AJR logo     

 AJR  Features

From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Northern Exposure   

A Washington Post correspondent traveling with the Northern Alliance finds covering the early days of the war against the Taliban to be part Hemingway, part Evelyn Waugh satire.

By Peter Baker
Peter Baker is a Washington Post foreign correspondent.     

They told us to turn the headlights off after the checkpoint in Charikar. It's probably not true, but it certainly seemed that night that there was no darker place on earth than the road from Charikar to the front lines outside Kabul in northern Afghanistan. It was October 7, perhaps a half-hour or so after the Americans and British had begun their bombing campaign against the Taliban, and there was not a man-made light to be seen. In this rebel-held territory, no one needed to warn what few residents remained to pull blackout curtains, since there was virtually no electricity. The partial moon above hardly seemed to dent the pitch black.

Our van wound its way along the narrow, rocky roads up the mountain, the driver gamely guessing where to aim his tires to avoid plunging off the cliff. The word "road" was really a misnomer; there were no real roads, at least in this part of Afghanistan, only a consensus as to where most drivers tried to guide their vehicles with the least damage to the suspension. Where the bridges had been blown out, someone had usually placed a flimsy makeshift metal substitute that always seemed ready to collapse under us.

We finally arrived at the village of Topdara, a long-abandoned hamlet of mud houses and dirt paths perched on a slope overlooking the Shomali plain, named for the local word for wind. Topdara seemed a pretty good vantage point to watch the bombing campaign--high enough up to see the rockets' red glare but far enough away to avoid being glared ourselves. The only problem: The Taliban had a pretty good vantage point to watch us from their invisible posts some 300 yards up the mountain.

Our escorts, mujaheddin guerrilla fighters armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, led us by foot through the village to a mud building. We crawled up cramped stairs, heads ducked low, to emerge from a hole onto the dusty roof from where we could see the full expanse of the plain. The occasional thunderclap of explosions could be heard off in the distance. Reporters instantly pulled out satellite telephones and began breathlessly reporting the opening of the first war of the 21st century, describing each white or red flash in the night sky, some melodramatically recounting the scene as if they were personally taking incoming fire. "The bombs are falling all around us," one disclosed.

Little did we know at the time that for some of our colleagues that was actually true, or close enough. Some of those who feared the road more than the enemy failed to heed the no-headlights rule and found themselves on the wrong end of Taliban artillery. One American reporter, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor, saw a shell explode just 100 yards away from him. Others hightailed it out of there, no one neglecting to douse the lights this time.

It was an inauspicious start for the latest generation of would-be Ernie Pyles.

For the international press corps that made its way into the unforgiving plains and mountains of Afghanistan, the war against the Taliban at times has seemed like something out of Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms"--and at others more like Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," the classic 1938 novel satirizing British foreign correspondents who invent a war when one doesn't present itself suitably enough. Frightening one moment, comical the next.

The first few correspondents to make it into Afghanistan after September 11 largely came from Moscow, perhaps because we could find Tajikistan on a map. The Taliban had kicked out the Western media and the only way into the country was Northern Alliance territory and the only way into Northern Alliance territory was neighboring Tajikistan, the former Soviet Central Asian republic. Those of us who got to Dushanbe early were able to fly on a Northern Alliance helicopter to the Panjshir Valley, the rebel stronghold north of Kabul and home of assassinated commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famed "Lion of Panjshir" who beat back nine Soviet attempts to capture the valley.

As we prepared to board the aging Russian-made helicopter, we heard reports that another Northern Alliance chopper had just been shot down by the Taliban. Swallowing hard, we boarded anyway for a flight that would take us over the Hindu Kush mountains. As the helicopter ascended higher than its official limits, skimming just feet over the peaks, Paul Quinn-Judge, the veteran Time magazine correspondent, leaned over and shouted: "Good, we're flying real low. That way they won't be able to shoot at us as easily."

If the helicopter seemed a bit dicey at the time, we had no idea how lucky we were. Those who arrived later did not have it nearly so easy. My colleague from the Washington Post, William Branigin, was forced to take the overland route through the Hindu Kush, a harrowing five-day journey with a hashish-smoking truck driver. A couple other Post colleagues, Keith B. Richburg and Lucian Perkins, did not have it even that easy. By the time they got into Afghanistan, the Anjuman pass was covered by snow and impassable by vehicle. They made it through after an eight-hour horseback ride through a blizzard.

The first arrivals set up camp in a small village called Jabal Saraj, where the Northern Alliance has its headquarters for the front-line troops to the south. The center of the dusty town is the bazaar, a couple blocks of stalls offering grain, eggs, vegetables and slaughtered animals on hooks surrounded by hundreds of flies taking a free taste. A few merchants sell foreign products, including Pepsi canned in Iran and tuna fish canned in Thailand. Firewood, fuel, dirty rugs and, of course, scarves can be found as well.

Up the dirt road was the "guest house" where a few of us first stayed, a concrete block of a building with no furniture, no electricity, no heat, no television, no radio, no telephones and no running water. Seven of us slept in the same room on thin cushions thrown on the floor, protected from the dust storms outside by plastic sheeting covering the windows. Most days we woke around sunrise, cleaned ourselves by pouring a bucket of cold water from the stream over our heads and then ate a breakfast of stale naan bread with jam bought in the bazaar. Lunch and dinner were equally elaborate, usually rice and bread, sometimes served with meat that only some dared eat. Eventually, grapes and apples were added to the diet. Yet given the persistent illnesses plaguing soft-stomached Westerners--salmonella poisoning, diarrhea, dysentery, fever and various mystery ailments--the safest course was to avoid most everything but the rice. The water was unsafe without purification pills, so everyone stuck to the tea.

To power our computers and satellite telephones, we bought a gasoline-powered generator in the bazaar and then strung wires around the building. But that would prove to be the major challenge to every correspondent in the place. Each night the generator would break down, if it ever started at all. Mechanics would show up, insist they had fixed it--then, as they were demanding large sums of money, the lights would go off again. Many nights we ended up working by the dim glow of lanterns or flashlights, praying the laptop and sat phone batteries would hold out until we filed.

The days were spent roaming around dirt-poor villages, visiting troops at the front and sitting down with rebel commanders to discuss the military situation. Maj. Gen. Babajan, the gregarious, girthy commander of front-line forces at the decimated Bagram air base, loved to show off his control tower with the shattered windows and the crumbling roof and the torn-up floors, pointing to dust clouds in the distance that indicated enemy vehicles moving around. Then he would take us back to his house, where we removed our boots and sat outside on a carpet in the shade, munching on grapes while he expansively described how he planned to recapture Kabul.

But the front never seemed all that lively in the opening weeks, even after the bombs began falling. Once I spent the night in the top of the control tower at Bagram to watch the aerial assault along with a pair of truly talented veteran war correspondents, Quinn-Judge and Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times of London. Soon after the sun set at 5:30 p.m., it grew bitterly cold--and with no windows to shield us, the frigid winds just whipped through the tower. At 7:30 p.m., scattered anti-aircraft traces sparkled in the distance, as if the Taliban was desperately shooting at random to hit an American plane it couldn't actually detect. A loud boom echoed across the Shomali plain, but it quickly grew quiet again. At 8:05 p.m., the first big flashes of American ordnance lit up the sky behind the mountain separating us from Kabul. A half dozen similar flashes followed, but by 8:10 p.m., it seemed to be over. After a couple afterthought hits a half-hour later, the loudest thing we heard the rest of the long, cold night was Franchetti's snoring.

Other moments were not so peaceful. From time to time, the crack of a gunshot could be heard nearby. At a front-line post one day, the commander gestured insistently. "Behind here," he said, pulling me out of the line of fire. "They shoot here." Any number of journalists discovered that the hard way. Owen Matthews of Newsweek came under shelling and gunfire, only to be laughed at by mujaheddin amused that he rather sensibly took cover. Craig Nelson of Cox News Service managed to offend a Northern Alliance guard to the point that he was detained with his hands tied behind his back for a short while. Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times seemed to survive a dangerous situation every week; once she and her companions were held captive for hours by a wild, rifle-wielding teenager who shot at their feet and above their heads and seemed quite ready to try in between. Their offense: They had stopped so her photographer could take a picture of a wedding party, including the bride, covered head to toe.

But much like the characters in "Scoop," when the action was too tame, some journalists took matters into their own hands. A crew from German television coaxed a perfectly willing rebel commander into firing his artillery gun so they could get a better picture than grape-eating guerrillas lounging around in their robes and sandals. And even the venerable BBC aired reports from star correspondents located on the Tajik border, hundreds of miles away from the Kabul lines, never bothering to tell listeners that they had an entire mountain range between them and the bombing they were describing. On at least one occasion, they insisted bombs were falling on the Taliban forces on the front lines, never mind that none of us actually there saw any such thing--including one of the BBC's own radio correspondents.

In a rather creative bit of geographic revisionism, the BBC reporters would sign off giving their location as "north of Kabul." They were north of Kabul, all right--in the same way that Maine is north of Florida.

Peter Baker, a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, was the first American newspaper reporter to arrive in northern Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He wrote about the takeover of NTV, Russia's only major television network, in the June issue of AJR.