11th September 2001: The twin towers came down in New York and suddenly, the world’s attention turned to a country in South Asia ravaged by war for two and a half decades. With Osama Bin Laden clearly in their sights the US began its bombing campaign in Afghanistan… where the ruling Taliban had protected and allowed Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorists their operating bases.
Hundreds of journalists came to Afghanistan to capture this turbulent time in the history of this war ravaged nation. Rajan Kapoor (Executive Producer) and I were also there to shoot our documentary on the Taliban years. One of the most stirring places we went to was a remote prison deep inside the Panjshir valley. The place was called Doab and the prison was situated in a deep gorge surrounded on two sides by a rapidly flowing river. The inmates were soldiers of the Taliban who had been captured by the Northern Alliance Mujahedin but strangely none of them belonged to Afghanistan. They were from Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Burma and even China. The Taliban had played host not just to the world’s most wanted terrorists but also to thousands of self-styled holy warriors or Jihadis.
One of these prisoners was 42-year-old Salahuddin Khaled from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, a veteran of many terrorist operations. He was of particular interest to us because Khaled had also gone to fight in Kashmir. After a 6 month stint in Kashmir, he had been sent to Kandahar in Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. Doab was a full day’s drive from Kabul and since there was no other place to stay; Rajan and I had to sleep in the prison with over 50 foreign mercenaries. Since we both spoke Urdu, we were able to communicate most with the Pakistani prisoners who also cooked delicious korma (mutton curry) for dinner and shared it with us.
The next day as we were crossing the river to return to Kabul, Khaled requested the prison guard and came running behind us. He asked us to let him make one call from our satellite phone. Unsure of the consequences of conceding such a favor we were quite reluctant to oblige. But seeing the desperation on his face we relented and gave him the phone. Khaled called his family in Pakistan and began crying the moment his young daughter spoke to him. We realized that this was the first time in 5 years that he had called home. His family had till now thought that he was dead. After a brief conversation an emotionally overcome Khaled handed over the phone back to us, thanked us and walked away. In the course of a two minute phone call, we saw a dreaded terrorist of one of the most oppressive regimes of the world transform into a sobbing father…
And somewhere in that small moment lay the seed of the idea of Kabul Express. I was convinced that Kabul Express could only be shot in Afghanistan. The country was not just a location for filming; it was a character in my film.
I know that the popular perception is that Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world… second perhaps only to Iraq. But I, however, strongly reject such an assertion. Not because I have been to that country ten times (including during the war) as a documentary film-maker and have come back in one piece every time; not because I have shot my first feature film in Afghanistan and so naturally have a soft spot for the place; not because almost every member of my crew would readily go back to Kabul and has very fond memories of Afghanistan, suicide bombings notwithstanding; but because by subscribing to that perception I would be doing exactly what the Taliban and company want us to do - turn away from Afghanistan and stop the progress of the devastated country’s slow trek back to normalcy… because by doing so I would be betraying the trust of hundreds of my Afghan friends who literally stood between us and the Taliban’s death threats to my cast and crew.
SHOOTING ON THE TERROR TRAIL
20th October 2005