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TO THE WORLD
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.
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.
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
have never been more terrified in my life," Goodwin
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.
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."
AT THE SILENCE
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.
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.
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.
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."
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]."
later, Goodwin returned to Afghanistan.
MOST DIFFICULT STORY
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
DAUGHTER SHE NEVER HAD
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
INTERESTED IN EVERYTHING'
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
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).
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."
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
more information on what's being done to help Afghan women
and how you can become involved, click on:
and Rehabilitation in Support of
2001 Rebecca Ponton. No part of this article may be reproduced
without the express written consent of the author.
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