As Afghan women go, Fariba Nawa doesn't exactly look the part. She's blond and fair-skinned -- as a child during the Soviet occupation, her classmates used to hiss "Little Russian" at her. But five years ago, as she stood in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass, her burqa kept her safe. No one knew she didn't belong.
Nawa stood in a crowd of five hundred refugees who strained to cross the border and escape the silent, inert world their mullahs had built. On the Pakistani side one hundred yards ahead, merchants in the bara market sold hashish, opium, and guns, and Bollywood music tinkled in the dusty air. She clutched an Afghan passport -- her American one was stuffed in her bra in case of an emergency. She kept her notepad and camera in her bag.
This wasn't the first time Nawa had fled the country. The war with the Soviets made refugees of her family, and although they eventually settled in Union City, she never felt at ease in America. Now she was trying to make it as a freelance reporter, and hoped that by explaining the land of her birth to others, she could finally begin to understand it herself. She snuck into Kabul posing as an ordinary Afghan woman, and toured the Taliban's utopia. "It was a city of the dead," she says. "More beggars than I'd ever seen in my life, more than in India, which is hard to believe. And there was a stillness and a quietness to the city that made you so sad. ... What I saw through the mesh holes of the burqa was a completely destroyed place, with a people that had no hope anymore."
It was a rough start to a career that has found the young journalist, five feet tall and rail thin, seated next to drug lords, opium addicts, and tribesmen who argued as to whether they should kidnap and torture her. But Nawa just can't stay away. She has never stopped puzzling over her battered homeland, and comes back to it year after year.
A shock of white-gold hair bunches around Nawa's pale, pleasant face. Dark eyebrows stab out from her forehead, and her wide eyes have a way of vibrating when she thinks too hard. She's disarmingly at ease with her family's tragic past, yet something compels her to immerse herself in violence. "The reason I'm so attracted to war zones is because I'm always looking for answers as to what happened when I was a kid," she says.
Standing there amid the refugees, it was time to escape the land of her birth -- again. Nawa waited for the border guards to throw open the gates and start taking bribes. Her "guide," a man posing as a male relative who accompanied her from the capital to the frontier, faded back into the crowd as arranged. Nawa hired a porter, an emaciated man with welts running along his legs, to haul her bag across the border. The mob pushed forward, cursing and shouting, waving visas if they had them, throwing coins at the soldiers.
The guards pulled out whips tipped with iron flecks. They lashed the crowd right and left, beating people on their backs and faces. The women screamed and covered up -- the soldiers focused on the men, but didn't care where the lashes landed in the frenzy. Nawa's porter cringed and begged her to throw a bribe. "He was being beaten badly," she recalls. "And he kept saying to me, 'Paisa!' which means 'Give money, give money.' And so I kept giving the guy, the soldier, money. Whatever I had, I kept giving him money. And then I saw that the porter started to bleed, he started to bleed next to his eye. ... I finally started screaming -- this is a kind of psychological torture that I've never experienced before. I kept yelling, 'Hit me! Hit me! Stop hitting him! Hit me!'"
Then just like that, it was over. Nawa was through the gate and back in the land of the living. Her guide met her on the other side. "I said, 'What the hell happened? Why did you leave me if you know that was going to happen?'" Nawa recalls. "He said, 'Oh, that's normal. It happens every day.' And I said, 'Yeah, but the poor guy needs to go to the hospital. He was bleeding.' And he just laughed at me, like I was some naive idiot."
It was all an act. The porters let the guards whip them to panic customers into throwing more money, and the guards gave them a piece of the action. That was why he was covered in welts. In fact, he'd probably get a bonus for bleeding so well.
Such was Afghanistan. Nawa returned to Islamabad and pitched stories to news outlets around the world, but no one expressed interest. In November 2000 no one cared what was happening in her country. Ten months later, all that would change.
By the fall of 2001, Nawa had abandoned her dreams of being a foreign correspondent and settled into the life of a graduate student at New York University. Then, just one week into her studies, she stood on her Brooklyn rooftop and watched the World Trade Center collapse into rubble. She realized, as she puts it, "two of my countries were going to be at war." Nawa thought she'd finally escaped Afghanistan's nihilism, but it had followed her all the way to New York.
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