Paul Refsdal risks his life to be the first Westerner to film behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan. Replay our live online chat withPaul about his experience.
By
Paul Refsdal

Airdate: 
Sunday, August 22, 2010 - 20:32
Channel: 
SBS One

Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal risked his life to become the first Westerner to film behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan, and see the war between the allied forces and the insurgency from the Taliban's viewpoint.

Now Dateline brings you his remarkable story, as Paul witnesses several ambushes of US troops on the Khyber Pass, and films celebrations over the death of a US soldier.

But he also captures a human side of the Taliban, as insurgents relax, pray, eat together, and look after the children of Taliban commander, Dawran.

Paul comes under threat himself too, as a US gunship attacks and he's kidnapped by one of the Taliban group which took him in.

WATCH - Unfortunately this video is no longer available on the Dateline website for copyright reasons, but you can still read the transcript of Paul's story.

LIVE CHAT - Replay our live online chat with Paul Refsdal about his remarkable experience.

BLOG - Executive Producer Peter Charley writes about getting such a rare insight into life with the Taliban.

Live Chat

Paul Refsdal was online from Oslo in Norway after Dateline on Sunday 22nd August to answer your questions about his remarkable experience behind enemy lines with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He's been covering wars since 1984 and has specialised in filming insurgency movements in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings, but Paul was only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below or leave comments on the story here.

Blog

Executive Producer Peter Charley writes for the Dateline blog about getting this rare insight into life for the Taliban in Afghanistan...

There are always two sides to every story – as any reporter covering a conflict knows. But some conflicts – like the war in Afghanistan - make it simply too dangerous to get 'the other side’ of the story: the point of view of the enemy.

Our remarkable story this week on the Afghan war through the eyes of the Taliban gives an all-too-rare glimpse into 'the other side’ of that gruelling conflict. It was shot by Norwegian-born Paul Refsdal who reached the Taliban through mujahideen contacts from his days covering Afghanistan’s conflict with Russia in the 1980s.

It was a highly-risky – some might say death-defying – assignment which has given us all an extraordinary insight into the daily lives of Taliban insurgents. Who could not be moved by the tender images of innocent children playing in the arms of their father? But how are we to feel once we see that same man command his fighters to 'shoot the brains out" of foreign troops, or to celebrate the death of US soldiers after an ambush on a passing convoy?

I wondered, when I watched that scene, what horror the US soldiers were experiencing in their stricken convoy – young men, just like their Taliban enemies. And I could imagine the fear felt by the insurgents as US gunships came hunting for them at night, seeking revenge.

They are thought-provoking and provocative images. And Paul Refsdal is to be commended for his courage for bringing to us an entirely different view of the Afghan war.

Read more blog entries from Executive Producer Peter Charley.

Resources

Transcript

In foreign policy circles - the suggestion's been made that talking with the Taliban, rather than killing them, could actually be a way to hasten the end of this long-running and seemingly futile conflict. That said, what do we really know about the bearded, apparently fanatical Islamist enemy who seem impossible to defeat? Well, a Norwegian video journalist, Paul Refsdal, decided to get some answers to that question, and recently took the phenomenal risk of placing himself in the hands of a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan. Here's his report.

REPORTER: Paul Refsdal

For several weeks I waited in Kabul. Finally, one high-ranking commander in east Afghanistan approved my visit. This would be the first time ever that he receives a Western journalist. I agreed to meet this commander in his mountain hideout. I saw two Taliban fighters hiding behind the rock - long hair, big beards - no smiles on their faces. That moment is a point of no return. Then I just had to keep on walking, greet them, and trust they really are not fanatics.

The Taliban - they are fighting tall white men and I am a tall white man coming with a camera because if the Taliban suspect me of being a spy, they will execute me.

TALIBAN (Translation): He'll shit himself - he's so scared of us. The same way we are scared of that bald-head.

Everyone, nearly everyone was masked and they were behaving like unnatural. They were not relaxed at all.

TALIBAN 1 (Translation): What are you doing?

TALIBAN 2 (Translation): Pretend the camera is not there, act normal.

The second day, they were starting to relax. They took off their masks. They were joking, talking and acting normal. I was like a fly on the wall.

TALIBAN 3 (Translation): They want to show the world that this is the man. When they show my face,

they'll say "œWhat a dumb guy."

DAWRAN, TALIBAN COMMANDER (Translation): Can you hear me? Khyber? When we were attacking on the front line we - almost lost our brains due to all the noise. Remember the shooting that evening? They hit a vehicle and it was totally destroyed.

MAN ON RADIO (Translation): I will go into action any time you want.

Dawran is the one who approved my visit. He is a high-ranking Taliban commander in east Afghanistan. Before joining the Taliban, Dawran had a lot of properties. Now he lives in a house built from rock and clay in the mountains. He lives there together with his family, a wife and three young children.

DAWRAN (Translation): We fight for freedom, our religion Islam and its principles. We are fighting for the freedom of our land. What are their goals? Why are they fighting us? Are they oppressed? Are they treated unfairly? Living in a dictatorship? Allah the All-Powerful will destroy them as He did many other great powers during the history of Islam and the world. They will face the same destiny.

TALIBAN, PRAYING (Translation): Let us pray. O Allah, we will do everything for You - Grant us freedom and destroy the infidels. Amen. Grant us unity. Amen.

DAWRAN (Translation): We need weapons on both sides. When we fire

with the heavy weaponry, their infantry will be helpless.

OMAR (Translation): If we have one weapon on each side and both fire at once, we'll kill them all. That's a good plan.

DAWRAN (Translation): Can you hear me, Khyber? Can you hear me?

OMAR (Translation): Here they are under attack from all sides. Sometimes one group attacks, sometimes another. They are constantly under attack.

DAWRAN (Translation): Let's go. Tell the children to take cover, and take cover too.

Down in the valley is a tarmac road used by American forces. From their position on high ground the Taliban were ambushing the American convoys all the time.

TALIBAN (Translation): - Are you in position? Okay, look after yourselves. Let the first vehicle pass,

then commence the attack. Paugi? Are you ready? - Strike with the aid of Allah.

MAN ON RADIO (Translation): Allah, make our enemies perish. I seek refuge in You. Allah, make the mujaheddin victorious. Allah is great! Allah is great!

DAWRAN (Translation): Tell Nasrat to change their position except those in defence.

MAN ON RADIO (Translation): Shoot those sons of bitches, Fire at the checkpoint. Shoot those morons!

you hear? Use the rocket launcher. Rafiq, fire the launcher.

DAWRAN (Translation): Fire from your post. You hit the vehicle, you hit it! May you live long. An American patrol is under attack in Tantil. 80 mujaheddin have taken part in the attack. Groups of ten have taken various positions. The patrol has been stopped - a vehicle destroyed and some troops killed, as you can see. They do this when they are wounded.

MAN ON RADIO (Translation): I will not back down. I am victorious in every battle with you.

DAWRAN (Translation): Every fight, he acts like this. Allah is great!

Do you want to go to Uncle? He can take you for a drive. Okay? Do you want to go? What do you want? Do you want to bring presents? Come here. - Tell him what you did.

CHILD (Translation): I don't want to.

DAWRAN (Translation): Why did you break it? - Why did you break it?

CHILD (Translation): I don't want to say.

TALIBAN, SINGS (Translation): We have agreed to make an uproar. We have tightened the belt of holy war on our waists. We belong to Allah and have no fear of anyone. Every one of us expects a glorious dawn. Mother, give me your blessing and pray for me. My resolution is to bring down the enemy. I'll present my chest to the bullets of the enemy. Each young man will be a mujahed, all the mountains will be our trenches.

DAWRAN (Translation): Omar wants to talk with you.

OMAR (Translation): Yusef?

YUSEF (Translation): How are you, brother?

OMAR (Translation): Fine, thank Allah. What about you?

YUSEF (Translation): Everything is fine here. Fine.

DAWRAN (Translation): It's on channel 95.

The Americans have put a price on the head of Dawran, apparently $400,000 - Once a traitor tried to assassinate him.

DAWRAN (Translation): The traitor was dragged out of the car and hit with a rifle, but I stopped that as we were going to kill him. We took two men out of the back of the car and put him in there, dripping with sweat. When we arrived at the bridge and stopped the car, I told the boys that this was the spot. This place has some high cliffs. Shoot him and throw him off that cliff. When he got out of the car he couldn't walk. He was in very bad shape. I looked at him and half my hatred disappeared when I saw his pitiful state. We walked on. I looked at him again. The third time I looked at him, I felt he'd done me no harm. I put my hand on his shoulder and said "œJan Pacha, in the name of Allah the Almighty in the name of Allah the Almighty who created both you and me, I forgive you in His name. Get lost." He couldn't believe it. We told him to go, but he didn't. I said "œI am a Muslim and give my word that you can leave."

DAWRAN (Translation): Can you hear me, Omar? Jawad and Omar, move to position number two. Obey the order! Allah is with us, don't worry. Both Omars, fall back.

The ambush has turned into something like a daily ritual. American convoys drive past the Taliban area. Sometime they hit a vehicle, sometime they don't.

DAWRAN (Translation): Now it is on rapid fire... now on semi-automatic, with just a flick of your finger. Rapid fire. This is a good weapon. A friend from the Korengal valley killed 30 Americans with such a weapon. The Americans even admitted it. When people talked to them, they said 'It's normal to be killed in a war, but not by such a weapon."

TALIBAN, SING (Translation): I bear witness that Mohammad is a messenger of Allah... Hurry to prayer...

Constantly there was US aircrafts in the sky. There were jets, bomber jets. There were predators, there were some helicopters. But there is one aircraft that scared them - a transport plane converted into a gunship. When this was in the air, Dawran was very concerned.

In the middle of the night, I woke up. The gunship was there, it was firing into the area. I just put on my camera and started to record the sound. A few minutes after, Dawran came. He was hammering at the door. He said, "Everyone, just leave your things, just go up into the mountains - we have to hide." I grabbed my camera and I escaped into the mountain and eventually I found a shed to sleep in.

Next morning I returned to the house of Dawran, I could see that something bad had happened. Dawran told me last night US special forces raided the house of his second-in-command, a man called Assad. They killed Assad and more than a dozen family members and Taliban fighters. The following night the house of Dawran will be attacked, he must therefore escape with his family deep into the mountains. I must return to Kabul and he will call me after one month. Before I left, Omar, he handed me his phone number and he said, "Call me in two weeks, you could go to my area."

Returning to the same area, cameraman Paul Refsdal was kidnapped by Omar and held hostage for six days.

No ransom was paid.

A few weeks later US planes bombed the home of Commander Dawran. - Dawran survived, but two of his children were killed.

GEORGE NEGUS: And whether we think the Taliban's extreme Islamic tenets are right or wrong, how deeply motivated are they by their religion? And Paul Refsdal will be online from Oslo for an hour after the program for a live chat. No doubt Paul will explain how he managed to save his own skin. There's also a blog from our executive producer on that report at sbs.com.au/dateline.

Reporter/Camera

PAUL REFSDAL

Additional Camera

Hugin & Munin Films LTD

Producer

Kjetil Johnsen

Production Manager

TRINE LISE ELLINGSEN

Editor

SVEIN OLAV SANDEM

Consultants/Research

AKSEL STRORSTEIN

MARIA FUGLEVAAG WARZINSKI

JORGEN BANG JESEN

Translations/Subtitling

NASIBA AKRAM

NAZIF RAHMAN SARSHAR

Original Music composed by

UPRIGHT MUSIC

22nd August 2010