Story transcripts

Sleeping with the Enemy

Friday, April 22, 2011
We lift the Taliban's veil and take you right inside the vipers' nest, thanks to documentary-maker Paul Refsdal.

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Stephen Rice

Australians have every reason to hate the Taliban. Their fighters have now killed 23 of our soldiers in Afghanistan.

The latest, 21-year-old South Australian Jamie Larcombe, another victim of a ragtag bunch of men, whose greatest weapons are secrecy and surprise.

We lift the Taliban's veil and take you right inside the vipers' nest, thanks to documentary-maker Paul Refsdal.

Brave or fool-hardy, you be the judge, but Paul entrenched himself in a Taliban stronghold, literally sleeping with the enemy.

And one of the most startling things about the resulting film is that he got away with his life.

PHOTOS: Michael Usher in Afghanistan

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: In a tumble-down hut in the mountains of Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan, a doting father plays with his two youngest children. Davran is a family man, a bloke who likes a laugh and a bit of sport with his mates. But Davran is also a Taliban commander. A ruthless fighter who's taking along his eldest son, aged 12, as he leads an ambush on unsuspecting coalition troops.

PAUL REFSDAL: I would expect to meet the demons, you know, with the long tails and a hole in their foreheads because of what I have been hearing in the media but what I met was normal people. Is she afraid, if she thinks I am American?

DAVRAN: Of course, yes.

MICHAEL USHER: This rare insight into the Taliban was recorded by Norwegian filmmaker Paul Refsdal, who lived, slept and ate with them for two weeks in their mountain hideaway.

MICHAEL USHER: You captured some quite intimate moments for example, Davran playing with his children?

PAUL REFSDAL: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: Quite touching moments.

PAUL REFSDAL: He behaved like I would be with my children. It was like a normal man, you know?

MICHAEL USHER: But this was an adventure that nearly cost Refsdal his life. Here in Afghanistan, as a journalist, you risk your life to cover the story. You want to get close to the action, close to the people, but you do everything to avoid falling into the hands of the Taliban. That's exactly what Paul Refsdal wanted. Call him courageous or call him foolish, he left Kabul and headed high into these hills, knowing that he stood every chance of being captured or killed.

PAUL REFSDAL: I had some guarantees from a Taliban commander, quite a high-ranking commander in Kunar Province. He said, "OK, you are welcome. You will be my guest." That's the best guarantee you can get.

MICHAEL USHER: How did you know you could trust them?

PAUL REFSDAL: You're never sure. You don't know if they're gonna treat you as a guest or they are going to kill you. I saw two Taliban fighters hiding behind the rock. Long hair, big beards, no smiles on their faces.

MICHAEL USHER: That's Refsdal, doing his best to look like a local.

PAUL REFSDAL: I am a tall, white guy. You know, they are fighting tall, white guys so when you meet them, that's the point of no return. You just have to keep on walking and smile and just hope they are not gonna kidnap you.

MICHAEL USHER: But Refsdal's immediate fear of these armed Taliban fighters was quickly eased. Commander Davran approved of him and his band of fighters found the filmmaker as intimidating as he found them.

PAUL REFSDAL: They were talking about me; there was some whispering, of course. Actually, some of it I got on tape.

MICHAEL USHER: What did they say? "He's really scared of us, the same way we're scared of that bald head"?

PAUL REFSDAL: Actually the real translation is “he's shit-scared of us like we are scared of that, they call it melon-head”. It seemed like the Taliban had humour, actually.

MICHAEL USHER: Funny and at times, comically incompetent fumbling as they load their weapons. And the ‘Dad's Army’ approach to warfare became even more bizarre when Refsdal realised Davran was about to ambush a military convoy almost from the doorstep of his own home. One of the things that surprised me is here you have this commander fighting warfare with his wife and children in tow?

PAUL REFSDAL: He was leading the attack a couple of hundred metres away, 300m, 400m away maybe from his house. He was shouting to his children, you know, "Now you go and hide in the house."

DAVRAN: Let the first vehicle pass, then start the attack!

MICHAEL USHER: Down in the valley, an American convoy is headed down the road. They're driving into a trap. Davran has teams of men on both sides of the valley. They're using an old heavy machine gun that could be best described as an antique. But they're hitting their mark. The convoy below seems powerless to respond. That raises some serious questions, doesn't it, of the awesome might of the coalition?

PAUL REFSDAL: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: That they can't strike back against this small bunch of men and their rusty old guns?

PAUL REFSDAL: The weapons they had, there wasn’t any weapon that I saw there that couldn't have been used in World War II.

DAVRAN: Shoot those sons of shit! You hear! Hit the check point hard! I will not back down. I’m victorious in the battle as well as in propaganda! Every fight, he acts like this. Allah is great!

PAUL REFSDAL: The Taliban, they use the walkie-talkie all the time. They were using cell phones like teenage girls. They were having the same position during every attack. I mean, we had three attacks on the same place, on the same road, three days in a row. So the big question is why are these people, the Taliban, still alive?

MICHAEL USHER: One victory down and it's time for a bit of celebration. Like their guns, their sporting equipment is primitive - just a couple of rocks. But there's obvious rivalry between Commander Davran and his younger deputy, Omar.

DAVRAN: I didn’t cheat. I did this. You can do that as well!

MICHAEL USHER: But while they play, the coalition is planning retaliation on these two high-value Taliban targets. Soon after, it comes at night. An air strike on Davran's home.

PAUL REFSDAL: I just put on my camera and started to record the sounds. A few minutes after Davran came, he was hammering at the door, he said, "Everyone, just leave your things. Just go up into the mountains. You have to hide." I grabbed my camera and I escaped into the mountain. And eventually I found a shed to sleep in.

MICHAEL USHER: They all survived. But the Taliban chief thought it was safer for Paul to head back to Kabul. What could have been a suicide mission in fact turned into a triumph. Paul said farewell to his friends, grabbed his tapes and came back down here to Kabul. But he had developed a very dangerous taste for more. He thought he was in with the Taliban, that he had gained their trust. When they offered an invitation to go to another secret base, he jumped at it. What he didn't know, it was a deadly trap. The snake he thought that he had charmed was about to bite and very soon, Paul Refsdal would be fighting for his life.

PAUL REFSDAL: One of the commanders, called Omar, he gave me his phone number and he said I should call him in two weeks.

MICHAEL USHER: But Omar, the man who Refsdal had caught on camera gently preening himself, was about to turn treacherous.

PAUL REFSDAL: I met up with him and his group. Everything was OK. Then one guy came and said, "I am from al-Qaeda. We have information that you were spying when you stayed with Commander Davran. So today you will be executed." That's a cold shower. You know, spying, if you are - if you are identified as a spy, it means you will be killed.

MICHAEL USHER: Were you just a bargaining chip?

PAUL REFSDAL: No. He was quite clear. We were gonna be executed. He wanted to shoot me when he met me the first day he saw me. He wanted to eat the flesh of white men, every time they see you, all this kind of thing.

MICHAEL USHER: He was saying that to you?

PAUL REFSDAL: Yes. Yes. He wanted to eat the flesh of white men. I mean...

MICHAEL USHER: But it wasn't long before Commander Davran found out that his deputy, Omar, had double-crossed him, and demanded Refsdal's release. Omar reluctantly agreed, on one condition - the Norwegian filmmaker must convert to Islam.

PAUL REFSDAL: So, we had a small ceremony there on the second day of the kidnapping. Where I performed - under Muslim creed - "There's no god but Allah and the prophet Mohamed is his messenger". And that made me a Muslim.

MICHAEL USHER: So I presume that when you returned here to Norway, you rejected the faith?

PAUL REFSDAL: No. I took the decision as supposedly a free man. So I am still a practising Muslim now.

MICHAEL USHER: But up weren't a free man, you were being threatened with death.

PAUL REFSDAL: Yeah, but for me, the decision is I have converted to Islam. I am a Muslim. That's kind of end of the story.

MICHAEL USHER: Paul Refsdal is now safely home in Norway, though you get the impression he would rather be back in Afghanistan.

PAUL REFSDAL: I think actually Kabul is quite nice compared to Oslo.

MICHAEL USHER: You prefer Kabul to Oslo?

PAUL REFSDAL: Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: It was back here in Norway that Refsdal received news that Davran's home had again been attacked by US planes. The Taliban commander survived but two of his children were killed. When you found that out, how did you react?

PAUL REFSDAL: Well, very strongly, in a way, because...you know, if the Americans want to kill a commander like Davran, OK, kill him. But, you know...don't kill him in his house.

MICHAEL USHER: But this is a man who uses his home and the area around it as a fighting base to attack coalition soldiers. He's fair game.

PAUL REFSDAL: Yeah. He's fair game. But, still, they should not attack commanders in their own homes.

MICHAEL USHER: As for himself, Paul Refsdal is restless back in Oslo and curious. Paul, would you go back?

PAUL REFSDAL: Yes, why not? I mean, really, I wanted to meet Davran because I have a lot of respect for him and he was important in my release. But I don't know... I mean, his personality could have changed. He lost his family. Maybe he's not so eager to create... for a tall white man to come in.

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