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."
have nothing to complain about. I've been here only a week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was falling, so we pushed on. We later learned that the group paid another
driver $300 to get their car over the incline.
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.