The man who helped save our lives

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — On Oct. 8, 2001, few places were more dangerous for Americans than northwest Pakistan.

U.S. jets had just started bombing neighboring Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden plotted the attacks that had killed nearly 3,000 people a few weeks before. Anti-American protests were erupting all over Pakistan including Sakhakot, where St. Petersburg Times photographer Jamie Francis and I had stopped to gauge Pakistani reaction to the impending war.

As an angry crowed marched through town that morning, we ducked into what we realized too late was a mosque. Dozens of demonstrators followed us, yelling, shoving, seemingly desperate to get their hands on us.

Suddenly a tall young man appeared by my side. "You must not mind, there is no problem,'' he said in halting English.

He stayed with us for the next several hours, pushing away protesters as police hustled us from the mosque and accompanying us to a police station to wait until it was safe to leave. We thought he was with the police. The police thought he was with us. So we said goodbye not knowing who he was or why he had helped us.

Two years later, I got this e-mail:

Dear Maam. I am Walayat Khan Bacha from Malakand Pakistan. I am sure U STILL HAVE THAT STORY in your memory when U and JIMMAY, the photographer, were sarrounded by Protestors During Afghan War (ON first day of WAR)

If You have Tiem and Reply Me, i will be Very Thank Full to know about You and Ur Family.

Take Care

Walayat Khan Bacha(Press Reporter)

I e-mailed back. And that is how I came to be in the Marriott hotel in Islamabad one day last month, anxious to learn more about the man who helped saved my life.

Gift of insight

He was a bit plumper than I remembered. And I was undoubtedly a lot older than he remembered.

But we recognized each other on sight, both breaking into big grins though I could hardly keep my eyes off the lovely young woman pressed to his side.

Walayat had brought along his bride of two weeks.

"This is a double honeymoon,'' she told me shyly, "because I meet you.''

Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, Sakhakot and other areas near the border have become even more dangerous for Americans. So Walayat and Basira had ridden a bus four hours to Islamabad for our rendezvous in the lobby of the Marriott.

I gave Walayat a digital camera. Basira presented me with three beautiful head scarves. As she arranged a teal-colored scarf around my face, her new husband recounted a bit about his life.

A Pashtun, like many of those living on both sides of the border, Walayat was one of 10 children. His father was a soldier, his older brother a journalist with Masriq, an Urdu-language newspaper. After getting his master's degree in political science, Walayat went to work for Masriq and covered terrorist groups in Pakistan. Or at least what the United States had come to consider terrorist groups.

"Before 9/11, the view of the Taliban was very positive,'' Walayat said. "I had been in contact with Taliban personally and the people I came across were pious and fighters for their objective.''

Many of the original Taliban were students that the CIA secretly armed to fight the Russians in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. After the Soviet withdrawal and a civil war that saw millions of Afghan refugees pour into Pakistan, the Taliban took power and restored stability to the country. The price was high — the Taliban regime was brutal and allowed bin Laden to set up training camps — but Pakistanis were relieved by an end to the turmoil next door.

"They were very good,'' Walayat said. "Peace came to Afghanistan.''

On that 2001 day after the bombing began, shattering six years of peace, Walayat had gone to Sakhakot to cover an anti-American demonstration by a religious party called Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Word quickly spread that two Americans were in the mosque. Dozens of men, some armed with AK-47s, surged in.

"They were very angry,'' Walayat said. "It was astonishing for them that two Americans were there. The thinking, when they see Americans, 'These are double agents.' ''

Unbeknownst to Jamie and me, cornered on the second floor of the mosque, a heated discussion was taking place below. Should the protesters kill us on the spot? Or should they take us captive and hold us for ransom?

Sensing "big news,'' Walayat joined the crowd rushing up the stairs. There were a few police, "but they were feeling panic now because it was out of control.''

Walayat made his way toward me, the only woman in a sea of 50 or 60 men. Though I don't remember it, I told him I was from Australia and gave him a business card showing I worked for a newspaper. He spotted leaders of the group.

"I told them, these are journalists, not agents. They (the protesters) were very ashamed of their actions. When the leaders were satisfied you were journalists, they said, 'We will protect them.' ''

The front doors of the mosque were ordered closed as police ran us out the back door and shoved us into a pickup truck. Walayat rode along to the police station, where I remember the police chief asking:

"Who is he?''

Hours later, the chief drove us out of town. I wore a head-to-toe burqa as a disguise. Walayat went back to his office and transmitted photos to a wire service in Islamabad. Though he had felt obligated to protect fellow journalists, he also knew a scoop when he saw one.

The "capture'' of two Americans in a mosque made the front page of every major Pakistani paper.

Martyrs abound

Walayat never saw the police chief again. As we reminisced, we wondered if he had survived the violence that later wracked northwest Pakistan. Hundreds of people were killed in terror attacks, including one at the Marriott, where more than 50 died in a truck bomb in 2008.

The same year, Islamic extremists, including Taliban members, tightened their hold on the Swat Valley, a scenic tourist region close to Walayat's home and within 100 miles of Pakistan's capital. Girls' schools were closed, music banned, opponents beheaded.

"The Taliban imposed their laws and people were not happy,'' Walayat acknowledged, though Taliban relations with him and other reporters remained "very friendly.''

In 2009, the army launched a major offensive to retake Swat, and Walayat, then working as a freelance TV journalist, had his second big story. It was a challenge to report: As the toll mounted, each side demanded that their dead be referred to as shaheeds — martyrs.

"If we don't call them martyrs, the Taliban gets angry, and if the army gets killed we have to call them martyrs, too. We all the time were threatened between the Taliban and the army — everybody is a martyr.''

The Swat offensive was successful. But Pakistan's army continues to battle the Taliban, which Walayat — who comes from the same Pashtun tribe — clearly views much differently than Americans.

Many Taliban are "Pakistanis who have blood relationships in Afghanistan. Once their brothers were killed by Russians, now their brothers are killed by Americans. If people would fight against Russians, why not fight for their brothers against Americans? They feel this is their duty — to get freedom from the United States for their brothers living in Afghanistan.''

A year and a half ago, Walayat went to Afghanistan on a reporting trip. Many Afghans, he said, think that the Americans, like the Russians before them, are trying to destroy their culture. They view Afghan president Hamid Karzai as an American stooge, an agent of unwanted change.

"I don't think this is a good war for the United States,'' Walayat said. "The U.S. army is still in danger, it can't go outside big cities. The United States can never win this war because imperialist power has never won a war in Afghanistan. The United States should deal with powerful groups like the Taliban, not weak groups like Karzai.''

But what about Taliban attacks that have killed so many American soldiers and even other Muslims?

"Nowadays people take advantage of the name Taliban,'' Walayat said. "People do crimes in the name of the Taliban.''

A new life

We talked more than three hours. Then Times photographer Melissa Lyttle, our translator and I took Walayat and Basira to a guesthouse where they would spend their honeymoon night.

They met two years ago when he saw her walking by his home on her way to work. Although they live in a conservative region with many Taliban, she had gone to college, earned a master's degree and was teaching in a girls' school.

Walayat's parents are dead, so he sent one of his sisters to ask Basira's mother for permission to marry.

In early July, they had a traditional, three-day ceremony with more than 1,000 guests. Walayat showed us pictures of his bachelor party — dozens of men about to dig into mutton, biryani and other Pakistani dishes set on long, narrow tables.

There were also photos of Basira, wearing an embroidered white shawl and clutching a blue-bound copy of the Koran as she left her house for the last time as an unmarried woman.

At 27, Basira is eight years younger than Walayat. They held hands in the car, his large one over her small one, which had been elaborately decorated in henna for this occasion. She wore dozens of rings and bangles, all gifts from her new husband.

After we left them at the guesthouse, they went out to dinner. They visited a few markets the next morning, then rode the bus home.

A week later, I got an e-mail from Walayat marked READ IT:

hello Dear Susan , Hope you r fine and Busy if ur Job .

Me and my wife reachd home safely . My wife Still missing u and thinking about u. How is The Photographer? Our Respect and love to Her..

Take Care and also remember Us in ur prays .

WALAYAT KHAN (PRESIDENT PRESS CLUB) MALAKAND

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

The man who helped save our lives 08/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 5:23pm]

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