May 27, 2010

Nicole Tung: Detained

Nicole Tung is an American photographer who traveled to Pakistan overland from China in November to document the internally-displaced people from the Pakistani Army’s counter-insurgency in the Swat valley and South Waziristan. But before she could do so, she and her translator were detained by the police for eight days near the Afghan border. This is the third of three posts of her photographs and experiences.

It was still Eid ul-Azha, the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, when I arrived in Peshawar. The city’s Khyber Bazaar was quiet for the most part; boys hung out in the streets in front of shuttered stalls while others played cricket in an open park. Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is notorious for being a gun runners’ and smuggler’s paradise, and also on the front-lines in the fight against Islamic fundamentalists. Suicide bombings have become chillingly regular over the last few years, putting its inhabitants’ nerves on high alert.

I wanted to document the internally displaced persons who fled from the Swat Valley and South Waziristan over the past year, following the Pakistani military offensives into those areas to rout out the Taliban. Tens of thousands of people left their homes for temporary camps, many close to Peshawar. While there were millions of dollars allocated for relief aid, and a government campaign to relocate victims after the worst of the fighting, their current situation went under-documented in the media. The IDP camps are collateral to the Afghan war that has now effectively consumed much of Pakistan, and understanding what is at stake, or at least so I thought, begins with the most disaffected. The camps have been bases of support for militants operating in Afghanistan.

I was notified that the route into the IDP camps would be closed given that it was still a public holiday, but that a trip to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan would be possible. As we drove out of Peshawar, I spotted the Shamshatoo refugee camp with its crumbling facades of mud and brick that housed Afghan refugees in the 1980s during the Soviet war. Many never returned to their homeland and merely moved next door to another encampment, this time with tattered tents and other makeshift shelters, joined by more refugees from the US invasion in 2001. I wanted to stop to have a closer look but we decided to do so on the way back instead.

In less than two hours, we reached the border with Afghanistan after passing at least six police checkpoints, gazes of curious children, and a few tribespeople. The road to the Khyber Pass is remarkable not only for its winding, rugged landscape, but also for its history: old British forts, Buddhist stupas, remnants of the Khyber Railway. Our car stopped at an open lot when we reached the border crossing. We jumped out and went to catch a glimpse of the border town while our driver waited in the car. I saw shapes of women under electric blue and white burquas, only their hands and plastic sandals were exposed, as they crisscrossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some women were carted along by the men accompanying them, while children pushed wheelbarrows with covered goods. Everyone seemed to be transporting something.

I took about ten photographs before a policeman approached and stopped us; my translator asked whether it was OK to be there. “Come with us,” the officer said as we were led away. I snapped a few more photographs, the last I would take before several days in custody without my camera.

In short, we were in a place where we weren’t permitted to be and had made the mistake of not double-checking the rules. Up at the border crossing, we were taken in and then interrogated for three days, staying the first night near the border before being moved to Peshawar. The police, who were generally accommodating, never mistreated or abused us although there were never any proper translations or disclosure of information of what was going on. The local US Consulate in Peshawar became aware of my situation after the third day, and worked tirelessly on our case, while an anti-Western newspaper published false facts. My translator was detained for a month while I got off lightly with a week.

The most frustrating detail I dealt with was the police’s suspicion of me being a spy. Questions ranged from general intelligence gathering to, “Now tell me… do you work for the CIA?” How does one disprove espionage in a region notorious for it, when all I was doing was legitimately working as a journalist.

My translator, for the record, is well and back at home now.

–Nicole Tung


captions: Top, the ruins of a Buddhist stupa and the disused Khyber Railway, on the road to Torkham and the Khyber Pass. Bottom, Peshawar, at the Khyber Political Agent. This was day four after being detained and interrogated by the police for three days. 24 hour guard on duty in front of my door, which was not a cell. I was well treated, considering what could have been the alternative: lockup, which was what my translator got for a month.

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Nicole Tung
See other posts by Nicole here.

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