Baptism by Fire

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Kabul residents flee the city on the night of the first American air strikes against Taliban targets in the Afghan capital. October 7, 2001.

“You’ve come here to see the war, so you are going to see it,” Aziz was trying to wake up journalists who had just settled down for yet another night of discomfort and anxiety in the front-line town of Jabal os-Saraj, also known as Jabul Saraj, which Russian-speakers aptly, if somewhat offensively, interpreted as Double Srach. The town was controlled by Northern Alliance forces opposing the Taliban regime in Kabul 60 kilometers to the south. Taliban positions were less than 20 kilometers away.

It was the night of October 7, 2001, and Aziz was one of our English-speaking security minders assigned by the local Northern Alliance command to chaperon reporters to nearby front lines and keep them out of trouble while in town.

Photo by Mikhail Metzel

A number of my colleagues and I were renting rooms at that time in a two-storied adobe house on the outskirts of Jabal os-Saraj, half destroyed by bombs and rocket fire as the town changed hands four times in as many years. We were the first group of foreign reporters who arrived in Jabal os-Saraj in mid-September to cover the start of the Northern Alliance’s all-out offensive against the Taliban and the involvement of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan’s 23-year-long civil war in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and other American cities. There were two of us in a tiny room, sleeping in bags on thin mattresses without pillows. There was no furniture either, but the biggest discomfort was to have no chairs. It’s hard to understand or believe, but I searched throughout Jabal os-Saraj before I found one chair in one of the numerous dukans, or shops. The chair belonged to the shop-owner, who agreed to sell it for six dollars, a huge sum by Afghan standards for a rickety metal piece of furniture. I took the chair with me as our group changed lodgings in Jabal os-Saraj. My colleagues used to come into our room and all they wanted was to sit in my chair. To recall home, perhaps. Housing was scarce, and it was not uncommon for six or even eight people, irrespective of gender, to set up camp in one bedroom, which also served as an office, television edit suite, and hashish salon. For lack of alcohol and classical music concerts, Black Afghan, or chars, was the most popular means to kill time and alleviate stress.

The war we came to cover, but we were rather suspicious of Aziz’s invitation at such short notice and so late at night. It seemed, however, we had no choice: Northern Alliance officers visited every room and persuaded everyone to get out. In the yard, we saw more colleagues who stayed in similar lodgings around the town. They were just as bewildered and wary of the goings-on as we were. Immediately rumors began to circulate: we were to be evacuated because Taliban troops were advancing from Kabul on Jabal os-Saraj. Our Afghan hosts kept their lips tight.

Within minutes, a convoy of vehicles with about fifty journalists armed with essential tools of the trade raced in the direction of Kabul. So it wasn’t evacuation, but what?

Apart from a few bomb craters on the way, the road was relatively good, and it took us less than forty minutes to arrive near the Soviet-built Bagram air base not far from Kabul. All drivers, as if by command, put out the headlights, and we continued our crazy race in pitch darkness. At some point, we turned right and left the asphalt for a bumpy ride across the Shomali Plains.

We soon got out of the cars and walked a few hundred meters for what our Afghan escorts said was “a better view.” The sky cleared and the moon lit the landscape, stern and beautiful as all things Afghan. We positioned ourselves to face Bagram; the Taliban lines were to the right, on the slopes of the hills that hid the outskirts of Kabul.

Journalists waited impatiently for action. Smokers lit their cigarettes, writers turned on their notebook computers, and cameramen were trying to flood the surroundings with light in a futile effort to get a better picture. “What a great target we would make,” I thought as we walked a few more meters up the foothills and saw a pool of blinking lights on the plateau below.

The first rumble came from the left: Bagram. Those were “our” guns, we assumed. Explosions were heard and seen on the right side. “Good for you, Talibs,” somebody shouted. Very often journalists side with one party to a conflict they cover, identifying it as “theirs.” At this very moment, our colleagues were apparently seeking shelter from the bombardment on the other side of the front line, covering the Taliban angle of the war, and were, probably, cursing our Northern Alliance friends. One of them was an AP reporter and photographer, Amir Shah, who spent years in Taliban-held Kabul, writing and sending pictures that he took while risking life and limb. The Taliban didn’t allow photography as such and they considered ethnic Hazari, who were Shi’ites, as non-Muslims and, therefore, enemies. Now Amir Shah, who is an ethnic Hazara, and his family had to hide from “friendly” fire and eventually from American rockets and bombs.

Despite the moonlight, it was too dark for television, and without comments from the military, there was little information for print journalists to cough up a good story for a news agency or newspaper back home.

Getting increasingly bored, I and some of my colleagues began walking towards the cars. All of a sudden, we heard a telltale buzzing sound and a thump, followed by what looked like a fireworks display at a distance less than fifty meters from us, or so it seemed, right where we stood just a few minutes ago.

Hardly anyone fell flat on the ground, as safety rules require. Later, when we discussed the incident, everyone gave a silly reason for such a stupid disregard for one’s own life. I, for instance, and a few other colleagues had clean clothes which we did not want to soil. On the other hand, military experts tell not to fear a bomb or gun shell that you hear or see flying: people get killed in war without the privilege of forewarning.

When a second blast came, and it seemed to be even closer than the first one, we took the danger seriously and rushed for the cars, jumping into the vehicles like top stunt men in Hollywood movies. A total of six people managed to squeeze themselves into our car, which was well above its maximum capacity, and our driver did not let in a British television reporter, who ran after us for a good hundred meters, vehemently gesticulating with his hands, until he was picked up by his own driver. A German reporter in the back seat suddenly discovered he had lost his notebook, so he implored our driver to stop and jumped out to look for it. We didn’t wait for him because the shock wave from a third blast jolted our car, prompting the driver to rev up the engine of the twenty-year-old Volga sedan which within seconds reached the speed never thought feasible by its Soviet designers.

Surprisingly, no one was hurt in what turned out to be a mortar attack apparently triggered by the Taliban fighters’ fears the lights from dozens of smoking reporters and their glowing computer screens came from an advancing ground force of the Northern Alliance. It was a kind of baptism by fire for some journalists; for others, it wasn’t the first time to get shelled, nor was it going to be the last.

As we rode home to Jabal os-Saraj, the headlights were turned on and we saw dozens of men and women fleeing Kabul. At long last, we were told it was the night the Americans said they would attack Taliban targets in the city, and local residents had been advised to leave. The imminent U.S. air strikes, as well as the preceding artillery bombardment that we witnessed with so much risk to our own lives, were the reason the Northern Alliance command brought journalists closer to the front line to report on the start of the joint operation against the Taliban regime, which soon led to its undoing.

When I took a photograph of Kabul refugees, namely a man and his two wives on the sidewalk, something a smart journalist should never do in Afghanistan, the man noticed the offense and picked up a stone. Luckily for us, he didn’t estimate correctly our car’s velocity since the stone hit the next vehicle, smashing its windshield.

The German reporter found his notebook and safely returned home next morning after walking forty kilometers.

The American air strikes came later that night, and we were able to see the flares and fires caused by bomb explosions, that lit the sky over Kabul for several hours. All that from a safe place on the rooftop.