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banner Friday, 18 January, 2002, 15:24 GMT
Ask Taghi Amirani
Taghi Amirani is an Iranian documentary maker who has spent the last 11 years making films about the British seen from an outsider's point of view. Until making this documentary in a refugee camp in a war zone he had never seen such sights of human misery at first hand. To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Highlights of the interview

Newshost:
My name is Robert Freeman and with us today is Taghi Amirani who not only directed but also reported from the Makaki refugee camp in Afghanistan. Taghi is here to answer your questions raised by last night's Correspondent programme - the Dispossessed.

Newshost:
Let's turn to the first question from Poppy Jeluka Begum, she's doing her A-levels and asks what kind of things did you witness in Makaki that you felt left a permanent mental scar?

Taghi Amirani:
The images that I confronted were very vivid images of human suffering and I'm sure they're to leave more permanent scars on the people going through the experience of living in a camp. I don't think there's anything that's left a permanent scar on me. But what I witnessed was something that I'd never seen at first-hand in any situation that I've been involved with in making documentaries. People living in holes in the ground with torn up bits of rugs and package sheeting and blankets sheltering them. The camp itself had a thousand tents for formally registered refugees but more and more people were arriving every day. Truckloads of people on foot, donkeys and tractors and they were living exposed to the elements.

Newshost:
One of our emailers wants to know whether you think it's right to show each part of that huge human misery that's been inflicted by war.

Taghi Amirani:
It is absolutely right to show that because we have a choice of switching off to other people's suffering and getting on with our lives or getting involved and seeing what our governments are doing in our name. It is our job to convey that information - to bring the suffering of these people who are caught between many evils. They were oppressed by the Taleban, before that they were invaded by the Russians, they've gone through years of war and now they are being bombed by the Americans.

Newshost:
An opposing view from Andrew Stewart, who thinks it's very important that we see this sort of thing and that Afghanistan is not forgotten again. He wants to know what ordinary people can do to maintain the flow of information to the West. David Edwards also e-mailed with a similar point.

Taghi Amirani:
Now that's interesting - what ordinary people can do to maintain the flow of information. Pressuring politicians, demanding more rigorous reporting from news agencies and not buying into the normal, usual flow of spin we get from the world media. But I suspect there is not much that we can do as ordinary people to control the media - it controls us.

Newshost:
Let's see a part of the film that you. In one sequence it showed you and your crew returning to Makaki after the Northern Alliance had taken control and you'd been assured by the local authorities that it is safe.

VIDEOCLIP

Newshost:
Taghi, obviously with the camera hidden behind the seat there - you don't see that anywhere else in the film. There's much more of a sense of danger there. Can you tell us a bit more about that? It didn't seem to be an awful lot different - there were guards at the gatepost.

Taghi Amirani:
We were never quite sure when we could film and when we couldn't film and that's very close to the Iranian border and had absolute clear instructions - don't film the border crossing. So we couldn't always bring out cameras until we were inside the camp.

What we couldn't film and what you don't see in the film is that when we stopped to enter Makaki at the gatepost, more men appeared from behind hills. People we hadn't recognised - it could have been very friendly - in fact the gatepost guards were incredibly friendly that day - overfriendly - and they'd never been friendly with us - they were very businesslike - in out. The Medicine Sans Frontiere team felt that they were being overtly friendly, maybe to lure us into the camp in the confusion of who's in charge and possibly hold us.

I had only the night before spoken to London about the latest developments and we were given news that Genghis had been killed by the Taleban in an ambush in northern Afghanistan. I have no problems in admitting that I am a complete coward. I'm not a war reporter, I've never been to a war zone, I've worn a bullet-proof jacket. So not being familiar with such situations, I wasn't going to risk my life or the crew's life so we bailed out.

Newshost:
An e-mailer, who hasn't given their name, wonders about that confusion with people changing sides so easily. They go on to say, as with the change of any government people will take different sides and are not necessarily evil for doing so. Is that flip-flop normal?

Taghi Amirani:
Again, I am not an expert in such fields and I don't think it's implied that people are evil for switching sides. In that particular scene, we were unsure if people had switched sides and exactly what was going on because it's the next day we go back into the camp. But yes, people switch sides all the time - and the phrase that I've become very familiar with since coming back from Afghanistan is that you can never buy an Afghan - you can only rent him for a short while. So of course in such crazy, complicated situations people would switch sides for survival more than anything else.

Newshost:
An e-mail from Laura Smith in the UK. She says, do you believe that people such as Abdollah Pahlavani are loyal to the Taleban because they genuinely believe its cause. Abdollah was your guide in the camp wasn't he? At the start he was Taleban and then later on he was saying that I'd dropped hints that I wasn't actually necessarily Taleban. How loyal do you think he was?

Taghi Amirani:
I don't think he was. I don't even think that the Taleban commander himself was as full four-star, leaded Taleban. They seem to be going with the flow - they were blowing in the wind. I think they were people who probably were too frightened to do otherwise and Pahlavani's hints went right over my head. He was very friendly and very co-operative - extremely polite - but I'm very used to Iranians and people in that part of the world - including Afghans - being very polite. The etiquette of social interaction is very elaborate. I just thought this was just normal - he was just being very helpful and polite because that's what we do - we spend hours being polite without actually doing anything. So I never took his hints - as I'm not Taleban, please don't think I'm Taleban - until when he came out and said I wasn't Taleban.

Newshost:
It is actually quite isolated there. How were they connected to what was going on?

Taghi Amirani:
Isolation was a big problem for everyone - for us included in terms of getting news and information about what is actually going on. So I think little pockets of fiefdoms have developed. Every little village or every sort of region has got its warlord and its own system of power structure, so that's how they were getting on. Although I heard that people would go to the local capital - the capital of the region of Nimruz to meet with other people, get information and come back.

Newshost:
You mentioned the Taleban commander, Abdul Rashid Barshadoost. We've got an e-mail from B Mackay saying do you know what happened to him afterwards? And also pointing out he didn't seem to be a typical Taleban type.

Taghi Amirani:
Yes. Again, I've never had direct experience of a Taleban but he struck me as quite an amenable kind of guy. Apart from the moment where he said the people who committed the 11th September atrocities, if they were Muslims and they were doing it for a just reason to take revenge against the American government, then they did right and they're in Paradise. I couldn't really argue with other things he said and whatever a typical Taleban is - he didn't seem to be one. We couldn't find him later.

Newshost:
You still don't know where he is?

Taghi Amirani:
No. I suspect he has merged with the community - probably shaved his beard and taking his turban off and come out as a Northern Alliance man. The new commanders seemed to know him very well.

Newshost:
There wasn't a danger that he'd been killed?

Taghi Amirani:
Possibly. We inquired a great deal. I was very keen to find him and interview him again - what now? I even asked for his telephone number and his address from the new commander who said he knew where he was but he wouldn't tell me.

Newshost:
Bill Collins, England wants to know if you know if there are any religious frictions in the Makiki camp. He said there appeared to be no trouble between the Taleban and the Heratis in the camp.

Taghi Amirani:
There was tribal friction that we noticed - religious friction I am not sure about. But the people were really brought together by one suffering. At the time we were there, they had a bigger problem to deal with which was hunger, shelter, medical care, death and misery. So I think the secondary issues of religious differences or tribal differences, although still there, weren't coming to the surface until things were getting very, very tense.

Newshost:
We are going to see another clip from the film. This is an extract where Ismail, one of the refugees you spent some time with, explains how he feels about the role of the USA.

VIDEOCLIP

Newshost:
Taghi, you describe the refugees as being quite knowledgeable - very knowledgeable - about what's going on with the politics. Do you think the sentiment of Ismail is reflective of all the people you met?

Taghi Amirani:
Absolutely. Within an hour of arriving at the camp, we were surrounded by huge crowds of refugees who wanted to air their grievances. When you enter Makaki, whether you are a reporter, a journalist, an aid worker or a doctor, they don't see the difference they just see you as a symbol of the outside world able to bring in help. So they just came up and spoke - it was like pent-up anger and frustration poured out.

Newshost:
Very uncommonly - the woman who came and talked you.

Taghi Amirani:
Absolutely. But it wasn't just ranting. This was very considered eloquent statements from people who really knew the situation in their country, they knew their history - they knew of the games being played. They clearly knew that this whole war against terrorism is not all it seems. Many said bin Laden is just an excuse. The Americans created bin Laden in the first place anyway. The Taleban were outsiders created by other people anyway. So they knew that their lives were being played with for other aims.

Newshost:
Ali Jazayeri, UK in the UK wants to know as an Iranian what do you see the role for Islam in the future of Afghanistan?

Taghi Amirani:
I suspect Iran, like all other neighbouring countries, would benefit from a stable Afghanistan. I think the Taleban weren't exactly Iran's greatest friends. A few years ago, the Taleban murdered nine Iranian diplomats in Musarasharif so all the countries have a responsibility in that area, as well as the West of course, to bring about stability and peace in Afghanistan and the West really needs to stop playing games with countries like Afghanistan.

Newshost:
In the film you meet Hassan whose parents are desperate for him to be educated. A. Yelduz Davison has picked up on this issue of education. He wants to know what's being done to organise schools?

Taghi Amirani:
The one scheme I know about is a feature film maker who has set up his own education scheme throughout Afghan refugee camps, partly funded by him but he is trying to get financial support from UNICEF, the United Nations and other aid agencies and that's a scheme that's working well and that needs support and people can actually contribute to that.

Newshost:
Patrick Symons and Mohd Abdullah, an engineer from Iran and Richard Darlington want to know in what way individuals can help - is it the Red Crescent?

Taghi Amirani:
The Red Crescent - the Iranian version of the Red Cross, Medicine Sans Frontiere, Action against Hunger - the website for Correspondent has a list of these agencies with contact details. People can contribute to these agencies. There is a concert happening at the Albert Hall on the 14th March to raise funds for Afghan refugees and people can get more information about that as well. It involves Afghan musicians and artists, writers and poets and dancers - a mini Live Aid for Afghanistan.


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