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2009-08-17

Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi

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A new documentary premiering tonight on HBO provides a harrowing look at today’s Afghanistan, where violence and corruption continue to ravage the country. It’s called Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. It tells the story of Ajmal, a young Afghan journalist, translator and coordinator working for American journalist Christian Parenti. In 2007, Ajmal was kidnapped by Taliban forces, along with Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo and an Afghan driver, who was immediately beheaded. After weeks in captivity, Mastrogiacomo was eventually released, but weeks later the Taliban killed Ajmal. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: In Afghanistan, the Taliban are vowing to disrupt the polls and attack voting centers in this week’s upcoming presidential election. President Hamid Karzai hopes to win another five-year term in the election, which is scheduled to take place this Thursday. Voters will also select hundreds of members of provincial councils.

According to the United Nations, violence and intimidation have already disrupted planning and campaigning in the south of the country and could prevent many Afghans from casting their ballots. Election officials have said fears of violence could prevent hundreds of polling stations from opening and that voting was unlikely in at least nine districts.

Well, a new documentary premiering tonight on HBO provides a harrowing look at today’s Afghanistan, where violence and corruption continue to ravage the country. It’s called Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. It tells the story of Ajmal, a young Afghan journalist, translator and coordinator working for American journalist Christian Parenti. The film opens with a scene of Christian and Ajmal interviewing Taliban militants.

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: [inaudible] came to our border with the Taliban.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: That man said that the Taliban — the central government must forgive us and then support us. In that case, we are going to join the central government and put down our weapons.

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: OK, tell them, thank you very much for taking the risk to talk with us, and I really appreciate them trusting us.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: OK, let’s go, because the aircraft —-

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: This is the very best -— this is the best fixer in Afghanistan right here.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: Thanks.

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Ajmal.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: Thank you.

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: And this is the best TV journalist in Afghanistan, right here. And this is the best taxicab driver in Afghanistan. And this is currently the most relieved American journalist in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Fixer that’ll appear on HBO tonight.

After Christian and Ajmal go their separate ways in Afghanistan, the film goes on to tell the tragic story of how Ajmal is kidnapped by Taliban forces, along with an Italian reporter and an Afghan driver, who is immediately beheaded. After weeks in captivity, the Italian reporter is eventually released, but weeks later the Taliban kill Ajmal.

Well, journalist Christian Parenti joins us here in our firehouse studio, longtime independent journalist who has reported unembedded from Afghanistan and Iraq a number of times. We’re also joined by the director of the film Fixer, Ian Olds.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you for having us.

IAN OLDS: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian, well, what has this been like for you? When was the date that your — well, it’s not as well a known term in the United States — fixer, your translator, coordinator, Ajmal, was beheaded?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: He was beheaded on April 8th, 2007. And we had gone to Afghanistan. I was reporting for The Nation, and Ian was sort of looking for a film, and we had worked with Ajmal, and then he was kidnapped and killed. And we returned to do an investigation as to what happened, and then the film is that story of what actually happened with the kidnapping.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your time with him — I mean, even then, it was extremely dangerous — and how he ended up being killed.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, he and I did a number of stories, which involved interviewing the Taliban once, and I lived at his guest house, and I worked with him several times in four trips over numerous years. And he had developed — Ajmal developed contacts with the Taliban and even sort of al-Qaeda-related people in the east. And he worked for various publications and also TV stations, and he was eager to do a big story down in the south, and that’s what — how he was kidnapped, you know, less than a year after he and I did an interview with the Taliban.

He went with Daniele Mastrogiacomo from La Repubblica, and that time things didn’t work out. And they were held for about a month. And then there was a deal arranged where they were going to be released. And at the last minute, it turned out that one of the prisoners that the Taliban had requested in exchange for Ajmal and Mastrogiacomo was a Taliban commander, a spokesman, who had switched sides. And so, when they made the exchange, they substituted the little brother of a Taliban commander and then held Ajmal back, but released Daniele Mastrogiacomo. And then, so for two weeks there was this international cause celebre around Ajmal, and it was in response to that that the Taliban realized that maybe it would be better for their cause to just kill Ajmal and make the Karzai government look like puppets of foreigners and unconcerned about Afghans.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip of the film. It starts with Ajmal talking about the dangers of being kidnapped for Western journalists.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: If somebody knew that the Americans came here, you would be —-

    CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Kidnapped.

    AJMAL NAQSHBANDI: Well, you cost a lot, you know. You don’t know your price yet.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I said, “Look, Ajmal, suppose if you are kidnapped by Taliban, so what will you do?” He said, “Taliban, kidnap us? They would not harm us, because they -— when they kidnap, they would just — if they do so, they would harm the journalists, the foreigners.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Olds, you’re the director of Fixer. Just explain that last SOT. It started with Ajmal and then went to his friend.

IAN OLDS: Yeah, Ajmal believed that he would be safe, because he had Pashtun links, and he believed that if he was kidnapped, that it would be a Westerner that would be harmed and not the Afghan. And for many Afghans, though, this whole case was proof to them of what they suspected, that their government was a puppet government. If — it put pressure on the Afghan government to release a foreigner and not a local. So, for many, it was proof of what they suspected all along about the weakness of their government.

ANJALI KAMAT: Ian Olds, talk about the response from the Afghan government. There’s a remarkable quote in the film from the interior minister right after the Italian journalist was released, but Ajmal was still being held.

IAN OLDS: Yeah, he says on television at a press conference that “If I am kidnapped, just completely abandon me. Let them kill me. Don’t release prisoners for me.” And Afghans were completely outraged. Of course, here’s this foreign minister in Kabul, never in danger of kidnapping, saying that if he’s kidnapped, abandon him. And for many Afghans, this was outrageous, is that here was one of their own kidnapped. They had seen the Afghan government mobilized under international pressure to release an Italian journalist and not the same action for their own journalist. And for many Afghans, that was a turning point, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Christian, the response of Ajmal’s family?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, Ajmal’s family were very furious with Taliban — with Karzai. His father went to Karzai to appeal, and Karzai, it seemed, was going to make a deal at the last minute, but then the Taliban killed his son anyway. And Ajmal’s mother has been clinically depressed. His father has taken her to India twice to seek treatment. One of his brothers has made it to Italy and is in university there, but is himself, you know, deeply traumatized by the loss of his brother, can’t even talk about the subject. So, you know, like every family, even though these people have lived in war for thirty years, it’s still a horrendous trauma when they lose somebody.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Parenti, I want to thank you for being with us and all of your work, and Ian Olds, director of the film Fixer. It will be on tonight on HBO. Check your listings, 9:00 Eastern time.

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