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November 20, 2009
Activists protest arrest of opposition leader in Russia

Photo credit: Flickr user argenberg Moscow’s Triumph Square. Photo: argenberg

November has not been a good month for Russia’s political opposition.

A number of activists have been detained in recent days, including the outspoken writer and activist Eduard Limonov, who was picked up for participating in an “unsanctioned rally” in Moscow on October 31. Limonov is now serving 10 days of administrative arrest.

On Nov. 16, police detained eight other activists who were demonstrating in support of Limonov.

Their arrests may not have been accidental. Activists from the opposition Solidarity movement say they have uncovered a high-level police memo ordering officers to disrupt the protests. The memo, photographed with a cell phone, is posted on the blog of activist Ilya Yashin.

Signed by an officer in the police force, the memo is directed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center to Prevent Extremism. It informs the Center about plans by Solidarity activists to carry out a series of individual pickets near the detention facility where Limonov is being held, and the police force’s intent to take measures against the “unsanctioned” meetings.

At the center of the controversy: the right to freedom of assembly, as provided by article 31 of the Russian Federation’s Constitution, which states “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.”

In practice, however, the right to freedom of assembly in Russia has been severely curtailed in recent years. To reassert the public’s right to gather freely, Limonov and his followers have been organizing protests on the 31st of every month at 6 pm in front of Moscow’s Triumph Square.

What’s interesting about the protests against Limonov’s detention on the 16th is that they were planned as individual actions – pickets by one person alone do not need official approval to proceed.

However, when Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Prime Minister turned opposition figure, went out on the street to picket, he reportedly was joined by two men in hooded jackets – which brought the number of protesters to three, making it an “unsanctioned” protest. Nemtsov was subsequently detained by police.

But the same two men reportedly then joined activist Vladimir Milov, whom police also detained. The hooded men walked away free, and went on to disrupt two other protesters, Aleksandr Ryklin and Sergei Zhavoronkov. RFERL has posted a slide show of the pickets and arrests.

Meanwhile, the Communist party has taken up Limonov’s cause in Parliament and 34 Russian writers and publicists have published an open letter on his behalf, arguing that “Eduard Limonov…should not have to undergo arrest in order to realize his constitutional right to the freedom of assembly.”

If the police are in fact fabricating protests in order to have a pretext to arrest activists, it’s a sorry state of affairs indeed.

– Christine Kiernan

November 12, 2009
The pitfalls of filming a big fat Greek wedding

Producer Megan Thompson traveled to Greece last June to produce the signature story Ancient Greek values clash with modern treatment of gays. She writes about one notable wedding ceremony.

A long camera crane swings overhead, women and men alike scream, and I’m whacked upside the head by a Greek photographer. I work for a serious news show on PBS. So how did I end up smack in the middle of the mayhem at one of Greece’s hottest celebrity weddings?

Last June, correspondent Lynn Sherr and I traveled to Greece to shoot several stories, including one on the controversy over gay marriage. But only one such ceremony had ever taken place. So how do you film something that isn’t happening?

Lynn came up with the idea of shooting a straight wedding, to show what gay Greeks were missing out on. Our fixer, Dee Murphy, then found an event that fit into our packed schedule: the wedding of two Greek celebrities, Adonis Georgiadis, a right-wing member of Parliament, and Eugenia Manolidou, a concert pianist, turned television talk show host.

But, I asked, could we seriously just walk into this wedding without being invited? Dee explained that Greek weddings are nothing like American weddings. For one, churches are considered public places, where everyone is welcome. That turned out to be just one of many things different about this wedding.

When we arrived, the square outside the small church was a mob scene – packed with guests, press and hundreds – maybe thousands – of gawkers. I nabbed a place on the edge of the red carpet. At first, the other Greek cameramen were friendly, introducing themselves and joking – seemingly amused by the arrival of the random American.

But when the bride arrived, all niceties went out the window. The press surged, pushing and shoving to get the shot – no elbows spared for the only woman in the pack (me).

Greek tradition dictates that the bride and groom meet outside the church and process in together. A frenzied mob of cameras, bride and her screaming assistant slowly moved towards, and engulfed, the waiting groom, then worked its say into the already packed church.

Greek paparazzi enjoy a wild wedding. Photo: Megan Thompson

Everyone stood for the entire ceremony. While the Greek Orthodox service was performed at the front of the church, the back was a free-for-all – people coming in and out, carrying on loud conversations, climbing up on benches to see the action, making phone calls, snapping photos.

Outside, tables had been set up to hand out little bundles of candied almonds (another Greek tradition). People off the streets were practically jumping over the table to get at the little fluffs of tulle. Back inside, women started dismantling the decorative flower stands that lined the aisles and stuffing them in their purses.

The service ended, and the bride and groom were mobbed all the way back down the aisle and out the door, greeted by popping flashbulbs, confetti and television interviewers. And then they stood patiently and greeted anyone and everyone – friends and strangers alike – who wanted to convey their best wishes (and there were many).

Although this was not your run-of-the-mill Athens wedding, I still felt I’d caught a glimpse of something uniquely and wonderfully Greek. The energy, the joy and the delightful notion that marriage should happen in a very public way, for all the world to see and to celebrate. I’m not sure I’ll be able to appreciate an invitation-only American wedding in quite the same way, ever again.

– Megan Thompson

November 11, 2009
Sweet dreams of Beyonce in N. Korean people’s paradise

Part 4 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about popular music, food and beer.

On my second day in North Korea, our guide asked if it was true that Michael Jackson had died. We pictured her doing the moonwalk as Michael blared from her in-house PA that never sleeps.

After we confirmed the star’s death, she asked whether Michael Jordan had also passed away. She was relieved to hear that America’s greatest basketball player was doing fine – and was about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The following day, our guard tried to impress us as we boarded the bus. “I hope you slept well last night,” said Lee. “I had sweet dreams about Beyonce and hope you did too!”

Exposure to foreign culture remains extremely restricted. As a child, our guide, Jong, had learned Ray Charles piano tunes at the Children’s Palace where we saw elite students perform. Lee had heard Auld Lang Syne and seen My Fair Lady. Jong said cutely that her favorite “popular music” was Ponchonbo Electric Ensemble, a Stalinist military-style band.

With outside media forbidden, citizens rely on domestic TV and intranet – which has instant messaging capabilities.

We were given the Pyongyang Times and Korea Today, English-language publications that resemble high school papers. “The flame of upsurge is kindled” in bold letters prefaced Kim Jong-il paying homage to the key components of Juche society: farm, factory, academy, and military. Our favorite photo showed Kim providing “on the spot field guidance to a gumball factory.”

Despite their national poverty, North Koreans love to picnic next to serene waterfalls. They also enjoy reading the newspaper before boarding the metro. They even find time to bicycle leisurely. However rare these moments seem, outsiders cherish those mundane instants where politics disappears and humanity triumphs.

The 23 million proud inhabitants of North Korea call their country the Land of Morning Calm. The nation is feisty in Northeast Asian geopolitics, but the actual place is indeed peaceful, orderly, and even sterile.

No armed security presence exists in most areas of the country, save for guards at major monuments, museums, and government installations – and of course the massive contingent of one million soldiers within several kilometers of the border with the southern nemesis.

Our guides revealed nothing about the reclusive dictator with a penchant for cognac and caviar. (They also vehemently denied the alleged Kim Jong-il ailments: heart disease, diabetes, and pancreatic cancer).

DPRK cuisine was uninspired and repetitive. and made China seem a gastronomic paradise. Tourists are treated to excessive portions of derivative Western cuisine. Tasteless fish, lukewarm schnitzel, and hard toast made regular appearances. The two authentic Korean meals were more appetizing, even if the kim chee was over-fermented and the baked clams saturated with lighter fluid. Ori bul go gi (grilled duck) on the last night was our favorite.

I brought American cigarettes and dried fruit to our guides, but they were not appreciative. I also brought a bag of jelly beans for schoolchildren. But they would not accept a foreigner’s gift, fearing they would appear selfish.

Our beloved local beer was Taedonggang, made in a brewery transported whole from England. The DPRK’s first-ever commercial was a 150-second Taedonggang promotional video. It first aired in July on Korean Central Television, the government network that reaches 1 million homes, broadcasting for 7.5 hours most days.

Women in North Korea were sharpest in neon pink or green choson-ot dresses that overpowered their malnourished frames. Three-inch platforms were the norm. Men wore matching navy or beige jumpsuits, often accentuating their stocky frames.

A phrase from the Korean-language book that I picked up in North Korea captures the essence of government propaganda: “Korea is a socialist paradise where there are no beggars and all of the people study all of the time.”

– Ben Piven

November 10, 2009
At 40, Sesame Street — and Open Sesame — live on

Mohammad al Kassim is an associate producer at Worldfocus. He writes about his memories growing up with the Arabic-language version of Sesame Street.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the children’s television show Sesame Street. I grew up with Sesame Street when my family lived in Kuwait, where we watched the Arabic version, called Open Sesame (Iftah ya Simsim).

The Arabic version included all the characters in the American Sesame Street with a few changes. For example, instead of Big Bird, it had a big, lovable character named No’man. The characters had Arabic names; Bert was Bader, Ernie was Anis and Kermit the Frog was Kamel the Frog.

No Arabic children’s program in the Middle East was as influential as Open Sesame.

Open Sesame had a major influence on me as a human being. It provided me with an alternative way of learning that hardly existed in the Arab world at the time. The show was made up of actors from around the Arab world. Thus, it familiarized us with the different accents that existed among Arabs from North Africa to Egypt, passing by Iraq and the Gulf.

Open Sesame encouraged and promoted sharing, friendship, and cooperation. It taught me about numbers, the alphabet, manners and waiting my turn. To this day, I still remember many songs I learned from the show about how to be a good neighbor, wash your hands and count to ten.

The show lacked the special effects that many children’s shows have now, yet its masterful use of puppets and the always-entertaining music revolutionized children’s educational programming and learning in a region that desperately needed it then — and more gravely needs it now.

Cath Turner of Al Jazeera English reports on Sesame Street’s impact in countries from Jordan to South Africa.

– Mohammad al Kassim

November 10, 2009
Protecting our gay Jamaican sources and their confessions

The signature story Violence and venom force gay Jamaicans to hide reports on the dark side of Jamaica’s anti-gay violence and attitudes and explores the ideological beliefs that perpetuate a culture of homophobia.

Producer Micah Fink of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting produced the Worldfocus signature story “Violence and venom force gay Jamaicans to hide.” He explains why we had to protect peoples’ identities.

For more information on HIV and homophobia in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Reporting for television on anti-gay violence in Jamaica is tricky.

It is widely believed that being openly gay in Jamaica is essentially a death sentence. That eventually, if you put your face on camera and admit you are gay, someone, sooner or later, will come along and kill you. Or attack your family. Or kill you and your family.

So we had to accept that anyone gay would not be willing to appear on television talking openly about their life experiences. We also agreed before we began filming that if we did find people willing to tell their stories, we would conceal their identities.

And we met many people, more than we could film, who were willing to be interviewed – and who trusted us to protect them from retribution.

There were only two exceptions.

One was a young gay woman who had been brutally attacked by anti-gay thugs and who was planning to flee Jamaica forever and apply for asylum in the United States. She agreed to openly tell her story as long as she was safely off the island when the film was broadcast. Unfortunately, her request for an American visa was denied, and she remains trapped in Jamaica, fearing for her life. And the footage we shot with her will likely never see the light of day.

The other exception was Reverend Robert Griffin, a gay American minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches, who agreed to appear on camera to tell the story of his efforts to build an underground church for Jamaica’s gay community. He is aware that he is risking his life by showing his face to the camera – since he often travels back and forth between Jamaica and the US – but he believes this is a risk worth taking. He sees himself as part of a long tradition of fighting for civil rights that passes through Martin Luther King and connects back to the anti-slavery movement and the underground railroad. And he believes that fighting for tolerance and human dignity for Jamaica’s gay community is a cause for which he is willing to risk everything.

Everyone else wanted to appear in silhouette.

I wasn’t sure at first if these darkened features, shot against a bright window frame, would convey the emotional intensity that is so essential for effective television story-telling. But after we filmed several young gay men speaking about their lives, it was clear this was material we simply had find a way to use.

I now think that the absence of specific visual details makes you listen more closely to the humanity of these voices, and that their remarks may even be more chilling and more universal than if you were able to see a particular, individual face.

“If you are gay in Jamaica, people want to kill you,” one young man told us, explaining how he has to change how he walks and talks so that he doesn’t draw attention to himself when he walks outside. “So I try to walk thuggish,” he explains.

Another young man tells us that he is now living in hiding. “Where I live it is very dangerous,” he says. “Most of the time I can’t come out during the day because people want to kill me.” Why do they want to kill him? “Because I’m gay,” he says.

He also tells how his best friend was murdered and chopped into tiny pieces – and how another friend was locked into his parent’s home and then burned alive.

“People who live here, once they find out that you’re gay, Battyman, let me use the word Battyman, they want to kill you,” says another young man. He goes on to explain that the police are also a serious threat. Just last week, he says, he was searched by several police officers who “razzle dazzled” him up, and then told him: “Bataman fi dead around here,” which means, translated from Jamaican, “We kill gay people around here.”

How do I know they were speaking the truth?

Partly from my 15 years of experience as a journalist—my inner sense told me while we were filming that these men were speaking openly about their lives. Most were poor and had nothing to gain from making up stories. And then there were the common themes that run through their accounts—that make their stories similar, while still being unique. Most of these men said they were afraid to disclose their sexual identity to their parents, or families, or girl friends, for fear of being rejected or expelled from their homes.

And then there are the odd, but very human inconsistencies.

Listen closely to the young gay man who goes by the pseudonym Damion and who says he believes that homosexuality runs counter to God’s will. “I read the Bible for myself and see in the Bible where it says Sodom and Gomorrah is wrong and God destroyed them, so I believe the practice is wrong,” he explained. “So what we need to do is try and put that in a restraining order and stop doing it.” he says. “It is a big challenge for your lifestyle to be changed from homosexual, to be free from it. I believe you need to go through a lot of prayer and fasting, dedication, commitment, and counseling that would help to bring you through that process. It is very hard to do, but I believe it can be done. I’m trying to climb that ladder but I keep falling back because it’s very hard to do. It’s very difficult to change your lifestyle.”

This is the confession of a man struggling with himself—his conscience battling both his sense of morality and his innate sexuality. Given the social context in which he lives, this seems to me to be a battle that he can never really win. Which I find as profoundly tragic as it is profoundly true.

– Micah Fink

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
  • Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

See more Worldfocus coverage on Homosexuality Around the World.

November 9, 2009
Say ‘goodbye’ to the Iron Curtain

Credit: flickr user pdxjmorris

Credit: flickr user pdxjmorris

My first image of the “iron curtain” came from a Nancy Drew novel The Captive Witness, in which our heroine Nancy, touring a communist country as a student, gets involved in a plot to help children escape to freedom. What was this iron curtain that separated east from west, I wondered—and what was so perilous and forbidding about the land behind it that made young people like me risk their lives to flee?

As I looked at a map of Europe, I pictured a sheet of metal, upright and extending for miles along the ground and high into the sky, a metal barricade topped with barbed wire, guarded by attack dogs, and surrounded by towers with roving lights. On one side—the world that I knew. On the other—a cold, dark menacing place where the sun never shone.

Fast forward a few years. I am sitting in my high school social studies class when our teacher tells us with tears in his eyes that the Berlin Wall is falling down. I run home and sit transfixed in front of the television, watching the thousands of people clambering up and over the wall, taking away pieces of brick, drinking champagne, celebrating. Exiled cellist Mstislav Rostropovich serenades united easterners and westerners with Bach. I can’t quite fathom what it means—the structure that surrounded the city of Berlin is no more—but understand that with the fall of the wall, the iron curtain is melting away.

In 1993, I venture for the first time behind the line that divided east and west. I’m in Moscow to study Russian for a semester. In part, it was the desire to discover for myself this previously “forbidden” part of the globe that drew me there. I arrive on a grey evening in February. As we drive from the airport to the city outskirts, I peer through the steamy window at the foreign scene outside. The grey sky seems an extension of the snowy landscape. Mammoth apartment buildings extend endlessly, and tiny figures scurry about in fur hats and coats. We pass row upon row of bare birch trees.

Soviet poster: building socialism. Photo: flickr user x-ray delta one

It was four years since the wall came down, and two years since the Soviet Union officially dissolved. Part of me always wished I’d arrived three years earlier, to have experienced life in the USSR. But even though I was too late, I caught glimpses of what life behind the iron curtain must have been like: watching my good friend Anastasia try her very first banana, listening to recordings of singers whose music had been circulated through samizdat, sharing a meal on an overnight train ride with fellow passengers who had never spoken to an American before, handing a mother a letter from her son who had fled to the west, and feeling the oppressive uniformity and lack of diversity in a city where everyone looked and dressed alike.

In the ten plus years that I spent studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by the monumentality of the events that transpired during the fall and winter of 1989, and by just how much the world has changed since then. In a sense I’m glad to have known a world in which there was an iron curtain, in order to appreciate a world without it. And so, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I propose a toast to the destruction of walls everywhere, walls that keep people apart and walls that keep people in.

– Christine Kiernan

November 5, 2009
Tonga’s traditional ways threatened by climate change

Megan Thompson, a Worldfocus producer, recently returned from a trip around the world to report on climate change. Read her earlier posts from Grenada and Antigua and Maldives.

We were some of the first people on earth to see the sun set on Saturday night.  After about 36 hours of travel from the Maldives, we landed on a dot of earth that is the Kingdom of Tonga, greeted by a brilliant Pacific sunset.

Tonga is in the second-most-eastern time zone – the second to start, and end, each calendar day.  But Tongans don’t seem too aware of its significance, and have a relaxed attitude towards the concept of time in general.   “Time doesn’t play a major role here,” said one of our guides.

“Island time” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true that the Tongan pace is mellow.  I didn’t see a single stop light in this country – just a few roundabouts at the “busier” intersections, and a crossing gate in Lifuka, where the main road intersects the airport runway.  The prevailing speed limit is about 25 miles an hour and sometimes there are more pigs roaming free in the street than there are cars.

Ha’apai, Tonga. Photo: Megan Thompson

Political change has been slow to arrive here, too.  Tonga is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world — though not for much longer.  The recently-crowned King George Tupou V has promised to start handing power over to the people next year, transitioning the government from one dominated by nobles and political appointees to one run by the prime minister.

But adopting a more modern form of government surely won’t mean that Tonga will lose the many rich traditions that thrive here.  Most Tongans still wear the traditional waist mats – the ta’ovala for men, and the kiekie for women.  It’s a sign of respect – like a neck tie, as it was explained to us – and is required in most schools, government buildings and church.  The Tongan currency is called the pa’anga, but large, hand-made tapestries called tapa are sometimes still used as a form of currency and wealth.

Tapa, made from pounded tree bark, is used sometimes as a form of wealth and currency. Photo: Megan Thompson

That’s not to say that Tongans need – or have – much money.  This continues to be, by and large, a culture of subsistence living, highly dependent on the abundant nature here.  Food is gathered daily from the sea and lush land, and the strong family unit supplies other basic needs.  The material items and frivolities that most Westerners spend their disposable income on just don’t exist.  On the island of Lifuka, I asked our guide what he did in his spare time.

“I go and cut crops on my land,” he replied.

But how about for fun?

“I take a walk.”

Tongans are intimately connected to nature, and most we spoke to have noticed that the weather seems less predictable and the sea level seems to be rising.  But many weren’t familiar with the concept of climate change.

That will probably change soon as well.  For just like the sunrise and sunset, climate change will arrive first in Tonga and other small island states.  And unlike the leisurely rhythms by which most business is done here, this issue must be tackled with urgency and haste.

The government recently formed the new Ministry for Environment and Climate Change and has started a campaign to spread awareness.  They are also gearing up to attend the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.  There, they will join other small island nations to demand that the international community pick up the pace to save this Pacific island paradise and its people before it’s too late.

November 3, 2009
For Google Maps, diplomacy trumps geography

In recent years, Google Maps have become a go-to source for web-based mapping. They provide visualizations of virtually any location on Earth to varying degrees of detail, depending on the region.

But as Google has gained a foothold in markets around the world, adapting its versions to different countries and languages, an inevitable problem has emerged: how do you delineate international boundaries when they are disputed by multiple countries?

This caused problems for the tech giant earlier this year, when its Chinese characters mislabeled an area called Arunachal Pradesh, which is under Indian administration.

While a simple solution to border disputes would be to stick to internationally recognized demarcations, Google has taken things a step further. Rather than risk antagonizing disputes among its partner countries– each with its own market potential– Google has customized its maps according to different countries’ official positions on their versions of its Google Maps application.

“This does not in any way endorse or affirm the position taken by any side,” according to a Google spokesperson, “but merely provides complete information on the prevailing geo-political situation to our users of global properties in a dispassionate and accurate manner.”

Take, for example, the Chinese version of Google Maps:

The disputed boundaries between India and Pakistan are indicated by dotted lines. But the border with China (to the northeast of India) is nevertheless solid.

Consider, then, the Indian version of the same region:

Here, it appears the only disputed area lies between Tajikistan and China, to the north of India. Indian territory itself, including the western part of Kashmir which is often attributed to Pakistan, is not in question. Furthermore, the area between China and India, which in China’s version belong to China, now lies within Indian territory.

Finally, compare these two version to the standard version of Google Maps:

Here, all disputed boundaries are indicated by a dotted line.

These border disputes predate the Internet — and are unlikely to go away any time soon.  Google has at least managed a temporary diplomatic resolution in cyberspace.

November 2, 2009
Is polygamy good for women?

A proposal last week by Malaysia’s Islamic party argued that polygamy can be beneficial for women.

The conservative Islamic party has called for Muslim men in the country to marry single mothers instead of “young virgin girls,” said a state official. Al-Arabiya news channel quoted Wan Ubaidah, head of women, family and health affairs in a northern state,  remarking that although Malaysian men usually prefer young and virgin girls as their additional wives, this new proposal would help single mothers and widows who are finding it hard to raise their kids.

Muslim men in Malaysia are allowed to marry up to four women under the approval of the Islamic courts but it’s not widespread in the country. The proponents of the practice say it helps disadvantaged women like single mothers and widows and discourage adultery and prostitution. But many women’s rights activists condemn it as an unequal and unjust practice against women.

The debate over polygamy has been going on in Malaysia for awhile now. In August, a “polygamy club,” was founded in the country to promote polygamous marriages. The aim is to help “single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past the marrying age” find the appropriate spouse to marry. The club claims to have 1000 members of which 700 are women.

A possible opening of a branch of the club in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, has provoked outrage among some religious leaders and women’s rights groups in that country. According to the Associated Press, analysts believe the number of men who prefer to marry more than one wife is rising in Indonesia,  and includes some religious leaders and political figures.

Islamic law allows for a man to marry up to four wives under the condition that he can provide for all four of them fairly and equally. The practice is especially common in traditional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. But it’s prohibited in more secular predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina,  and abhorred by many women’s rights activists.

Explore the legal status of polygamy with this interactive map.

Map of polygamy worldwide, courtesy of Wikipedia user Zombieisland09

October 23, 2009
Up close and personal with the Taliban

The Times reporter conducting an interview.

Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Edward Deitch is the consulting producer and head writer at Worldfocus. He looks at how one reporter describes an ordeal in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and what it may mean for U.S. policymakers.

It was unfortunate, even heartbreaking, how David Rohde gained first-hand knowledge of the Taliban. The New York Times correspondent went to Afghanistan last November to research a book, but before getting very far he was kidnapped by a Taliban commander who had invited him for an interview.

Held for more than seven months across the border in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, he lived to write about his experience. It’s the kind of story that no one would have wished for but that few will turn away from.

In a series of Times articles this week, Rohde recounts his experience and those of two Afghan colleagues abducted with him. You can see a related video segment from this Worldfocus partner in tonight’s broadcast.

Rohde’s perspective on the Taliban is particularly relevant. Pakistan is conducting a large-scale offensive against the insurgents in South Waziristan, one of the areas where Rohde was held. And President Obama is pondering whether to commit more troops to the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There will most certainly be a book and, inevitably, a movie. But I doubt Hollywood will do justice to the material. Rohde’s ordeal, in his own words, is the kind of story you can’t make up.

There have been countless dispatches on the fight against the Taliban from the American and British points of view. Following the troops in Afghanistan for a few days or weeks is routine for reporters, whether they are from The Times, American television news outlets, or foreign broadcasters such as Australia’s ABC or Al Jazeera English, whose reports we have featured on our program. Al Jazeera English has also provided glimpses into the Taliban side, especially in Pakistan.

By contrast, David Rohde, without a choice in the matter, experienced what might be described as the ultimate embed with the Taliban, and some of his revelations are worth noting as U.S. policymakers confront the growing dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

  • The group that held him “oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military.”
  • U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets “killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.”
  • The Taliban “were more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions.”

Even the surreal moments are instructive. Rohde was baffled, he tells us, by how his guards liked to sing with him, and their favorite song was none other than “She Loves You” by the Beatles. He recounts how he would sing the first verse and the guards and his fellow captives would join in for the chorus. “’She loves you – yeah, yeah, yeah,’ we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us.” One can only imagine it.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Rohde’s story, with all its twists and turns. It is a thriller set in an unfolding and deepening conflict with no end in sight. It provides a rare and raw look at just what the United States and its allies are up against. It’s difficult to read but hard to put down.

– Edward Deitch

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