Carlotta Gall talks students through Iraq

While the War in Iraq continues, it can be easy for even the politically aware to forget that the United States is participating in another major armed conflict in the Middle East. Here at Swarthmore to share her insights gleaned from five years of reporting from Afghanistan was prize-winning Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, under the auspices of the Writing Associates Program.

Gall prefaced her talk by showing clips from a documentary film by a colleague, Bill Gentile, entitled “Dateline Afghanistan: Reporting the Forgotten War.” After showing a segment featuring Tomas Munita, a photojournalist for the Associated Presss covering the chaos of a minor street demonstration in Kabul, she skipped forward to a segment of an interview with her about her story on Dilawar, an Afghan prisoner who died under mysterious circumstances while under American control at the Bagram prison.

She explained in the interview that it was a “great story and it was very powerful, but it didn’t run” because of concerns at the Times about the verification of the facts involved. Once it was published, it appeared on page 14, but Gall’s work on the story was vindicated two years later as the story resurfaced with an official report, as the initial article forced the military to not ignore the incident. She also referred to the duty she feels to get to the bottom of stories so that “not just one person’s view that’s getting out.” She further said, “I don’t have any axe to grind, but I do get angry about injustice.”

She then showed a number of photographs from her years in Afghanistan, including from her tour as an imbedded reporter with a unit of American soldiers. Even though the treks on foot through the hills were rough, she said a reporter’s real work starts once they stop for the night in villages, or with the soldiers. Most of the villages “probably would rather not see any of us, Taliban or American,” and so are generally willing to accommodate both as they pass through, although the Taliban usually forces accommodation at the barrel of a gun. Village leaders, informers, and members of the new Afghani government are all good sources of information, as are the American soldiers themselves, Gall said.

Reporters like Gall who are embedded with a military unit undergo certain hazards. At one point, the unit she was with purposely sought to invite an ambush by Taliban fighters by walking conspicuously through the hillside. Snow causes delays and automobile problems during the cold winter, and year round, a slow sixteen-hour drive non-stop on Afghanistan’s main north-south artery makes for a bumpy ride. However, there are also other stories that reporters get to cover, such as the politics of Kabul and President Hamid Karzai, or about the efforts to rebuild the large Buddha statues that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.

She particularly enjoys investigative work, having recently written a story on HIV-AIDS in the nation recently. As of now, Gall said, only a miniscule number of Afhan citizens have the syndrome (she mentioned the number 69), but under the conditions in the nation, vigilance is necessary. She sees this as one of the values of her work, and part of what makes the actual writing, which she does not particularly care for, worthwhile for her is what she feels she is able to accomplish through reporting. The Afghan people themselves see the value of good reporting, and do not have any trouble distinguishing embedded reporters from the military or other outsiders, Gall was happy to tell us. Even in a conservative country, she has “really had very little difficulty working there” as a woman.

As Gall has tracked the war in Afghanistan since its inception, she has seen the initial problems of development and minor corruption lead through relative order to the alarming days of 2006 and the Taliban resurgence that occurred then. She contends that Afghanistan is “not going down the tubes” but acknowledged that it “is going through a rough stage.” The Afghan people are war-weary and do not want the Taliban back, and while young men in Iraq may be joining insurgent groups in droves, in Afghanistan, it is more likely to see them moving to cities and getting jobs.

Hence, Gall believes that Afghanistan is going in the right direction, including in terms of policy and foreign aid. “It will be a long haul, but I think its going to be okay in the long run,” Gall eventually concluded. If she can “pull some heartstrings or get something to happen” politically, then Gall believes her work has been of value.


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