the Hands of the Taliban
interview with Yvonne Ridley
Ridley made headlines when, following the September 11th
attacks, she was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While investigating for a story, the British freelance
journalist had wandered into the hands of, what much of
the world called the most brutal regime on earth. Freed
after ten days of captivity, she returned home a public
two years after that, the multiple award-winning journalist
and author again made news. On June 30, 2003, Yvonne accepted
the faith of her captors -- she became a Muslim.
the following interview, she speaks of her experiences
and her thoughts on the state of Western journalism.
Abdullah (TA): What took you to Afghanistan after
Ridley (YR): I was working as the chief reporter
for the Sunday Express newspaper published in London.
I was writing a humanitarian report about the hopes and
fears of the Afghan people. I had been in Afghanistan
for two days when I was captured by the Taliban and held
because I had entered the country illegally and without
What happened afterwards?
At first they thought I was a spy and interrogated me
for six days before moving me to a prison in Kabul. Mullah
Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, released me
on humanitarian grounds on October 8 2001.
The release came as a huge shock to the West as the US
and Britain had launched the war on Afghanistan the day
before. When the bombs began dropping in Kabul, no one
thought they would see me alive again!
You have repeatedly emphasised that the Taliban, the "most
brutal regime on earth", treated you with "courtesy
and respect". Tell me about your captors.
I expected to be executed and each day I thought was going
to be my last. It was a terrifying ordeal. Yet, throughout
my captivity, the Taliban treated me with courtesy and
went on hunger strike for the full 10 days. Apart from
this action being the only type of control I could enforce,
I told the Taliban I would not eat until they gave me
a telephone to call home. This action caused my captors
great distress and over the first few days they tried
several different inducements to encourage me to eat including
the offer of wine with my food.
this I maintained my hunger strike and in spite of my
best efforts, they laid a cloth on the floor morning,
noon and night offering freshly cooked food. Each mealtime,
they made a point of washing my hands and telling me I
was their sister and their guest. Never once did they
threaten me physically. In spite of this, I resolved to
be a difficult captive and acted in a very aggressive,
Upon your return, what was the general reaction?
Headline writers across the Western world, anticipating
what I was going to say, had words like 'torture', 'abuse'
and 'rape' prepared. Journalists and politicians were
shocked by my remarks. Everyone wanted a victim. They
wanted to hear tales of torture, beatings and brutality.
After all, you can't drop bombs on nice people and Bush
and Blair had done quite a job demonising the Taliban
have to say at this point, I could not endorse what the
Taliban stood for, nor could I sanitise their movement,
but I have to speak the truth about their treatment of
TA: Did your experiences with the Taliban
lead you to question your own perceptions on the Taliban
themselves and by extension, Islam?
I certainly began to examine the demonisation of the Taliban.
had given an undertaking to a Taliban cleric that if they
released me I would read the Qur'an and study Islam. At
that point, I would have said anything to get out of jail!
But once I was released, against all odds, I decided to
keep my word.
was engaged covering events in the Middle East so it was
only natural that I should read up on Islam.
What attracted you to the faith?
I found the words of the Qur'an breathtaking and as relevant
today as they were the day they were written. Furthermore,
the word has not changed at all. I learnt that the Qur'an
makes it clear that woman are equal in spirituality, worth
Turning now to Western media and particularly its coverage
of the Muslim world -- do you see a general bias against
There is a Western media bias against Islam but much of
it stems from lack of knowledge and general ignorance
towards Islam by Western journalists.
Is it a deliberate attempt by reporters to write/broadcast
stories that toe the official line or the gullibility
of some reporters? Or is it simply reporters acting out
on culturally inherited values/perceptions and seeing
what they want to see rather than what is happening?
Some journalists are gutless, lily-livered, spineless
individuals who prefer to be spoon-fed by the governments
who like a tame news source. Some journalists are gullible
and some are simply ignorant of the power of the propaganda
they are asked to repeat. I wouldn't single out the embedded
journalists most were making the best of the situation
in which they were placed.
the US after 9/11, anyone who dared question the Bush
administration was called unpatriotic. There are some
good journalists around and, after a recent trip to America,
it appears the American media is now waking up to its
From your experiences in Afghanistan, can you give us
examples of reports from Afghanistan that painted a picture
of the situation contrary to what was really happening?
The so-called liberation of Kabul revealed a shocking
aspect of media lies and manipulation giving a false image
to the West.
were pictured burning their burqas while men shaved their
beards what the cameras failed to show were the offers
of money given to these people by the dollar rich western
media which wanted to give 'happy' pictures to the people
Afghanis were not slow on the uptake and lots of false
documents began emerging outlining Al-Qaida's nuclear
secrets. One foolish journalist parted with 500 dollars
for Osama bin Laden's nuclear plans … they turned out
to be the contents of a physics student's text book!
In the current occupation of Iraq, do you see most of
the media still toeing the official line?
The media is slowly beginning to break ranks and report
on the Vietnam-style quagmire that has emerged in Iraq.
For example, the dangerous talk of a civil war.
has this come from? Paul Bremer, of course. It is in US
interests to promote this but the reality is there has
never been a civil war in Iraq no conflict of Shi'a against
Sunni. Yet the media are falling into the trap of picking
up the American whispers and are printing reports using
the explosive phrase 'civil war'. If they don't stop it
could became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
is a powerful tool and can be a weapon of mass deception
in the wrong hands. This has not been lost on various
leaders including Saddam Hussein and George W Bush, who
both were determined to win the battle over the war of
words. In many ways, it is as important as the military
Ridley lives in Central London and is the author of two
books "In the Hands Of the Taliban" (Robson
Books), a factual account of her experiences and "Ticket
To Paradise", a fictional thriller with the real
backdrop of 9/11 (Dandelion Books).