ASSIGNMENT: Afghanistan  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

ASSIGNMENT: Afghanistan   

Journalists reporting from the front lines in one of the world’s harshest landscapes encounter no shortage of obstacles and dangers.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     



The column of grizzled Afghan rebels crept silently along a mud wall, their assault rifles poised as they neared the positions of Taliban gunners. A Washington Post photographer followed closely, straining for a glimpse of the enemy in the declared "war on terrorism." Without warning, Afghanistan's front lines rumbled to life.

The crack of incoming rifle shots shattered the eerie silence of a crisp October day in hills where killing and dying in battle have become as routine as tending flocks of sheep. Thunderous explosions from tank shells and rocket-propelled grenades echoed through deserted villages along the river valley. The United Front fighters crouched into position, scanning the trees for a target.

Lois Raimondo remembers a crusty rebel general pulling her out of the line of fire, offering his hefty frame as cover. He pushed her against a mud wall as he issued a single order, "Retreat!" She aimed her camera as the fighters, seemingly nonchalant in their response to death lurking just a few hundred yards away, began a four-mile trot back to safety.

Twenty-four hours later, on October 11, the veteran of Third World assignments was on her satellite telephone at a rebel outpost in the Afghan desert second-guessing the photos she was about to edit and file to her editor in Washington. "A firefight is a very hard thing to photograph," says Raimondo, who was still working at around midnight her time.

She marveled at the calm of the rebel warriors for whom the threat of death has become as customary as the Islamic prayers they chant. "They are very casual about it, very hardened," the photojournalist said from deep inside a war zone that has been described as the most difficult terrain on Earth.

After the gun battle, Raimondo, 42, had one more close call before she settled into her sleeping bag and nodded off on a cement floor, cameras, satellite telephone and laptop computer tucked away in garbage bags--scant protection against thick, powdery dust that cakes into every pore.

Journalists headed to Afghanistan face a tortured land of lizards, fleas and scorpions; forbidding mountains with stark lunar landscapes; blistering sandstorms and foul water supplies that have left some too sick to work. A few have been hospitalized or flown out by helicopter. Yet, despite Wild West lawlessness, food shortages and the constant danger of land mines--some 10 million are scattered throughout Afghanistan--there is nowhere else Lois Raimondo and hundreds of other international correspondents would rather be at this moment in history.

The first American-led war of the 21st century, 7,000 miles from the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has become the new Ground Zero. The mass mobilization into one of the planet's most ravaged territories began soon after suicidal assassins struck on September 11.

Unlike America's elite Delta Force, operating silently in the shadows to mount covert strikes at the al Qaeda terrorist network, journalists began gathering in Central Asia in rowdy waves, taking over mud huts, raiding bazaars for tins of tuna and canned juice, and flashing $100 bills at locals who became instant drivers, interpreters and guides. The charge for a two-day rental of a rusty Russian-made jeep easily could earn the owner the equivalent of 12 months' pay.

Newsrooms across America already had battle plans. The New York Times sent three Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters--John Burns, David Rohde and Rick Bragg--to the region and moved C.J. Chivers, a metro desk reporter covering the police beat and homicides, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where U.S. forces were gathering. Chivers is a former Marine captain who saw action in the Persian Gulf.
In the "war room" at WAVY-TV, an NBC affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, News Director Jim Turpin had his coverage team study photos of aircraft carriers, B1 bombers and other military hardware. He set up eight clocks displaying the time in key international cities where the story was unfolding. He found a pronunciation key for Islamic names and detailed maps.

"They don't have to be aeronautical engineers, but if they don't know what an F-15 can do, they'll be eaten alive by viewers and the military," says Turpin, who admits to taking a hit on hotels and airfare to get two staffers in place. "There is nothing you can do about it. You gotta go," he says, pointing out that Norfolk is a big military town.

Joe Elbert, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for photography, shopped online to find the best lightweight long underwear, sleeping bags and backpacks for his crew, as well as the most effective water filters, a lifeline in Afghanistan. "We're all going through money like water, but there is such a shortage of everything over there," Elbert says. "We have to pay through the nose."

Even with the best preparation, gathering news in Afghanistan is a logistical nightmare. Under the Taliban regime, televisions are banned, antiquated phone systems don't work and common necessities, such as batteries for tape recorders and flashlights, are nonexistent. High-tech still and video cameras wilt under a constant pounding of gritty dust. Fierce sandstorms can ground journalists for days at a time.

The simplest glitches--a broken antenna cable, a failed hard drive--create hopeless information blackouts. When a satellite phone system malfunctioned, Jim Dooley, photo director for Newsday, lost contact with his photographers in Afghanistan for four worrisome days. Then a miracle: They obtained the use of a generator and were back in business.

Costs for on-the-scene coverage have skyrocketed due to supply and demand. Raimondo and Washington Post reporter William Branigin paid $900 for a hop by helicopter from Duahanbe in neighboring Tajikistan into rebel-held Afghanistan. They were among the lucky ones, as airspace was shut down soon after. Many correspondents remained holed up in Pakistan, so near and yet so far from territory declared off-limits by the Taliban.

Some correspondents paid war profiteers $2,000 for a harrowing three-day jeep ride over rugged Hindu Kush mountains to get closer to Kabul, the Afghan capital and a main target of the airstrikes. Rumors abound of news crews, laden with expensive equipment and cash, being held up by local bandits, in one case being forced to pay $40 per person to get their passports back.

The Marriott in Islamabad, Pakistan, quickly became a hub for what some call "a media gang bang." Its 290 rooms were jammed with journalists paying up to $360 a night. Part of the gymnasium was reconstructed into 12-by-12 plywood cubicles without running water, electricity or telephones, available for a mere $80. TV networks pay $5,950 per week to rent minuscule space on the Marriott roof, where they do their stand-ups. "It's out of control, and it's going to get a whole lot worse," says USA Today's Jack Kelley, who was among the early arrivals.

Kelley, speaking from his fourth-floor room at the Marriott, noted that since the Pakistani government closed refugee camps, journalists are paying bribes of $100 per car to obtain entry. He has colleagues who hire "fixers"--locals who help arrange interviews, find transportation, act as interpreters and all-around babysitters--for $250 a day.

His fixer, a bargain by comparison, was the link to a meeting at the home of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on October 12. "It turned out [the fixer's] sister was married to a nephew of the president. I believe they pulled rank with Musharraf's mother, who called to issue the invitation to dinner," Kelley says of the "dream-come-true interview," 60 minutes with the powerful leader of America's reluctant ally.

Kelley also describes a visit to a madrassa, an Islamic religious school run by the Taliban, where a young Muslim held up a poster of Chicago's Sears Tower and informed him dispassionately, "This one is mine." During that same session, a student informed him that "we will kill America's children on their playgrounds." As he left the school, a teacher warned, "If your country starts bombing, for your own safety, don't come back."

Along with obstacles--and dangers--journalists face in the field, a dilemma closer to home is gathering steam. Reports have quoted Pentagon sources as saying America's "new war" against terrorism will be fought with unprecedented secrecy, including heavy press restrictions not imposed for years. Editors already are complaining bitterly about a lack of access to activities by American and British forces and an overall lack of information on Operation Enduring Freedom.

One of them is Loren Jenkins, NPR's senior foreign editor. "This administration has clamped the most severe information freeze I've seen in 35 years of reporting," says Jenkins, who cut his teeth covering Vietnam and the Middle East. He worries that journalists have been pushed into a risky mode of tracking down precise and verifiable information. "Unless it can be verified on the ground, you can never be sure of what's going on," Jenkins added.

For some, it is a matter of compromise. Having access to America's special forces after they have completed covert missions would be a reasonable compromise, says Daniel Klaidman, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He feels strongly that "this aspect of the war should not be shrouded in secrecy. Delta Force does not embed journalists, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't aggressively report on what they are doing and reconstruct their missions once they have occurred."

(During the interview, Klaidman received word that Newsweek reporter Owen Matthews, pinned down by gunfire in Afghanistan earlier in the day, had made it out unharmed.)

Media experts theorize that an unconventional war with no clearly defined battlefields in the crossroads of Central Asia, afflicted with wrenching poverty and tribal warlords, has led to a cloak-and-dagger scenario. If they aren't granted access, journalists enter forbidden zones at their own risk or rely heavily on press conferences and official statements, a troubling trend, says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz.

"No one has figured out yet how journalists can tag along for cruise missile attacks or stealth commando raids. These are likely to be key instruments in this kind of war," says Kurtz. "This is as much a new experience for the American press as it is for the military."

Some journalists break the rules in order to witness the drama unfolding in cavernous Afghanistan. Two were arrested by the Taliban after they slipped across the border illegally in disguise. Michel Peyrard, a reporter for the French weekly Paris Match, thought hiding under a burqua, the head-to-toe shroud that women are required to wear in public, would provide adequate cover. He was arrested on October 9, along with two Pakistani guides, and charged with espionage.

Reports from Afghan sources describe Peyrard, 44, a veteran of conflicts in Chechnya and Kosovo, and the two Pakistanis being paraded through the streets of Jalalabad, where Taliban supporters stoned them. To his tormentors, the satellite phone and miniature tape recorder are tools of a spy. If found guilty, all three face death by hanging.

Yvonne Ridley, 43, with London's Sunday Express, spent 48 hours hiding under a burqua to chronicle details from inside Taliban-held territory before the airstrikes began. She was on a donkey and headed for the Pakistan border when a camera slipped from beneath her veil into the full view of Taliban police. She was arrested, accused of spying for the United States and held in jail for 10 days.

When apprehended, she carried no money, passport or press credentials. "I knew the risks I was taking, and the consequences of being caught were too awful to contemplate," she wrote in an account after her release just a day after cruise missiles filled the air. Ridley, described as "tough as nails" by one London newspaper, kept a secret diary using the inside of a toothpaste tube and soap wrapper. She went on a hunger strike and taunted her captors.

The single mother of a 9-year-old daughter published details of her captivity under the headline: "Freed from Taliban Hell." She described how she mocked guards as they scrambled to set up artillery to fire at American bombers flying overhead on October 7. "I told them, 'You might as well use bows and arrows for all the good it will do you.' "

Across the border in Pakistan, journalists found more civilized living conditions--hotels with hot water, restaurants and cybercafés. They also found unruly mobs with anti-American sentiments at fever pitch. A reporter and photographer for the St. Petersburg Times ran for their lives in the back streets of the dusty, crowded town of Sakot a day after the first air attacks.

The chase occurred in the region of the Pashtun, a tribe from which the Taliban heavily recruits. As the St. Petersburg duo drove through town, they spotted protesters filling the roadway, some carrying banners and black flags. A guide led them to a room on the second floor of a mosque where they could observe the protesters. As is the custom, they removed their shoes.

Reporter Susan Taylor Martin was the only female among a group of 50 men, including photographer Jamie Francis. Suddenly, the two Americans were under verbal attack. A stranger delivered a message that sparked tremors of fear. "I request that you leave this place. People are emotional and may do you some harm."

"Get out! Get out!" another man shouted in their faces as they moved toward the stairway. Several police officers appeared with rifles, shoving through the crowd toward the foreigners. One of them grabbed Martin's hand and ordered her to run.

The reporter and photographer sprinted down a dirt alleyway beside the mosque. As they rounded the corner, another angry crowd was coming at them. Days later, from a hotel in Lahore, Pakistan, as she waited for a flight home, Martin described the daring escape during which she ran barefoot, hanging onto the hand of a policeman.

"At last, the hordes disappeared, and officers led us along a narrow path through a cornfield toward an open-bed truck," she says. "They kept us from being roughed up or worse. They were very kind." In the safety of the police station, a constable warned the Americans with a twinkle, "For you the situation was dangerous because any person with white skin we think is [President] Bush."

Around the same time, the Washington Post's Raimondo was getting her fill of danger. After escaping a firefight earlier that day, she was in a Jeep whose driver was attempting to ford the Kokcha River when the vehicle was swept into swirling currents. Water quickly filled the interior and rose to window-level. "We knew we had to evacuate; we weren't sure what was going on," says Raimondo, recalling the harrowing event. Then suddenly, the head of a horse appeared.

The photographer explained that Afghan horsemen swoop down from the hills and charge around $10 to guide journalists through the shallowest part of the turbulent river or to rescue them from torrents. In a matter of seconds, she was being pulled out of the jeep and dragged onto the back of a horse, holding on for dear life. But her ordeal was not over.

"The horse reared up, the cloth saddle and blanket fell off, dumping me and the rider into the river," she explains.


Later that night, at a remote desert outpost, she found little comfort for her harsh cough and raspy throat. It was 85 degrees when she headed to the front lines that day; when she returned, it was snowing.

Her PowerBars were gone--she had rationed them by eating one-half a day--and she was out of bottled water. A bowl of rice is common fare in Afghanistan, a hunk of bread a luxury. But it's hard to complain, Raimondo says, when there are hordes of starving refugees around. "I'm not at all a war junkie," she proclaimed as the batteries on her satellite phone began to weaken.

Back at the Washington Post, Elbert frets about the well-being of his front-line photographer, seasoned by 12 years in Tibet, China and Vietnam. He calls the extreme weather conditions worrisome and wonders if Raimondo is spending another night sleeping outdoors on rocks. He sent her off with a pair of silk long johns and the lightest sleeping bag he could find because weight is critical when journalists are scaling steep mountain passes.

"Lois calls and tells me all she has to go through to survive, and she sounds like she is having a glamorous weekend at the Paris Ritz. She's thriving on this. The young warriors have fallen in love with her. They carry her gear up 10,000 feet so she can get a picture," Elbert says with a chuckle.

Raimondo knows how to brave a Tibetan winter swathed in yak fur and Chinese army boots. She figures she can stick it out in Afghanistan. She also has an ace in the hole: the return half of a round-trip helicopter ticket back to neighboring Tajikistan that contains a disclaimer--"These are not regularly scheduled flights and there are no guarantees."

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