I was leading TV Globo in New York at the time the first passenger plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. I broadcast, live, for almost two hours, the news of the day that would change the world. For 18 years, I couldn’t see the broadcast recording. But when I got up the courage, I thought the time had come to tell stories of voices not yet heard. I went in search of seven people who had their lives drastically affected by the attacks, from the countries that suffered the most from the consequences: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, in a journey of two and a half years.
In March 2019, I met Sabaoon, the deradicalization center for young people and boys trained by the Pakistani Taliban to be suicide bombers. There I learned that the story of one of those boys had to be in the book he was writing. It took me nine months to convince the neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, the project’s coordinator. She feared the impact an interview could have on their reintegration into society. After several phone calls and emails, Feriha agreed. In December 2019, I left for Pakistan to interview three young people, but I promised not to divulge anything that would compromise their safety.
Sabaoon is located in the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan, the land of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, where, a decade earlier, the Pakistani Taliban taught boys to blow up girls’ schools – 300 were destroyed during the two years the Taliban occupied the region. The first challenge was to get out of the journalist’s skin. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I asked any questions that would push them back into darkness. But how do you talk to a boy trained to be a suicide boy at the age of 13?
We were having tea when Ahmer* told me how to wear a vest full of explosives and how to trigger the device to blast yourself through the air. This tea took a few hours. We talk about everything: how he decided to join the Taliban, what training was like, how he was arrested, football, one of his great passions. At various times, he smiled or laughed. I couldn’t leave without a shirt from the national team that I had brought as a gift, nor without a photo with the Brazilian journalist, which he would keep as a souvenir of this meeting.
That same night, it was time to learn about Shahid’s story. “I never imagined I could walk into a woman’s hotel room,” he told me during our conversation, in perfect English. He also said that he studied philosophy and discussed the work of Socrates and Plato with fervor. It is difficult to imagine that he, in 2009, made bombs or committed terrorist acts. I went to sleep with my head spinning.
+ “I know the power a young girl holds in her heart”: Malala’s extraordinary life
The next day, I visited the monitoring center where social workers accompany the reintegration of these young people. Back at the hotel, the last interview. I decided to gently end the conversation when I saw that it was being difficult for the young man to speak. After we said our goodbyes, the psychologist who accompanied him told me what none of the three had the courage to tell us when we spoke.
I lay awake thinking about the traumas I could have relived in them. But I consoled myself with Ahmer’s last sentence when he said goodbye. “I’m glad I talked to you. I’ve never talked so much with a foreigner, thank you.” This phrase kept echoing inside me, and the result is The Wind Changed Direction – September 11th That the World Has Not Seen, which the publisher Fósforo launches this month. The young man, who attacked girls’ schools, faced a woman without shame. Sabaoon was closed and now houses a university for women. (*The names of the young people are fictitious.)