Infernal Triangleby Paul McGeough
An award-winning journalist's writing on recent events in the Middle East, including the devastating Gaza Flotilla incident It's been 10 years since Al-Qaeda demolished the World Trade Center, and Paul McGeough was in the streets of Manhattan on that fateful day. No journalist has monitored more closely the fallout from those destructive minutes—for… See more details below
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An award-winning journalist's writing on recent events in the Middle East, including the devastating Gaza Flotilla incident It's been 10 years since Al-Qaeda demolished the World Trade Center, and Paul McGeough was in the streets of Manhattan on that fateful day. No journalist has monitored more closely the fallout from those destructive minutes—for Afghanistan, for Iraq, and for the never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in The Levant. Together, these three locations are the Infernal Triangle, from which America has been unable to extricate itself. McGeough has enjoyed access to all the main players in these unfolding events. But, more than that, he has been prepared to observe at close quarters both the fighters and the citizens involved, recording their hopes and fears, their triumphs and tragedies. He has been present at the death of colleagues and he joined the historic "Peace Flotilla" that attempted to bring supplies to Gaza. His vivid and eloquent journalism offers new insights into some of the most critical events of the last decade.
"Each vignette spans just a few pages, compassionately encapsulating the human dramas like dots in a pointillist portrait—intimately personal and yet inextricably tied to the sweeping arcs of geopolitics." –Publishers Weekly
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Conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and The Levant Eyewitness Accounts from the September 11 Decade
By Paul McGeough
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Paul McGeough
All rights reserved.
THE FUTURE FOR AFGHANISTAN'S WOMEN
6 October 2004
The alleys of crumbling mud brick and fretted timber get narrower as we arrive back in the Stone Age. Climbing a steep hillside, they twist and turn away from the noise of the bazaar — to a dead end where the war widows of Kabul eke out a living. Barefoot and sweating, they squat on a flour-strewn floor, kneading and rolling dough, which they shape and fire as pizza-like loaves of bread for others among the 60,000 war widows who are fringe-dwelling in the Afghan capital.
There is no power or water. The dusty ceiling is head-high and the whitewashed walls have been blackened by a fire that still burns as a tail-end reminder of the Taliban. Adhering to its strict reading of Islam, the fundamentalist regime barred the widows from working, even as it used their men as cannon fodder. But it relented in a rare concession to humanitarian pressure, agreeing that widows could work to feed other widows.
Three tumultuous years after the Taliban were driven out by the United States, as balls of dough hurled by the kneaders land with a thump before the rollers, these widows have little time for Kabul's debate on women's liberation. Stabbing the dough with her fingers to create the detailed pattern that will decorate the cooked bread, 30-something Shuraya was blunt: 'Nothing's changed for me — I still wear a burqa and my boy sells plastic bags in the market to cover the rent hikes in the new Afghanistan.'
For Kabul's educated female elite, however, there is change — the dreaded blue burqa is gone, they can go to college and work, and their daughters are welcome at school. And when I visited a city business this week, the receptionist sat beneath a poster-sized copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — wearing dangling earrings, jeans and a fitted jacket for which, three years ago, she would have been flogged. People stopped to stare as her female boss, with a gorgeous bob-cut and no scarf, drove her own four-wheel drive off the premises.
The government's commitment to women is a glass half-full, half-empty argument: only two of President Hamid Karzai's 30 ministers are women; only about twenty public management posts are filled by women; and 21 per cent of all state employees are female. But there is little joy for the widows and the 90 per cent of Afghan women who are uneducated, especially those who live in the provinces, in a country where most men cry 'tradition' to circumvent the fine words of constitutions and treaties.
Enter Dr Massouda Jalal, a broad-faced, broad-shouldered paediatrician with nerves of steel. She has stared down the warlords, threats of a legal challenge by the government, criticism by the clerics and the public humiliation of her philosophy-professor husband to sign on as the only female candidate in this Saturday's presidential election. Her campaign office is in a bullet-raked block of flats built by the Russians, and her platform is simple: power for the people. 'I don't have military, media or financial power, but I will not be intimidated,' she said. 'The people back me — 41 per cent of the voters are women — and they know that most of the other candidates are criminals, or the candidates of criminals.'
Dr Jalal has a following — at the post-invasion national conference to select an interim leader, she ran second to Mr Karzai. But observers here say that her best hope this weekend is to consolidate her role as a low-wattage beacon for the rights of women.
Dr Jalal has been blocked from appearing on state television, which will not name her, referring to her only as 'a woman'. She has been barred from campaigning at colleges and, as a woman, she is not allowed to speak at mosques. In desperation, she decided to campaign at the women's bakeries, which were her idea as a United Nations staffer during the darkness of the Taliban years. Which is why I met a new bakery manager this week — her predecessor was sacked for allowing politics among the loaves.
The predicament of rural women in Afghanistan is especially dire. This year in Herat, in the far west, there have been more than 80 cases of self-immolation or the attempted murder of women in domestic crises. Rape, often by the warlords' fighters, is not taken seriously by the police or the judiciary; most provincial girls are forced into marriage anywhere between the ages of ten and sixteen; and often they are traded in settlement of tribal disputes. And on voting day a good proportion of them will be told how to vote.
Complaining of impunity for violence against women on a vast scale, Amnesty International last year declared that Mr Karzai's interim regime had proved itself unable to protect women. The organisation cited the case of a woman who was murdered by her father for refusing his choice of husband — attempts by the district governor to have the case prosecuted were frustrated when the alleged killer was given sanctuary by a militia group of which he was a member. Most rural women are not allowed to leave their home without a male chaperone and Amnesty says it was told in discussion groups that divorce is rarely allowed because 'It is not an Afghan tradition.'
Activists like Dr Jalal believe that their best argument in a very conservative, religious society is to convince society that all the reforms the activists demand are in the Koran — if it is read properly. Shukria Barakzai, who carried the torch for women as a member of the committee that drafted the new Afghan constitution, agrees. 'The constitution gives us equal rights and Islam gives us rights in work, business and marriage. But Afghan tradition closes all these doors. Most Afghan men are brutes, so we have to change their mentality; and we have to educate the women.'
But, sitting back as she sipped her tea, wearing a pants-suit a few shades paler than burqa blue, she volunteered a very personal story that revealed that even as a member of the educated elite she was not immune from the male Afghan cry of 'tradition'. 'This sounds like a joke, but it's not. Last year, while I was slaving for women's rights in the constitution, my husband took a second wife without consulting me — which he should have done under Islam. I found out a month after the wedding. For the first twenty minutes I thought I had failed; but then I was happy, because I could feel the pain of the hundreds of thousands of other Afghan women in the same position.'
Another presidential candidate, Abdul Latif Pedram, last week called for family law reform to be debated during the campaign, especially the right of men to take multiple wives. But the response included demands by no less a figure than the chief justice that Pedram be struck out — and total silence from the women's movement. Even Dr Jalal would not buy in, telling me that reform had to be step by step and that education was her priority. 'Put too much water on the grass and it will die.'
The women's movement has made security a key issue and is demanding that the country's powerful warlords be defanged. Those women who have dared to speak out have been so threatened that Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, now travels with three armed bodyguards. And Malalai Joya, 25, a prominent activist, is in hiding with an armed United Nations bodyguard.
Dr Jalal, who does wear a loose-fitting scarf but refuses a guard, is undeterred. But a couple of final questions from me seemed to throw her: Did she drive a car? Did she want to? 'Why would I want to do that? Women don't drive here; they don't know how to and I'm too busy.' But the politician's survival instinct then kicked in. 'Besides, presidents don't drive cars.'CHAPTER 2
DUST TO DUST
20 November 2004
The farmer Zahir Mohamedi lives in the folds of the Foladi Valley. When he wants to forget the past, he retreats to the baked earth of a hilltop threshing floor, on which he and his family have just finished the autumn ritual of separating wheat from chaff. But as the village of Qafela Bashi rises to a smoky Ramadan morning, he agrees to relive the horror of his forced role in the destruction of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan. Often this experience comes back in nightmares, and distress darkens the 42-year-old former fighter's smooth features as he shares with me a rare account of the destruction of the priceless statues that were the legacy of a fabulous fusion of Persian, Greek and Indian art more than 1500 years ago.
It was 2001 and Mohamedi was one of thirteen Bamiyan men being held prisoner by the fundamentalist Taliban, the Islamic diehards who had wrested control of Afghanistan from its squabbling warlords but ultimately became the pawns of the September 11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden.
'They had guns on us all the time,' the farmer says, staring ahead. 'They strapped explosives to our backs and made us walk over the hills to the top of the big Buddha. Then they rushed us down and locked us up again. They brought us back up the next day. They tied ropes around our waists and hung bags of explosives from us — red and blue wires were attached to the bags.'
Mohamedi, who was fifth in the line of conscripted demolition men, shook with fear. 'But one of them put a pistol to my head and yelled, "You go down on the rope, or I shoot and you'll fall down." They slung a steel bar across the niche of the Buddha and dangled us over it as though we were already dead. As we dropped down I saw that drums of explosives were already placed on the Buddha's shoulders. Our bodies were torn open as we bashed against the stone chest of the statue — one of the prisoners died on the rope. We were ordered to insert the bags among the pigeon nests in the big holes where the Buddha's arms had been broken off at the elbow. They dragged us back up, tied our hands again and drove us back to our cells. Later we heard a massive explosion.'
Bamiyan is a place of sublime beauty. Maybe it's the thin air in the high Hindu Kush, or perhaps it's my sense of elation at not feeling — after more than three years of post-September 11 reporting — constantly under threat from some of those around me; but the Buddhas' eye view of this sweeping valley is intoxicating.
The river flat meets hills that are autumn-brown and so smooth that surely they are tidied each night with a heavenly clothes brush; beyond them, rocky razorbacks wear winter's first snow as they cut a jagged edge in a sapphire sky. In the middle distance, the crumbled remains of Shahr-e Gholghola — the City of Screams — glow as a golden echo of the marauding Genghis Khan, who destroyed the hilltop citadel in 1221. And cut into the crimson cliffs further out are the decorated fortifications of Shahr-e Zohak, where the Shansabani kings ruled until the thirteenth century.
The neatness of the valley is extraordinary. Lines of thin golden poplars etch the snow-fed irrigation channels that are the valley's lifeblood. Tiny figures — men dressed in grey, dun and putty — tread well-worn paths to the bazaar. A family hefting pitchforks works with a circling ox in a threshing tableau from biblical days; and there's a man heading for the hills — he carries a teapot.
All that remains of the Bamiyan greatness that drew the luxury-laden caravans of the old Silk Road and the dope-fired Kombis on the hippie trail in the 1970s is a faint outline on the back wall of each niche, a graceful shadow of statues which had stood for centuries as the world's biggest depictions of the Buddha.
A treacherous staircase winds up through the pink stone to a platform about 100 metres above the valley floor. It lies behind where the Buddhas' gilded heads had watched out reassuringly for centuries in the name of a creed that, appropriately enough, preaches detachment from the transient pain of daily life.
One statue stood at 55 metres; the other at 38 metres. At their finest, the taller was draped in robes of red; the smaller in blue. The vaults above their golden faces were adorned with exquisite renditions of a chariot-borne Sun God and of the Buddha, surrounded by bare-breasted maidens plucking strings.
Vandalism over the centuries had robbed the Buddhas of their faces and their gilded hands and feet. Afghan warlords had used the space between the legs of the taller as an ammunition dump; and the Taliban used the groin of the shorter for target practice, but the statues still expressed what the historian Nancy Hatch Dupree describes as 'the embodiment of cosmic man'.
In the morning sun, the pink wall around the niches is tattooed with black dots. Come closer and they are revealed as the mouths of hundreds of caves that centuries ago were the cells of Buddhist monks and pilgrims. Some are bricked and boarded up, to thwart the looters who have made off with hundreds of exquisite murals from chambers that have been carved like wedding cakes turned inside out. What the vandals have left in some of the caves is tantalising — decorative panels from which dozens of fist-sized Buddhas have been smashed; and the remnants of wall paintings in all the classic colours of an Afghan carpet.
Smoke issues from a cave to the right of where the small Buddha stood. It is one of six rock holes on a 40-metre ledge that are home to 22-year-old Mohamed Ali and seventeen members of his extended family ... along with their chickens and donkeys and a loom on which they weave Afghan rugs, their only source of income.
The view is stunning. They have enclosed the yawning cave entrances with walls of mud bricks, doors fashioned with discards from a timber mill and windows of plastic sheeting. Ali's wife's one handbag hangs next to her burqa on a spike driven into the moist wall of the cold chamber in which they sleep.
The drop is 35 metres. But as his tiny children negotiate the edge with the sure-footedness of mountain goats, Ali sits on his haunches and explains: 'We have nowhere else to go — the Taliban drove us from our village.'
Surprisingly, he doesn't elaborate on the brutality of the Taliban assaults in which hundreds of Toyota pick-ups swept through villages and valleys, spraying fire from mounted machine-guns — a crude but effective mujahideen battle tactic borrowed from the civil war in Somalia. Or of the callous mop-ups that followed; before September 11, I interviewed a quaking refugee from this area who had watched as the aged baker in his village had been shoved head first into the burning coals of his bread oven.
The women of the caves huddle shyly, quietly embroidering handkerchiefs amid a scatter of cooking pots and water cans. Ali recounts how he hid in the mountains as an explosives-laden Taliban convoy pulled up to the Buddhas early in 2001: 'We watched through binoculars. They started by firing tanks — but they weren't strong enough.'
In 1999 the Taliban's one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, had declared the Buddhas to be rare ancient monuments. They predated the ninth-century arrival of Islam in the country and as there were no longer any Buddhists to worship them, he exempted them from the Taliban claim that the Koran decrees all idols must be destroyed. But in February 2001, the Mullah did a spectacular backflip. In the face of a wave of international protest, he declared the Buddhas to be 'shrines of the infidels' that, along with other non-Islamic shrines in Afghanistan, would be demolished. United Nations officials, attempting to keep ajar what they called Afghanistan's humanitarian window, had already concluded that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda had won a bitter power struggle gripping the Taliban. This explains Omar's radical change of heart.
The farmer Mohamedi claims to have seen a tall bearded figure in Arab dress among the official party cheering the demolition of the statues. He and his cellmates would conclude that this was none other than Osama bin Laden, whom they recognised from photographs. These claims add to a theory among archaeological and other observers that the destruction of the Buddhas may well have been a first strike in bin Laden's September 11 master plan.
Virtually the entire town of Bamiyan had fled, so eyewitness accounts of the destruction of the Buddhas are rare. But the extent of that demonic engineering challenge is revealed when Mohamedi's account is meshed with reports based on interviews with two other locals who were dragooned into the demolition parties, and with the work of archaeologists attempting to understand the process of destruction.
First, the ridge above the niches was bombed from the air and then the T-55 tanks were wheeled in. But, like the burning tyres the Taliban teams had attached to the Buddhas' heads, these war machines only chipped and blackened the surface. Then the Taliban tried packing charges around the base of each statue — but this technique had little effect until they piled an outer circle of sandbags around the explosives, directing the blast up into the monuments. Finally, amid much celebration, they brought down the smaller Buddha. But the larger one seemed to cheat gravity, though its feet were blown away. Willed on by thousands of locals hiding in the mountains, it defiantly held its gaze across the Bamiyan Valley.
Originally, Zahir Mohamedi had been kept in what had been his Hezb-e Wahdat militia's headquarters in the heart of the town, away from the statues. But after his first mission to haul explosives to the ridge above the big Buddha, his captors had locked him in the Bamiyan Hotel, on a 70-metre rise just in front of the Buddhas.
He remembers: 'We could see through a window — there was a terrifically powerful explosion and a great cloud of dust. All the officials danced and cheered and ran away. But they came back and most of the big Buddha was still there.' The next morning, he says, an even bigger party assembled. 'When we got there, there were 300 or 400 pick-ups with many foreign fighters, and about twenty trucks. We could see that the feet of the big Buddha were gone and when we got to the top again, the head was destroyed.'
Excerpted from Infernal Triangle by Paul McGeough. Copyright © 2011 Paul McGeough. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Paul McGeough is the senior foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of Kill Khalid and Manhattan to Baghdad. He has twice been named Australian Journalist of the Year and in 2002 his reporting from Afghanistan was acknowledged by the awarding of a Johns Hopkins University-based SAIS Novartis prize for excellence in international journalism. He participated in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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