Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and a visiting professor at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the LongerRange Future, speaks on November 27 and 28
Week of  23 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 14


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BU-launched Afghan journalism project created historic treasury that's now in demand

When the U.S. Information Agency awarded BU a $500,000 grant in 1986 to teach newsgathering to Afghan refugees, it probably hoped to counter Soviet Union propaganda about its occupation of Afghanistan. At the time, a CBS news program insinuated that the Afghan Media Project was merely a spin operation and criticized the University for getting involved.


This photo of Afghan rebels, circa 1989, was taken by a graduate of the Afghan Media Resource Project, which was launched by BU in 1987 to train Afghan refugees to document fighting during the Soviet occupation.
Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center


But in the final years of the Soviet war, images created by photojournalists and cameramen trained by BU and at the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC), which emerged from the BU project, were aired by major news networks, including the BBC and CNN. And now that the United States is undertaking a military campaign in Afghanistan, the AMRC is being swamped by media requests for access to the 700 hours of videotape and 12,000 photographs the center produced between 1987 and 1989, much of it depicting everyday life in the country. An October 2 New York Times story calls the material "extraordinary in its ordinariness" and says it "captures a moment of transition, the moment just before the Taliban seized power."

  Nick Mills
Photo by Vernon Doucette

The new interest in AMRC vindicates their work of nearly 15 years ago, according to BU professors who worked on the project. "The AMRC rchives are the greatest repository of Afghan images in the world," says Nick Mills, a COM associate journalism professor who helped train the first wave of Afghan students. "It's something that we helped create that is of great historical importance."

War Reporting 101
Western media closely covered fighting in Afghanistan right after the 1980 Soviet invasion, but by the mid-1980s, few Western journalists risked venturing inside the country. Mills says that he and two colleagues, John Kelly, a COM associate professor of film and television, and Chullaine O'Reilly, a Seattle-based print journalist hired by BU, traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, in January 1987 with one goal -- to teach Afghans to objectively document the war and its impact on Afghan citizens.

According to Mills, BU "made it abundantly clear to U.S. Information Agency officials that if they gave us money they weren't going to have any control" over the program's recruitment, training, curriculum, or the content and distribution of reports it produced. "They absolutely agreed to that," he says. "They were totally hands-off." The Afghan Media Project was directed by Joachim Maitre, a BU professor who now directs BU's Center for Defense Journalism. He also dismisses the criticism leveled against BU. "The major fear was that we would be producing propagandists, not journalists," he says. "But our goal was to create a group of journalists who could deliver their product to Western newspapers, and our success at that was long-lasting."


Joachim Maitre
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


After Mills got a go-ahead from Pakistani officials during a preliminary visit in 1986, the BU journalists recruited Afghan refugees in Pakistan from each of the seven rebel groups fighting the Soviets. "We recruited three or four people from each of the major Afghan factions," says Mills, "because it would enable our people to go into all areas of Afghanistan once they were trained." Most of them were working for the rebel groups publishing propaganda newsletters at the time they were recruited. The groups agreed to send men for training, Mills says, because they expected them to return. Many did, but some stayed on with the program as full-time journalists or instructors. "Our goal from the start," says Mills, "was to provide a place for them to work as real journalists after we trained them."

So in a small, vacant school owned by the International Red Cross in Peshawar, Mills and his colleagues taught a crash course on the basics of newswriting, photojournalism, or video production to about 30 refugees and sent them into Afghanistan to move about the country with rebel groups.
"Many of our recruits had some college education and some had even worked in media when they were in Afghanistan, so they liked the idea of learning Western journalism standards," says Mills. "They were kindred spirits to begin with. And because they had no access to education as refugees in Pakistan, they were avid for it, not to mention for employment opportunities."

Mills says he drilled into his students that reporting objectively was paramount in getting information out to the world about what was happening in Afghanistan. "We drummed it into them that if we put out something that was found to be phony, nobody would buy our stuff and we'd be dead," he says. "They understood and were absolutely receptive to that."
The fledgling journalists were encouraged to record scenes of daily life in Afghanistan, as well as news about battles and bloodshed. "They weren't always going to be in combat," says Mills, "so we told them to take pictures everywhere, to show how people were living."

BU turned over the Afghan Media Project to Afghan journalist Haji Sayd Daud and California documentary filmmaker Stephen Olsen in June 1987. Until 1992, the redubbed Afghan Media Resource Center continued to train large numbers of Afghan refugees in Peshawar and to dispatch print reporters, photojournalists, and video cameramen to Afghanistan, some to remote areas that had never been visited by Western journalists. Between 1987 and 1992, videos produced by AMRC were broadcast on news programs around the world, and its photographs were printed in Time and other magazines and newspapers. AMRC print reports sometimes were cited as a source of information by Western television stations, according to Mills.

After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, financial support dried up for AMRC, which until then had been funded by several governments and private gifts. At one point, it had employed 30 people. Under Daud's direction, it since has operated with a much smaller staff, periodically sending teams of video cameramen into Afghanistan to cover important events, such as the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1995. Earlier this year, AMRC conducted a public opinion poll in Kabul, which showed considerable disenchantment with the Taliban.

  The Afghan Media Resource Center encouraged Afghans to take photos and videos showing how war impacted everyday life in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center

Currently the center is focusing on digitally preserving its archive of photographs and videotape in the United States with the help of Williams College Anthropology Professor David Edwards. Author of the forthcoming book, Before the Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, Edwards says that CBS's 60 Minutes, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, as well as many local television stations, recently have requested viewing the video footage and photographs.

The intimate and hard-hitting images depict everyday life -- Afghans fishing, planting crops, praying, and selling and buying goods in the street, and children playing -- in a war zone and during the cultural upheaval created by the Soviet occupation. One video segment taken from inside a taxi cab shows a rebel getting shot in the cheek. In another, schoolchildren wearing caps that say "God is great" recite lessons while armed men look on.

"The few Western cameramen who went in didn't have the same kind of access as the people we trained, and they didn't speak the language," says Mills. "Our people understood all the things that were happening in front of them. Perhaps they aimed their lenses in a different way and photographed things that others would not have."


23 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations