Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 18, 2001
Bullets and bedbugs
To get near Kabul, journalists must endure a treacherous mountain road and billowing dust that invades everything. It's no resort at journey's end. 
E-mail from Afghanistan 

At War With Terror

The reporter enjoys a meal of bread served on the floor.

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - I am not certain about the previous use of the guest house in which I am staying, but the concrete facade is pocked with bullet craters, and the room I share with another journalist has graffiti written in Persian over the door: "Here I was imprisoned for 75 days."

I have nothing to complain about. I've been here only a week.

The road we followed across the towering Hindu Kush mountains to get here does not appear on my map of Afghanistan. Carved into the sides of cliffs in recent years by men with picks and shovels, it looks like some sort of Steven Spielberg movie set - except there are no safety nets at the bottom of the hundred-foot drops.

Just as we were approaching the top of the Anjuman Pass, the highest point in our journey, our driver asked me and photographer David Gilkey of the Detroit Free Press to get out of our Russian jeep. It was wheezing from lack of oxygen at that altitude - above 15,000 feet - and he needed to lighten the load.

By the time Gilkey and I had walked a half-mile uphill at that altitude, we were wheezing, too, and thinking what chumps we had been to pay $600 for a ride when we had to walk through the hardest part.

Working as a team for The Inquirer and the Free Press, we had been assigned to penetrate opposition-held Afghanistan, to cover the Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban regime in Kabul. Both of us have experience dealing with difficult environments, but working in one of the world's poorest countries, ripped apart by 23 years of civil war, has presented a number of logistical challenges.

There is no power system, no purified water, but an incredible amount of dust - worrisome for our computers and satellite telephones and for David's digital cameras. It is chilly at night and threatens to turn into winter very quickly. The food is monotonous - bread, rice, mutton, weak tea. On a good day, we get a gallon of warm water in which to bathe; most days we just wash our faces.

When we arrived here in Jabal Saraj, the town at the end of the Panjshir Valley where most journalists are based, the alliance assigned us to a two-story guest house from whose roof we can see the bombing in the capital 40 miles distant. It's like watching the Philadelphia fireworks from Princeton. One night I heard a British broadcast journalist reporting live on his satellite telephone in a stage whisper, telling listeners back home he was at the front line. The front line is actually 15 miles from here.

At night we unroll our sleeping bags on the floor in a room already occupied by invisible roommates - bed bugs that behave with the ferocity of cruise missiles. They have chewed up my arms, hands and face, and though I haven't touched alcohol in the 20 days since we arrived in this deeply Islamic country, my nose is as swollen and red as a skid-row drunk's.

Rebel-held territory is also very expensive. We paid $500 in a market for a gasoline-powered generator that has already gone to the repair shop twice. With several hundred reporters in northern Afghanistan, prices for cars and commodities quickly escalated, and a number of reporters have been forced to leave because they ran out of cash. The only currency accepted is American dollars.

Our guest house has electric power for about four hours each night, but the power is weak and I am grateful for our $500 generator, on the rare occasions when it works.

There is a lot of gunfire in Afghanistan. Almost everybody has an AK-47. People react to the gunfire as if it were nothing unusual, in part because so many Afghans use their guns to mark celebratory occasions. The other day in the country we heard quite a lot of gunfire. "It's either a gun battle or a wedding," said the soldiers who were guarding us.


We began our journey in late September in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the source of most of the supplies for the Northern Alliance, the ragtag collection of militias opposing the Taliban. After a few days of hassles with visas and permits, we boarded a rebel cargo flight to Feyzabad, the alliance's capital.

Once there, we found a translator, hired a car, and teamed up with an American radio reporter to share costs. We worked in northern Afghanistan for a week before heading south to the Panjshir Valley, which is held by resistance fighters and broadens out into plains 40 miles north of Kabul, the capital.

There is only one land route into the Panjshir from Northern Alliance territory - the trail across the Hindu Kush mountains. It takes a good driver three days to do it, and a truck full of the hardware of war - ammunition, tires and fuel - takes at least a week. Snow closes the route each winter. Last year it was impassable from Nov. 3 until April.

Before the road hits the foothills of the Hindu Kush, it frequently splits into a dozen crisscrossing tracks made by motorists seeking to avoid the deep ruts left by previous drivers. In some places, the road is filled with knee-deep pools of dust as fine as talc, slowing down vehicles in great clouds of choking powder. Other times, it disappears altogether and simply follows a river bed for miles, bouncing along smooth stones under a foot or two of water.

A few hours into the trip, I noticed that our right front tire had a massive bulge - the sidewall was broken. The driver, an able man named Faizal, said he had noticed this too and hoped the tire could last a little longer, inshallah. It did.

The route is at its most spectacular winding over the Hindu Kush through chasms of granite as it climbs to Anjuman Pass. The road was no more than a donkey trail until 1996, when the Taliban conquered Kabul and cut the Panjshir Valley off from the rest of the country. The rebels were forced to improve it to keep their stronghold connected by road to the rest of the country, but there is only so much that men with shovels can do in such a harsh environment. Drivers sometimes must stop to repair the road by hand, carefully placing rocks and testing the surface to make sure they don't pitch off in a landslide of rubble.

At one point we came across a group of journalists standing in the road. Their vehicle was jammed against the rocks where the road rose at about a 30-degree angle, 50 feet above a raging torrent. The driver had spun out and panicked. Unable to tow them, we all pitched in and lifted the jeep sideways to get it off the wall.

The driver made another attempt up the incline but panicked again and jumped out as the vehicle rolled backward. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion: The driverless jeep, picking up speed, could have veered left and tumbled over the cliff into the river. Instead, it hit a bump and turned right - wedging itself back into the wall.

Night was falling, so we pushed on. We later learned that the group paid another driver $300 to get their car over the incline.


The Afghans we have encountered have been gracious hosts. As we crossed the Hindu Kush on the second night that U.S. planes conducted air strikes against Kabul, we stopped for the night at a small town of sheep farmers. With my satellite telephone and laptop set up on the hood of the car, a crowd of Afghan men gathered around my electronic glow under a clear sky white with stars.

From their enthusiasm and hand gestures, I first inferred that they thought I was directing the U.S. air strikes by computer. Then I realized they thought I had a television - and hoped I would let them watch the bombing of their capital city. home page   
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