The First Days in Afghanistan (2001)

A poor girl outside a mosque in Taloqan.

The final stages of Afghanistan’s civil war and the United States’ involvement in the conflict attracted hundreds of journalists from all over the world. Afghanistanism used to be a malady of the press and politicos who pontificated on problems far distant at the expense of controversial problems at home. Now, after September 11, 2001, events in this far-away land acquired a burning topicality of immediate concern to people in many countries.

Getting into Afghanistan, and I mean Northern Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Northern Alliance, the main force fighting the Taliban regime and, therefore, interested in broad press coverage, was not easy. In Dushanbe, the capital of the former Soviet state of Tajikistan, journalists waited for days and even weeks before they could rent a helicopter to fly them directly into Afghanistan or before they could get permission from border guards to cross the river Pyanj and then hit the road for the heartland. In September 2001, the Panjsher Valley and the town of Jabal os-Saraj, Parvan Province, were the most popular destinations because of their proximity to Kabul whose Taliban defenders stubbornly resisted the Northern Alliance army’s attempts to capture the capital.

Afghan embassy officials in Dushanbe were eager to help, but getting helicopters for journalists was a hard job because the army needed them even more. But journalists were ready to pay, and that was a weighty argument.

There was another factor, the weather, that also had to be taken into account. And the weather had to be good both in Dushanbe, the starting point, and across the mountains in Afghanistan, the destination. Money did not play any role here because old Soviet-built helicopters had no navigation equipment and Afghan pilots had to see with their own eyes where to fly.

On top of all that, competition among hundreds of journalists who had arrived in Dushanbe was as tough as tough could be. Bigger news organizations with more money to spare had obvious advantages over freelancers with limited financial resources when it came to bribing local officials and paying through the nose to secure seats on the next available helicopter.

One day, it was mid-September, the weather happened to be fine on both sides of the border.

The first group consisting of a dozen journalists, who represented the BBC, CNN, APTN, Sky News, and German and Russian television companies, got the green light from the Russians, who control Tajikistan’s borders, from the Tajik authorities, which sought to assert their importance in all ways, and from the Afghan embassy, which collected money for visas and tickets. The latter cost, by the way, 300 dollars per head for the first groups, but went significantly higher later on.

Here we were at Dushanbe airport, gazing with awe at the flying machine which looked on the outside as if it took part in World War II. “It fell four times,” an Afghan pilot tried to be reassuring, “but it is still as good as new.”

Inside, a huge spare fuel tank took at least half of cabin space, which left us with little precious room for ourselves and our professional gear. In brief, we had to leave behind our food supplies, flak jackets, and the CNN’s satellite dish. The latter not without some fight, to say the least.

After two or three jumps, the helicopter took off and we got glued to the side windows. The scenery did not change much as we flew: brown mountains, white mountains, and gray mountains. After a bottle of Scotch that we shared amongst ourselves and less than one hour, the helicopter landed into a cloud of dust created by its own rotor blades: Afghanistan. Donkeys, men with Kalashnikov assault rifles, children, no women – such was the collective image of Afghanistan that followed us wherever we went.

We all quickly set up camp in the yard of a foreign ministry compound in Khwaja Bahaudin, the town that came to be called “Khoj” by journalists, and took to the nearest front line on Mt. Ai-Khanum. The magnificent view from the hilltop was a materialization of a television journalist’s dream of what a backdrop should be for a good standupper: a wide valley, separating Northern Alliance forces from the Taliban positions, complete with blue streams, greenery, and distinctly ethnic men with their shooting machines.

Whatever pictures we took during our one-day shooting spree in Khoj before we left for the Panjsher Valley, be it for television or photo services, they looked gorgeous and were greatly appreciated back home. But as the war dragged on, demands grew, and when I revisited Khoj several months later, I was told by colleagues who chose to stay there they occasionally paid ten to twenty bucks as an incentive to fighters, like the two young men in the picture above, to shoot at the Taliban positions across the valley. That made even greater pictures. Never mind the return fire.

Journalists, even those with extensive previous experience of covering armed conflicts in other parts of the world, were often careless about their safety in Afghanistan. People get used to life in dangerous environments too soon, and these environments no longer seem to be too dangerous. I remember one episode when Alexander, a photographer with a major news agency, on hearing the rumble of artillery bombardment during the night, just rolled over on the other side, turning his back to the window, so that glass fragments, should our house get hit, would not fall on his face. Most of his companions, sleeping with the least of worry as the true mensch would, did not even hear the guns rumbling. None thought about hiding. On the other hand, British television reporters would often do a piece to camera in a bullet-proof vest, apparently to add some zest to an otherwise stale account, while standing in a walled and guarded compound far from the front line or any danger whatsoever.

Sasha, a cameraman and friend of mine, asked me to photograph him near four or five bombs, which lay scattered for no obvious reason on the rocks near the entrance to the Panjsher Valley. I eagerly obliged, both of us being totally unaware of the fact that those were live pieces of ammunition – wired and ready to go off any moment should valley defenders decide Taliban forces launched an offensive. Hardly had I taken the picture, when Northern Alliance soldiers rushed towards us and explained with eloquent gestures rather than with words, which we could not have understood anyway, what might have happened to us had we tripped over the wires. Fortunately, we did not, and the photo is a great memento.

In another sector of the front around Kabul, a group of photographers asked a mujahed fighter to meet their photo-op needs by standing upright and aiming his Kalashnikov rifle at Taliban positions. The positions were a mere 300 meters across the cornfield, and all the photographers, many dressed like mujahedeen themselves, clicked their cameras until they got a perfect picture. I’m not sure I have a perfect picture, but we all spent enough time in the direct line of fire and might have been killed or wounded had Taliban snipers bothered to pick up their rifles. But they were apparently too busy drinking tea or praying, about two things the Afghans on either side of the political divide would never give up once the process was underway.

It’s not that journalists didn’t take any precautions. Flak jackets were mandatory, and we heard many a story when they saved our colleagues’ lives and left a nice souvenir in the shape of a flattened bullet. They are not very comfortable to wear, especially when temperatures are high, and all too often soldiers or rebels – from Chechnya to the Balkans to Afghanistan – offer to test how good they really are by firing their weapons – with us inside the jackets. We politely refuse. But in order to avert unsolicited tests, we prefer to wear them under loose coats, which makes our protective gear less conspicuous.

Female reporters working in Afghanistan also had to think about covering their faces or, at least, hair, which was especially topical before the massive influx of journalists occurred and when local men were yet unaccustomed to the weird sight of women without burqas. In Jabal os-Saraj, Natasha, a producer with a British television company, got hit on the head with a stone, hurled by an indignant Muslim man, as a group of reporters strolled through a bustling marketplace. The fad to wear dastmol, or traditional Afghan scarves, which immediately won the hearts of male journalists, was quickly picked up by our female colleagues. Burqas, on the other hand, never really caught up with them. One of the reasons, I was told by a newswoman, was due to the fact it was hard to smoke with the veil covering the entire face, including the mouth area. Men, on the contrary, liked to purchase the blue or white chadri veils for their girl-friends or wives in Europe and America. I don’t know if they received thanks for those gifts, though.

By the middle of October 2001, about a hundred foreign journalists, or probably even more, were working in Jabal os-Saraj. It was quite a collection of personalities. Some were experienced reporters with the Balkans and African wars to their credit, some were budding freelancers who came to make a few bucks but lost everything because of the high cost of operation: authorities, landlords, drivers, and translators charged exorbitant fees for the mediocre services they provided.

But even experienced reporters occasionally made complete fools of themselves. A photographer from Time or Newsweek asked me where he could have a few rolls of film developed. “The nearest Kodak kiosk is probably in Islamabad,” I joked. Many young photographers came to cover the war with good film cameras only to discover there was no way to send their artwork to newspapers or magazines in Germany or France. All of a sudden, it was the age of digital cameras and satellite phones. Reporters with neither were doomed to fail.

At some point during our sojourn in Jabal os-Saraj, we realized how little people outside Afghanistan knew about the real situation despite all the trouble we took to report it. When our digital video tape-recorder’s head stopped working, I called an engineer in London to find out what could be done. He instructed me over the phone how to clean the head with a piece of cloth soaked in alcohol, how to disassemble and reassemble the intricate machinery inside the recorder, but nothing worked. “The only thing left,” he told me at last, “is to take the recorder to the nearest Sony service.” We rolled on the mud floor laughing.

But the funniest-question prize was unanimously given by one-month veterans to an American journalist and newcomer, who asked, “Where’s the bathroom, folks?” The answer to that question is clear to the reader by now: there was none. We did have a one-hole clay outhouse, or tashnob, in the corner of the garden behind our dwelling. Water for tea our Afghan hosts took from an irrigation ditch streaming through the garden. We also washed there our underwear and socks.

The life of journalists in Afghanistan would have been far more difficult had it not been for our friendly tarjumon, or translators. I never met a professional translator or interpreter in Afghanistan, most of the tarjumon were former soldiers, traders, or engineers who spoke some English or Russian. Those were the only two foreign languages that made communication possible. My first interpreter in the Panjsher Valley was a young foreign ministry official, Rakhmat Ramazan, who learned English in Pakistan, and although I often criticized him for mistakes, he was the best linguist I ever met during my three trips to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. The second guy, Abdul Bashir, was a weather specialist who knew the names of all the clouds in Russian and English, as well as in Latin, but was unable to translate simple sound bites from Dari, his native tongue spoken by the ethnic Tajik majority in Northern Afghanistan. Abdul Bashir gave up his job as a meteorologist and his salary which would be the equivalent of five American dollars a month, for a daily remuneration ranging from fifty to eighty dollars, depending on hours of work. He liked the substantial change in his living standards and seriously considered raising his social status as well by using the windfall to buy one more wife. Abdul Bashir also wanted a new coat and no matter how much money I paid him he asked me to buy him one. Even vinegar is sweet when it is free, they say in Russia.

The third translator, Imran, who asked to call him Engineer Imran because he graduated from a technical school in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, spoke good Russian, but his translation of sound bites and quotes also left much to be desired. But I liked Imran because he was extremely talkative and was eager to reveal to me everything he knew, or thought he knew, about life in Afghanistan, from family traditions to agriculture to sex. I’ll share with the readers whatever I have learned from Engineer Imran on these subjects on the following pages of my Web site.