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What It's Like To Be A Woman Reporting On The Taliban: 'They Don't Look At You'

Clarissa Ward is CNN's chief international correspondent and the author of the memoir,<em> On All Fronts. </em>
Clarissa Ward is CNN's chief international correspondent and the author of the memoir,<em> On All Fronts. </em>

CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward can't stop looking at the bruise on her arm. It's a reminder of her harrowing escape last week from Afghanistan.

At the end of a trip reporting on the fall of the Afghan government, Ward found the Kabul airport thronged with people desperate to leave the country. She and her crew held hands and formed a chain, but when the gate to their flight opened, the crowd closed in upon them.

"I was the last one [in line]," Ward says. "And this person on the other side just grabbed my arm and just ripped me through the door. And honestly, I think all of us were crying because it was so heartbreaking and intense and visceral."

Ward flew out of Kabul on Saturday on a U.S. Air Force flight to Doha, Qatar. There were about 300 evacuees on her flight, but she's still thinking about the people left behind: "There were little children who were howling and wailing. And you were standing there thinking: This is so wrong. Why do I get to go in? Just because I have this passport? It just feels very wrong."

Ward first spoke to the Taliban about a year and a half ago when she was granted access to a Taliban-controlled village. In her most recent trip, she covered the Afghan military in Kandahar just before it fell. Then she went to Ghazni province, where the Taliban had already taken over.

She says that reporting on the Taliban is especially challenging for female journalists.

"You're essentially invisible," she says. "They don't look at you. They don't address you. They don't talk to you. If you speak to them, they might reply to you, but they won't look in your direction."

Ward says that rural Afghans have made what she calls a "Faustian bargain" with the Taliban: "People are tired and frightened, and they just want peace."


Interview Highlights

This was a moment where there was no veneer of respectability or politeness. It was push and shove and scrape and push to get in there and get out safely.

On boarding the flight out of Kabul

The minute the gate closed and I started talking to the [British soldier] who had grabbed me, and I said, "How are you dealing with this?" And he just started bawling. He started weeping, and he said, "I've done two tours in Helmand province, and the PTSD I will have from the last week is much worse." And he was seeing people being trampled to death every day. He saw women throwing babies over the wire to try to get them out safely. And those images don't leave you.

We're so protected from those moments of just sheer survival, usually, in our Western lives. And this was a moment where there was no veneer of respectability or politeness. It was push and shove and scrape and push to get in there and get out safely.

Ward speaks with Taliban leaders at a former U.S. military base in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.
/ Courtesy of CNN International
Ward speaks with Taliban leaders at a former U.S. military base in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.

On the Taliban presenting themselves as more moderate than they were the last time they ruled

I think in the sort of upper echelons of the Taliban leadership, it's not that they're trying to court the media, but they definitely want to show that they're cordial, they're welcoming, they're responsible and respectful. The problem you have, as is so often the case in many military and paramilitary structures, what the leaders say up at the top from their nice five-star hotels and what the rank and file say on the ground with their whips and their truncheons, desperately trying to push back these crowds — there's often a disconnect there. And so while I will say that the Taliban [have] a much more coherent chain of command than most, and there's largely very good discipline among the rank and file, there's still always the capacity in that moment for something to go very wrong.

On the Taliban capacity for change

Based on my experience with the Taliban, you can't expect them to change. They are largely illiterate. ... They have been fighting since they were old enough to carry a gun. They don't know any other way of life. And the Taliban leadership understands that it could have a problem on its hands if it starts to lose the support of the rank and file and the foot soldiers, that they could be inadvertently pushed into the arms of more extremist groups like al-Qaida or ISIS — there are a number of different extremist terrorist groups that are operating inside Afghanistan — because at the end of the day, these young men have been trained from a young age to kill and to sacrifice and to be killed. And so you can't suddenly strip that away from them and expect them to go and get a job in a bank. It's just not going to happen.

On some rural Afghans' view of the Taliban

I think the Taliban has one advantage on its side, which is that their version of Sharia law may be draconian and harsh, but they have a reputation for implementing swift justice and it's not corrupt. It may be harsh, but it's not corrupt. And so that does gain them a lot of supporters.

I would also say in rural areas, and I think it's hard for a lot of Americans to kind of get their head around this, but women's education and issues like this are really considered tangential to the primary considerations of everyday life. And so whether you're in government-held territory or whether you're in Taliban-held territory, it's just not a focus, things like girls' education. The thing that I heard again and again, both trips I've done in Ghazni and also a year and a half ago, when I was in the north, from a lot of people was, "We don't care who's in charge. We just want peace. We just want to be able to leave our homes without fear of airstrikes or gunfire." And this is interesting to me because it's exactly what the Taliban capitalized on in the late '90s when they came to power, that they were dealing with the populace that was so exhausted and worn down by incessant brutality and violence that they were willing to surrender so many of their rights if they would get security in return.

On the Taliban's treatment of women

It's got nothing to do with Islam, by the way. And this is a really important distinction to make. You look at Bangladesh and Pakistan, and women are prime ministers there, OK? This isn't an inherent Islamic thing. It is a mixture of cultural and tribal and historic dogma that has trickled down for many, many decades and created this situation whereby women are viewed as having their rights, yes, but being essentially private property.

On what rural Afghan women told Ward in a Taliban-held area

When you go into the cities or you talk to people who are more educated ... those women are on the verge potentially of losing everything, and their stories will rip your heart out in ways you can't imagine.

I obviously am separated from the rest of my male crew and sleeping in this area with women and children. These [rural] compounds have a compound within a compound, and the sort of internal compound is for the women and the children, and most of these women never really leave that compound. They never really leave their home, except maybe on rare occasions. But it's just the way life has always been for them. And so it sounds maybe unfair, but they don't have big dreams about doing interesting things with their lives or traveling or getting jobs or getting further education. ... I've had [conversations] with them where I've said, "Are you going to educate your girls?" for example, and they were like, "No, why would we do that? ... The Taliban say it's bad." ...

And you just realize there isn't a huge amount of space or time in their life, at this stage, in these rural areas to worry about much else. And they kind of are in acceptance of their sort of standing in the world.

What is heartbreaking is when you go into the cities or you talk to people who are more educated ... those women are on the verge potentially of losing everything, and their stories will rip your heart out in ways you can't imagine. ... They have worked so hard to achieve and to do great things and to contribute and to dream, and they have daughters, many of them. And now they're seeing in the blink of an eye that all of that could be lost — and it's just absolutely heartbreaking.

On how being a mother has changed her reporting

I absolutely feel rivers of empathy, particularly for women and children, and I think that has changed my reporting in some ways. And I really feel that it's important to have mothers who are out there and covering war and the effects of war. ... I can go and talk to the women and the children and be in that inner sanctum in the house and hear about their lives and their frustrations and their heartaches, and for so many years that has been missing in a lot of reporting. ... I very much hope that [becoming a mother] has a positive impact on my reporting, because I definitely feel more connected and more empathetic than I ever have before.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.