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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 14:17 GMT
Ridley's return to Kabul
Yvonne Ridley - the UK journalist who was jailed by the Taleban
Yvonne Ridley, the UK journalist who was jailed by the Taleban after entering Afghanistan illegally, answered your questions in a live forum.

  Click here to watch   (56k modems)


Yvonne Ridley was seized by the Taleban on 28 September 2001 after entering the country illegally.

She was held in the women's section of Kabul Prison until her eventual release 10 days later.

Yvonne retraced her steps in Afghanistan and found the Afghan guides who were also arrested by the Taleban, her old Kabul Prison cell and the promise of a brighter future for the Afghan people.

Quiz Yvonne on how she felt returning to her prison cell? How did she feel hearing bombs fall on Kabul while in prison? Did she think she'd find her guides alive again? How much has Afghanistan changed?


Highlights of the interview:


Newshost:

Yvonne, you know that a lot of press coverage following your arrest suggested that you were just seeking publicity. On that note Douglas McKinnon has e-mailed us and he says: Are you aware of how little sympathy there was for you in this country when your irresponsible little publicity stunt backfired?

What do you say to that? How do you feel about the more negative coverage?


Yvonne Ridley

It certainly wasn't a publicity stunt. If I'd wanted to do a publicity stunt, I wouldn't have done that. But journalists do take risks while they're pursuing stories. I went into Afghanistan to try and cover the humanitarian crisis and speak to those Afghan people who couldn't or wouldn't leave the country.


Newshost:

We've also had e-mails asking how you felt about the guides who were arrested with you. In the programme you meet up with the guides and they tell you that the Taleban did torture them. Do you feel responsible for that?


Yvonne Ridley

Not entirely no. All war correspondents employ guides and it's a very sought-after job. They knew the risks, they were both adults. I was very sad about what happened to them. When I was released, it was very difficult for me to refer to them as my guides because all along I told the Taleban, I don't know who these men are - just release them, they're nothing to me.


Newshost:

An e-mail from Zaid, Afghanistan asks: When you knew you would be released, why didn't you insist your guides were too?


Yvonne Ridley

We agreed right from the beginning that in the event of capture, we wouldn't know each other because they would basically be in more trouble probably than myself. So we kept up this story and I did ask for their release - the two men who were with me - not the two guides. In fact I did make appeals through the World Service to the Taleban - and I only found out when I spoke to my guides - that the Taleban judge actually heard and said that he would take it into consideration.


Newshost:

An e-mail from Fran Ewing in the UK who asks: Do you think you were irresponsible travelling to Afghanistan at the height of hostilities there when you had a young daughter to consider back at home?


Yvonne Ridley

Journalists will go into hostile areas because by the very nature that is where the news story is. The fact that I was mother - I was amazed that that entered into it - but it divided the country. There were those people who were supportive of me - saying this issue shouldn't arise in this situation and other people, like Fran, were saying, she's irresponsible and she should consider her daughter. I was just amazed that in the new millennium we still had this sort of conversation arising.


Newshost:

How did this split occur? Was it men who approved and women disapproved? Was there any kind of pattern to it?


Yvonne Ridley

My largest detractors were female, which really surprised me.


Newshost:

Would men reporters, do you think, be criticised in the same way?


Yvonne Ridley

No I don't think so. It just wouldn't enter into the equation.


Newshost:

An e-mail from Palmer, Sweden asks: It seems to me that Afghanistan is one big prison. But where exactly were jailed and what was your cell like?


Yvonne Ridley

The first six days I was detained in the intelligence headquarters in Jalalabad and I was given a room with air-conditioning. I had access to a flush toilet and shower so I was quite comfortable there under the circumstances. Then I was moved to Kabul prison in the centre of the capital which was very basic. It had no running water - if you wanted water, you had to crank a hand pump in the courtyard outside and that was a real shock to the system.


Newshost:

Was it overcrowded?


Yvonne Ridley

I was offered my own cell but I declined. It was appalling and I was very distraught. Then six aid workers for the Shelter Now international charity said I could share their cell, which was a great to joy to me because I hadn't had any female company for about six or seven days and furthermore they spoke my language. So there were seven of us cramped into this tiny little cell. But they were all intelligent strong women and they were great company.


Newshost:

An e-mail from Zaid in the Caribbean who asks: How were you treated by the Taleban?


Yvonne Ridley

The Taleban treated me very, very well. They treated me with the greatest courtesy and respect and I know that jars with a lot of people. But this regime that has been barbaric was also extremely chivalrous towards me.


Newshost:

That's what always say when the West criticises their attitude towards women - that they have the ultimate respect for women which is why they essentially protect them - overprotect them, of course, as we would see it. You seem to be backing them up in that.


Yvonne Ridley

I've got no complaints with my treatment other than the silly mind games that they would play.


Newshost:

What sort of silly mind games?


Yvonne Ridley

They would tell me I'd be there for 20 years if I didn't co-operate - there was always this underlying threat. Then they would say tomorrow you're going home - tomorrow would come and I didn't go home. The cruellest blow of all was when they said that they were putting me on a plane out of Kabul and when I got to Kabul, they put me in prison - that was a huge shock to the system.


Newshost:

We have received an e-mail from a lawyer, Atif ali-Khan, Pakistan he asks: I remember the day when I was meeting my clients - the foreign aid workers - and you tried to pass me a note for the British Commissioner in Pakistan. The Taleban later told me you'd been really stubborn and difficult to handle and I think they were happy to let you go.


Yvonne Ridley

I think they were. I do remember Mr Khan and I wasn't very happy with him at the time because I wanted to pass this note just to let people know where I was. But obviously he was bound ethically and didn't feel able to take the note for me. He was legally right but I felt, morally, he could have just slipped the note into his pocket. But lawyers are lawyers so he was very correct.


Newshost:

James T, British living in Germany asks: Your family publicly criticised the UK Government when it was made clear that the offensive would go ahead, whether you'd freed or not. Do you believe the campaign should have been delayed?


Yvonne Ridley

Absolutely not. I chose to go into Afghanistan and I had to stand and fall by those consequences. I would have been horrified if a military campaign had been held up purely because of me.


Newshost:

But what did it do to you when you heard those bombs falling? What did you think your future was?


Yvonne Ridley

I was terrified and I thought this is it and these people are not going to let me go. They're probably going to use me as a hostage or a human shield. Obviously I was very fearful but at the same time there was no way I could have criticised the Government for going ahead with the campaign even though it was terrifying for me.


Newshost:

Mark Allen, UK asks: Look, Ms Ridley you're milking this one drier than the Afghan tundra aren't you?


Yvonne Ridley

I don't think so. I felt a need to go back to Afghanistan and it obviously still is very much a human interest story and I think that the programme itself illustrated that.


Newshost:

Some people would say that you felt the need to go back to Afghanistan but you'd already caused an awful lot of trouble by going there in the first place and what right had you to go back there to satisfy your own wishes?


Yvonne Ridley

It was a purely selfishly motivated trip. I needed to go back and bury a few ghosts. For me it was the right thing to do. Professionally also, I wanted to see ordinary Afghan people and try and continue and do the story that I set out to do in the first place.


Newshost:

Can you understand though that people feel that the whole thing was misconceived and that you're only emphasising that by returning again? Particularly, when on your return, you found the guides and indeed something awful had happened to them - which indeed I think was a lot of people's worry at the time.


Yvonne Ridley

I was delighted to see my guides in the flesh and they held no anger or aggression towards me. I was delighted to go into Afghanistan and meet ordinary people and they were actually delighted to see me. They recognised me and they were overwhelmed that I had actually gone back to their country because they just didn't think that I would want to go back again.


Newshost:

How did you get back in? With the name Yvonne Ridley, how easy was it to get a visa? What did you have to do?


Yvonne Ridley

I went into the Afghan embassy in London and asked for a visa. They recognised me immediately and were delighted that I was going to go back with a passport, with a visa - officially. So they were very happy to give me the visa on the spot.


Newshost:

What did find there - the real situation - particularly for women?


Yvonne Ridley

The women that I spoke to were very, very anxious to stress this point that they choose to wear the burka because of its cultural significance. They're now in a situation where they don't have to wear the burka but they choose to. They have said, will you please emphasise to the people of the West - we have worn the burka for decades and it wasn't something enforced by the Taleban. In fact, men with beards and turbans were coming over and saying - you must emphasise that just because we have turbans and beards we are not al Qaeda supporters.


Newshost:

But did you believe that? Certainly in the 1970s and 80s, under the late King, Kabul was a very cosmopolitan place - women wore mini-skirts. Don't you think you've swallowed a bit of a propaganda line there when it was so different just a decade or two back?


Yvonne Ridley

Well, I met a burka salesman who has been in business for over 40 years and his family before him - these outfits have been around for centuries and it is a cultural thing. I think we will probably see less and less of the burka once the universities open and the young girls go out and they'll probably just prefer to wear scarves or shawls and as they gain in more confidence, maybe then we'll see less of the burkas. But also the women wear the burkas because they feel protected in them. It is still a very unstable country and they do feel a certain amount of comfort by wearing this garment. I hated it, but just because it was bad for me, it doesn't mean to say that it was bad for them.


Newshost:

George Hutchinson, UK asks: Do you really believe, from the bottom of your heart, that the Afghan women are better off now than during the Taleban regime?


Yvonne Ridley

I certainly saw evidence of it - for instance women are now shopping on their own - before they couldn't, they couldn't go out unescorted without their husband or a father or a very close male relative. So to that extent women are getting out and about. Obviously there is a long, long way to go before the women have the sort of freedoms that we would like to see them enjoy.


Newshost:

You did meet an Afghan women journalist who talked about that to you on the programme.


Yvonne Ridley

Yes, she pointed to an article she was very pleased about which showed that for this year's entrance examinations at Kabul university, more girls than boys had passed and will be enjoying a university education - which again is something that couldn't have been imagined a few months ago.


Newshost:

An e-mail from Wolfgang May asks: Do you think the majority of Afghans you spoke to believe that peace could be achieved within a year?


Yvonne Ridley

They desperately, desperately want it. But of course there are all sorts of problems - infighting between warlords etc. - it's very, very fragile. I think the whole world wants to see that country enjoy some sort of peace and the population desperately wants to have that sort of peace and the freedom to be able to move around without being caught up in a fire fight.


Newshost:

Shafiq has e-mailed to ask: Do you think the US was justified in bombing Afghanistan? Do the majority of Afghans support the bombing?


Yvonne Ridley

Talking to people - no, they weren't happy about the bombing. I personally thought that it was a crazy thing to do because the people who really suffered were the ordinary Afghan people. Make no mistake, there were hundreds - if not thousands - of innocent Afghan men, women and children who were killed by American bombs. It just seemed a crazy thing to do because yes, we've got this war against terrorism - nobody wants terrorism. But the UK have had terrorism here for over 30 years and we've fought it in an underground, covert fashion - just because we get a bomb on the mainland, it doesn't mean to say that we have to send cruise missiles over to Belfast.


Newshost:

Didn't the Afghans get to the point when in a way they felt their country had been hijacked by al Qaeda and that the only way was going to be some kind of intervention from abroad? Did you get any sense of that?


Yvonne Ridley

A lot of people were delighted to see the fall of the Taleban but they then were quite alarmed at what they saw was the presence of outside forces. The Afghans do not like outside forces in their country. They want now to be left alone to try and repair the damage that's been left from over 20 years of war.


Newshost:

Mohammed S, UK asks: What do you think of the mainstream media's largely negative portrayal of the Taleban?

Do you think the way that the Taleban have been portrayed in the media here is fair overall?


Yvonne Ridley

The Taleban were an undesirable regime but the current regime still supports very strict Sharia laws. It's difficult for me as a westerner to try and get my head around this. The liberation of Kabul that we were treated to on TV - it was, I think, just a little snapshot and the reality is that you've still got a regime there that is not that far apart from the Taleban.


Newshost:

Imran, UK asks: The Northern Alliance or the Taleban - which is the better of the two?


Yvonne Ridley

Hopefully we're going to have this election in late May/June and hopefully the people will then decide and bring in their own government and we'll just have to see how they react. But there is no way we are going to get a western democracy in Afghanistan and maybe we would be wrong to expect that.

See also:

29 Sep 01 | UK
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