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What It's Like To Be A Woman Reporting On The Taliban: 'They Don't Look At You'

Journalist CLARISSA WARD is CNN’s Chief International Correspondent. She recently reported from the streets of Kabul as thousands of people tried to get into the secure part of the airport, fly out of the country, and escape the rule of the Taliban. She flew out of Afghanistan on Saturday with her crew.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With Taliban gunfire in the background and Taliban fighters with truncheons nearby, my guest, Clarissa Ward, reported from the streets of Kabul for CNN. She covered the story as thousands of people tried to get into the secure part of the airport, fly out of the country and escape the rule of the Taliban. Ward is CNN's chief international correspondent. There were three chapters of this reporting trip. First, she was with the Afghan military in Kandahar just before it fell. Then she went to Ghazni Province, where the Taliban had already taken over. They granted her access to an abandoned U.S. military base that was now under Taliban control. Then it was on to Kabul, where the Taliban were celebrating their victory.

She first spoke to the Taliban about a year and a half ago, when she was granted access to a Taliban-controlled village. She flew out of Kabul last Saturday on a military flight to Doha, Qatar, along with about 300 evacuees, with everyone crammed together. Over the years, she's reported from many conflict zones, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The many awards she's received include two Peabodys, two DuPont Awards, seven Emmys, an Overseas Press Club Award and two Edward R. Murrow Awards. Her memoir, "On All Fronts: The Education Of A Journalist," will be published in paperback in early September.

She was in France when we recorded our interview yesterday morning. It was before the U.S. issued a security alert warning people to stay away from the periphery of the Kabul airport because of the threat of a terrorist attack, which was followed this morning by an explosion outside the airport. As I record this morning, we don't yet know the details of the explosion.

Let's start with a Clarissa Ward report from last Thursday. She was outside the Kabul airport to see the gauntlet people needed to pass through. She was wearing a burqa with her face uncovered, but was told by a Taliban fighter who was carrying a truncheon to cover her face. Her translator told her the fighter didn't want to talk with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLARISSA WARD: Taliban fighters are a little upset with us, so let's keep going.

We decide to leave and head for our car. The fighter takes the safety off his AK-47 and pushes through the crowd.

BRENT SWAILS: Stay behind him. Stay behind him.

WARD: You can see that some of these Taliban fighters, they're just hopped up on adrenaline or I don't know what. It's a very dicey situation. It's a very dicey situation.

(CROSSTALK)

WARD: Suddenly, two other Taliban charge towards us.

(CROSSTALK)

WARD: You can see their rifle butt raised to strike producer Brent Swails. When the fighters are told we have permission to report, they lower their weapons and let us pass. Clarissa Ward, CNN, Kabul.

GROSS: Clarissa Ward, welcome to FRESH AIR. And thank you for the remarkable reporting you've done. And thank you for the risks that you've taken. I'm sorry you've had to take so many risks to do the reporting. So what happened at the end of that report that we didn't see when you were allowed to pass after showing your papers?

WARD: Well, I mean, it wasn't even a question of showing our papers, to be honest. It was a question of begging and my Afghan colleague, Najibullah Quraishi, telling them desperately over and over again, we have permission from Zabiullah Mujahid, who's the Taliban spokesperson. Please don't do anything you're going to regret. And me screaming, we're journalists, we're journalists. Please, please. And looking at Brent sort of, you know, prone, trying to protect his head as these two Taliban fighters were ready to rifle butt him. It was - it really was - even listening to it now, it gives me a pit in my stomach because it was a petrifying moment. But the minute they calmed down enough for us to walk away, we just walked very quickly into the car, got in the car and drove as far away as we could.

GROSS: When you screamed we're journalists, we're journalists, what language did you scream it in?

WARD: I was screaming it in English. And I tried it in Arabic. It's very unfortunate I don't speak any Dari or Pashto. And so - and it's funny in that situation because you don't - you go into automatic pilot. At one stage, I was also screaming CNN, which obviously would probably have been lost on the Taliban fighters.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering if CNN is actually meaningful to the Taliban right now because they seem to want good publicity. And if it was caught on camera, them smashing the skull of your producer - not good publicity for them.

WARD: It would be terrible publicity. And I think in the sort of upper echelons of the Taliban leadership, they're not - it's not that they're trying to court the media, but they definitely want to show that they're cordial, they're welcoming, they're responsible and respectful. The problem you have is, as is so often the case in many military and paramilitary structures, what the leaders say up at the top from their nice five-star hotels and what the rank and file say on the ground with their whips and their truncheons desperately trying to push back these crowds, there's often a disconnect there.

And so while I will say that the Taliban has a much more coherent chain of command than most, and there's largely very good discipline among the rank and file, there's still always the capacity in that moment for something to go very wrong. And Najibullah Qureshi - my Afghan colleague who was with us - when we got back to our house, said, you know, I didn't want to tell you at the time, but we could have been killed. Which was sort of shocking to hear, but it just gives you a sense that when people are that hopped up and overly adrenalized - if that's a word. I may have just made that up - they can often lose control and lose their cool and do things in the moment that they might regret later. Although to be honest, it's not clear to me that there will be any real punishment or recourse if something bad had happened.

GROSS: What means do the leaders have to actually communicate to the street fighters what their policy is going to be? Do all the street fighters patrolling Kabul now have, like, cellphones or some means of hearing what the latest orders are and how they're supposed to officially be behaving?

WARD: Yeah, it's a really good question. They don't use cellphones so much, but they use radios. You always see them walking around with these enormous radios with these, like, 2-foot wires coming up. And that is their primary form of communication. And each fighter will belong to a unit with a commander. And each commander then talks to, you know, the sort of subcommander, the head commander and so on and so forth. So you do find that there is a pretty impressive level of sort of uniformity of messaging and a basic level of discipline.

If they've been told, let Western journalists do their jobs or don't, you know, shout at people for smoking cigarettes or being clean shaven in this moment, then they are largely compliant with that. But, as I said, when fevers are running high and you're in such a chaotic situation as it was outside that airport, and it's difficult to even feel or sense that from that report, but there's hundreds of people, if not thousands, all over the streets, some camped out, pushing, pushing against the Taliban, trying to get past. And they're there with these whips and their guns and firing into the air and clearing crowds.

And the one Taliban fighter who I had this sort of run-in with, not the one who tried to attack my producer, he was very clearly high on something. And I don't know what that was because obviously they would declare themselves to be teetotal. But he was chewing something. I don't know if it was betel nut or khat, but he was visibly revved up and sort of in a state where it was very difficult to talk to him like a human being and reason with him.

GROSS: Yeah. You mentioned in the report that the Taliban seen hopped up on adrenaline or I don't know what. You know, but it's interesting to compare, of course, on your previous trip to Afghanistan over a year and a half ago. You wrote about how dead their eyes looked. And now it sounds like sometimes their eyes look kind of like wild and hopped up. Can you talk about trying to read the expression in the eyes of the Taliban on the street and trying to figure out how to behave to best be able to either talk with them or at least not be killed by them?

WARD: It's very difficult to read them. In the moments after Kabul fell, they were relaxed and jubilant in their victory. And so I saw a different side of them where they were much more welcoming, much more cordial, jocular even. My previous trip, I would have occasionally nice interactions with people who were sort of tangentially related to the Taliban. But when it came to the military command or to the shadow governor, it was very difficult to have what you might describe as a kind of polite conversation with them. It's obviously exacerbated because I'm a woman. So things like eye contact become a real problem.

And for me, and I'm sure for many of us, eye contact's the way I gauge how I am being perceived by someone, whether I can push further or whether I can go further. And without that, it becomes much trickier to navigate. That's part of the reason I dressed so conservatively on the streets of Kabul in those first days, because I wanted to give myself a coat of arms or a cloak of armor, if you like, in order to be able to push my luck a bit and to push them on things like women's rights and push them on, you know, that Taliban fighter outside the airport I went to, I'm like, what's this that you're carrying, pointing to this makeshift whip truncheon device he had fashioned for himself.

And it's difficult to do that as a woman. So I feel that at least if I'm dressed very conservatively and I'm working with my colleague, Najibullah Quraishi, who has so much experience with the Taliban, and I'm taking my cues from him and I'm listening to him and doing what he tells me to do, then I felt like I had a measure of protection in dealing with them. And I did have a level of familiarity as well based on that previous trip and my trip to Ghazni a few days earlier.

GROSS: What kind of permission did you have from the Taliban? And if you can tell us, how did you get that permission?

WARD: So I worked - the first time I went in with the Taliban just over a year and a half ago, I went to this Afghan filmmaker. He's won so many awards. He directs beautiful films for PBS and Channel 4 and others. And he had done extensive work with the Taliban. And I told him, I really want to go with you and do a trip to Taliban territory. And he said, you're crazy. And then by the end of the lunch, I think he realized I was serious. So he said, OK, let's think about how we can try to make this happen.

And he obviously has extensive contacts within the Taliban. The primary one, of course, being this figure who for many years was kind of like a mythical "Wizard Of Oz"-type figure because no one had seen his face, Zabiullah Mujahid. And in fact, there was always speculation that it wasn't one single man, but an entire network of people probably in Pakistan who were the sort of information ministry, if you like, or the media representatives for the Taliban.

So what we would do and what Naj (ph) is used to doing is you find an area you want to go. You reach out to local commanders there through various other fixers to see whether they would be willing to host you. And then you go to Mujahid. And you say, Mujahid, you know, this is Najibullah Quraishi. I'm traveling with Clarissa Ward from CNN and her crew. And we would very much like to visit Ghazni Province, for example. And then what he would do is give you a voice message basically agreeing and saying that that was all confirmed and that you have permission.

And then if you do get stopped along the road or you have any problems, you can play your WhatsApp voice message to whoever it might be. And that's where the Taliban - it's really striking how there is this kind of clear chain of command and there is communication between all of the different wings in all the different parts of the country.

GROSS: Were you concerned that every time you take out your cellphone to play the message saying that you were given permission by the Taliban that it would be an opportunity for the Taliban who you were with to confiscate your phone?

WARD: So I really let Najibullah take the lead in those situations. And we had an understanding that I was in the back of the car, and I basically was to keep very quiet unless someone directly addressed me - which would never happen, by the way, because one of the sort of extraordinary experiences about doing this kind of work as a woman in Taliban territory is that you're essentially invisible. They don't look at you. They don't address you. They don't talk to you. If you speak to them, they might reply to you, but they won't look in your direction. And so my job was to basically be as quiet as possible and allow Naj to talk his way through the checkpoint. He had also already lined things up with local commanders on the ground, so they were aware of our visit.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here, so let's do that and then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clarissa Ward. She's CNN's chief international correspondent. And on Saturday, she returned from three weeks of reporting in Afghanistan, covering the fall of the Afghan government and the victory of the Taliban. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with CNN's chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She spent three weeks in Afghanistan covering the fall of the Afghan government and the victory of the Taliban. She was in Kabul when the Taliban were celebrating their victory and tens of thousands of people were at the airport or trying to get there to get flights out. She flew out on an American military flight to Qatar with about 300 evacuees on Saturday. Her memoir which is called "On All Fronts." It's going to be published in paperback early in September.

Earlier this week, a Taliban spokesman said women should stay home for now because Taliban fighters basically haven't been trained to respect women. How do you interpret that?

WARD: I mean, I think the way you interpret it is that the Taliban says one thing which is, oh, it's all about women's rights. And we've learned from the lessons of the past. And things are going to change. But then you scratch the surface just a tiny bit, and you quickly see how superficial those platitudes are because the reality is nothing has changed fundamentally in their ideology. And they understand that if women right now are intimidated, if they're not out on the streets, if they're going out and buying burqas, as we found when we went to the market and spoke to the person selling burqas, and they start disappearing from public life, that makes their life that much easier when they then go about implementing this draconian version of Sharia law that essentially excludes women from civic life.

And so what they're doing now is basically planting the seeds of, yes, we say you have all this protection and you have all these rights, but for now for your own safety because we're concerned, because we're benevolent, it's best for you to stay at home. And then we'll see about education. Because the thing with education they say is that once a woman hits puberty, she can't be educated in the same school as boys. So we need to build extra separate girls' schools. And the thing about working, as we've said women can work, is you can't actually work in the same place as a man. So we need to build separate workspaces for women. And the thing about being television reporters, as we said originally that you can, is that you have to cover your entire face, and you have to wear gloves. So you know, it's this sort of tricky language whereby they say one thing, and then very quickly, you realize that the actual meaning is something completely different.

GROSS: On your previous trip a year and a half ago, you talked to a commander who had been fighting since he was old enough to hold a gun. And he said, we're ready for any sacrifice. We're not scared of being hit. This is our holy path. We continue our jihad. And there are so - people - there were probably some - so many members of the Taliban who are like that. They've been kind of brainwashed from childhood. They've been fighters ever since they were old enough to carry a gun. How can we expect them to change? How can we expect their mindset to change?

WARD: You can't. Based on my experience with the Taliban, you can't expect them to change. They are largely illiterate. As you said, they have been fighting since they were old enough to carry a gun. They don't know any other way of life. And the Taliban leadership understands that it could have a problem on its hands if it starts to lose the support of the rank and file and the foot soldiers, that they could be inadvertently pushed into the arms of more extremist groups like al-Qaida or ISIS or any other - there are a number of different extremist terrorist groups that are operating inside Afghanistan. Because at the end of the day, these young men have been trained from a young age to kill and to sacrifice and to be killed. And so you can't suddenly strip that away from them and expect them to go and get a job in a bank. It's just not going to happen.

GROSS: During your reporting from Afghanistan, we'd hear gunshots in the background. We'd see Taliban with truncheons, whips. How often did you see those truncheons used? And were you around when anybody actually got shot?

WARD: So I wasn't there when anybody got shot that I saw. I was there when plenty of rounds were being fired to disperse the crowd. But fortunately, I didn't see anyone who was shot. An LA Times photographer called Marcus Yam who I was spending some time with in Afghanistan actually captured the moment there where a woman and a child were shot. They weren't killed, but they were very seriously injured. So there's no question that people were getting shot and seriously injured. And I - you know, I venture to guess that some people were killed as well although it's very difficult to get anything substantive in terms of precise numbers on something like that.

I saw them using their whips and truncheons all the time. They had no qualms about using them. They don't see it. You know, what's shocking to us - to the Taliban is just utterly unremarkable. So you tell Taliban fighters, we need you to do some crowd control and push back these people from the airport, and that's how they do it. And to a certain extent, it's relatively effective. It's horrifying to watch from our perspective because we're just not used to seeing that kind of thing. But for them, it's sort of didn't even really seem to raise an eyebrow.

GROSS: My guest is CNN's chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. We'll talk more about her three weeks reporting from Afghanistan after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO SANCHEZ, BRAD MEHLDAU AND MATT BREWER'S "NAR-THIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent. We're talking about the three weeks she spent reporting from Afghanistan. She spent time with the Afghan military in Kandahar just before it fell. The Taliban granted her access to territory it controlled in Ghazni Province. Then she went to Kabul, where the Taliban were celebrating their victory. She reported from the streets and from the chaos at the airport where thousands of people were trying to flee and get on U.S. military flights out of the country while the Taliban tried to control the crowds with gunfire, truncheons and whips. She flew out of Afghanistan last Saturday on an Air Force flight to Doha, Qatar. Her memoir, "On All Fronts: The Education Of A Journalist," will be published in paperback September 7. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning, before today's explosion at the Kabul Airport.

You spent three weeks in Afghanistan. The first round of your trip was in Kandahar with the Afghan military before the Afghan government fell. What impression did you get in the provinces, like, outside of, you know, Kabul and Kandahar about how the people who live there felt about the Taliban? Because it seems like a lot of people were very unhappy with the Afghan government, which had a reputation for being very corrupt. Did they feel like the Taliban would be worse?

WARD: So I think the Taliban has one advantage on its side, which is that their version of Sharia law may be draconian and harsh, but they have a reputation for implementing swift justice and it's not corrupt. It may be harsh, but it's not corrupt. And so that does gain them a lot of supporters. I would also say in rural areas - and I think it's hard for a lot of Americans to kind of get their head around this - but women's education and issues like this are really considered tangential to the primary considerations of everyday life. And so whether you're in government-held territory or whether you're in Taliban-held territory, it's just not a focus, things like girls' education.

The thing that I heard again and again from a lot of people was we don't care who's in charge. We just want peace. We just want to be able to leave our homes without fear of airstrikes or gunfire or - and this is interesting to me because it's exactly what the Taliban capitalized on in the late '90s when they came to power, that they were dealing with a populace that was so exhausted and worn down by incessant brutality and violence that they were willing to surrender so many of their rights if they would get security in return. And that's basically, on a fundamental level, I think, the Faustian bargain that the Taliban has made with much of Afghanistan's public. It's not that everybody is clamoring to embrace their version of Sharia, but people are tired and frightened and they just want peace.

GROSS: I'm just thinking about how different it's going to be for the women than the men. Because you said people just want to go about their lives, but you can't go about your life if you can't even go outside.

WARD: But this is what you have to understand - and I found this quite fascinating when I was in Ghazni. I obviously am separated from the rest of my male crew and sleeping in this area with women and children. These compounds have a compound within a compound, and the sort of internal compound is for the women and the children. And most of these women never really leave that compound except maybe on rare occasions, but it's just the way life has always been for them. It sounds maybe unfair, but they don't have big dreams about doing interesting things with their lives or traveling or getting jobs or getting further education, and that's not me sort of patronizing them. That's, like, me relating specific conversations I've had with them where I've said, are you going to educate your girls, for example? And they were like, no, why would we do that? And I was like, well, why wouldn't you do it? And they were like, because the Taliban says it's bad.

So you're thinking, OK, so if you're not educating your girls and they can't read or write, they wake up at 4:30 with the Fajr dawn prayer. They start baking bread and making tea and sweeping the courtyard and looking after the animals - a lot of these compounds have livestock as well - and taking care of the children and cleaning up and sewing what needs to be sewn, and you just realize there isn't a huge amount of space or time in their life at this stage, in these rural areas, to worry about much else. And they kind of are in acceptance of their sort of standing in the world.

What is heartbreaking is when you go into the cities or you talk to people who are more educated, and those women are on the verge potentially of losing everything, and their stories will rip your heart out in ways you can't imagine because they have worked so hard to achieve and to do great things and to contribute and to dream. They have daughters, many of them, and now they're seeing in the blink of an eye that all of that could be lost. And it's just absolutely heartbreaking.

GROSS: And, like, who are these uneducated Taliban fighters to feel so superior to educated women who have made such a big difference in trying to rebuild their country?

WARD: There is a lot of arrogance, and I've experienced it so many times with the Taliban, whether it's shouting at me to cover my face when I address a question to them or shouting at me to stand behind the governor because he doesn't want to be seen walking with me publicly. There is no two ways about it. And it's got nothing to do with Islam, by the way. I mean - and this is a really important distinction to make. You look at Bangladesh and Pakistan and women are prime ministers there, OK? This isn't about, you know, an inherent Islamic thing. It is a mixture of, like, cultural and tribal and historic dogma that has trickled down for many, many decades and created this situation whereby women are viewed as having their rights, yes, but being essentially private property.

One other thing that I would just add, because I do think it's important, is that when I have a Taliban fighter who refuses to look at me in the eye or reply to me properly, I find that offensive, right? I'm not going to cry about it. I'm just there to do my job. But it grates. What the Taliban will say is he's being respectful by doing that. There is a verse in the Quran that says when you see someone of the opposite sex, like, avert your gaze and look down. So when he doesn't look you in the eye or doesn't want to talk to you directly, it's out of respect. So, you know, that's the way they present it. I can understand on some level what the sort of ideal is behind it. But when you see it playing out on the ground, the reality is that women are treated as private property, and it doesn't feel like there's a lot of respect there at all.

GROSS: This week for the first time, I heard about the threat of ISIS-K which is apparently, from what I understand, a breakaway group of the Taliban that felt that the Taliban wasn't radical enough? And that they're not only a threat to the U.S. and to the West, but they're a threat to the Taliban as well. What have you heard about ISIS-K? Can you explain what the group is for us?

WARD: So they're called ISIS-Khorasan, and they are based in a number of different areas, but they're particularly well known in Kunar and Nangarhar in the sort of eastern part of the country. I actually spoke fairly recently - without getting into too many details 'cause the story hasn't come out yet - with a commander with ISIS-K who, up until that moment, said that they've basically been lying low and waiting for the U.S. to leave and for the Taliban to take over before they would begin fighting the Taliban. But they do see the Taliban, interestingly, as the primary enemy, much more so even than the West which might sound counterintuitive given that they are both Islamists.

But they have major issues with the Taliban. There's been a lot of bloodletting between the two groups. And the commander I spoke to said that he just didn't think that the Taliban was practicing strict enough Sharia, and he lamented that they weren't chopping off enough hands anymore. So there is no question that they pose a significant threat. And the whole notion that this withdrawal was predicated upon was the Taliban saying that they would never allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorist groups again. And the reality is that that might be difficult for them to pull off because even if they have absolute control, these areas, some of them, are incredibly mountainous, remote. You can't be in every place at all times.

The only other thing I would say, though, is that from the conversation I had, they are not as focused right now on transnational attacks at all. I think what ISIS-K's immediate focus is on expanding their own footprint and posing a real challenge to the Taliban. Of course, launching some kind of a big attack by the airport or something like that would be a perfect way to achieve both objectives hurting the West and the Taliban at the same time. So I can understand why this thread has emerged as a kind of area of concern for the Taliban and for U.S. forces at the airport.

GROSS: My guest is Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent. We'll talk more about reporting from Afghanistan after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE'S "WEARY")

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent. She spent three weeks reporting from Afghanistan. She flew out of the country on a military flight to Doha, Qatar, last Saturday with hundreds of evacuees.

You left Afghanistan after three weeks, three really dangerous weeks. How did you get into the air? Did you have an ordeal getting in, or was it easier for you because you're CNN?

WARD: It was much easier for us than most. However, it was an ordeal, and I still have a big bruise on my arm that I can't stop looking at honestly, Terry, because it was really one of the more intense and harrowing experiences I've encountered whereby we went to a gate that was supposed to be much quieter than other gates. The crowds hadn't really discovered this gate because it wasn't often being opened. We had an agreement. I can't get into the details of that so much.

But we went to this gate at 6:00 in the morning, and all of us looked at each other 'cause there were about 50 or 60 people there already. And we were like, OK, this can't be the right gate because how are we going to push through this tiny door in the gate when there's 50 to 60 people already here crammed outside it? And basically, we all held hands and kind of formed, like, a chain. And someone opened the gate and started to try to pull us through. And it was this awful moment because the entire crowd, the minute they saw the door open, just started pushing and crushing and screaming. And there were little children who were howling and wailing.

And you were standing there thinking, this is so wrong. Like, why do I get to go in just because I have this passport. Like, it just feels very wrong. And my crew managed to get in before me. We had a couple of Afghans, nationals who we were bringing out with us. And then I was the last one, and the crowd was sort of closing in. And this person on the other side just grabbed my arm and just ripped me through the door. And honestly, I think all of us were crying because it was so heartbreaking and intense and visceral. And yeah, it was very, very intense. And the minute the gate closed, and I started talking to the man who had grabbed me, and I said, how are you dealing with this? And he just started bawling. He started weeping. And he said, you know, I've done two tours in Helmand Province, and the PTSD I will have from the last week is much worse. And he was seeing people being trampled to death every day. He saw women throwing babies over the wire to try to get them out safely. And those images don't leave you.

GROSS: So you think about all of that every time you look at your bruise.

WARD: I do. I do, and there's such guilt, Terry, with that because I was pushing, too. I was pushing, too. And you - we're so protected from those moments of just sheer survival, usually, in our kind of Western lives. And this was a moment where there was no veneer of respectability or politeness. It was push and shove and scrape and push to get in there and get out safely.

GROSS: You're thinking of going back to Afghanistan soon, right, to continue your reporting?

WARD: Yes.

GROSS: How soon, do you think?

WARD: Well, I'm going to be heading back to the region later this week.

GROSS: Whoa, that is soon.

WARD: That is soon. You know, it's always - with these things, it's a Rubik's Cube, trying to work out where you can get to and what's possible and what's safe and what's sensible and where you can do the best reporting. And, you know, it's not clear to me exactly where and when we will end up. But I think all of us in the team - Brent Swails, William Bonnett, Najibullah Quraishi and myself - feel very much committed to continuing to tell this story.

GROSS: You know, your memoir, which is called "On All Fronts: The Education Of A Journalist," is going to be published in paperback in early September. And in that book, you explained that you became CNN's chief international correspondent when you were on maternity leave. You'd already been reporting for CNN. That's when you got the promotion. And you write a little bit about how being a mother changed your perspective. You say after four months at home with your baby son, being open and loving and gentle and calm, you suddenly had to toughen up again. Can you compare those two sides of yourself and what it takes to turn off the toughness of being a journalist and being, like, the calm and soothing mother, and then to have to turn that part off, to become the tough journalist who's willing to take so many risks to get the story?

WARD: I think it's really easy to turn off the tough part. The minute I see my two little boys, I'm just completely immersed in love and bliss. It is so hard, though - so hard - to try to put your armor back on and leave them and go and keep doing the job because it doesn't get any easier. No matter what people tell you, it doesn't. You make peace with it, and you know you're doing the right thing. And a big part of why I wrote that book is for my little boys so that they will understand the decisions I made and the work I did. But it's still always just - you know, honestly, it's kind of agony saying goodbye.

And sometimes it's different. If you've been at home for a few months or a couple of months, then you're sort of also excited to leave and get back out on the road. But when you've just had a few days, it's hard. It's really hard. And the only thing that I get comfort from is I know it's not as hard for them because they're surrounded with, you know, so much love, and they're really happy. And so I take comfort in knowing if it's just hard for me, then that's OK. I can deal with that.

GROSS: My guest is Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent. We'll talk more about reporting from Afghanistan after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Clarissa Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent. She spent three weeks reporting from Afghanistan. She flew out of the country on a military flight to Doha, Qatar, last Saturday with hundreds of evacuees. Do you think being a mother has changed your perspective when you are reporting? And do you think it's changed the risk calculations that you make?

WARD: I think it's changed both, to a certain extent. I'm very risk-averse. I'm very cautious. And I know that might sound strange, given my reporting in Kabul, but I really am always going at great lengths to avoid being in a sort of active battle type of situation. Or if I know there are lots of bombs and - you know, there's plenty of frontline situations that I really try to avoid.

But in answer to your other question, I definitely feel that my reporting has changed since becoming a mother. I absolutely feel rivers of empathy, particularly for women and children, and I think that has changed my reporting in some ways. And I really feel that it's important to have mothers who are out there and covering war and the effects of war, because we're able to get into places that my male colleagues aren't. I can go and talk to the women and the children and be in that inner sanctum in the house and hear about their lives and their frustrations and their heartaches. And so many years, that has been missing in a lot of reporting. There have been fantastic female war correspondents for quite some time now, but it has largely been, up until, you know, the last decade or so, more of a male-dominated industry. So I very much hope that it has a positive impact on my reporting 'cause I definitely feel more connected and more empathetic than I ever have before.

GROSS: And is it helpful to talk to mothers as a mother yourself?

WARD: Yes, definitely. It's a connection you can make with anyone anywhere. It's the first thing people will usually ask you in a lot of these places. Do you have children, and what religion are you? I mean, these are, like, the first two. So I find it's a real point of connection. And I write about that in the book as well, this absurd moment in Afghanistan with these Taliban wives. One of them was breastfeeding, and I motioned to her, and I said, oh, you know, I have a little baby as well. And she reached out and grabbed my breast and started howling with laughter. And all of them started laughing, basically making the point that I looked far too skinny to be...

(LAUGHTER)

WARD: ...Actively feeding a child in any meaningful way. But it was this beautiful moment of connection, and we were all laughing together. And so definitely, it's a way of forming bonds and communicating.

GROSS: When people ask you, especially, like, if somebody from the Taliban or somebody who's a very, like, conservative fundamentalist asks you, what religion are you - and it sounds like people do ask you that - what do you say?

WARD: I usually just say I believe in God. I believe in God, and I pray. And I have, like, studied the Quran enough that I'm able to recite some of the Quran. And I think people take that as a great measure of respect. And certainly, I have, like, infinite respect for Islam. And I have tried to learn as much about it as I possibly can. So I remember being given advice - and this is in the book as well - when I was first learning Arabic, I had a teacher from Yemen who was showing me how to do ablutions in the women's bathroom at Berlitz, a language school, much to the shock of the French teacher who was kind of walking through the bathroom.

But Nadia (ph), this woman, explained to me - she said, if people ask you when you're traveling - in the Middle East, she was talking about specifically - don't ever say you're an atheist, or don't ever say you don't believe in God because while in the West, it's often uncomfortable to say, oh, I do believe in God, in the Middle East, it's really - it's often considered very strange. It's not really understood. And there is a lot of negativity associated with atheism. So I mean, you know, it's one thing if you're there on a sort of political platform trying to stand for something or change attitudes, but in the capacity that I'm there as a journalist and trying to form connections and understand people better and learn more about things, I always find it's best to show that you are, you know, God-fearing or God-believing on some level.

And I've had another instance where I had to sing a hymn to a group of women in Aleppo. There were shells raining down on us, and everyone was petrified. And one of the women was reciting from the Quran, and she asked me if I would do sort of, like, the Christian equivalent. So I sang the hymn "Jerusalem." You know, and it's, like, moments like that, I think, wow, this is surreal, but this is why I do this job, in a strange way. It's all these moments that happen behind the camera, these moments of profound connection and sisterhood and unexpected beauty in the rubble.

GROSS: Clarissa Ward, thank you so much for this interview. Thank you for your reporting. And you've really been doing a remarkable job. I wish you all the best.

WARD: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Clarissa Ward is CNN's chief international correspondent. Her memoir, "On All Fronts," will be published in paperback September 7. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning before this morning's explosion at the Kabul Airport.

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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with David Philipps, whose new book is about a dark side of Navy SEAL culture, or Dr. Anna Lembke, whose new book "Dopamine Nation" is about how the brain processes pain, pleasure and addiction, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SONG FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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