INTERVIEWS

Jan Goodwin

Arabian Woman Magazine
Azher Information Technology Group Ltd.
Cyprus

Nov. 2001

A WITNESS TO THE WORLD

Journalist and human rights activist Jan Goodwin, in an exclusive interview with Rebecca Ponton, talks about her experiences in Afghanistan, a country no one wanted to know about in the past and now no one can stop talking about.

"The helicopter stayed right on our tail. [The jeep] bucketed over the track, doing about [130 kph]. I braced myself for the helicopter to fire, but it stayed in exactly the same position behind us. As the jeep lurched, my jaw smashed into the metal bar across the back of [the] seat. My head rang, I tasted blood in my mouth, and I expected to come up spitting teeth," writes Jan Goodwin in Caught in the Crossfire, the book she wrote about the three months she spent in 1985 traveling with the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"Our helicopter was not traveling alone," she continues. "A sixth gunship flew across us. Being hunted down this way was like being awake in a nightmare that wouldn't end."

"I have never been more terrified in my life," Goodwin says now.

Eventually forced to abandon the jeep and flee on foot, the Mujahideen decided it would be better for the group to split up. With the helicopter gunships equipped with nightvision hovering overhead, Goodwin remembers running across a field and the cornstalk stubble scratching her.

"The whole time I couldn't believe what was happening," she says, still sounding incredulous some 16 years later. "I had this little ditty going over and over in my mind, 'Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.' I am by no means a greatly religious
person," she says. "I describe myself as a 'seeker,' but I very much subscribe to the fact that there are no atheists in foxholes."

OUTRAGED AT THE SILENCE

"Why did you do it?" I ask her, trying to comprehend what would compel a 40-year old, single woman to give up her comfortable, and often glamorous, job as a magazine editor in New York to risk her life in Afghanistan, a country few people even knew - or cared - existed.

"There were times when I thought, 'I'm crazy. What am I doing here?'" she admits. "[But] I have this innate sense of justice and I was so outraged by what was happening and that it wasn't being covered [in the media]," she says, referring to the horror stories coming out of the refugee camps and from the people she talked to during her first trip inside Afghanistan with the Mujahideen in 1984. The Afghans told of entire villages being wiped out in massacres, of gang rapes, and of children losing limbs or being blinded when they picked up the small, brightly-colored antipersonnel mines disguised to look like toys."I was passionate about what was happening and I wanted people to know. When I first got into lecturing on it, I went to the universities and educated people would say to me, 'Afghanistan . . . is that in Africa?'" she says.

"Afghanistan's always been a synonym in the newsroom for 'too far away,'" she explains, referring to stories and places about which people are apathetic. "It's interesting; the Taliban has done a very good thing for Afghanistan. It's put the damn country on the map," she states emphatically.

"It is the only good thing that they've done," she continues, "but they've done it, and I find that in itself is an achievement because it was very hard [in the past] to get people interested in Afghanistan."

Two months after her initial trip to Afghanistan, Vitaly Smirnov, the Soviet ambassador to Pakistan, issued this threat: "I warn you [journalists] . . . stop trying to penetrate Afghanistan with the so-called guerrillas. From now on, the bandits and the so-called journalists accompanying them will be killed. Our units in Afghanistan will help the Afghan forces [to do it]."

A year later, Goodwin returned to Afghanistan.

THE MOST DIFFICULT STORY

It is this tenacity that leads Goodwin to refer to herself as being "very bulldog" and having "feisty determination." Even so, she says it was physically and emotionally the most difficult story she has ever done. This coming from a journalist who covered both sides of the war in El Salvador, dodged bullets in the Middle East, Kosovo, and Cambodia, was jailed in Pakistan and Africa, and was the target of a death list.

Afghanistan is known for its beautiful, but brutal mountain ranges. In order to prepare for the treacherous terrain, Goodwin spent three months going to the gym and walking up 28 flights of stairs to her apartment. "It didn't do any good," she admits, able
to laugh about it now.

At the end, her feet were a bloody mess and the toenails had pulled loose from the nailbeds. She came down with amoebic dysentery, which can be fatal, but, fortunately, is treatable with antibiotics. No doubt it was contracted after her water purification tablets ran out and she was forced to drink water which contained, in her words, "an entire ecosystem filled with frogs, tadpoles, beetles, aquatic insects, and little red worms."

She almost lost the sight in one eye when she developed a corneal ulcer after dust was repeatedly trapped under her contact lenses. Eventually, she had to remove the lens, which left her with corrected sight in only one eye. Blurred vision and a skewed sense of balance are never desirable, but particularly not when you're running for your life.

Despite their severity, she was able to recover from the physical problems caused by the trip. The emotional consequences, however, are still with her to this day. Journalism professors often counsel their students not to get involved with their subjects.
Goodwin says, for her, that's not always possible. "You can't be numb; you have to feel," she says passionately. "[Otherwise], it [would be] like a doctor who doesn't see patients anymore, just corpses."

When asked about the most memorable story she's covered, she pauses and then says, "People, not so much stories, stay in my mind. It's the eyes." And, indeed, there is one person who has stayed with her for 13 years.

THE DAUGHTER SHE NEVER HAD

"It began with Maria," is the opening line of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World, Goodwin's second book. Maria was a nine-year old Afghan refugee who lived with Goodwin when she moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1998, and whose father was the guard at Goodwin's house.

"I was the mother she didn't have," Goodwin writes, "and she was the daughter I'd never given birth to." For two years, Jan and Maria did all the things a mother and daughter would do - they shopped, they baked cookies, they worked on Maria's homework together. Jan would read Maria bedtime stories, Maria would share Afghan folklore with her. Jan gave her a puppy, Maria brought her flowers.

Then, suddenly, Maria was taken from her. Maria's father wanted to remarry and, in part because he couldn't afford the bride-price and because his new wife wouldn't want Maria, he had agreed to give her to his new wife's father, an old man who already had two wives. Goodwin never saw her again.

A year later, she received the only word she's ever heard about the young girl she once considered her surrogate daughter. She learned that Maria, not quite 12 years old, was expecting her first child.

OPENING DOORS

"Originally, the book was going to be about Maria. I was so angry about what had happened to her. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up female in Maria's world," Goodwin says.

In order to find out, she would spend four years, traveling through 10 countries, including Kuwait, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Afghanistan, talking to women from all ends of the socio-economic spectrum, from peasants to royalty, gathering material for her book. In societies typically closed to foreigners (she says Saudi Arabia and Iraq were the most difficult in which to make contacts), the women welcomed her into their world and shared their stories. "Open one door," Goodwin says, "and 10 more will open."

In Egypt, she talked to physician and writer Nawal El Sa'adawi, the Arab world's leading feminist. In Jordan, she interviewed Queen Noor. And in the UAE, she spoke at length with successful businesswoman and member of the Sharjah royal family, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi. Along the way, she met numerous "ordinary" Arab women, and their stories became the basis for Price of Honor.

'I'M INTERESTED IN EVERYTHING'

While she has a particular passion for the plight of Afghan women, who have suffered so much, Goodwin is interested in the lives of women throughout the world. Her work regularly appears in US women's magazines, such as Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar, and covers topics as diverse as child soldiers in Sierra Leone (for the New York Times Sunday magazine), the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and child trafficking and prostitution in India.

She has received numerous accolades for her work, among them: the Frontpage Award for Outstanding Journalism - Newswoman of the Year - for her "War Torn" series; a Clarion Award for her anti-child pornography series, for which she was recognized by the White House; and three Amnesty International Media Awards (1995, 1997, 2000).

Given the current world situation, there has been a renewed interest in both of Goodwin's books, and her publishers have asked her to up-date them. Price of Honor has soared to #74 on Amazon.com's list of two million titles, and, although Caught in the Crossfire is currently out-of-print, it can be found through used booksellers and in libraries. Because of Goodwin's knowledge and experience in Afghanistan, she now finds herself on the other side of the tape recorder, fielding requests for television appearances and radio interviews. She has become, in her own words, a "talking head."

It's hard to imagine that Goodwin won't attempt to go back to Afghanistan. The reporter and human rights activist in her won't allow her to stay on the sidelines in the relative safety and comfort of the US. And I think I understand a little bit better now what compels her to do it. It's her desire to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. It's her need to see firsthand what is happening to a people she cares about deeply. And, maybe, just maybe, against all odds, it's a chance to get word
about Maria.

BOX

For more information on what's being done to help Afghan women and how you can become involved, click on:

Feminist Majority Foundation
http://www.feminist.org

Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation in Support of
Afghanistan (PARSA)
http://www.PARSA-afghanistan.org

Amnesty International
http://www.amnesty.org

Copyright 2001 Rebecca Ponton. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.

Article available for reprint. Contact: rebecca@rebeccaponton.com

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