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.
But what makes Pakistan and the region an often hostile place for journalists is the difficulty of assessing the threat. While most fatalities last year occurred in random bombings and terrorist attacks, deadly incidents in years past remain shrouded in mystery. In December 2005, Hayatullah Khan, a journalist from North Waziristan, filed a story with photographs that gave evidence -- a piece of a U.S.-made Hellfire missile -- that the United States was conducting strikes against Taliban- and al-Qaeda-linked targets inside Pakistani territory. The photos were undoubtedly an embarrassment to the Musharraf government, which had publicly insisted that U.S. military forays would not be allowed inside Pakistan.
Just a few weeks earlier, Khan had written a will in which he stated, "If I am kidnapped or get killed, the government agencies will be responsible." The day after his story and the photos were published, gunmen ran his car off the road and kidnapped him. Six months later, his body was dumped in the bazaar in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan.
A couple of weeks ago, a spokesman from the Information Ministry said that "the media in Pakistan is the freest ever in the history of the country." In many ways, he was correct; drawing-room columnists can be as critical as they wish to be. But opinion-writing shouldn't be confused with reporting. And every journalist working in Pakistan knows that crossing certain undefined lines can become a risky, often life-threatening endeavor. Pearl and Khan were both doing serious investigative work when they were kidnapped and killed.
Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan's most respected TV and print journalists, watched as his TV channel, Geo TV, and his talk show were pulled off the air after Musharraf imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 3. (On Jan. 21, Geo resumed broadcasting, albeit without Mir's show.) Mir recently e-mailed me: "Musharraf believes in removing people from the scene. . . . He cannot remove us from history."
Journalism, as the cliche goes, is the "first rough draft of history." If that's the case, then Pakistan's history is suffering.
On that wet Tuesday night, I finally connected by phone with an influential friend, who placed a couple of calls and made the cops go home. But it was obvious that my wife and I were no longer welcome in Pakistan. My mobile phone had been tapped for weeks. For the first time in two years, I feared for our safety. The next morning, we bought two one-way tickets back to the States. Within two days, we had pawned off our cat and packed or sold the rest of our belongings.
On our last night in Islamabad, a half-dozen expatriate friends came over to send us off -- and help drink the rest of our wine. Yet saying goodbye to our expat friends wasn't nearly as emotional as saying goodbye to our Pakistani friends and those who had done everything to protect us in those final hours.
The day after my story about the Taliban appeared, our guard, a gruff, bearded man from the North-West Frontier Province, had rebuffed the ISI inspector who'd arrived on a motorcycle and demanded to be allowed inside to conduct an investigation. The guard, a former ISI commando himself, apparently told the inspector that he would never get past him and be allowed inside our house. Hugging this man on our last morning, as tears streamed down his face, was more difficult than bidding my family farewell back in February 2006 had been. Honestly, I don't know when I'll see him -- or Pakistan -- again. I miss them both already.
Nicholas Schmidle, a Pakistan-based fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs from 2006 to 2008, is writing a book about Pakistan today.