the firing Brimstone cleric from Pennsbury Park mosque, who is currently detained at her Majesty's pleasure in Belmarsh. He said, "Sister Yvonne, welcome to Islam!" And I said, "I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have not taken my Shahadah yet. I will get there, InshaAllah!" He said, "Well, take your time. This is going to the most important decision that you have taken in your life. Don't be rushed into it. Don't be pressurized into it. Make sure that you read as much as you can. Be convinced before you take your Shahadah. We are all praying for you." And I thought, I couldn't believe that this is the firing Brimstone cleric from the Pennsbury Park mosque. The tabloids loved to hate him because of his hooks and his eye-patch. They really have demonized him. I said, "Thank you very much for your understanding and I will keep you informed about my progress." And when I was just about to close the line; he said, "Well there is just one thing, I want you to know." I asked, "And what is that?" He said, "If you go out tomorrow and get hit by a bus, you will go straight to hell-fire!" I said, "Thank you!" and closed the line. It made me very nervous, so I took a copy of the Shahadah and carried it with me. Whenever I used address any gatherings I would say, "If you heard the sound of any accident and someone calling for two Muslim eye witnesses, then come quickly running because I want to enter before it is too late." Happily there was no such accident and on 30th June 2003 at 11:30 am, I took my Shahadah and declared my belief that there is only One God and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is His Messenger." I joined then what I consider the best and the biggest family in the World and I know that wherever I go in the World no matter how remote it may be, I would find brothers and sisters who would give me their love and support and help, if I need it. I was also lucky enough in April this year to go to Hajj, the annual pilgrimage, which Muslims are required to do at least once in a lifetime. The Saudi women don't think for one minute that they are subjugated and oppressed. They are like a tightly coiled spring, ready to launch into the political sphere in Saudi Arabia. There were elections in Saudi Arabia this year and women weren't allowed to vote, but let me tell you that I really believe that in next elections women would be able to vote and not only vote, but they will be standing as well. These women are really remarkable and they are in the wings ready to launch. Unfortunately due to Saudi's restrictive media laws, we hardly find out any real news that is happening there. But the sisters told that how distressed they were during the second Intifadah, the uprising in Palestine. They had been discussing this in the mosque after the Friday prayers and they wanted to show their solidarity to their Palestinian sisters, so they did something that is forbidden under Saudi. They have a spontaneous demonstration and they shouted and demonstrated. The Police were called because of the public disorder and the Police moved in. One of the Saudi women stood in front of them and said, "Dare one touch us, we are Saudi women and you can't touch us!" And the Police sprang back and they thought, what on Earth could they do with these women. They can't let them keep demonstrating and we can't manhandle them and put them into the jail either. There was this stand-off for half an hour as the women continued with their protest. In the end, the Police Chief had a better idea and they went and arrested their husbands instead. They took them to the Station and told that next time their wives did this, they would be charged. Obviously you are all aware of the London Bombings. I live in Central London. We were shocked by the ferocity of the atrocity, but not surprised. Because the anti-war movement and the party that I belong to called Respect led by George Galloway, MP had said, "Long before the first bombs were dropped on Baghdad, we had told Tony Blair that if you take us into a war with Iraq, our security will vanish. London will become the target." In his arrogance, Tony Blair dismissed us. He dismissed the fears of 2 million people, who marched in London. He would rather take his orders from Washington. I really salute New Zealand for its strength and determination to stand up to America over many different issues. That stand has made New Zealand one of the safest places on Earth in terms of security and your anti-nuclear stance is admirable. Beware of siren calls from politicians like Winston Peters, who thrive only on hate. I can't tell you, who to vote for in your elections. But be wary of those, who want stand shoulder to shoulder with people like George Bush because you will end up in serious trouble as we have in Britain.
So this was the story of Yvonne Ridley as told by herself. If you want to hear more from her on different current issues, check out her official website YvonneRidley.org and don't forget to follow sister Yvonne on twitter.