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A Fairy Tale at Christmas: Coverage of This War Has Played Down the Civilian Deaths and 4 Million Refugees, Feeding a New US Doctrine of Terror

17 December 2001

It's all settled then - this really does seem likely to prove a war that ends before Christmas. Any day now Bin Laden should be blown up in a cave, and then we can settle down to our turkey and Christmas pudding. We can send cards and sing carols about peace and goodwill without a chorus of daisy cutters in the background.

Christmas is a time when, above all else, we like to feel good about ourselves; we give to charities, we give presents, we offer hospitality and we remember those lonely old relatives. If it works, the objective is to feel expansive, warm-hearted and generous. So all good wars must end before Christmas.

Indeed, this one is shaping up in every respect to having been a jolly good war. It is fitting all the criteria for what a modern war should be - very neatly. It's been short; it's been successful; and we've had right on our side. Not a day is going by without another al-Qaida bomb factory o r terror manual being discovered; and now an Advent goodie, the smoking gun himself, Bin Laden, chortling as only an evil genius would do over his handiwork. Even the ascetic Mullah Omar comes in for demonization as his vast compound in Kandahar allegedly exposes his corrupt egotism while his pe ople suffered in poverty (worst of all, it appears, he had execrable taste in interior decor).

So this year, as we pull the crackers, we can happily reflect on the fact that those dear Afghans are now flying their kites and listening to their screeching music (though it's a mystery as to why they would want to) once again, thanks to us. To top it all, feeling really good usually requires some measure of feeling superior; so round off that seasonal glow with some gloating at the idiots who opposed this war.

All so neat, just too neat, and I don't buy it. The coverage of this war raises more questions than any other war I can remember (and I'm not even talking about the video tape). Of much more concern has been the way the coverage has been heavily skewed towards the military conflict: it's been a boys' war. We've followed planes and bombs, we've watched plumes of smoke from distant brown hills, we've seen picturesque Afghan fighters hanging about in mountain hideouts - and now it has culminated in a grand finale, a mountain shoot-out. It's been as gripping and as plausible as one of the black-and-white westerns we'll watch this Christmas, only fewer dead bodies. Very occasionally, we've glimpsed that people are getting killed - the images of the castrated Taliban fighter pleading for his life before he was shot, and the massacre at Qala-i-Janghi. But our sympathy for these near-feral wildmen is limited - they got what they deserved, they were Taliban after all.

What has been strikingly absent is the humanization of this war. Unlike in Bosnia and Kosovo, our screens and newspapers have not been filled with the terrible trauma of recognizable individuals and their families. The cameras haven't hovered on the faces of shocked tearful children, and the impotent anguish of their parents and grandparents. On a few occasions, reporters have reached a bombed village, but it's hard to tell the rubble from the hovels, and estimates of the dead are always circumspect; there has been no sense of outrage about these atrocities. Yet the number of Afghan non-combatants reported killed (how many more do we not know about?) in this war is edging close to those who died in the World Trade Center. The latter has provoked global outrage, the former is accepted with an astonishing equanimity as a necessary price to pay for two very uncertain prognostications - Afghanistan's peaceful future and ridding the world of the evil al-Qaida.

But the even bigger story that has barely surfaced in recent weeks is the huge dislocation the war has caused to the entire population. The World Food Program estimates that as many as 3m-4m people have fled their homes because of the bombing. Médecins Sans Frontières claims that Maslakh - a name that should be on every newspaper front page - is the biggest refugee camp in the world. The few aid workers there haven't even been able to assess its population, which is believed to be somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 and growing; new arrivals have recently shot up from 20 a day to 1,200.

It is one of five refugee camps around Herat, but the route there is too insecure for western journalists. They are largely sticking to the main cities and Tora Bora (there are a few notable exceptions, such as the Sunday Telegraph's Christina Lamb, who sent a horrifying report from Maslakh).

But it's not even those dusty, cold refugee camps that are the WFP's biggest headache, according to its Rome spokesman: at least it knows where they are. It is the refugees who have fled into remote rural areas, many of whom could die - or may already have died - a bitter death from starvation and cold this winter.

Part of the explanation for why we are not hearing this is the unprecedented danger of reporting this war, in which as many journalists as western combatants have been killed. Partly it's because journalists always depend for help on local participants in a war who want to use the western media to advance their cause. But the only Afghans helping western journalists are the Northern Alliance, and they have no interest in shocking a western public with the suffering caused by the bombing.

Meanwhile, the Taliban were hopelessly ignorant. They always buried the bodies too quickly for western cameras. Just compare them with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which ensured a storm of western moral outrage at Serbian ethnic cleansing by taking the cameras to remote villages to show them the dead bodies. Nor did the Afghans flee into Pakistan in sufficient numbers to provide the kind of disaster footage always inexplicably described as "biblical".

All of this has conveniently dovetailed with the west's pursuit of this war. So we've been left with a straightforward moral narrative: good triumphs over evil. It's been this kind of easy moralizing that kicked me into the idiots' camp from the start. The US may have wanted to exact revenge, but it was never something anyone could claim to be morally right. The Americans have unleashed a principle of foreign policy - it is legitimate to fight terror with even greater terror - that is causing havoc in the Middle East, could cause more havoc in Kashmir and is being used from China to Zimbabwe to warrant brutal repression.

The fact that it hasn't yet caused the kind of havoc feared in Afghanistan (such as a protracted guerrilla war) is small recompense when we choose to overlook that we are not getting anything like the full picture of the suffering it has caused in this most tragic of countries.

Madeleine Bunting.
Published in the Guardian.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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