Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 24, 2001
Readers react to `E-mail from Afghanistan'

At War With Terror

Not many westerners travel to Afghanistan, so it's natural that Afghans might regard us like stars in a circus freak show. Here photographer David Gilkey and Maykuth wait for their truck to be repaired in Charikar while the local boys gather around to gawk. The crowds can be tiresome.

The Inquirer invited online readers to send their questions to foreign correspondent Andrew Maykuth as he covered the turmoil in Afghanistan. Here are some of the questions and Andrew's responses -- at least the ones that survived Knight Ridder's unfortunate 2002 renovation of the Inquirer web site.

From: Michael Inskeep
Sent: 10/23/01 11:42 PM
Subject: For Andrew Maykuth - About Sayed?

Hi Andrew,

Could you tell us a little bit about Sayed, your translator? What is his background (e.g. where he grew up, education, how he came to speak English, what he was doing before becoming a translator)? Does he have a family (and if so, where are they and how are they surviving these difficult times)? How did you find each other?

Mike Inskeep

Dear Mike:

Sayed Abdul Wadood Saydy is a 25-year-old medical student who is two years' shy of his medical degree. He stopped studying in 1998 when Mazar-e-Sharif, where his medical school is located, was captured by the Taliban. He's originally from Jurem, near Feyzabad in Badakhshan Province, where his three brothers, three sisters and his mother live.

Sayed learned Russian a long time ago in the former Soviet Union, where the Afghan government sent him to study in secondary school. His Russian is actually better than his English, which he learned only in the last year when he took a course in computers and English in the town of Khorug.When he finished the six-month course, he took a job with the World Health Organization as a secretary in Feyzabad. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many humanitarian agencies pulled out of Afghanistan and let their staff go.

Sayed Wadood, AKA, "The Dude."

 Sayed introduced himself to us the first night we arrived in Afghanistan. I hired him on the spot and he has developed into a first-rate interpreter and fixer -- a problem-solver. His translations are so good that now I have to fight to keep other journalists from poaching him. Clearly he's a very smart guy and very dedicated and a pleasurable companion, and it his through his interpretation that we have learned much about Afghanistan.

I've attached a photo of Sayed when we were crossing the Hindu Kush mountains.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

FROM: Ken Rosso
DATE: 10/22/2001, 12:12 PM
Re: don't stop

Mr. Maykuth,

I work for AmeriCorps in Philadelphia, and I read your report on the web. I have one thing to say: Please do not stop reporting news that the U.S. military and angry Americans find distasteful. Thank you for your dangerous work.

Ken Rosso

Dear Mr. Rosso:

Thanks for your note. I assume you're referring to the story I wrote for Monday quoting refugees from Kabul who say they're growing weary of the American bombing and are worried about civilian casualties. 

The reason media outlets have sent journalists like myself into Afghanistan is to not to be boosters of one side's position or another, but to provide an independent view of the situation on the ground. We try to call things as we see them. One of the primary functions that journalists like myself can perform in situations like this is to serve as kind of a truth squad, to verify and challenge assertions made by those who have a stake in a war like this. Since most of us don't actually have access to the sites that have been bombed, at least right now, we have to try to get as close as we can under the circumstances. The refugees are one such source. 

I've tried to make contact with the refugees as soon as they get over the lines, before their impressions become too influenced by their new environment. I also try to frame questions as neutrally as possible so I won't imply a desired response. It's not a perfect system, but I think that given a sufficient number of interviews, one can get a little closer to real impressions rather than scripted ones. 

Thanks for your interest.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

FROM:John Marchetti
DATE: 10/22/2001, 10:14 AM
Subject: Question

Where are these defectors going? It seems to me that we should be worried about a potential Trojan horse here. Maybe something like this: Taliban soldiers (terrorists) are given scripts and sob stories to tell us, and then are told to go and defect. In the meantime they are still loyal to the Taliban and they just set up shop wherever they land. They relax and wait for everything to end, us declaring victory, then they move back to Afghanistan. OR, they set up shop wherever they land and continue acts of terrorism in a clandestine manner. Possibly even being able to travel to other countries so they can set up shop outside the radar.

John Marchetti

Dear Mr. Marchetti:

We're told the defectors are being put right out on the front line of the team to which they've just declared their allegiance. It all seems very strange to me, and I acknowledge that the United Front opposition has not made a lot of these folks available to interview in their new roles. The defectors we saw all still had their weapons, so I suppose the Alliance had some trust in them. But I spoke with one soldier and asked about how they regarded their new comrades, and he acknowledged that they had a little less trust in them than they had in their brothers-in-arms who had remained loyal throughout. "We forgive them for fighting with the other side, but we'll never forget they did it," he said.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

Sent: 10/21/01 10:41 AM

It must be quite an experience to travel in this country. We as Americans take everything for granted. I am a road contractor and know how to build roads. Do they have any access to lime? In some parts of America they mix lime with the earth to stabilize the earth for traffic. Anyway good luck and out prayers are with you for your bravery.

Richard Piendak


There did not appear to be a lot of limestone at the high altitudes we went through in the Hindu Kush, but my geologic skills are pretty elementary, so I may have missed some. There's not a lot of concrete in this part of Afghanistan, so even many buildings are assembled of mud and straw or cut stones assembled without mortar. The roads are often just trails of dirt.  

Thanks for your prayers. I'm not so brave, just resilient.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

From: judefraney
Sent: 10/22/01 10:34 AM

Can you tell us what kind of equipment you are using in that hostile environment? What kind of laptops, satellite phones, digital cameras, lenses and memory cards are you using and are your hard drives working ok at those high altitudes?

Jude Franey

Dear Jude:

David Gilkey, the photographer, is using Canon professional digital cameras -- each camera costs something like $10,000. He uses a 70-200 lens and another shorter zoom. He transmits using a Dell laptop and a Nera high-speed satellite telephone. I use a commercially available Sony Vaio laptop, a Thrane & Thrane mini-M satellite telephone. On rare occasions I take pictures with a commercial Olympus digital camera. We've had no serious equipment problems except for the loss of one AC adaptor because we belatedly discovered the generator we were using was putting out excessively high voltage.

Altitude was not a problem, since we did not use our laptops in the mountains. The Panjshir Valley is only about 5,000 feet, which is not too high.  

When not in use, we keep the equipment under wraps. There is a lot of dust in the air and it worries me, but so far all seems to be working well.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

From: Laurie Markus
Sent: 10/19/01 3:22 PM 
Subject: question for you

Hi, Andrew.

I read your installment about traveling into Afghanistan and over the Anjuman Pass, with great intrigue. It is very brave of you to travel those roads, live with the sounds of gunfire (and the people who have become inured to it), sleep with the pests, and basically give up the comforts of home to get your story. I appreciate your sacrifices to bring the news, including the smallest details, to the rest of us softies who enjoy our freedom, our comfort and our loved ones, while watch the drama unfold through your eyes.

I would like to know if you have found anyone who has defected from the Taliban. It seems like with the country in so much turmoil, if a member ever wanted to escape, the time might be now. I am curious as to how the rank and file members of the Taliban regime are feeling — whether they are having doubts about the courses of their lives right now.

Perhaps it's too difficult physically to actually leave for them. What can you tell about the current mindset of individuals who must realize their future is doomed?

Thank you for all your efforts. I will pray for your safe journey.

Best regards,

Hi, Laurie. 

Thanks for your note and your prayers.

Perhaps my bravest feat was crossing the mountains on that road, and in some ways I am grateful we did much of it in the dark at night because the headlights only illuminated the road ahead, not the precipice below. Better the danger you don't see. As for the other discomforts, they are actually relatively minor. I'm based in Africa, so I travel around the developing world a lot, and I'm always impressed at how much pain and discomfort most people endure every day as a usual part of their lives. I have to put up with a few bugs and a bad bed for weeks or months at a time, but I can still afford to buy a meal or to go to a pharmacy and buy medicine when I'm sick. Even under the conditions in which I find myself now, I'm still far better off than most of the world. As Americans, we're very blessed. 

Regarding your question about defectors, I wrote a piece last week in which I talked to a group of soldiers who switched sides. The United Front says that thousands of soldiers have defected, but we've only seen a few. It's difficult to judge the sincerity of the defectors or the United Front commanders who have been working with them to defect. Many are front-line troops who say the Taliban conscripted them. Others say they were reluctant to leave because they worried the Taliban would punish their families, still on the other side. Most are rank-and-file members. I've met no big commanders who have switched sides.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

From: David Serino
Sent: 10/19/01 10:48 AM
Subject: Andrew - Thanks for the Image


Just read your article dated 10/18/01. I'm not sure if you will get this or if you can reply - but thanks for bringing home images of "another world".

As I sit here, viewing everything from television and reading about on the internet, it is very hard to grasp how vast and primitive the land is. Your story, coupled with photos and news reports from various media outlets, has helped me understand what we are up against. 

We know the soldiers and military are the true heroes in this battle, but we greatly appreciate the pictures painted through words by American journalists - who are also risking their lives - to keep Americans informed.

Keep up the good work and tell David all is well in D-town; except for the Lions - it looks like a long season. Looking forward to your return following our victory.

Stay Safe!



Thanks for your note. Photographer David Gilkey of the Detroit Free Press and I  are pleased to be providing an independent view of what is happening here on the ground in Afghanistan, and we're trying to maintain a clear view, uncluttered by expectations of actions that may or may not happen. I'll pass along greetings to him. We just happened to be talking about the Lions today and what a sorry state they've gotten themselves into, but at least you have the Michigan Wolverines to keep you cheered.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

Sent: 10/19/01 8:40 PM

Subject: Andrew Maykuth e-mail from Afganistan

This is Pulitzer material. What a fabulous and insider report on life in Afghanistan. I have given my paper to dozens of friends to read. This is what reporting is all about. Congratulations on a job well done.

I am now so much more informed. Reminds me of reading Ken Follett’s "Lay Down with Lions".

I loved your piece.

Dee Leach


Thanks for your nice compliments. It's a real boost to get such a warm response from a reader. Ultimately what drives most of us in this business is not the quest for prizes, but the sense that we're contributing to a greater understanding of the world, not to make people think like ourselves but to help them arrive at their own conclusions.

There's a little homespun philosophy of democracy for you.

All the best,

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

Sent: 10/18/01 9:34 AM
Subject: Good luck and a question

Hello Andrew, and may God bless you for your courage. Very interesting article, indeed. I am going to encourage all of my friends to follow this series. In fact, I will copy and email it to many of them.But I do have one question. When you are paying those exorbitant prices in American dollars, aren't you concerned that those dollars are being funneled to the terrorists and spent in the U.S. against the U.S.?

Bob Bannar
Philadelphia PA

Dear Mr. Bannar:

Thanks for your note. The money we're spending on vehicles, translators, accommodations and sustenance is going mostly to members and supporters of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of forces that is fighting the Taliban. I'm pretty sure some of it is going directly into the Alliance war machine, but they're opposed to the people who are suspected of mounting the terrorist attacks in the United States. They're not the ones responsible for the terrorist attacks against the West.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

From: Terry O'Brien
Sent: 10/18/01 7:38 AM
Subject: Bullets and Bedbugs

I trust Andrew Maykuth's article in Thursday's Magazine Section will become a continuing series. It reflects the real strength of on-location print reporting over TV. I, frankly had become so sick of watching stock footage of F16s launching from carrier decks and night vision squibs of some reporter (the whispering Brit?) reporting from some rooftop with bombs exploding far away in the background, that I've been scouring the media for, any, local insights as to what is really going on.

Makuth's article, unfettered by DOD or supervisory restrictions, provides that insight. It reflects why true journalists have chosen their profession. I appreciate the Inquirer's efforts and trust in will become an extensive series.

Some questions for future articles: 
    - comments on the physical endurance of the Afghani fighters on both sides and how our special forces troops might stack up.
    - even more insight into the local perspectives on the compatibility of Islamic teachings with the civil war and with tactics of terrorism, the role of women, the pursuit of education for children, the shortage of food and the expectations of assistance from the U.S.
    - comments on the factuality of the concerns that the Northern Alliance is simply a convenient agglomeration of war lords who will never cede power to a central government.
    - some insight into the true likely impact of the onset of winter on the local population and on our efforts to root out opponents in the mountains and the caves.

Once again, please add my name to those thanking Andrew Maykuth for his insights and the physical hardships he must be enduring.

Terry O'Brien
Mt. Laurel, NJ

Dear Terry O'Brien:

Thanks for your note and your compliments about our reports from Afghanistan. And thanks also for the story suggestions. We hope to shed some light on conditions in Afghanistan as the story develops. We're planning stories in the next few days about the political environment in a potential post-Taliban Afghanistan and about the attitudes of people in opposition Northern Alliance towards the United States.

Stay tuned.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan

Sent: 10/18/01 12:29 PM
Subject: Great Story

Andrew - I loved the vivid portrait of the trip into Afghanistan. Keep them coming.

Joe Dworetzky

Mr. Dworetzky:

Thanks for taking time to write the note. We'll try to keep you supplied with  colorful stories from this place. There's no shortage of tales.

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Northern Afghanistan home page   
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