Waziristan, on the Pakistani frontier with Afghanistan, is a dangerous place to be an American journalist. In the July 26 New Yorker , freelancer Eliza Griswold described the perils of traveling in the region. Though Pakistan has barred foreigners from the area, Ms. Griswold was able to enter under the protection of tribal chief Khalid Wazir.
Her dispatch carried an air of reportorial derring-do in a landscape of madrassas and fortifications, surrounded by wary and warlike Pashtuns:
“‘If Sharif sees us, he’ll ask us in for tea,’ [Mr. Khalid] said. Tea could pose a problem: my presence would be misunderstood, at the very least.”
More dangerous than being a Western reporter on the frontier, though, is being a non-Western reporter alongside a Westerner. Ms. Griswold, discussing the restrictions of foreigners, offers a brief, parenthetical anecdote: “(Later, when I visited without [Mr. Khalid], I was detained for several hours by Pakistani military intelligence. A Newsweek reporter traveling with me was held for six weeks, along with our driver.)”
“I’ve been dozens of times in tribal [areas],” said the Newsweek reporter, Sami Yousafzai. “So if I was there without that American journalist, no problem at all.”
Mr. Yousafzai, unnamed in the New Yorker piece, is an Afghan native who lives in Pakistan and carries a Pakistani journalist’s visa. The border zone, where Osama bin Laden is reputed to be hiding, is a regular part of the beat he covers for Newsweek , the BBC, and The News of Pakistan .
In April, Mr. Yousafzai said, he was in the town of Bannu, near the tribal area. A Waziri journalist of his acquaintance had invited him into the restricted zone. Both men are Pashtuns, and being in the area, Mr. Yousafzai said, he was obligated under Pashtun etiquette to present himself as a guest.
At the same time, Ms. Griswold was planning her own excursion into Waziri territory. So, Mr. Yousafzai said, he offered to give her a ride. “I’ve never been a translator,” he said. “I’ve never been a fixer. We just shared a car.”
Shortly before they left, his car broke down, so Mr. Yousafzai booked a taxi instead, driven by Mohammad Salim. On April 19, they headed into the tribal area; Ms. Griswold, disguised in a burqa, did her reporting and Mr. Yousafzai paid his respects to his friend.
On April 21, as they headed back to Bannu, the taxi was stopped at a police checkpoint. According to news reports, the police asked the burqa’d Ms. Griswold a question in Urdu or Pashtu; when she couldn’t answer, they discovered she was American and arrested all three of them.
From the police station, Mr. Yousafzai said, they were taken to a military base, and then shipped on to Peshawar. Security forces interrogated Ms. Griswold, then sent her back to Islamabad. Mr. Yousafzai and Mr. Salim, on the other hand, were locked up in a small room without electricity. “I just had kind of a blanket and a pillow,” Mr. Yousafzai said.
Sacha Kester, an Islamabad-based reporter for the Dutch paper Volkskrant , said that when she heard the circumstances of her friend Mr. Yousafzai’s arrest, she thought, “First I’m going to hug him, and then I’m going to beat the shit out of him.”
Sneaking into tribal areas in a burqa, Ms. Kester said, is something that none of the regular Western press in Pakistan would have tried. As soon as you speak to one person, Ms. Kester said, “10 seconds later, the whole bazaar knows that there is a foreigner.”
In a written statement, delivered through a spokesperson, New Yorker editor David Remnick acknowledged that working with locals carries its own set of complications: “As a correspondent in places like Chechnya and elsewhere, I’ve traveled with local reporters and fixers and you do have to be concerned about their welfare as well as your own, but very often you are dealing with irrational circumstances-irrational rebels or soldiers or law enforcement, whatever-and it is not always easy to assess what to do, what risks not to take. It’s only easy in retrospect.”
When he heard about the arrests, Mr. Remnick wrote, he immediately called Newsweek to offer his help in winning the prisoners’ release. In the interest of clarity, Newsweek opted to handle the negotiations itself, according to Mr. Remnick and Newsweek .
“I worked the phones with everyone I could think of,” said Marcus Mabry, Newsweek ‘s chief of correspondents. ” … We sent letters to the highest levels of the State Department.”
Mr. Yousafzai, meanwhile, spent six days in the dark cell, then was transferred to a room with electricity and sunlight. That heralded his own interrogation-“I was really worried that they may torture me, but there was nothing, thank God”-but he could have tea in the mornings, he said, and his captors gave him some Islamic books to read. When he needed to use the restroom, he said, he was blindfolded and escorted there.
No formal charges were ever brought against either Mr. Yousafzai or Mr. Salim. After three weeks in Peshawar, Mr. Yousafzai said, he and Mr. Salim were blindfolded and loaded into a pickup truck. Five hours later, they were delivered to a jail in Miran Shah, in the tribal area-out of the reach of Pakistan’s due-process rules.
The two prisoners were put in with the general jail population, Mr. Yousafzai said, 15 people to a room. Their fellow inmates were “mixed criminal kind of people,” he said: bandits, killers and suspected Al Qaeda members.
The other prisoners were impressed by Mr. Yousafzai and Mr. Salim’s arrival: blindfolded and in custody of security forces. At first, Mr. Yousafzai said, the two got “a lot of respect, because they thought we were Al Qaeda.”
Mr. Yousafzai did nothing to disabuse the inmates of that notion. But after two days, a local newspaper reported that the jail had received a pair of prisoners captured with an American. “Suddenly everyone knows who we are,” Mr. Yousafzai said. “It was kind of really a terrible time.”
At one point, Mr. Salim told Mr. Yousafzai that he’d overheard a triple murderer discussing what to do with them: “He told some other colleague in the jail, let’s kill these American spies, then God will give us paradise instead of hell.”
“My driver was really worried,” Mr. Yousafzai said. “He was not going to the bathroom alone.”
Along with the criminal population, Mr. Yousafzai said, the Miran Shah jail housed a number of mentally ill inmates. “The criminal people were just punching these mad people,” Mr. Yousafzai said. “They were just punching these mad people, and the mad people were just crying.” At other times, he said, the criminals would give the insane inmates hashish, from the copious supply flowing through the jail.
“In these conditions, nobody could sleep,” Mr. Yousafzai said. ” … Sometimes my driver was getting a little bit mad-losing his senses.”
It was, Mr. Yousafzai said, “not a good deal at all.”
But it’s an ever more common deal, according to Tala Dowlatshahi, the United States representative for Reporters Without Borders. In the name of antiterrorism, Ms. Dowlatshahi said, governments across the region have been cracking down on journalists-and when they do, the locals bear the brunt.
“Local correspondents are always under attack,” Ms. Dowlatshahi said. In 2002, Salim Samad, a Bangladeshi representative of Ms. Dowlatshahi’s group, was arrested and tortured by his country’s government after working with a British television crew. The Britons were deported.
By comparison, Pakistan-where the legislature last month announced its intention to trim the prison sentence for libel from a year to three months-is what passes for liberal. And Mr. Yousafzai, with his Afghan roots and global affiliations, was not precisely a local. “It was a surprise and conundrum to them that he was working for Newsweek ,” Ms. Dowlatshahi said.
It wasn’t exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, however. “They could not have been unaware for very long that he worked for Newsweek ,” Mr. Mabry said dryly.
(If Newsweek ‘s daily phone calls hadn’t conveyed the message, during his captivity Mr. Yousafzai got a contributor’s credit on Newsweek ‘s May 17 cover story-“Abu Ghraib and Beyond”-presumably based on reporting he’d done before his arrest. “He sure wasn’t filing,” Mr. Mabry said.)
Finally, in June, 43 days after Mr. Yousafzai and Mr. Salim were arrested, their captors released them. Mr. Yousafzai said he was held that long “just to keep me apart from my news reporting and to make me an example.”
Mr. Mabry declined to discuss the specifics of the negotiations that won the two their freedom. “We thought it was important to get results, rather than to make a great public brouhaha,” Mr. Mabry said.
Mr. Yousafzai’s safety, Mr. Mabry said, was the “paramount concern” for the magazine. “That beats getting the story and telling the story and everything else,” he said.
Newsweek still hasn’t written about the incident. “This will probably happen again,” Mr. Mabry said. “Hopefully not with Sami, and hopefully not there. [But] it happens all the time.”
Mr. Yousafzai said that the entire episode was hardest on his mother. Wherever he’d gone before his arrest, he said, he had called her every night. The only exception, he said, was when he was stuck in a hotel full of smugglers and surrounded by land mines, so he couldn’t show his satellite phone or take a walk outside.
Now, he said, his mother keeps telling him not to go on assignments. Before one recent trip to Afghanistan, Mr. Yousafzai said, he fibbed and told her he’d be shopping, not reporting.
“I think now she’s getting back,” Mr. Yousafzai said. “Hopefully she will allow me to go further deep in Afghanistan.”