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.
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."
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."
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.
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."