Australian investigative reporter Carmela Baranowska screened and spoke about her film "Taliban Country" in Sarratt Cinema last week, courtesy of Vanderbilt Amnesty International. The 45 minute documentary explores the work of U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan from two very different angles.
In May and June of 2004, Baranowska spent three weeks embedded with U.S. Marines in one of the most dangerous regions of the country, filming the security sweeps in search of Taliban members and leaders.
Frustrated by access limitations, Baranowska left the U.S. troops and returned to the Oruzgon Province independently and in secret, accompanied only by a driver, a translator and two armed policemen. During this part of her trip she lost contact with her colleagues in Australia and was reported missing. Rumors spread about her death and U.N. officials began to look for and ask about her. While this advertisement of her presence in the region made the trip even riskier, Baranowska managed to emerge unscathed and was able to conduct in depth interviews with Afghan villagers who had been interrogated by and, in several cases, harassed by American troops.
The first half of the film paints a pleasant picture of the U.S. Marines: doing their job, without being terribly invasive, asking villagers how they can help them, and at times offering medical advice and even drugs to the villagers.
In the second half, viewers hear the other side of the story: that the villagers wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Not only did Marines abuse and humiliate these Muslim villagers, but they defecated in village houses, ruined crops, and damaged mosques. The villagers tell Baranowska that many Afghans migrated out of the country, often to Pakistan and that many others actually joined the Taliban after their villages were raided by American troops.
In the film, Afghan villagers tell their stories about being strip-searched and imprisoned by American troops. They also mention that they were especially scared and confused by the actions of the Americans because they lacked a translator to explain procedures to them. As a result they were pushed around and sometimes physically injured.
After two men in the group mention being sexually harassed, Baranowska takes them aside for a more personal interview. Wali Muhammad, and his father Noor
Muhammad, discuss their incarceration and specifically how American troops sexually abused them after accusing them of offering food and shelter to Al Qaeda members. Speaking directly to Baranowska's translator, Wali discusses his humiliating experience in the film, "They fingered us, beat us and humiliated us. There were youngsters as well. They took off my clothes. I can't tell you … fingering the anus is against Islam … They were all laughing and mocking. It wasn't one it was more than 20 Americans. When they took me a second time they stripped me again… Yes they took our picture."
Baranowska reminded students in the audience that Marine Corps standard operating procedures call for the photographing of detainees with their clothes on.
In a discussion following the film, a student expressed concerns about the documentary painting a poor picture of the American military. Baranowska explained that her intentions were purely to expose the human rights abuses, especially in the wake of other atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Of course not all American soldiers act this way, she reminded the students, but some do — and the world community deserves to know about these continuing abuses and the legal impunity granted the perpetrators.
Baranowska, who has documented human rights abuses in several other countries including East Timor, Indonesia and Burma, is currently traveling around the U.S. showing "Taliban Country" to college students, Amnesty International Groups, and other interested parties. Her ultimate goal is to get enough publicity to spark an independent investigation of these appalling human rights violations. To learn more, visit www.talibancountry.com.