ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Choosing the hard option over hot meals and clean sheets is Kathy Gannon’s way of getting the better story.
She’s trudged with burly anti-Soviet mujahedeen soldiers over the mountains separating Pakistan from Afghanistan and lived in Kabul while U.S. bombs rained down from above. Most recently she slept in her car for eight days in Muzaffarabad, the epicenter of the South Asian Earthquake, where tens of thousands died and many more were left homeless.
Sitting in the lush garden of her Islamabad home, holding a freshly brewed mug of coffee, she smiled wryly. “It was a place to stay,” she said of her car. “And I could lock the doors.”
After almost two decades of tenacious reporting and writing from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Associated Press that has earned her a closet full of awards, Gannon is moving on.
The 52-year-old newlywed has been named AP bureau chief for Iran, whose president is under intense diplomatic scrutiny for having aspirations to create a nuclear bomb. Her husband, Naeem Pasha, 63, is a prolific Pakistani architect and art gallery owner. He said he was planning to go to Iran to visit Gannon and study Persian art.
As soon as the Iranian government sees fit to fix a visa inside her Canadian passport, she is going to Tehran to re-open AP’s bureau, which turned off its lights in 1979 when Islamic revolutionaries overthrew Iran’s shah and stormed the U.S. embassy, taking 66 American hostages.
“I don’t wear headscarves unless I have to,” said Gannon, in response to a question about how she dresses for her work. “I am very culturally sensitive, but I am what I am. In Iran I won’t wear the tight-fitting one that will keep my hair in when I meet a cleric and a little flimsy one when I meet with a liberal.”
Memories Form a Montage
Gannon said the change in her posting is making her look back on the often tragic stories she has covered–many of them about women–to mix into a montage of memories that repeat in her mind’s eye as if it were on a loop.
“Images–sounds and smells really–stay with me more so than a particular story,” Gannon said as she looked away, beyond the confines of the garden toward the smoky Pakistan sunset. “During Taliban rule there was the widows’ bakery. The women were behind the door pounding, screaming, ‘Why don’t you just shoot us instead of killing us slowly?’ That’s something that keeps playing over and over in my head.”
The Taliban had forcibly closed the bakery once it had established its rule over much of Afghanistan in 1996. As the regime prohibited almost all women from working, Gannon reported on how women were committing suicide, behind painted windows and high walls because the Taliban had forced them out of their jobs and off the streets.
Gannon brought to readers the stories of how widows and their children were particularly vulnerable under the Taliban.
They were the women who had survived the civil wars that had been raging since the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 and the fall of the Afghan Communist regime in 1992. During those years Gannon went to Kabul often and brought out stories of the utter brutality women endured at the hands of soldiers controlled by warlords such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Ahmed Shah Massoud.
In her recently published book, “I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan,” Gannon challenges the Washington establishment’s simplistic rendering of why Afghanistan and Pakistan have become the centers of narcotics production and terrorism. She believes blaming the Taliban for the region’s ills is allowing the U.S. and its Afghan allies to shirk their responsibility for Afghanistan’s recent and bloody past in the civil war years. It was during that dangerous and chaotic period the Taliban became popular for instituting order and basic security.
Gannon said writing the book allowed her to close her chapter in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said she was able to gain confidence that she could go beyond her usual beat this year when, in her current position as AP’s special correspondent, she traveled in and reported from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
Gannon came to Pakistan and crossed over into Afghanistan in 1986, when the Soviets dug in and battled the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, who wanted them to leave. The mujahedeen were the Afghans who took up arms against the Soviet and Communist Afghan forces in what they believed was a holy war, or jihad. The Soviets left and the communist regime crumbled. But Gannon stayed, refusing to give up her ringside seat for what would become Afghanistan’s unfolding tragedy of civil wars, with tens of thousands dead and very few heroes.
“The bravest people I have met have been women. In Afghanistan in the Loya Jirga (national assembly), it was women who stood up and said, ‘What are they doing here? Why are the war criminals here?’ Only women would criticize,” Gannon said.
First into Kabul
Gannon wants to be regarded as simply a journalist, but because she is in a region of the world where many women are veiled and even shut away behind tall walls, it is difficult to shed her gender in the workplace. She only wears a headscarf when it is absolutely necessary, such as when she meets with a Taliban official, or when she is in a public place in Iran, where it is the law. In spite of the traditional discrimination, Gannon was the first Western journalist the Taliban allowed into Kabul after the United States started its bombing campaign there in September 2001.
Gannon concedes that being a female reporter in this part of the world has its difficulties because the local culture dictates that women should be in the home, married and raising children, not vying to be the first to reach a war’s frontlines. But because she has been one of the few foreign journalists to consistently report from Afghanistan during the country’s most dangerous periods, she has earned the respect of many Afghan commanders, including the Taliban.
Even with such long-standing relationships with the local players, getting access has not always been easy. She has used a combination of Islamic law, logic and stubbornness to shame those who would thwart her.
Gannon gently placed her coffee cup on the table and leaned forward to tell about the time she was kept waiting in the hallway outside the office of the Taliban supreme court’s chief justice. The judge did not want to answer questions posed by a woman.
“I sat there for six hours,” she said. “I had a Turkish photographer. They said, ‘Give him the questions.’ I said, ‘No. I’m the reporter. He is the photographer. I ask the questions.’ So I waited six hours. I shamed him into talking to me. And it was shameful. If someone takes me on toe to toe, I take them on!”
Laura J. Winter is originally from Sierra Madre, Calif., and has recently moved to London. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Daily News and has been filing stories from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for four years.
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