It was an Afghan donkey that gave the game away. If it hadn't bolted,
Yvonne Ridley and her two guides would have made it out over the Afghan border
and back into Pakistan.
Some weeks previously, Yvonne Ridley was chief reporter for the Sunday
Express in London. Like hundreds of other journalists, she was tying to get to
New York to cover the events following the events following Sept. 11. While in
the airport scrimmage for seats, she received a call from the news editor
telling her to get to Pakistan.
A journalist for more than 25 years, she was one of the first into Pakistan
to cover the impending attack on Afghanistan.
"There were thousands of us, all being spoon-fed with information. I got
fed up with it, and decided to see if I could get into Afghanistan." She
applied many times to the Taleban embassy, but to no avail. "Western
journalists were persona non grata."
Yvonne found two guides and, adopting the cover-all burqa, slipped into
Afghanistan as part of a wedding party.
"I was totally anonymous - I simply disappeared from view because I
looked and was perceived exactly the same as all the other women in burqas."
She spent days speaking to whomever she could, always aware that the
slightest hint could give her away. When she decided to head back to the border,
the trio joined a party heading that way. That meant that Yvonne had walked a
great deal in the unaccustomed Afghani sandals she wore as part of her disguise,
and her feet were badly cut and bruised.
"We managed to obtain the use of a decrepit donkey," she said.
The donkey bolted and Yvonne, in a desperate attempt to stay aboard, grabbed
the halter. The camera that she had been carefully concealing under her burqa
swung into full view, exactly at the moment that a Taleban soldier was passing.
"At this stage they seemed rather more concerned with the relationship
between my guides and I than the fact I might be a spy," she said.
The party she was traveling with continued to move toward the border. She
kept moving with them but looked back to establish the fate of her guides. "There
was a large crowd gathering and it looked as if trouble was brewing. I felt I
had to go back." Walking into the center of the group, she brought the
proceedings to a halt by imperiously throwing off her burqa and demanding, "Give
me the darn camera back."
She and her companions were arrested and hauled off to the local men's
prison, where they were separated. "I did see my companions after that," she
said, "and they did look as if they had been roughed up."
Her first reaction was to go on hunger strike because she was refused a
"I was never physically maltreated. They tried to break me mentally by
constantly asking the same questions day after day - until nine o'clock in
the evening sometimes." Her captors constantly told her that she would be
released - only to move her to another cell.
It was five days before Mullah Omar was told that the suspected spy was a
woman. He at once ordered her removal to what was by local standards a
comfortable room in a women's prison.
"I was detained in the company of six Christian aid workers from Shelter
Now International, who had been accused of trying to convert the local people to
Christianity. They were certainly very religious - and the Taleban were quite
comfortable about allowing them a bible and for them to perform their religious
observances in captivity."
Yvonne found out from her captors that they had chosen - albeit unwittingly -
to set up their headquarters next door to one of Osama Bin Laden's
residences. "I have this delicious image of Bin Laden sitting in the garden
plotting, with the sounds of happy-clappy Baptist hymns wafting over the wall."
Yvonne was interrogated for days as an American spy - unaware that her
captors were in possession of a file that alleged that she was in the pay of
Mossad, amongst others.
"On one occasion, I lost my temper and spat and swore at my captors while I
was being held in Kabul prison." The reaction of her captors rather surprised
her. "Instead of a hostile reaction they looked reproved and slightly hurt;
they insisted I was their guest and their 'sister.'"
The attack by America and Britain on Afghanistan was immanent, and the file
in the possession of Mullah Omar could well have been Yvonne's death
certificate. "I feel I was set up. The attack needed a trigger. A dead English
woman executed by the Taleban regime would have been very useful. It was a crude
device and I suspect that the CIA were behind it."
While she was in captivity, she was asked what she thought of Islam. "I
gave a non-committal reply - I had no real knowledge of it. I promised I would
study the Qur'an."
The bombing of Kabul began while Yvonne was still in captivity. Two days
later she was released. "I was quite sure that the one-eyed Mullah had put two
fingers up to the world. He saw the file as a transparent provocation and was
not buying it," said Yvonne.
"On the whole, the Taleban treated me with great courtesy and respect. I
had entered their country illegally - I was totally in the wrong and I could
have been put on trial."
When she arrived in Britain, the experience in Kabul had a subtle effect on
her. "I decided to look at Islam in the interests of academic enquiry and was
given an English Qur'an by a Muslim friend."
Over the next few months she began to learn more about Islam. "The first
thing I scrutinized when I read the Qur'an closely was the law as it relates
to property and divorce." Cheerfully admitting to having been married three
times, she was particularly drawn to the way that the Qur'an dealt with what
so often is a contentious issue.
Yvonne couldn't put her finger on any single thing that decided her to
embrace Islam. "I spoke to more and more people and became more involved. The
way that that the faith treats women as exact spiritual and human equals in
worth I found very sustaining," she said. "It just felt right."
Whilst the Taleban treated Yvonne - "probably their most difficult
prisoner" - with some decency, it doesn't lessen her desire to question
them on their more general behavior. "I would really like to sit down with
Mullah Omar, who ordered my release on humanitarian grounds. I would want to
know why they treat their women so badly."
Recently, an opportunity to work in the Gulf with a web-based news
organization presented itself. "I decided to take the chance and go," she
said. "A couple of days before the flight, I made the decision to say the
shahada, and called a couple of close friends as witnesses. It was an intensely
spiritual moment and very intimate. The feeling after I had spoken the words was
one of community with the biggest club in the world. It was exhilarating."
Yvonne has been accused of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, first described
in 1973 when a bond of sympathy was observed developing between hostage takers
and their victims.
"It always raises a wry smile with me. The only people I really bonded
with, and keep in touch with on an occasional basis, are the girls from Shelter
Now International, the ones accused of trying to convert Muslims to
Christianity. So if that was the case, I should be in America's bible belt now
with my tambourine!"
Reflecting on her behavior when held by the Taleban, she said, "I don't
think cursing, spitting and refusing to eat endeared me to those poor men who
had to put up with my bad behavior. In fact, when I was released, I don't know
who was happier - them or me."
Now the undercover journalist has exchanged the burqah as a disguise for the
hijab as a symbol of a new freedom.