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Documenting truth in dangerous places

Times Staff Writer

In shaky video footage, shot from high up in the stands, a woman in a sky blue burka kneeling on the field of a Kabul soccer stadium provided Americans a frightening symbol of the brutality that marked the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The disturbing, soundless 1999 footage smuggled out of Afghanistan showed the woman -- a mother of seven -- as she is approached from behind by a man with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The AK47 fires, the woman spasms, the camera moves away, then pans back. She’s flat on her back.

First shown in August 2001 in the U.K., it wasn’t until after Sept. 11 that this footage, in a British documentary titled “Beneath the Veil,” was shown in the United States, on CNN.

But who was this murdered woman and what became of her seven children?

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That was the assignment last year for Carla Garapedian, a former BBC anchorwoman and graduate of North Hollywood High School: Tell the woman’s story, find her kids and see how life is now for Afghan women.

The answers are revealed in a recently completed 49-minute documentary, “Lifting the Veil,” in which Garapedian, 41, and her crew dig into crude court records and traverse battle-scarred Afghanistan in search of the children of Zarmina, the executed woman beneath the veil.

“She had no name, no voice, no face,” goes the narration at the start of “Lifting the Veil.” The film has aired in England, and its distributors are trying to find a U.S. outlet.

For one grueling month in August, Garapedian -- all 5 feet, 1 inch and 110 pounds of her -- was in Afghanistan. At times her hunt for Zarmina’s children appeared at a dead end. Some family members were ashamed and wanted no connection with Zarmina, who was convicted of killing her husband after he claimed she had cheated on him. By film’s end, all the children are found.

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In addition to Zarmina’s family, Garapedian was fascinated with the post-Taliban treatment of women. “They made a big deal recently about some Afghan women getting driver’s licenses,” said Garapedian, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley (she lives in Encino when she’s not in London or on assignment). “But the treatment of the women in Afghanistan can still be brutal. It’s not just about the Taliban being gone. You still have all these men -- husbands, brothers, fathers -- who believe you can beat women.”

During the filming in a Kabul bazaar, Garapedian felt firsthand how women can be treated if they risk appearing in public without a burka. “I was following my translator: If she wore a burka, I did; if she didn’t, I didn’t,” Garapedian said. “So one day she had it off and I did too and I got whacked on the rear.”

It was more than a swat that convinced Garapedian that Afghan women are still mistreated. She kept hearing reports that females, some as young as 9, were the victims of gang rapes, particularly in the unruly northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Along with a driver-translator and her two-man crew, they ventured there, an area that garnered headlines in November 2001 for its bloody prison revolt. The documentary includes a painful interview with a woman who says she was raped repeatedly and is now shunned by her family.

Garapedian got the investigative bug from her late father, Leo, a onetime professor of journalism at Los Angeles Valley College.

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After graduating from the London School of Economics with a doctorate in international relations, Garapedian became a correspondent for NBC and went on to anchor BBC World.

Going to Afghanistan wasn’t the first time Garapedian had entered a danger zone. In February 2000 she was with a group of journalists in Russia near the Chechnya border when word came that Russian troops had massacred 14 children. The report turned out to be false, but it prompted Garapedian and her two-man crew -- a veteran war correspondent and cameraman -- to enter Chechnya.

The day before entering the war-torn republic that wants to break away from Russia, the reporter and cameraman got drunk. “I remember them telling me, ‘If you knew where we were going, you’d get drunk too,’ ” Garapedian recalled.

The trip into Chechnya proved to be a turning point in her career as her crew from Britain’s Channel 4 reported on the alleged slaughter of hundreds of civilians killed by the Russian army.

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After that, she produced another acclaimed documentary on North Korea, “Children of the Secret State,” that examined hunger and cannibalism in that impoverished nation.

“Beneath the Veil,” the precursor to Garapedian’s “Lifting the Veil,” was reported by British journalist Saira Shah, and won awards in the U.S. and Great Britain, where its production company, Hardcash Productions, is based.

Last year, out of the blue, Britain’s Channel 4 called Hardcash chief David Henshaw for a sequel, who in turn made the call to Garapedian. “I asked her if she’d like to go on vacation to Afghanistan,” Henshaw said from his home in London. Garapedian was thrilled.

Henshaw said he was never concerned about Garapedian’s ability to handle the difficult assignment. He worried only after she returned and told him of encounters with members of Al Qaeda and the Northern Alliance forces.

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In the film, Zarmina’s last child found is in a dusty village where fighters from Al Qaeda are said to still roam freely. Garapedian’s crew left the town as soon as the interview was completed.

Even more frightening was an encounter with fighters of the Northern Alliance. After Garapedian and her team interviewed the rape victim, eight men with AK47s swooped down on them and appeared ready to attack.

“But suddenly, just when it looked like they were going to do something, they started laughing,” Garapedian said. Her driver, it turned out, claimed to be a former bodyguard of the Northern Alliance’s slain and revered leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud. “He even had a picture of Masoud with him and that helped get us out.”

Peter McAlevey, a Hollywood producer who is working with Garapedian on a screenplay based loosely on her BBC career, described her as “our own Christiane Amanpour,” referring to CNN’s much lauded war correspondent.

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“I think she’s an incredible undiscovered talent, both as a personality and as a documentarian,” McAlevey said. “She’s lived the life that all these young actresses are begging to play.”


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