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From Park Avenue to Afghanistan War : Ladies' Home Journal Editor Defies Moscow to Report on a Distant Conflict

March 25, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The April Ladies' Home Journal has the usual celebrity cover, the mandatory monthly teasers for "the 15 most requested recipes," "what makes couples stay in love," "fashions that make you look younger and thinner" and "hair styles of the rich and famous."

It also contains a first-person story of war in a faraway country: 2 million deaths, 5 million refugees, unthinkable atrocities against children and the civilian population of Afghanistan in general.

Defying the Kremlin

What makes this excerpt from "Caught in the Crossfire" (E. P. Dutton: $18.95), by Ladies' Home Journal executive editor Jan Goodwin, all the more dramatic is the way Goodwin defied a Kremlin ban on reporting the war that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Dressed in native garb and disguised as a man, her bright red hair dyed black and wrapped in a turban, Goodwin smuggled herself across the border from Pakistan and spent three months following a group of Afghan freedom fighters through 10 of that country's 28 provinces.

"Try to put your feet where I put my feet," Goodwin's guerrilla guide advised her as she followed him across the high Afghan desert. Goodwin pondered this suggestion and realized that in an area heavily mined by the Soviets, "19-year-old Tor was acting as a human mine-sweeper for me."

Afghanistan's Hidden War

Back to her flyaway red curls and her persona as a top-ranking editor of a women's slick magazine with a monthly circulation of more than 5 million, Goodwin sat in her Park Avenue office last week and talked about the "hidden war" in Afghanistan. Idly, Goodwin fingered a defused butterfly bomb, a "show-and-tell" gift to her from a member of the Afghan resistance.

"This thing could blow off an arm or a leg," Goodwin said of the small plastic device that resembles its namesake. "The Soviets blanket the country with these." Goodwin offered an ironic smile. "They blend in beautifully with the rock terrain."

A former Fleet Street journalist, Goodwin, 43, had covered wars in Israel, Cambodia and El Salvador by the time she crept across the border into Afghanistan. While days at the Journal might find her negotiating with Buckingham Palace for a cover story on Princess Diana or panting at the prospect of an interview with Barbra Streisand, Goodwin early on had distinguished herself as something of a different duck in the ladies' magazine pack.

When her magazine sent her to interview Mother Theresa, Goodwin decided she would understand the Nobel Prize winner if she worked alongside her in the streets of Calcutta for a week. Her passion on the subject of child pornography is so fierce that colleagues make jokes about "Jan Goodwin's campaign" against it. On the occasion of her 40th birthday, Goodwin politely turned down an invitation to dine at Le Cirque, preferring instead to go sky diving for the first time.

As a member of Rosalynn Carter's National Cambodia Crisis Committee, Goodwin was well-placed, and theoretically well-versed in the world refugee relief community. Still, she blanched one particularly gray day in March three years ago when a friend from that circle appeared in her office and delivered some disturbing data.

Millions of Refugees

Afghanistan had a prewar population of 15 million, Goodwin was told. Now, in addition to the estimated 2 million dead, there were an estimated 5 million external Afghan refugees and nearly 2 million refugees within the country. The deadline copy lying on her desk suddenly lost its urgency when Goodwin heard that 50% of the world's refugees were now Afghan.

But with its Kremlin-issued news blackout, the war in Afghanistan is especially hard to cover. Unlike Central America, Vietnam or the Middle East, television crews can't pulse the fighting into American living rooms at supper time.

Besides, as Goodwin soon realized, Afghanistan is "as a country, too far away. People think 'who cares?' "

In fact, so distant is this Texas-sized land of 24,000-foot mountains that, Goodwin said, "I've had educated people say to me, 'I know what an Afghan dog looks like, but I don't know what an Afghan person looks like.' "

Traipsing with the rebels for three months, Goodwin too found herself in surroundings that were hardly Hilton-like. Food was scarce; the pace was quick and grueling for a "non-athletic, very non-athletic" woman who admits that in Manhattan, she'll readily take a cab before she walks 10 blocks. Traveling with men in a rigidly Muslim culture, Goodwin seldom bathed, much less changed clothes. By the end of her stay in Afghanistan, Goodwin was 30 pounds thinner and wracked with a case of amoebic dysentery.

At least one rebel faction refused to let Goodwin come along. A 40-year-old female American journalist could only hold them back, they argued. But the band of fighters who did accept Goodwin recognized the value of telling the world what was happening in their war-torn country.

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