Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be stripped bare of your integrity? Lose all faith in mankind? And fear for your life?
At a time when the Western world had been submerged into a spectacular maelstrom of chaos and uncertainty, gutsy journalist, Yvonne Ridley, had a nightmarish ordeal of her own to endure.
In 2001, during the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan, Yvonne’s worst fears hastily became a bleak and hapless reality. She was taken hostage by the Taliban.
For many, the word ‘hostage’ might bring about bad memories of British detainees, Terry Waite, JohnMcCarthy, and the abominable death of slain journalist Daniel Pearl- who was decapitated at the hands of terrorists in Pakistan. Or perhaps the darkness and despair of Irish author, Brian Keenan, who was abducted whilst working as a teacher in Beirut, and incarcerated for four years.
There are those shunted off to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram- each prison painting the perfect picture of a concrete jungle of damnation and terror, which we, the so called ‘civilised’ west, so easily associate with being held hostage. Yvonne’s story, however, displays a very different turn of events.
At the time, Yvonne was the Chief Reporter for The Sunday Express. She was amongst 3,000 other journalists sitting in Pakistan, patiently waiting for the war to erupt. Following in the footsteps of the BBC’s ‘gargantuan reporter’, John Simpson, Yvonne made the similar decision to go undercover, in the hope of attaining access to the tribal areas of Afghanistan. Armed with only a Burka as her cover of darkness, Yvonne made those crucial steps into the unknown abyss of Afghan. Little did she know- she was walking into a hazy minefield of ambiguity.
Yvonne explains how it was like; “wearing Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility- nobody takes notice of you- you are completely invisible…” She describes the burka as a unifying garment; “you become completely dehumanised, you have no shape, nothing to distinguish you. You become ensconced into society. You are just another burka”. Yvonne was able to tread in the same footsteps of one of the most evil, reviled and elusive regimes, (or at least that’s what she thought) without raising an eyebrow.
Two days into her undercover investigation, Yvonne decided to make tracks and head back towards the Pakistan border. Here she was spotted by the Taliban, in what can only be described as a ‘farcical scene’, where she was thrown off her donkey and onto the arid side walk. In these dire and unfortunate moments Yvonne was uncovered as a journalist (or what they thought to be a spy), when her camera fell from one of the folds of her burka. Immediately, she was arrested.
Now, this was the second time I had met with Yvonne. And if I could make note of one of her defining and distinct attributes, it would be her pioneering confidence and bravery, and almost disregard for her own well-being. Yvonne came across selfless, more or less untouchable. So for the next part, hearing this came as quite a bombshell.
Following her capture, Yvonne spent her days in the darkness of Kabul prison. As she was previously confined to the caliginosity of her burka, Yvonne once again had tunnel vision. She could not see past the four walls that kept her detained from the urban safari that awaited her outside. It was this fear of the unknown that drove her to such absurd actions.
“One day I found an old razor blade on the ground, and I hid it in a bar of soap. I thought that if they torture me, at the first available opportunity I’ll kill myself!” Bizarrely, Yvonne referred to this as her ‘security blanket’. Even she laughed at the thought of a steeled razor blade being her only comfort. She said; “It was so blunt I probably couldn’t have done anything anyway, but nonetheless, I had it”. For Yvonne, having decided that these people were not going to treat her kindly no matter how she behaved, she decided to be the prisoner from hell. Literally.
In the way that a beastly and demonic creature might perform, Yvonne’s only way of coping was to spit at them, swear at them, be abusive to them. When Yvonne told me how she behaved so brashly, my immediate thought was to think that they must have reciprocated her immoral behaviour with similar tales of torture and abuse. Wrong! “Their reaction to my behaviour was to be kind to me…treat me with respect and courtesy. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why- when I was being so awful”.
On hearing this, I was in an utter state of astonishment. How could, what many conceive as the most brutal regime in the world, treat her with such consideration? Where was the disdain, the torment, the injustice? Were the Taliban as bad as westerners perceived them to be? Well, in Yvonne’s case, they were quite the contrary.
For the first six days of her time spent in captivity, Yvonne was held in the intelligence quarters in Jalalabad. Not only did her captors treat her with the utmost respect and courtesy, they also gave her the key to her own cell. She had access to a flush toilet and a shower and so was able to carry out her daily ablutions without being scrutinised. Although these are deemed to be basic requirements, for Yvonne, this sort of kind-hearted behaviour seemed unusual. “When I asked the interrogator why I had been given a key- he explained to me if anything happens to you it will be your fault, you must make sure this door is locked on a night time- and that was that”.
I began to understand that her determination to survive led her to adopt a strategy of defiance towards her captors (a sharp contrast from the subdued demeanour of Afghan women). The only control Yvonne had over her situation was food. “I went on a hunger strike! And that really upset them”. Every morning, noon, and night, they would come in and dutifully deliver her a bowl of water, and a jug. They would wash her hands, tell her she was their guest, and lay out a plate of food. Each time they did this, Yvonne would ask if she could use the telephone, and on refusal would say; “well take away the food then”. They were wholly disgusted at her low-regard and conviction towards them.
I asked Yvonne if her mind-set towards the Taliban had changed. She promptly replied by saying; “No! I didn’t trust them one inch”. She explains to me how she was only able to reflect on them with words of; “well…maybe they aren’t that bad”. But that was it. Certainly the ones that held her captive bear no relations to the ones that are now marauding Pakistan.
With all this said, there is still one thing I failed to mention, that marks a strikingly unusual turn of events. “During my time in captivity I was asked to convert to Islam- apparently the duty of all Muslims when they meet a non-Muslim is to invite them into the faith”. Instantly, Yvonne disregarded this proposal. “I said I cannot make such a life changing decision whilst in prison- but if you let me go I will read your Qur’an and study Islam”. True to her word Yvonne read the Qur’an after she was released. Two years following the atrocities in Kabul, Yvonne embraced Islam.
“One thing that I have discovered is that Islam is perfect, but the people who practice it aren’t. We are judged by an incredibly high standard of non-Muslims. You know just because someone is called Mohammad does not make them a practising Muslim, but in the eyes of our media it makes them a Muslim thief, a Muslim murderer, and suddenly the religion becomes all important”.
Yvonne’s plight to her religion has created huge uproar amongst many westerners. The threads of her former fabric have been unravelled to expose a new woman. One who has changed her faith. Her intrepid reporting style and continual acts of controversy have helped Muslim women embrace themselves all over the world. Yvonne Ridley is now recognised for her courageous and extraordinary actions to others, despite being, ‘in the hands of the Taliban’.
Even after Yvonne was finally released on humanitarian grounds, following ten days of imprisonment, she still didn’t trust her captors. “They drove me to the Pakistan border. I remember getting out of the car backwards because I didn’t want to turn my back on them. I thought they were going to shoot me in the back as I walked across the perimeter”. She distinctly recalls the faces of her captors during this liberal, yet despondent moment. “There were seven or eight of them, all in line, with big black beards, all wearing black turbans- they looked scary. I remember them looking at me- they must have been thinking what on earth is this woman doing? Then I turned and walked really quickly across the border”. After that, Yvonne didn’t look back.
To this day, Yvonne is still unsure of how her release truly came about; whether it be her continual disregard and appalling behaviour towards her abductors, international pressure, or if in-fact it was a release on humanitarian grounds. I guess that we will never know. Yvonne makes light of her rebellious stance. She laughs; “I think they were just happy to get rid of me, I would imagine some of them are still being counselled now- whatever preconceived ideas they had of Western women- they probably thought oh my god, they are worse than we ever imagined”.