Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

In the Hands of the Taliban, by Yvonne Ridley

reviewed by Andy Armitage

It reads like an adventure novel, yet by the end of it you feel you know Yvonne Ridley, the 43-year-old Sunday Express reporter who fell into the hands of the Taliban after getting herself into Afghanistan in the Autumn.

This book’s revelations will be already known to those who read the newspapers. Also, during Ridley’s captivity, news bulletins and papers alike kept the West informed of her welfare: she was going to be released; she wasn’t going to be released; the West’s decision to bomb Afghanistan would scupper her release; her release was imminent; it was today; it would be tomorrow.

True to their word, the Taliban did release Yvonne Ridley, and she used her memories, a fragmentary diary she managed to keep while shut away in Jalalabad and Kabul and her reporter’s storytelling skills in order to put together this extraordinary account, which was written at breakneck speed for quick publication.

What comes over is a transparent and disarming honesty as well as a journalist’s love of telling it like it is. The style is, indeed, journalistic in tone. It begins with her attempt to get to New York on the day of – and the days following – the 11 September attack on the twin towers. Then her news editor told her that Pakistan was where it was happening. Off she went. She tells of how she smuggled herself into Afghanistan using the Trojan horse of a burqa, a head-to-toe, hide-all garment you have to be a true hero to wear for any length of time, so stifling is your silent world in there. And this world of silence beneath the burqa comes over powerfully in Ridley’s absorbing story, for with it comes a glimpse of life for women under the strict Shari’a law practised by the Taliban.

One particularly moving account concerns her visit to Jalozai, the largest refugee camp in Pakistan. There she saw a little girl, “sitting on her hunkers, grubby knees resting against her flawless, olive-skinned face, which was dominated by saucer-wide brown eyes”. This child, she says, could have been her nine-year-old daughter, Daisy. But Daisy was safe in her boarding school, probably having a pillow fight in the dorm, able to get up and dress in crisp, clean clothes. Not so for this little girl, who had no toys, no education, no hope.

There are other moments, too, of course, but this was one that strikes you as particularly powerful. The whole book is a rattling read from start to finish, and has a denouement that leaves us in little doubt about Ridley’s view of Uncle Sam and the West’s bombing campaign.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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