The purpose of this report was to go back to the people and the places we know and that we’ve known for a long time and use them as the touchstone to assess where things are today. For me, that was to go back to the first madrassa on the Pakistan side of the border where I first heard about the Taliban. You saw it in my story; I think it’s really interesting that those same refugee camps that lay dormant are now filled up with Swat refugees. If you read the lead story, “Blowback,” I’m really in the exact same spot of earth. And then Seamus had this great idea to go back and see this family that he’s known for fifteen years and use them to tell the story so I recorded all the audio of him talking about the story on the rooftop, I recorded the sound of the brother telling the narrative of the family, the sounds of the street, the sounds of that rite of passage for his two sons. And, also, we tried to capture through Seamus’s photography, but also through the reporting of the story, the resiliency of the Afghan people and I think that is really the most powerful theme of Seamus’s piece: resiliency.
AF: When you set out to do this was there anything that came up that made you change your plan for the package?
CS: The Sally Goodrich story unfolded in continuing and unpredictable ways. Again, Sally Goodrich and the girls in that school are people I’ve grown to know over many years of reporting. When I first did the story on Sally Goodrich two and a half years ago, it was a feel-good story for the Boston Globe Magazine and it ran on Mother’s Day and it was called “Educating Sally.” [Vermont schoolteacher Sally Goodrich lost her son, Peter, on September 11th, and built a school in his honor in the Logar province in Afghanistan]. It was such a beautiful moment to be there when she gets to see the school in session for the first time, and the joy and hope there on the girls’ faces and the way Sally engaged with them, it was really beautiful. It was really touching having covered the war for so many years and so many bad things, to see this good story coming out of the despair of Sept. 11th, to be about people connecting and hope—it was great, right?
But then five months ago, Sally started calling me with news that all these [village elders] who we had known—and we have snapshots of us arm-in-arm and we ate lunch in their home—had, according to the U.S. military, gone with the Taliban. And in shifting to the Taliban, that village represents a microcosm of where things are headed in Afghanistan. But then the story unfolded in even more complex ways on the ground for me. I did a lot of reporting and got the whole dossier of facts from the military, I met with the Ministry of Education, which oversees the school, I talked to the principal through intermediaries and then I finally got to even meet with the village elders who had been accused of going with the Taliban.
And in all of that reporting, what I found out was, this is an incredibly complex story in which, yes, it looks like these village elders did side with the Taliban. But my reporting lead me to connect to the dots to say, they did that to keep the girls’ school open. And that’s the kind of complexity for ground reporting and narrative reporting that we need in Afghanistan right now because that’s how complicated it is. It ends incredibly tragically.
I come back, I have all this information to share with Sally, and I show her some of the video. We had to secret a camera into the school because this was the same area where David Rohde was kidnapped. I was really seriously warned not to go to that school and I took those warnings seriously and I am not a cowboy—I have four sons. I listened to the military, the village elders—everyone said, “Don’t come.” Even the principal said, “Don’t come.” I instead found someone who lives in the village, who happened to be a cameraman for Afghan TV, and I sent a handheld camera in his hands with no notice, just surprise, one day just show up and start taping. And he did. And we did capture that the school is indeed still open, but with a trickle of students. Kids were afraid.