Sharmeen Obaid: 'Terror's Children,' and Everyone's

A scene from Terror's Children (2003).

While an undergraduate at Smith College, Sharmeen Obaid became politically and journalistically active, lecturing, and writing for publications such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Coast (a Canadian weekly), and several Pakistani newspapers. One of Obaid's articles for The Coast examined the plight of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan. Her interest was piqued, and she decided to continue to explore the issue through a different medium. The product was a film entitled Terror’s Children, which premiered on the Discovery Times Channel on March 25, 2003. Obaid is currently completing her MA in International Policy Studies and Journalism at Stanford, and editing her second documentary film for the Discovery Times Channel.

You started off writing as a freelance journalist about Afghanistan and Pakistan while you were an undergraduate at Smith College. What made you shift from a print medium to a visual one? What are the ways in which the latter genre is more powerful?

I was a freelance journalist when I was in college. After September 11th I realized that people in the West really have no concept about life in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. If you just read newspapers here, you simply get a description, but unless you have seen pictures or been to that part of the world, there is no way that you can really understand the situation there. So I wrote a story for one of the papers I was freelancing for about Afghan refugee children but I didn't feel that I did justice to the cause or to the children. People can pick up the newspaper, read an article, close it but they do not have a mental image of what they have read. That is why I decided to show my readers what life is really like in these Islamic religious schools, and in the refugee camps.

One of the most compelling reasons why I thought my making a documentary would be an excellent means of communication to the Western world was because I am from Pakistan. So I am not a Western journalist who has been planted there for three days to survey the scene. I can bring a fresh perspective.

I think visual media are more powerful if you're talking about a part of the world that very few people have either gone to, read about or spent time in; Pakistan is one of these places. Since Pakistan has perpetually been on the list of terrorist countries, very few people actually venture there. That is not the case with India. People have a very different perspective of Pakistan.

I wanted to show them sides of Pakistan that wouldn't necessarily ever come out here, and I think making a documentary was a very effective way of doing that.

When you were thinking of making this documentary on Afghan refugee children who fled to Pakistan in the wake of the American bombing in October 2001, to what extent did your intended audience shape the form your proposals took?

Well I had to be realistic. I was a 23-year old graduate out of Smith College. Who would give me money to make a documentary, considering I was not a film student, or a journalism student? So when I wrote the proposal up, it came out of the article I had written previously.

Also, after watching a lot of news shows, I decided that I had to write a proposal that offered something different from the news shows that were on television, projecting Pakistan in a very negative light, and also sensationalizing the situation. The war in Afghanistan became about Osama bin Laden, and not about the Afghani people. So in my proposal, I simply wrote that this documentary is not about the so-called bigwigs: Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and so on. It is about the people who are actually on the ground, suffering, without any food, who have had 20 years of civil war. I think in that sense when I was pitching my documentary, I decided I was going to take the path of the "ordinary" person, something that is not done in news shows here. I think that really made the people who funded my film attracted to the proposal.

You have said elsewhere that you wanted to tell the story of these Afghan refugee children from a "Muslim" perspective. What, in your view, did that entail and how is it that the final product reflected that intention?

Well, a Western journalist would go to Pakistan, go to an Islamic religious school, see young boys being recruited and reading the Quran in a trance, and would immediately equate that with terrorism, or future terrorists. If a Western journalist goes to the refugee camps, they would automatically look for the Taliban there. They would not concentrate on the children or the women for example. It would always become a hunt for "evil."

Being a Muslim, I decided I was going to have a fair and balanced point of view. Yes, there are Islamic religious schools in Pakistan that do train terrorists, but there are others that provide a social service. Pakistan is a Third World country, and we are one of the largest recipients of Afghan refugees in the world. We can't even afford to feed and clothe and educate our own population. So these Islamic religious schools are providing a service and my film shows the balance between the two kinds of schools, which I don't think is usually shown in other media outlets here.

I also picked up children who came from various different backgrounds. They were not only Pashtuns who supported the Taliban. There were a lot of people who were happy with the Taliban being gone. I tried to get a variety of children, so the audience could get a flavor of how not everyone is a terrorist in Afghanistan, and not everyone supports the Taliban, and not all Muslims are the way they are projected in the West.

One of the things that is most striking about Terror's Children is the extent to which you avoid any mention of the political context which forced these children to live under such conditions in Pakistan. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why was this choice made?

I made a documentary about life in the refugee camps from the eyes of a Pakistani. I did not have the credibility to be a political commentator in my first film. It was more of a social film with a hidden message. There are instances in the documentary where you have the young children commenting; one young boy says something about Musharraf being a traitor, for example. There are other hints here and there. I generally felt though that I would keep away from the politics and just present the social picture the way it is. I did not opt to go and talk about Musharraf, or talk about Pakistan being a terrorist ally in the past with the Taliban, and now being an ally of the US. I just did not want to go there.

The film also seems to confirm certain assumptions - already widespread in the mainstream media - that this region breeds hatred and antipathy towards the West without providing much historical or political background (for instance, you discuss the madrassahs in Pakistan without mentioning the conditions under which they flourished during the Cold War). Did you do this because you felt that making a "human interest" story - focusing exclusively on the everyday lives of these children - would likely gain greater sympathy from your intended audience?

One of the reasons that I did not delve into a lot of the political context was because I felt that the stories of the children would tell themselves. My audiences have reacted and have been interested to know firstly why there is a refugee problem in Pakistan. It is because of the US, and it does come out in the film that the US was bombing, and that is why the children left. But I was not overt in placing blame on the United States. In my whole documentary, I am not blaming anyone: I am not blaming the Pakistanis for having these madrassahs, etc. and nor am I blaming anyone else. My job was to go there and be in a refugee camp and in an Islamic religious school and talk about the lives of the children, and that is what I limited myself to. However small or narrow the context might be, I just felt at that point in time that nothing had been projected about this aspect of the situation; there had been a lot of documentaries made on Al Qaeda and terrorism, but nothing about the human aspect.

There were in fact a lot of political documentaries in general, about the role of Pakistan after the Cold War and so on. I stayed far away from those political documentaries. I grew up in Karachi, so the stories about Karachi, and how these children are affecting Pakistan were interesting to me. In some sense I do talk about politics; for instance, the June 14th bomb blasts that happened at the US embassy. It is these children who perhaps came in 1990 after the end of the Soviet war and are now adults. There are hidden messages here and there and a clever audience would really understand what I am talking about.

My second film, though, which I am editing now, is very much political.

To the extent that there is an explicitly political message in the film, it is that the West ought to provide more charity and humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Why is it that you chose to emphasize this?

There are no NGOs working in the refugee camps. UNHCR is the only NGO working and it is not working for the people in the camps. It is sending the people back to Afghanistan. People here think that there are NGOs working in these refugee camps and perhaps their lives are better. But their lives are not that much better. Maybe it is better because they are not getting killed but not per se. They are worse off than the poorest Pakistanis. So in some way I elicit the sympathy of my audience so that they actually feel some empathy for these children and think twice about all that is happening.

When I made this film, the war in Iraq had not happened. There was a lot of talk about how the war in Iraq might happen any time and the refugee influx from Iraq into other countries might create exactly the same situation as in Pakistan, because the countries around Iraq are not necessarily very well off either. So in some ways it is a universal message about refugee children in these countries.

What are the projects you are working on now?

My second project is also very close to home. I went back home last year and went to Peshawar to find that the MMA government had taken over and they were trying to introduce Shariah law. More and more women were being sent home from schools and colleges and there were people in government who did not want co-education. I found this very upsetting because I grew up in a very different Pakistan. However conservative the society is, I never felt threatened living in Karachi. I could wear jeans and a t-shirt and walk around in certain areas of the city and I was fine. I went to a co-educational school and I never had a man tell me that I need to wear a burqa. But in Peshawar more and more women were being told to stay at home, to cover their heads. For me, that is taking away personal liberties. So I decided to go there and find out how far the MMA is going to go to make Pakistan another Afghanistan.

What is really shocking is that I found links between most of the MMA leaders and the Taliban. So it was a journey of about four weeks where I traveled to Peshawar. I met a lot of these religious school leaders who trained the Taliban. I met a lot of women who are defying them: singers who have been jailed, artists who have been banned. Then I went to Lahore, to find out what is happening over there. The impact of Peshawar is coming to Lahore slowly. The film basically talks about how secular Islam in Pakistan is threatened by fundamentalist Islam and what the repercussions of that are going to be given that Pakistan is the only nuclear Muslim country in the world.

Before we finish, I would like to add that my first film, Terror's Children, has been screened all over the United States, in lots of major cities. One of the nicest things about having it on the Discovery Times Channel is that I got emails from across the country from people telling me that they had no idea that the policies of the US had affected ordinary Afghanis in the way they had. This was a real eye-opener for me: every-day Americans don't have any idea about what is happening to average Afghanis. So in a way, what I tried to achieve, even if it was for a limited audience, has been fulfilled.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.