Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power.
Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now — and the infighting between the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that is affiliated with the Taliban, and whose members are part of the new Taliban government.
Quraishi says the Taliban of today are as oppressive as the group he encountered years ago.
"I don't know why they promised ... that they're going to be moderate, but I don't think so," Quraishi says. "According to what I'm noticing, what I'm witnessing here in Afghanistan, they are the Taliban. There is nothing changed between the Taliban in the '90s and between the Taliban in 2021."
Quraishi says the Taliban have reinstated harsh punishments, including whipping, chopping off hands and even hanging people from cranes. But, he says, the Taliban's "vice and virtue" squads try to operate "away from the eyes of the media, especially Western media."
Meanwhile, Afghan women are experiencing what Quraishi calls "a life in hell," in which they are prohibited from working, running businesses or in some cases even going outside without being accompanied by a male family member.
Quraishi believes a war could begin any day between the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which has been fighting for greater power. Whatever happens, he finds himself extremely pessimistic: "I really feel sorry for the future of Afghanistan. And I cannot see any future. I cannot see [light]. For me, it's always dark. I can see the future darker than today."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On his belief that civil war may be imminent
They have a big problem between the Taliban and the Haqqani network — the Haqqani network asking for more power and the Taliban thinking they're left behind. So Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar, the main representative of the Taliban, he's gone back to Kandahar, his homeland, his city, and what I hear from some sources is he's trying to make another group. So the situation is really uncertain and really bad and really tricky at the moment. [At] any time, war could begin between Haqqani and the Taliban — any moment, any time.
On the collapse of the Afghan economy and health care system
There is no medicine. I visited a clinic today. I wanted to meet a friend of mine. There are lots of issues. First, lots of their doctors have fled the country, so there was a shortage of doctors and nurses, plus medicine, accessories, like those things. Plus the economy has completely collapsed. The banks are open, but if you have, for instance, $20,000 in the bank, you're allowed to withdraw only $200 a week. The queue behind the banks is like hundreds of people. ... So all of the roads and the streets are blocked wherever the banks are. ... Even during the night, if you go there, the people are literally sleeping there.
On women's rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, who is risking her life by staying in Afghanistan
[Seraj] used to help every single woman, whatever issue they have, she was so powerful, and now she's so vulnerable, and she's so brave, and she doesn't want to leave Afghanistan. Although she has spent 26 years in the United States, she's an American citizen, but she still wants to stay in Afghanistan and help women, but she doesn't know how. ...
[I saw a woman] telling [Seraj] how the Taliban took her granddaughter away. It had been two days since she had been taken, and she didn't know what to do, where to go. And there was only one hope — it was this woman, Mahbouba Seraj, and she came to her and she was hopeless. [Seraj] said, "I can't do anything." ... I asked, "Would you be able to do anything in the past regime?" She said, "Yes, I could have called this minister, that minister, this commander, that commander." She could have gathered 100 soldiers in a minute in the past regime. But now she was trapped inside her home and couldn't do anything.
That was, for me — as a human, as an Afghan, as a person, to be there and to be witnessing that moment — was really hard for me. I keep remembering those moments and I feel so sorry for all the women in Afghanistan, especially Mahbouba Seraj. She's so brave, and she doesn't care about her life. For her, everything is about other women, [all] women in Afghanistan. ... She gets lots of calls from women around the country. They're seeking help, but she's literally helpless. She cannot do anything for anyone.
On filming in the past at an ISIS-run school in Afghanistan
It was more frightening to be with ISIS because they are the most extremist group I've ever seen. The most shocking was when they invited me to film their school. At that time, I thought maybe they were just learning some books ... It was shocking when the teacher began with, "What does 'jihad' mean?" For the children who are aged 5 or 6, or maybe 8 or 10, they were teaching jihad, how to use grenades, how to use a pistol, how to use Kalashnikov [rifle]. ... And so from that age, basically, they are brainwashing them.
Plus, after that, they were watching some videos, the videos which they were receiving from Syria and Iraq, where they were beheading some people. ... [So] when they grow up, for them, it's nothing. They are already used to it. So this was their aim, actually. For me, it was shocking, because I was seeing the children of Afghanistan — instead of learning some physics, mathematics or other subjects, they were learning jihad and how to use weapons.
On establishing trust with the ISIS fighters whom he filmed
You have to attend prayer five times a day, and I'm sure they check [to see if you're] proper or not. So I was doing proper [prayer] and they were always checking, and after prayer ... they were more open with me, because then they were convinced that I'm a proper Muslim and they were more open. And this is something most of the journalists in the past 20 years, either they have been killed or they were kidnapped or whatever, they probably didn't know [these things]. But it is a big issue for them and they really want you to be a proper Muslim, and then they have to be satisfied that you are a proper journalist and you are not a spy. Once they are satisfied, once you spend time, a day or two, then they will be more open with you.
On how he stays safe while reporting on the Taliban
I wear the same clothing as them, so I look similar. ... I've been covering the war in Afghanistan, and I was embedded with the Taliban so many times in the last 20 years. I know their men and official spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, so I've got kind of permission from him. He gave me an official letter, issued from the cultural and information ministry, which is the Taliban, and the spokesman is the head. So wherever I go, if somebody stops me, I just show that document and I'm free to go wherever I go. So this is how I live. So literally I'm carrying this document 24/7 with me.
Amy Salit and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about what life is like in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have taken over. My guest is Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi, who's joining us from Kabul. He started reporting on the Taliban in 2001, when America's longest war began. Over the years, he's embedded with the Taliban many times and managed to get rare access to ISIS fighters in an Afghan village they'd taken over. There have been times when he hasn't known if he'd get good interviews and documentary footage or get killed.
Quraishi has made reports in documentaries for the PBS "Frontline" series and England's Channel 4 on subjects such as a group of Afghan women who signed up to fight the Taliban and ISIS, Taliban child fighters and life on the front lines with Taliban fighters and al-Qaida fighters who he embedded with. His many awards include an Emmy, Peabody Award, Overseas Press Club Award and a duPont Award.
Recently when CNN's Clarissa Ward was on our show talking about her reporting in Afghanistan during the final days of the U.S. withdrawal, she spoke with admiration and gratitude about Quraishi. He negotiated her access to the Taliban and traveled with her. He has a new "Frontline" documentary that will premiere on PBS Tuesday called "Taliban Takeover" about life in Afghanistan now and the increasing threat posed by al-Qaida and ISIS. Quraishi lives in London. But he's been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan.
Najibullah Quraishi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for joining us. Your new documentary is terrific and you have taken so many risks over the years to report on what's happening. Thank you for that.
NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You're welcome.
GROSS: And I'm grateful to say that you are in Kabul and still have internet...
QURAISHI: Yeah, luckily.
GROSS: ...Which is what's making it possible for me to talk with you now. So the Taliban promised they'd be more moderate, that women would be able to go to school and go to work, that they would implement change through peaceful persuasion, not through whips and force. Have they kept those promises?
QURAISHI: Well, I don't know why they promised that, that they're going to be moderate. But I don't think so. According to what I've noticing, what I've witnessing here in Afghanistan, they are the Taliban. There is nothing changed between the Taliban in '90s and between the Taliban in 2021. They are the same people. They have the same rule. They have the same law. And they are the same people. And for me, nothing has been changed for the Taliban.
GROSS: What are women allowed to do now? And what are they prohibited from doing?
QURAISHI: Well, it's - I could say it's one of - the Taliban affected almost every sectors in every different part of the country - men, women, business, economy, everything - but especially, especially on women because the woman, for instance, they cannot go to school over grade six. So they're allowed - the girls basically allowed to go up to class or grade six. And after that, they have to sit home. They cannot go to work. They cannot run a business. They cannot go outside without somebody from their - member of their family as a man, which could be their husband or father or brother. And even cousin is not someone she can go out with. They cannot protest, as you can see. They're always ambushed by the Taliban. So for the women, I can describe it's life like in hell. This is how I can describe that.
GROSS: In hell?
QURAISHI: In hell.
GROSS: You interview a women's rights activist. And she passed up the opportunity to leave Afghanistan. My understanding is she fled when the Soviets took over in '78. But this time she wants to stay and do everything she can to help women. But at the same time, when a woman comes to her for help because she thinks her daughter was abducted by the Taliban and that they may be forcing her into marriage, there's nothing that this woman's rights activist can do. There's no one she can talk to. Who she's going to talk to, the Taliban? She can't protect this woman or any women. And she seems in such a state of despair. But she's determined to stay. And my impression is she's expecting that it might cost her her life, but she's going to stay anyways. Was that your impression, too?
QURAISHI: Well, to be honest, when you mentioned this - that scene, which I filmed and I interviewed, it's a heartbreaking moment for me. I get emotional when I remember those parts because - I'm sorry.
GROSS: Oh, no. That's OK. Take a minute.
QURAISHI: She was so wonderful. She used to help every single woman who - whatever issue they have. Like, she was so powerful. And now she's so vulnerable. And she's so brave. And she doesn't want to leave Afghanistan, although she has spent 26 years in the United States. She's an American citizen. But she still wants to stay in Afghanistan and help women, but she doesn't know how. And on the day when one of their employees came, I was there. When I heard that she was talking about her granddaughter was taken away by the Taliban, it was a really, really hard time for me to be witness on that.
And then I - as a journalist, I controlled myself. And I immediately - I went to her and said, see; I'm a journalist. Can I - can you share this with me? And she was crying. And she was begging for help from this activist woman, Mahbooba Seraj. She was telling her that - how the Taliban took her granddaughter away. It has been two days since she has been taken. And she don't know what to do, where to go. And there was only one hope, it was this woman, Mahbooba Seraj. And she came to her. And she was hopeless. She said, she can't do anything. She can't do anything.
If it was - when I asked, would you be able to do anything in the past regime? She said, yes, I could have called to this minister, that minister, that commander, that commander. She could have gathered 100 soldiers in a minute in the past the regime. But now she was trapped inside her home and couldn't do anything.
That was, like, really, really - I mean, for me, as a human, as an Afghan, as a person, to be there and to be witnessing some type of - like that moment was really hard for me. And I keep remembering those moments. And I feel so sorry for all the women in Afghanistan, especially Mahbooba Seraj. She's so brave. And she doesn't care about her life. For her, everything is other women, the whole women in Afghanistan. This is how she is.
GROSS: You ask her if she's sad. And she said, this isn't the time to be sad. This is the time to be angry.
QURAISHI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And she was so angry as well. I spent, like, half a day with her chatting around off camera, on camera. She was - she said, I cannot sleep during the night; maybe 40 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes. She cannot have more sleep. Plus, she get lots of calls from women around the country. They seeking for help, but she's literally helpless. She cannot do anything for anyone.
GROSS: Are you meeting a lot of people like that, who could have gotten out and made the conscious decision to stay and resist and help other Afghans?
QURAISHI: There are some woman like her, but most - like, they all left, actually. They all left Afghanistan. The only female activist or, like, the one who can represent all Afghan women is only her. Only she left here. And on the other night, I hear the Taliban raced to her home. And now the Taliban is there. And I don't know if she's living somewhere else, but the Taliban came to your house, and they said, we have to stay here, too.
She was in a hotel. I met her a couple of times in a hotel in Kabul. Then she disappeared for three, four days. And I was worried about her. And yesterday, I called her just to say hello, how are you? She said, I'm still alive. I'm still in Kabul, but trust me; I never leave Afghanistan. So this is what she told me last night.
GROSS: I know that the vice and virtue squads of the Taliban are in place now. What are they doing? Are they very visible?
QURAISHI: (Laughter) They are doing - like, hanging up people on the crane.
GROSS: Wait, they're hanging people? They're publicly hanging people?
QURAISHI: Yes, they did a lot. They are - they were hanging lots of people in Herat, mainly in Herat and Helmand. They chopped some hands so far. And they were whipping people, like, every day, almost, around the country. But they are trying to do that away from the eyes of the media, especially Western media.
GROSS: What are you doing to stay safe?
QURAISHI: Well (laughter) for me, a little different. First, I wear the same clothing as them, so I look similar (laughter). Plus, in the last 20 years, I've been covering the war in Afghanistan, and I was embedding with the Taliban so many times in the last 20 years. I know their main and official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid. So I've got kind of permission from him. He gave me an official letter he showed from cultural and information ministry, which is the Taliban. And the spokesman is the head, so wherever I go, if somebody stops me, I just show that document, and I'm free to go wherever I go. So this is how I live. So literally, I'm carrying this document 24/7 with me.
GROSS: That's a precious document to have.
QURAISHI: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Yeah. We need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's joining us from Kabul. His new PBS "Frontline" documentary called "Taliban Takeover," premieres Tuesday. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Afghan British documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's made several films about Afghanistan for the PBS series "Frontline." His latest, "Taliban Takeover," premieres Tuesday. He's joining us from Kabul.
So the economy has collapsed. The health care system has collapsed. Is there any food?
QURAISHI: There are food. It's very expensive. The price is - the price are raised up to 50- to 55% so far. And there is no medicine. I visited a clinic today. I wanted to meet a friend of mine. They have lots of issues. First, loss of their doctors - have fled the country, so there were shortage of doctors and nurses; plus, medicine, accessories, like those things.
And plus, the economy is completely collapsed. The banks are open, but - it's open, but if you have - for instance, if you have $20,000 in the bank, you're allowed to take or withdraw only $200 a week. This is how they do. Plus, the queue behind the banks are, like, hundreds of people. You couldn't get turn in a month time.
So all the roads and the streets are blocked wherever the banks are. So all the cities are blocked because the people are on the queue. Even during the night, if you go there, the people are, like, literally sleeping there.
GROSS: What's the situation like in Kabul now with COVID? There's some footage in your documentary of people wearing masks. How bad is the pandemic there? And I'm wondering if the Taliban believe in science and if they believe in vaccines?
QURAISHI: To be honest, I can say there is zero with COVID. There is no COVID. I think COVID is - as soon as the Taliban came, even COVID is scared of the Taliban.
QURAISHI: There is no COVID actually. Even - I went to a couple of hospitals with COVID patients, used to be, and there is no one. And when I asked them, they said, no, they don't have any patients, and nobody came across. And then a week ago, there was a meeting between some few journalists off camera with Anas Haqqani, one of the high-rank of Haqqani network. And he told us that - he was trying to describe, like, things have changed in Afghanistan. He said one thing that's changed is COVID. Since we came, the COVID is gone. There is no COVID because of Allah. Because of the God, the COVID is not anymore in Afghanistan. We don't have to spend any money on COVID. There is nothing. So
to be honest, everybody in Afghanistan - they forgot about the COVID as soon as the Taliban came. They are so harsh. They are the most - I mean, the more people to be scared of rather than COVID. So that's why people are forgetting about COVID-19. The Taliban is more worse than COVID-19 for them.
GROSS: You have special papers from a high-placed member of the Taliban allowing you to be a journalist in Afghanistan. But what are you allowed to film? And what are you prohibited from filming now?
QURAISHI: Well, at the beginning, when the Taliban took over, I was able to do whatever I want to, and I could go anywhere. I could film with the Taliban even. I could stand on the road and ask for some Taliban to be interviewed, and they were happy. And now they've become - so much is restricted. Especially in Kabul, you cannot film certain areas, and although I have a permission from their leader, but still, if I go to somewhere else, for example, in a hospital, I have to ask them for another permission. I don't know if you know or if you are aware or not - Kabul is controlled by Haqqani network. Haqqani network is the most extremist Taliban or the most extremist network, and so that's why none of the journalists is able to work openly in here, literally because of Haqqani network.
GROSS: The Haqqani network has been compared to organized crime in that they're corrupt, that it's a kind of - my understanding is that it's a kind of, like, bribery and payoff system that they operate. What can you tell us about that?
QURAISHI: Well, Haqqani network is - it used to be one of the extremist - well, it's still one of the extremist network. And they were mainly supporting by other terrorists around the world. They have a close relationship with al-Qaida. They have a close relationship with ISIS-K. And so therefore, even in the past, when the government were in power, they were doing the most complicated operation against the Afghan and Afghan allies and on the foreigner troops and Americans.
So for that reason, yeah, they have their own training camps in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. And for that reason, they're a little bit - for the Taliban leader, they're a little bit - so they believe they are - they should be more respectful for them. So they respect them more because they are a tough fighter plus because of their relationship with other terrorist networks like ISIS and al-Qaida.
GROSS: You did manage to film one protest, one women's protest, and this was in the very early days of the Taliban takeover, and the Taliban shut it down by firing into the air. And the women didn't realize the Taliban were firing into the air, so they were just, like, screaming and crouching. And I was terrified just watching it. I thought that women were getting massacred until you said that they were firing in the air. But the Taliban were not going to tolerate that protest.
QURAISHI: Yeah. The other thing is, I should say, the women are, here, really, really brave. Although they were firing on the air, but still, the women couldn't give up. They would keep talking with the Taliban mouth to mouth, and although they were beating them up, but still, they were trying to be around, holding their boards. And then the second time, the third time, the fourth time, even yesterday, they had another gathering.
And to be honest, we should give the gold medal for them. And they don't scare. These women are not the women in '90s. They don't care. They just go on the streets, and they're just asking for their rights, which is - nobody can do. You know the Taliban - they are crazy. What if they shoot you on the road, on the street? No one could ask - no one. But still, they knew these risk, and they are taking a big risk. And I think I - personally, I'm proud of them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's joining us from Kabul. His new PBS "Frontline" documentary, "Taliban Takeover," premieres Tuesday. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY THREADGILL'S ZOOID'S "DO THE NEEDFUL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi, who spoke to me from Kabul, where he's been reporting from. He's made award-winning documentaries about the Taliban for the PBS "Frontline" series. His new documentary for "Frontline," "Taliban Takeover," premieres on PBS Tuesday. He's been reporting on the Taliban since 2001 and has negotiated rare access to them, including embedding with them about 20 times; including embedding with them on the frontlines. He's also gotten rare access to ISIS fighters in Afghanistan.
I'm wondering if there's any, like, factional infighting between the Haqqani network part of the Taliban and other factions within the Taliban?
QURAISHI: Well, at the moment I'm talking with you, it's a big problem going within them inside. And they have a big problem, like, between the Taliban and Haqqani network because Haqqani network asking for more power, and the Taliban thinking they're just left behind.
So Mullah Brother, the main representative of the Taliban, he's gone back to Kandahar, his homeland, the city. And what I hear from some sources, he's trying to make another group.
So the situation is really, really uncertain and really bad and really tricky at the moment. Any time could be the war begun between Haqqani and the Taliban; any moment, any time.
GROSS: That's - this is the first time in years that Afghanistan hasn't been at war. And now you're saying there might be some kind of civil war anytime now.
QURAISHI: Well, we are not far from civil war. We are not far. Civil war could be - come to the country any time from now, at any time. You saw the last few days, there was - like, three days in row, ISIS keep attacking different parts of Kabul. And they - on the other day, they attack in one province, not Kabul, like, which is very close to Kabul. And the night before, the Taliban were fighting for eight hours against ISIS in Kabul.
And so ISIS is here, and they are really powerful. Plus, we have al-Qaida. We have some different Pakistani groups, then the Taliban, then Haqqani.
So at the moment, the lower rank of the Taliban, like soldiers, they don't know what's going on in the palace. But in the palace, the situation is really bad. They literally hate each other. And so for that reason, I could say any time from now, we will be witness of civil war in Afghanistan.
GROSS: So the Haqqani network, which is Taliban, has ties to ISIS, ISIS-K.
QURAISHI: Well, the Haqqani network, the only group - at the moment, they are part of the Taliban, yes. They says they are - we are all together. But they have different agreement as well. For example, they have a good relationship with both ISIS and al-Qaida. And plus, they have a really good relationship with the ISI in Pakistan. They get support from them.
The Taliban, at the moment, they are seeing them as vulnerable comparing to Haqqani because most of the Pakistani, as most of the Taliban, the foot soldier - they think because Mullah Brother and his team was in Doha for eight years or so, they believe they were brainwashed by Americans, and they are puppet of Americans and puppet of the West.
So that is why most of the Taliban also, they are trying to join Haqqani network, like, quietly. Most of the Taliban commander, they are shipping from the Taliban side to Haqqani network. And this is another big threat for the Taliban network.
GROSS: So it's my understanding that part of the agreement that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban before starting the withdrawal was that the Taliban would prevent al-Qaida and ISIS from having safe haven in Afghanistan. So is the Taliban doing that? Is the Taliban even capable of doing that?
QURAISHI: This is the issue. I'm sure the Taliban not capable of doing this. They cannot control that. And ISIS is already here in Afghanistan. And they are very strong. Al-Qaida is very strong in Afghanistan. Plus, they have support of - they get support from Haqqani network. I'm sure the Taliban has no power on that. And surely I could say al-Qaida and ISIS could be a big threat for the entire world; not in Afghanistan, the entire world.
GROSS: Do you feel like the U.S. betrayed Afghanistan or that the Afghan government - the president fled - do you feel like the government betrayed the Afghan people?
QURAISHI: Well, for me, I could of blame both because when the international community or NATO, including America - when they occupied Afghanistan, they came with some promises and with some homework. Like, they came to help Afghan people to get rid of all the terrorist groups, and they were the will of the country, this and that. But nothing has been happened. In the past, for example, in '90s, we have only two terrorist groups - the Taliban and al-Qaida. Now, we have over 24 active terrorist groups in Afghanistan. And lots of people - they paid with their life from different countries. It start from the U.S.A., Europe, England, U.K., everyone. Every country's, like - they paid with their life. Plus, all the taxpayers' money just simply wasted - billions of billions of dollars and pounds has been wasted for nothing.
So we came from zero to minus zero. And at the end, the governor of - the government of Afghanistan, the president of Afghanistan, literally flee the country. They just run away. They just left Kabul, like, just handed over the entire country to the Taliban. And we had 360 trained military. And everything was - for some reason or somehow, they have been sold to the Taliban.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's joining us from Kabul. His new PBS "Frontline" documentary "Taliban Takeover" premieres Tuesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Afghan British documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's made several films about Afghanistan for the PBS series "Frontline." He's joining us from Kabul.
You've embedded with the Taliban, but you've also spent time with ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. And you described ISIS as being much more frightening than the Taliban. For one of the films that you did for "Frontline" - and this was a film about ISIS - you filmed one of the ISIS fighters teaching young children - they look, like, around 8 years old - about Kalashnikovs. A couple of the young children, again around 8, were handed an empty pistol. And they were told to pull the trigger and see how that feels. That's very frightening to watch. They let you film that, so I can only assume that that's the message that they wanted people to see - that this is what we're teaching children; this is how we want them to grow up; this is what we want them to learn.
QURAISHI: It was more frightening to be with ISIS because they are the most extremist groups ever I've seen. And the most shocking was for me when they invited me to film their school. And at that time, I thought maybe they were, like, just learning some books and maybe some villages and stuff like that. And for me, it was shocking when they were teaching when - and the teach began, like, from, what does jihad mean? You know, for the children who was age 5 or 6 or maybe 8 or 10, they were teaching jihad - how is jihad, how to use a grenade, how to use a pistol, how to use Kalashnikov and ATC.
And so from that age basically, they were brainwashing them. Plus, after that, they were watching some videos how they - the videos which they were receiving from Syria and Iraq when they were beheading some people. And they were literally watching with the children, and they were, like, make them to watch that for them to get used to this. This mean for the child, if they watch some scene like this to behead someone with a knife, then, of course - he or she is a child. And they - for them, when they grow up, for them it's nothing. It's - they already used to it. So this was their aim actually. And for me, it was shocking again because I was seeing the children of Afghanistan instead of learning some physics, chemistry (ph), mathematics or other subjects, they are learning jihad and how to use weapons, which was really, really shocking for me.
GROSS: When you were with ISIS fighters, it was one of the times when you weren't sure if you'd get the story, if you'd get good documentary footage or whether you'd get kidnapped or killed. Now, I read that you actually had to pray with a group of ISIS fighters to prove that you were a true Muslim and not a spy.
QURAISHI: Yes. Yeah. This is another thing. When they pray, when you hear the calling for prayer, you have to attend prayer five times a day. And I'm sure they check and they see either you do proper or not. So I was doing proper, and they were always checking. And after prayer, actually, all the time they were more open with me because then they were convincing that I am a proper Muslim. And they were more open.
And this is something most of the journalists that - in the past 20 years, either they have been killed or they kidnapped or whatever. Probably they didn't know all these little - or these small - maybe we can - some people call it - say it is not a big issue. But it is a big issue for them. And they really want you to be a proper Muslim. And then they have to be satisfied that you are a proper journalist and you are not a spy. Once they're satisfied, once you spend time - a day or two - then they will be more open with you.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Afghan British journalist and documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's joining us from Kabul. His new PBS "Frontline" documentary "Taliban Takeover" premieres Tuesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOMEZ SONG, "BUENA VISTA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Afghan British documentary filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi. He's made several films about Afghanistan for the PBS series "Frontline." His latest, "Taliban Takeover," premieres Tuesday. He's joining us from Kabul.
In 2009 you embedded with the Taliban. You were on the front lines with them. And you filmed the commander as he was preparing to be martyred, and he was having his beard trimmed. And was that part of the preparation so he would, like, look good when - if he was martyred?
QURAISHI: Yes. Most of them, what they believe - they say when we go to other life or other world, we have to be - look clean. And most of them, they take shower, and they wear nice clothing, and then they go to fight. This is most of them - they believe that.
So on that night when I was with them, although I didn't know where, in which part of the town or the province they will go for their operation, but I have joined because they were doubting on me. And then I decided to go to this operation that - to show that - don't doubt on me. I am not a spy. I am a journalist. And I took a risk - yes, huge risk. And then they made two IEDs, and they planted on the road - two side of the roads. And they stayed during the night up to the morning. They spotted for American tank or American vehicles until morning. It was cold. Yeah, I had to spend the night with them.
Yeah, this was something all the Taliban - they believe if they go to - if they die, then the next life is much better - they could have a fancy life - and they should go there as a clean person.
GROSS: This commander was in a lot of battles, and he survived. You interview him for your latest film. And it's - you know, it's been 11 years since your first interview with him. He looks like he aged more than 11 years in that time. But what did he tell you, and how, if at all, do you think he changed over those 11 years between those two interviews, between when he was fighting in 2009 on behalf of the Taliban and now, when the Taliban has actually taken over?
QURAISHI: Well, now he was living in a fancy house in Kabul. He had lots of vehicles, guards and fancy life. Like, he was living in a castle. In the past, he was living in the mountain. And other changes, which is - I'm sorry. Human being always - they get sad when you hear all the characters we have on the film, they're all killed, they're all died. And most of the men were with him, they're all died. There was a moment only him survived, all his men killed by either by drone or by air forces. But still, they were fighting against the government until they got the victory.
Yeah, at the moment, you - I found him a very happy person. But, of course, from inside, I'm sure he was damaged a lot. He was - by the way, he was a well businessman. He was importing vehicle from Europe to Afghanistan. Then he left everything behind in 2007 or '08. Then he joined the - well, he became a Taliban commander because he saw, again, corruption. Maybe even he noticed some corruption in the government, then this was the reason he joined the Taliban. And he - sometimes, he had up to 4,000 men under his command. But in the last interview, he told me that they're all died - or they're all killed.
GROSS: How did he end up with a fancy house?
QURAISHI: Because they took over Kabul. And this house wasn't belonged to him. It's either belonged to a former MP or a former general or commander in Afghanistan. I think this house was belonged to an MP, but now he took over and just sitting in 20-bedroom house and in Kabul - in the heart of Kabul - enjoying his life.
GROSS: You left Afghanistan. What year did you leave and move to England?
QURAISHI: I came to England in 2002, but I was working when NATO came. I was in Afghanistan, and I was covering the war. Then I went to U.K. for work. Then there was something happened about one documentary. Then United Nation at the time, they warned me if I come back to Afghanistan, I will be killed. So I sat for two, three years in London. I didn't come to Afghanistan until 2004. Then from 2004, I came back into Afghanistan, and I was - keep covering the situation and the war in Afghanistan up to now.
GROSS: You grew up during - correct me if I'm wrong here, but you grew up during the war between the Soviets and the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. So what was that like for you growing up during that war?
QURAISHI: Yeah. I'm 40 - I'm going to turn 49 soon. So 40 years of my life I spent in the war. Yeah, I was 9 years old - or I remember from the age of 6, actually, how Mujahedeen was fighting against the Russian and how Russian was surrounding the areas. They were bumping in the villages, and they were killing civilians. I remember everything.
And then my father moved me to the city, and then I started studying in the school. And every day, I was seeing lots of Russian convoys crossing by. And some days, I was seeing that - they'd show some dead bodies of the Mujahedeen on the track - like, five, six, 10 dead bodies of Mujahedeen. They were showing - they were, like - literally, they were putting on the track, and they were rounding the city for five, six times in order to everybody see it. So I was seeing lots of dead bodies at that age.
And then Mujahedeen came in '90s, which I was also there. Then Mujahedeen came, and for a year or so, there was peace. Then again, civil war started between Mujahedeen for some years. And then, the Taliban came. And I saw the Taliban when they took over. In '94, the Taliban came. And then I was there in 2001. NATO came, and the Taliban completely gone, and they have destroyed. And everybody thought, OK, now NATO is in Afghanistan. America is in Afghanistan. The peace will be here.
Then slowly, slowly, some years later, the Taliban came back. And then they took some places, villages, districts. They - day by day, they took some territories. And now I'm witnessing the Taliban again. But unfortunately, this is not only the Taliban. As I said, there are another 24 other terrorist active groups in Afghanistan.
GROSS: Was it traumatizing to be exposed to so many dead bodies and to war when you were so young?
QURAISHI: During the nights, I was always afraid. I was dreaming about those dead bodies all the time. I still remember when Russia was showing the dead bodies of Mujahedeen. I remember. I even remember Russian troops in late '80s. I remember everything. I remember, when I was crossing, over 500 dead bodies in 2001, when the Taliban attack on Northern Alliance, when they kill them. I remember everything.
Yes, it's a human being. It's make me upset, of course. I - my hair got gray, and probably I look more older than my age - could be these things. Most of the nights when I remember these things, I cannot sleep of course.
But these days, since the Taliban took over, actually, I can't sleep more than two hours. Because during the day, when I see they are behaving towards everyone and when I see, like, how they control, how they behave - when you go to the offices - for example, on - the other day, I went to the defense ministry. I wanted to interview the defense minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Haqqani's network guy. He's really popular. He was the one - the man who we put, like, $10 million, I think, rewarded if somebody can find them. This is on the American blacklist.
So he's the defense minister. I went to his office. And then his guard, they were standing outside. They said, there is no one. There is no official people. There is no officers. All the offices are close. Just - the minister is also not in here. And so these things, there is nothing moving. You know, when you go to the offices, there is no one.
The Taliban - they are not educated. They don't know how to run the government. And these things can make me very disappointed, and I really feel sorry for the future of Afghanistan. And I cannot see any future. I cannot see bright. It's - for me, it's always dark. I can see the future darker than today.
GROSS: When it's time for you to leave, do you have a way of getting out of Afghanistan?
QURAISHI: This is another issue. I don't know how to get out of Afghanistan. And there are some flights from Qatar Airways and from PIA. I already registered my name. I already gave my name to them. So I am waiting for them to be called. I don't know. It could be in three days, four days, in a week time. I don't know.
GROSS: Najibullah Quraishi, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for all the risks you've taken to document over the years what the Taliban have been doing and what life is like in Afghanistan. I have such respect and gratitude for the work that you do. I hope that you stay safe.
QURAISHI: You're most welcome - my pleasure.
GROSS: Najibullah Quraishi spoke to us from Kabul. Our interview was recorded yesterday. His new documentary, "Taliban Takeover," will air Tuesday on the PBS series "Frontline." It will also be available to stream on pbs.org/frontline, on YouTube and on the PBS Video app.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Fiona Hill, a key witness at Trump's first impeachment hearing who's written a new memoir, or Stanley Tucci, whose new memoir is focused on food and how treatment for cancer distorted his sense of taste, or Eddie Muller, host of the TCM film noir series Noir Alley, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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