A REPORTER'S STORY

Pakistan Kicked Me Out. Others Were Less Lucky.

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By Nicholas Schmidle
Sunday, February 3, 2008

T he police came for me on a cold, rainy Tuesday night last month. They stood in front of my home in Islamabad, four men with hoods pulled over their heads in the driving rain. The senior officer, a tall, clean-shaven man, and I recognized one another from recent protests and demonstrations. Awkwardly, almost apologetically, he handed me a notice ordering my immediate expulsion from Pakistan. Rain spilled off a nearby awning and fell loudly into puddles.

I asked, somewhat obtusely, what this meant. "I am here to take you to the airport," the officer shrugged. "Tonight."

The document he'd given me provided no explanation for my expulsion, but I immediately felt that there was some connection to the travels and reporting I had done for a story published two days earlier in the New York Times Magazine, about a dangerous new generation of Taliban in Pakistan. I had spent several months traveling throughout the troubled areas along the border with Afghanistan, including Quetta (in Baluchistan province) and Dera Ismail Khan, Peshawar and Swat (all in the North-West Frontier Province). My visa listed no travel restrictions, and less than a week earlier, President Pervez Musharraf had sat before a roomful of foreign journalists in Islamabad and told them that they could go anywhere they wanted in Pakistan.

The truth, however, is that foreign journalists are barred from almost half the country; in most cases, their visas are restricted to three cities -- Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. In Baluchistan province, which covers 44 percent of Pakistan and where ethnic nationalists are fighting a low-level insurgency, the government requires prior notification and approval if you want to travel anywhere outside the capital of Quetta. Such permission is rarely given. And the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the pro-Taliban militants are strong, are completely off-limits. Musharraf's government says that journalists are kept out for their own security. But meanwhile, two conflicts go unreported in one of the world's most vital -- and misunderstood -- countries.

There's no doubt that journalists in Pakistan, and throughout Central and South Asia, face great risks. Nine Central and South Asian journalists were among the 65 newsmen and women worldwide -- more than in any other year in the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists -- who lost their lives while doing their jobs last year. Five were Pakistanis. One died in FATA and one in the North-West Frontier Province, areas where the Taliban operate with increasing openness. Two others died in Taliban- or al-Qaeda-related violence, one during the Red Mosque siege last July and one in the terrorist attack on Benazir Bhutto's motorcade as she returned to Pakistan last Oct. 18, which left more than 140 dead.

Also in October, in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, a gunman using a silencer murdered Voice of America reporter Alisher Saipov, a good friend of mine and a fearless opponent of the regime in neighboring Uzbekistan. More recently, Taliban militants raided the exclusive and high-security Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, one detonating himself in a suicide blast while the others combed the hallways, seeking and firing at targets; one Norwegian journalist died.

And yet throughout the region, journalism is considered perhaps the noblest profession around. In many of these countries, information is hoarded by corrupt, authoritarian leaders. Trying to expose it can be a liberating and empowering experience. That's why the state of the media there -- and the ability of foreign journalists to report what's going on -- should concern the West.

It's no secret that stifled societies often produce frustrated, angry youth. Pakistan, for example, is an amazing and fascinating country, filled with amazing and fascinating people, but every day, small numbers of young men and women there are brainwashed into thinking that the only answer to Musharraf's U.S.-backed regime is terrorism.

I moved to Pakistan in February 2006 on a research and writing fellowship. My wife left her job and joined me soon after. We had been married just three months; I convinced her that two years in Pakistan would be like a honeymoon that just wouldn't stop. We both learned to speak Urdu and embraced local customs and clothes. She enrolled at the International Islamic University (the only non-Muslim American ever to do so), and I traveled extensively throughout the country. Pakistan became our home. Unhindered by deadlines and with a grasp of the language, I uncovered a side of Pakistan that few other foreign writers have been fortunate enough to experience.

My desire to explore regions and themes rarely addressed in mainstream media coverage took me to a number of areas often considered dangerous or hostile to Westerners. And yet I found the people there overwhelmingly hospitable -- and not at all scary. I soon learned how to assess -- and, to some extent, manage -- any potential hazards. I almost always traveled with a local journalist or two who knew the people, languages and customs far better than I ever could. Besides understanding which roads were safe to travel at night, they would also be aware that interviewing particular people might attract the unwanted attention of Pakistan's intelligence services, including the notorious ISI. When they advised, I listened.

Foreign writers in Baluchistan have always attracted the nervous attention of the intelligence services. A year ago, agents burst into the hotel room of a female New York Times correspondent and physically assaulted her. (She was reporting on the presence of top Taliban leaders in Quetta.) Another foreign journalist staying at the same hotel received a phone call threatening that unless he left Quetta immediately, he would face the "consequences" like Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent whom Islamic militants kidnapped and beheaded in January 2002.

Following my last visit to Baluchistan, in October 2006, intelligence goons stopped by my house on a regular basis for weeks, demanding to speak with me and asking my guard probing questions about my wife and me. The guard quietly shared these conversations with me out of earshot of my wife. I laughed about it with fellow writers and reporters, figuring that such visits were just the price of researching and reporting in Baluchistan.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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