War Teaches Lessons About Fear and Courage

Harvard University: Nieman Reports, Summer 2006

Working as a photojournalist, I’ve been through war zones several times in the past five years. I was there at the height of the war in Afghanistan, during the fall of Konduz when the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan was destroyed. I was embedded with the U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq, and later worked unilaterally at a time when the sectarian violence intensified.

One month after 9/11, I made my first trip into a war zone when I traveled to Afghanistan for The Dallas Morning News.  In preparing for the assignment, I talked with David Leeson, my colleague at the paper who had experienced war before. “Are you scared?” he asked.

“No, should I be?” I replied.

He tilted his head to one side and arched his brows, as his lips curled up at the edges. But there was no humor in his expression, only irony.

At the time I was too wrapped up in the details of the preparations to think, much less to reflect on fear. In time, I would know its meaning because I would recognize it as a part of me, not unlike my sense of familiarity with my appendages. In war zones, I would learn about another feeling, one I have yet to define but seems the opposite of fear; that feeling is a sense of my aliveness. And somewhere between these two feelings resides a place I think of as courage. I now believe that without courage, a person never can attain that feeling of being vigorously alive. Or so it has seemed in my life.

 

Understanding fear

Other than in my dreams, the first time I came face-to-face with deep and penetrating fear was during a battle in northern Afghanistan. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2001 and I was following an opposition movement with my young translator, who went by the single name, Esmatullah. I called him Esmat, and I learned in the time we spent together of his moral courage, as I explored my own. After eight hours of tagging behind the mujaheddin – waiting, moving forward, waiting, then finally moving forward again – an eerie quiet settled over the area and a tactile tension seemed to suck oxygen from the air we were trying to breathe.

Esmat lagged behind me further and further, as he walked in a zigzag line, muttering to himself.  This seemed an unlikely time for him to check out mentally and I didn’t want him to suffer, so I advised him that I did not pay him to risk his life. If he was not comfortable with the situation, he should go back. But he insisted I was his responsibility and if anything should happen to me, then the burden would be on his soul.  I explained that he was not ultimately accountable for my choices and that I took full responsibility for my decisions. I gave him a fresh business card, advised him to contact my boss if I was injured or killed and told him where my money was hidden.

Within minutes, a loud and chaotic battle, as only I had seen in the movies, unfolded before our eyes. In the distance were explosions from rocket-propelled grenades. Colored tracers lit up the scene and men scurried for cover in the flat, dusty landscape.  Soon the high-pitched whiz of bullets resounded in my ears.  I was barely able to focus my eyes ahead when my overworked brain registered the fact that armed men were running towards us. Instead of carrying their weapons pointing forward, they were slung on their shoulders and a panic palpably consumed their faces. If the mujaheddin were running away, I figured, things must be bad. 

I knew I must take photographs, recognizing that I was witnessing an amazing scene. Trembling, I put my camera to my face but my muscles would not cooperate. My pictures were so blurry that I quickly gave up and ran behind the Afghan fighters. I had no training for war so I did what I’d seen Vic Morrow do on the television shows of my childhood. I ran low.  And when I heard a mortar go off close by, I plastered my body on the nearest mud wall and waited for the resounding explosion before I continued.

By the time we had reached the end of the village where we could safely get cover, each breath seared my lungs. I turned to Esmat in relief and said, “Oh my goodness, my feet are killing me!”  In the gravest of terms, he said, “No Cheryl, you are killing you.” I looked at him and couldn’t help but laugh at this young man, who at that moment seemed larger than life.

That day taught me the meaning of fear, but I also learned something else as every cell in my body screamed with life. At that moment there was a sense that I was, as all of us are, the sum of each primordial organism that has endured through billions of years of evolution to become the complex units of cells known as a human being. My heart – the preserver of that life – was pounding so loudly in my chest that it echoed in my ears.

In silence, we trudged back to the front lines, as I contemplated my epiphany: Though paradoxical, I realized then that we are no closer to life than at moments when we are so close to death. Our existence, so easily extinguished, and our death, are not so opposite as we might think.

In war, emotions and choices become exponentially multiplied. Esmat’s decision to follow me despite the danger has always overwhelmed with me with awe.  We don’t see that kind of raw courage in our day-to-day lives in the United States.  It’s rare that we are called upon to make those kinds of decisions of deep and final consequence. Yet he made the choice not only to risk his life to look after my safety, but also to carry the burden of my death if that should have happened to me. And this, coming from a young man half my age, from a culture foreign to mine, from someone I barely knew. The lesson Esmat taught me that day has humbled and haunted me ever since.

 

Bearing witness in battle

It would be over a year later when I would find myself in Iraq, covering the U.S.-led invasion as an embedded journalist.  The day, April 4, 2003, is indelibly stamped in my memory. Riding in an amphibious assault vehicle, I watched as young Marines loaded cartridges in M-16 rifles and fired off round after round while we took both artillery and gun fire in an ambush in Al Aziziyah, just south of Baghdad.  The earth shook from the violence and gunpowder filled our nostrils.  I was numb from exhaustion and my senses were reeling from the activity.

Soon, confusion began to grip the Marines in my group.  I gleaned that a civilian had gotten caught in the crossfire and he was injured and trapped in his burning minivan.  I knew that the chances of the vehicle exploding made helping him extremely treacherous.  But he was very close to our vehicle and a couple of the men felt compelled to jump out. 

It was a moment of reckoning for me. Would I stay inside the safety of our armored cocoon or should I get out and risk the battlefield and the burning vehicle to make a picture?  I was there to cover a war, I mentally prodded myself. There was no time to write down the pros and the cons of the situation, to consider the percentages of risk, to weigh life’s deeper truths.  In a fraction of a second, I determined that the situation was worthy of my life, so I rushed out behind the men.

My mind and my camera were in sync. Perhaps my previous exposure to battle violence falsely inoculated me from injury. I moved quickly and methodically to make images of Marines saving the life of an aged civilian Iraqi, even as some of their own had just been killed in battle.  Within minutes of making pictures of the rescue, I photographed somber faces as a Marine sergeant was carried away on a cot.

Witnessing efforts like this makes it easier to find the strength to look past one’s fears. Somehow, the Marines’ sacrifice was multiplied by the conditions, and I felt compelled to look beyond myself to record them in their moment of bravery.  Ultimately, I found that my courage had simply been a by-product of a moment whose significance was greater than me.

 

Returning from war

My greatest challenge with my war coverage has been at home, in the months after my last trip to Iraq as I deal with the ongoing personal effects of my war experience.  Two weeks after my return to the United States, on August 2, 2005, a dear man and a friend, New York freelance journalist Steven Vincent, was killed.  Steven and I lived in the same hotel and often shared meals and many heated political discussions.  His death violated me; his death could so easily have been my own.  It unhinged my sense of safety and well-being.

I search for the courage to not fall into a moat of helplessness, to draw up my inner fortitude against the violence. I search for forgiveness at those times when I do feel weak and victimized.  Months of quiet and solitude have been my path to peace. Only the passage of time has replenished my creativity and will.

Courage, I’ve learned, means having the strength to recognize and accept our weaknesses. It means having the wherewithal to stay on course when we believe in something. Courage is pursuing our dreams, and it is doing what is right when it could cost us our lives.

Courage is telling our mothers that we are going to cover a war, and that we have chosen to go of our own volition.

Reentering civilization

Upon arrival in Dallas, my fiancé, Kenny, told me he’d left some messages for me on the answering machine. A small, broken and barely recognizable voice crackled out, “K-e-h-e-nny, w-would you c-call meeee?” I breathed a sigh of relief. My mother’s claim that she would be dead by the time I returned from Afghanistan did not come true. She’s OK.

I’m OK.

We’re all OK.

The fall of Konduz

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,

I was staring at the noodles just inches from my face, studying their curves, enjoying the sight of overcooked carrots and the little bits of meat in the bowl. My back was stooped over my “spaghetti soup,” my head suspended, hovering. I looked up and my eyes attached themselves to the old fake wood paneling and gold trim surrounding me in the dingy restaurant of the Tajikistan Hotel with its blood-red cushioned chairs long in need of an upholstery job. The speakers blared an American tune about Love. It all seemed so civilized. I was utterly exhausted. And there was still so much to do.

Tracey and I left Taloqan, Afghanistan for Dushanbe, Tajikistan yesterday, once again, in a huff and a puff. A Swedish journalist was killed in the wee hours of the morning in Taloqan. Armed gunmen apparently broke into their guesthouse, robbed and killed one of them. We heard about it around 9:00 a.m., and by 10:30 a.m. we had called our bosses in Dallas, packed our bags, hired a Russian jeep to get us to the Tajik border, paid our guesthouse bill, bid our farewells and were on the road.

As the Northern Alliance takes over Afghanistan, the country disintegrates into lawlessness. The mujahedeen are bandits – ignorant at that. For some 20 years the country has been at war and an entire generation knows nothing but fighting. I don’t know how they can recoup from that kind of damage. The psyche of the entire country is damaged. It’s like a child that has been abused at a tender age. It’s permanent, irreconcilable damage. Only the birth of a new generation will erase it.

I feel hopeless about it.

I wish that I cared.

In the month of working in Afghanistan I only met a couple of people whom I actually liked: Tracey’s translator, Najibullah, who was a local English teacher in Taloqan, a pharmacist by trade and an enterprising translator for the visiting journalists after Taloqan fell to the Northern Alliance. Najib’s dream was to earn enough money from the journalists so that he could buy a satellite dish to watch soccer and world news on BBC television. “What to do, oh, what to do? My wife always beats me,” he later revealed. I’m not so sure that was true since he told the story about how he personally picked his wife at his sister’s wedding, highlighting her “qualifications” – an 11th-grade education and a large family, which would extend his sphere of influence. He sounded proud of her. I don’t recall if he mentioned anything about falling in love. 

The other person of whom I became very fond was Najib’s 19-year-old nephew, Esmatullah, who worked as my all-around bodyguard (primary purpose to protect my bottom from undisciplined mujahedeen), photographer’s assistant and lastly, translator. Esmat’s goal was to learn English, and he didn’t care how much we paid him. He was happy to be along for the ride, surprising me with his courage in volatile situations.

On Thanksgiving Day, Esmat and I found ourselves following an apparent offensive attack by the Northern Alliance into Khanabad, a village near Taloqan, located right between Taliban and Northern Alliance territory. The Northern Alliance was waiting for some 500 Taliban to surrender. This was one of the first large groups to surrender at these front lines so it was a major news story. It was just me and a writer/photographer team from Newsweek magazine. I’d wait for the first troops to advance, wait about an hour and then proceed further if there was no action. All the soldiers kept advising us it was dangerous but it didn’t strike me as such. The only hint to me of the seriousness was that the soldiers were actually forgetting about my presence. But I’m a Curious George of sorts and the adventure got the better of me. So Esmat and I proceeded with them. There was a lot of advancing, then waiting. Troops were moving with their individual commanders in various directions. They were a hodge-podge group, some in uniform, but most of them looking like peasants plucked straight from the neighboring farms and handed AK-47s. These were the fearsome mujahedeen rebel fighters.

About 2:30 p.m. a group of uniformed soldiers advanced into the village of Khanabad. I don’t know anything about this war stuff so I took my cue from their stride, which I would’ve described as “determined.” It was perhaps a silly cue, but I’ve learned that much can be learned from the subtleties. Again, I waited a few precautionary minutes. Nothing. It was getting late so I decided to go in.

 

Afghan-Offense.jpg

The villagers were continuing about their lives as usual, carting water from the well and bringing firewood to their mud huts. Esmat was beginning to hang back about five yards with a rather empty look in his eye, and he was wandering left to right and talking to himself. It was most definitely strange. And it was a very inopportune time for my lifeline to be checking into Lala Land. So I told him he wasn’t required to come with me if he didn’t want. The situation could be potentially dangerous and he needed to decide for himself what to do. He said he worried that if he let something happen to me, he would be responsible for me in his death. That’s a pretty heavy burden, if you ask me.  And it was obviously weighing on his soul. Who’d have thunk it? And why the soul searching NOW???? But I certainly didn’t want him to suffer because of me. So I told him that I released him from the responsibility of me. He accepted and after that he was a little better, but barely. On that note, we proceeded together. 

By this time, we could hear gunshots being fired a short distance away. Nobody was coming back from the other side of the village, so I didn’t think the situation was grave. All week the front line soldiers would get bored and start firing their weapons for entertainment. I was accustomed to the sound of AK-47s. As we approached the other side of the village though, all hell broke loose. I could see a river in between the houses and a full battle began to unfold before my very eyes. It was like something out of a movie. Tanks were fired and I could feel the vibration of the explosion, the sound reverberating in my ears, and see the smoke billowing. At the edge of the river, men were scurrying, hunched down, with guns in their hands.

All of a sudden, bullets began whizzing around us. I knew they were close because I could hear their high pitch as they cut through the air. The mortars that were exploding by the river had moved in our direction and were exploding just yards from us. We would hear the original blast, and a long “whoooom” sound, then the final “kaboom” nearby. I couldn’t tell which direction the bullets were coming from.

Then I saw several mujahedeen running my way, guns in hand, eyes bugged out and yelling. Esmat had decided that he was going to die sooner or later, so he was meandering behind me, but not close enough for me to get a translation regarding the chaos. 

I guess this is the difference between seasoned war photographers and me: they stay to photograph the battle and I run as fast as my feet will take me. And that is exactly what I did. I followed the mujahedeen, stopping only to plaster myself to a mud wall now and then when I heard a mortar or bullet fly too close. It was surreal. And just like in the movies, we’d stop at each intersection, look right and left and then cross as fast as we could. All it would have taken was one stray bullet with my name on it and that would have been the end of me. Needless to say, I didn’t make any battle pictures. I decided that I really do like life. I had to get out of there alive. 

As I rounded the corner on the opposite end of the village where I knew we were relatively safe, I turned to Esmat, “Oh my goodness, my feet are killing me!” And he said, “Ooh Cheryl, it’s you who are killing you.” I looked at him and couldn’t help but laugh at this boy who seemed larger than life.

We trudged on after that, quietly yet quickly. We had faced death together, and that’s a very personal thing to share with somebody you hardly know.

In the next couple of days there were more Taliban surrenders, fortunately not as hazardous as our Thanksgiving Day battle.

Each evening in our guesthouse whenever we all had settled down, everyone checked in with the incidents and news of the day. Of course there was always a little withholding of proprietary information since we all were in competition, but generally we would piece together the happenings of the day based on our experiences. My battle news might include some incident where I may have pulled a Bruce Lee move or a Muay Thai kick on one of the soldiers. I was becoming increasingly irate with their impudence, but since I was rooming with all men, I would try to keep my frustrations to myself.

One evening it was revealed that all except one of the guys in our room had been molested by the Northern Alliance soldiers. My male colleagues would describe situations where soldiers would surround them, then reach between their legs from behind. One was propositioned with an RPG, an enormous phallic symbol, replete with sound effects. A colleague said he had to cut short an interview after he got the "ol’ lovey-dovey eyes" from an Afghan soldier who accompanied it with a little tickling. One of the photographers in the room pointed out how most troops had one 15-year-old boy accompanying them. “Ass bandits,” he called them. The evening ended on the note from the men of the house that these molestations weren’t personal, therefore I shouldn’t take insult from the soldiers’ depravity.

The very next day, the last unmolested member of our household came home wild-eyed. He was generally a pretty dignified, erudite sort of fellow, very knowledgeable and a smooth character. His story of the day went like this: A soldier asked him for a cigarette, and he gave him one. Then another soldier came up and wanted a cigarette. He’d budgeted just enough Marlboros for the trip, so he excused himself and said if he gave all his cigarettes out, he would have none for himself. The soldier looked him straight in the eye, reached down and grabbed him between the legs, squeezing as hard as he could. The journalist was livid. He punched, kicked and cursed the soldier, the soldier ran far enough away to pull his AK-47 on him, the cursing continued, and then more fighting ensued. It was ugly; that’s how he described it. By evening, my colleague was seething with anger. He shared his story, we commiserated, but he was definitely not over it. He continued to curse about his computer and whatever else was giving him grief well into the next day. I have to admit that was not big enough to keep my mouth shut, and I reminded him about not taking it personally. This did not resonate well with him. “I didn’t say that you didn’t have a right to how you felt, just that it wasn’t personal,” he said heatedly.  I told him I was sorry he had to experience that.  And I genuinely meant it. 

I thought about the irony of my being molested on a daily basis and how sour my mood had become, but that I couldn’t really share that with anyone. I thought about my constant fear of being grabbed, poked, or insulted even in the most mundane of circumstances as I tried to do my job. I thought about how my simple existence can be cause for an insult to be hurled at me. That happened on the day I came walking back from the battle.  As I reached the front line area, one rather large bear of a guy waved his arms and yelled something loudly. It took me 20 minutes to extricate it from my translator who finally quoted the man as saying, “Why don’t you go [expletive] your sister?” I asked him, “Why are your people so hateful to us?” I could never get a satisfactory answer.

On November 26, Konduz finally fell.

The Northern Alliance claimed that it had fallen the previous night, but as usual, it was misinformation.

We left Taloqan for Konduz around 6 a.m. On our way out of town, soldiers attempted to hijack our vehicle. They blocked the road with their bodies and tried to open the doors.  But luckily we were prepared – it had happened already the previous day at the same location where soldiers forced themselves into our vehicle with guns, mortars, the whole bit. They wanted a ride to the front lines. The problem is that by opening the doors to them we opened ourselves to being robbed, raped or murdered. So this time we had consciously locked all of our doors, not to forget the hatch, and instructed the driver not to stop for anybody or anything. At this point, the chaos was already beginning and we weren’t taking any chances. As they crowded around our vehicle, we looked straight ahead and yelled to our driver to keep going. The soldiers were forced aside by the vehicle and angrily pounded on it with their fists and then threw rocks at us. We drove quickly, escaping their wrath, our breathing uneasy.

Northern Alliance soldiers were entering Konduz on foot and by the truckload. To keep our moods light we joked about the hundreds of soldiers marching hurriedly to the town so they could be the first to loot. That is apparently what happened in Taloqan and later we did actually see it in Konduz. Our translator said he witnessed soldiers in Taloqan looting stores and that it was actually a very organized effort with several soldiers collecting goods while others kept the lookout. 

We immediately knew that Konduz was not controlled by the Northern Alliance as they had claimed because there were mujahedeen wandering away from the town center injured and looking confused. A soldier who had been shot in the neck rested in the back of an open jeep, bleeding, without help. These were fresh injuries; it was obvious. We moved tentatively forward always looking and listening for signs of danger.

All of a sudden, as these things always seem to happen, people started running away from the town center, panicked, arms flailing. A mass exodus. At this point, Tracey was ahead of me with Najib and I was with Esmat, our respective translators. Esmat and I were running like hell. Then the same Northern Alliance trucks that entered the town ahead of us came barreling past us. I didn’t know what to expect, but based on that, I had imagined the Taliban were chasing behind them gunning people down in the streets. Esmat was screaming at me to keep running and stop glancing back, and the locals who passed me up were looking at me like I was absolutely insane.

If this had been my first battle, I’d have kept running straight back to America. But because I was now ever so slightly experienced from the Thanksgiving Day battle, I had the sense to realize that when people panic they may not have any idea what they are running from – they simply react. The translator said that people were running because the Northern Alliance was outnumbered by hundreds of Taliban. That was the word on the street. But as the truth would later come out, trucks full of soldiers ran out of town scared silly because of a few Taliban snipers left holed up in the town center. For all their history, the mujahedeen are cowards who hope to Allah that they don’t ever have to fight.

After that heart-stopping entry, the rest of the day was pretty intense with dead Taliban lying in pools of blood and prisoners being corralled and taunted. It was good fortune that Tracey and I had been working the front lines near Taloqan intensely for over a week because a lot of the commanders taking over Konduz were the same commanders from Taloqan and they gave us access to situations where other journalists were kept out. 

As I rounded a corner, I came across a crowd gathered around the body of a Taliban fighter. It was a recent casualty I figured because his leg was freshly soaked with blood. After a couple of minutes of photographing him, much to our surprise, he moved his head to look up at the people surrounding him. I had thought he was dead. I imagined how this young man who had perhaps never seen a foreign woman in his life would look up in his last minutes of life to see me – an Amerasian with an Afghan scarf covering my hair, daring to show my face, carrying a large black camera with its barrel pointed down at him. He must’ve thought this was some kind of new torture where he must pass through another planet before reaching martyrdom. “Isn’t anyone going to help this man?” I asked. “No, he’s a Taliban,” was the resounding answer.

My trusty translator, Esmat, upon recognizing that the man still had a breath or two left in him, jumped in. “What is your name?  Where do you live? Are you a Taliban?” I was mortified, but he was just trying to do his job. I had trained him too well, yet we hadn’t discussed this type of situation before. I stopped him immediately and just cupped my head, shaking, disbelieving the events of which I bore witness.

Later in the afternoon, other media began to show up. We learned that the bridge between Taloqan and Konduz had been closed since the early morning and no media had been able to get through for most of the day. Tracey and I were perhaps the last journalists who made it over to cover the fall of Konduz.

One of the thrills of the day for me happened in the course of photographing a Taliban prisoner try to escape. I ran over to the crowd and could not possibly shoot over the myriads of heads in my way. A truck was stationed nearby so I handed my camera to my translator, clambered up, took my camera back and came face to face with Thomas Hegenbart, the German photographer who had helped me replace several computer bits in Dubai just 10 days before. With hardly missing a beat, we smiled fondly, continued shooting until the prisoner was taken away, and then exchanged huge hugs. He was the guy who saved me by calling his nephew in Dubai to buy the computer pieces as well as gave me a $1000 cash loan, which I sorely needed. More memorable than shooting the fall of Konduz, the last Taliban-stronghold in the north of Afghanistan, was seeing this wonderful man whose heart was bigger than the sky. All day, I felt a smile creeping into my face as I thought about this man. Later I realized that what I so missed in Afghanistan is what this man offered me – kindness, pure and simple, with no strings attached.

Tracey and I left Konduz around 4 p.m. so that we would arrive to Taloqan just as it turned dark. We feared driving in the night when things could happen and no witnesses would see.

Thomas visited us at our guesthouse the next morning to break the news of the death of the Swedish journalist who lived a block from his house.

He also told us about leaving Konduz the previous night an hour after we did.  He was following a truck with stacks of blankets and Northern Alliance soldiers perched on top. As they drove along, one of the blankets began to move. A soldier quickly hit it with the barrel of his AK-47. The blanket moved even more but the soldier quickly beat it down until the movement ceased. The truck was surely full of Taliban prisoners. Fearful of being a witness at night, Thomas instructed his driver to overtake the truck. He spent the 1 1/2 hour drive calling everyone he knew on his satellite phone to keep his mind off the danger.

We departed Taloqan the morning after the Swedish journalist was killed.  I wanted to finish a couple more stories in the area, but my bosses wanted me to go to Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan, to cover the end of the war. Tracey wanted out, and I was going to meet a new reporter.

After the harrowing ride back to the Tajik border, we crossed the river before dusk. It was strange to think that just days beforehand, that river crossing was less than 6 miles from the Taliban, well within tank fire’s reach. Tracey and I celebrated with two miniature bottles of Bailey’s Irish Cream to the envy of the other journalists.

As we waited for passports to be checked, we sighed in unison. I was telling some CBS fellows about how I explained the word “snit” to our translator who had to witness various snits throughout our time together. And they topped it off with, “Snit?  We took “snit” to a whole new level – we had guys on staff trying to knife each other.”  One quiet, young man said, “Yeah, if you weren’t evil before, Afghanistan will make you evil.” It summed up how many journalists felt after the entire experience.

As we disembarked from the ferry, we caught sight of our original driver from Dushanbe who had ferried us twice to the Afghan border. Without a word, he took our bags from our weary hands. He was happy to have customers to take back with him and we were beyond thrilled to see a familiar, friendly face. And no haggling over the price. We drove almost in complete silence to Dushanbe.

We unloaded our gear, checked into the hotel and I quickly found food. I spent the rest of the evening showering, repacking my things, and making plans with my boss, Ken, to cover the fall of Kandahar. It was decided that I would take the next day’s flight to Dubai, then make my way to Islamabad, and then on to Quetta, which is in Pakistan, only three hours by car from Kandahar. The only pending question was my visa to Pakistan, which I didn’t have yet.

With only an hour of sleep, I pulled myself together and took a cab to the airport. I still had the testy generator, which had given us so much grief in Khoja Bahauddin. We had it rebuilt in Taloqan, but it still made us nervous. One journalist suggested I would blow up the whole plane with the thing since it was technically impossible to empty it completely of fuel. I quickly chatted up the Russian fixer for CBS and asked if he would mind trying to sell it for me. The CBS guys seemed to like and trust him, so I took a chance and left it with him. He promised to send me the money when he got back to Moscow, if he sold it.  I don’t know why, but I think he will. Sell it and send me the money, that is.

I arrived in Dubai around 11 a.m. and found a flight to Islamabad for 10 p.m. that night. I checked on the Pakistani visa situation but could not get a definitive answer. My only information from another journalist was that the visa could be secured upon arrival. Despite having had no sleep for two days, I shopped for a few provisions such as hand wipes, throat lozenges and chocolate. I also replaced a couple of pieces that were broken or lost from my cameras.

As I prepared to check in my baggage, the visa situation came to a head. The Pakistanis had apparently changed their policy after 9/11. The visa could not be secured upon arrival, but they made certain exceptions and I was told that another journalist had made it into the country that morning. The Pakistan Embassy in Dubai was closed that Thursday and Friday because that was apparently the Muslim weekend, so I would’ve had to wait two days for Saturday morning, whereupon the embassy was supposedly open for half a day before closing once again for a three day weekend. The chances of me getting stuck in Dubai for close to a week seemed high so I convinced the immigration people in Dubai that I would take my chances and try to secure the visa in Pakistan. And if it didn’t work, I promised to pay for a flight back to Dubai to secure the visa later.

The airline manager in Dubai assigned a staff person to help me run through the airport so that I could catch the flight to Islamabad. The flight went well, but upon arrival the passport people in Pakistan would not approve my request. All I needed was three hours until the Embassy opened and I would get my visa. I promised to stay in the airport until then. I hinted at bribing them. One officer whispered that I should pretend I was ill, so I weakly attempted that little drama. I even teared up a little bit.

Finally, I just sat down and refused to speak, at a complete loss as to what to do. I had already explained to them that I was a journalist, that I had been covering the war in Afghanistan for the past month, that I meant no disrespect by coming to their country with no visa but that I was on my way to Kandahar and simply needed a little consideration and time so that I could secure my visa in Pakistan. I would pay whatever was necessary. They would not listen. So I sat there with my head down racking my brain for a way.

Soon they were begging me to get back on the plane. They threatened to imprison me. I said, fine, anything to bide me time. They held the returning plane for me. Finally, they brought in the women police. And they essentially said that if I didn’t get on the plane with my own two feet, the women police would drag me. And that’s when I realized, this was not going to work. So I walked of my own accord and the women police escorted me to the plane. I was so dejected.

I got back to Dubai Thursday morning. I was going on four days of no sleep and I was a zombie. I called my fiancé, Kenny, to update him. He was so unhappy and terribly on edge after all the news of the journalists killed in Afghanistan. We knew that Kandahar would likely be a fierce battle, being that the Taliban’s strongest support is in the south. I had been sick for over a week and now I was really run down by the rigorous schedule. I decided after talking with him extensively that I could come home with peace in my heart, that I had done my best and given my utmost to the assignment. So I called Ken, my boss, in the middle of the night, poor guy, to inform him.

I found a ticket from Dubai to Frankfurt to Dallas for a somewhat reasonable price, and that saved me from having to go to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Moscow, New York, Dallas. The flight was to leave at 3 a.m. So once again, I put my bags in storage and headed off to find food and occupy myself at the local mall. Still no sleep.

While window shopping to keep myself upright, I wandered into a carpet shop and came across the most beautiful carpet. It was an antique Afghan carpet with an intricate design, a perfect red to match the new cover I had made for our couch. I was already deeply in love with it despite the price when the owner added that it was from Konduz.

Huh?

Konduz. 

I felt that a confirmation had been sent to me about my decision to go home. I would carry this piece that would forever remind me of my experiences in Afghanistan. The exquisite beauty of it reminds me of my most intense realization there: We are closest to life when we are closest to death.

Love,

Cheryl

A poke in the rear

It's been some three days since we reached Taloqan. We have been visiting the front lines some 20 kilometers away everyday. News is that Kunduz is expected to fall any day now.

It's been a real bear working here as a woman. I have been poked, prodded and grabbed more times than I have experienced in my entire life. I have punched, cursed and kicked more men than I ever would have imagined. I have been stared at in the most shameless fashion on the street.

Today, the highlight was a poke in the rear with a stick. I have instructed my translator to tell the soldiers that they represent Islam to me and they make themselves look bad when they are disrespectful toward me. Furthermore, it's Ramadan, and they're not even supposed to look at women.

A French photojournalist, "Patreeeeek," of Sygma photo agency, put it to me this way: Only prostitutes go uncovered, so when Afghan men see a woman not covered in a burqa, like me, they think that I have "offered" myself to them. That's pretty deep stuff. I must admit that I find myself despising this country, although I don't want to feel this way. I have simply never come across such wanton lust and such rabid greed, where the hospitality only lasts as far as your money.

Even before we left Khoja Bahauddin, the mood of the journalists had changed, subtly but very concretely. And that has carried over to Taloqan.

There was an edge to the interactions between foreigners and locals. Journalists were simply tired of being scammed. Most people don't mind paying for services rendered by drivers and translators. But the earlier journalists made no efforts to squash inflation, and within days, word spread throughout the entire country that money was flowing like water out of the foreign media. Con artists came out of their lairs and a new economy was born. That's when Tracey and I arrived.

Four journalists were killed yesterday between Jalalabad and Kabul. They were in a convoy, probably from Islamabad, one of the routes we were considering taking. We are all unnerved.

Love,

Cheryl

Misadventures and casualties

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

All hell's broken loose in Afghanistan, and Tracey and I are sitting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, watching the news develop from our hotel rooms. We didn't even make it two weeks in Khoja Bahauddin, and our generator gave out due to the terrible gas, and it fried several necessary pieces of computer equipment.

We worked for several days beyond the crisis, hoping for some resupply through a contact in Moscow, but to no avail. We left Khoja Bahauddin on Saturday, Nov. 10, the day after the critical city of Mazar-e Sharif fell to the hands of the Northern Alliance. Sunday, Taloqan fell, another major city in northern Afghanistan.

Three journalists have died in Afghanistan, in an area not far from Khoja Bahauddin, some 40 kilometers, in the Puze Pulekhomri, a mountainous front-line area some 200 yards from Taliban territory. Two French and a German journalist died Sunday around 6 p.m. We had visited that exact bunker where they were killed, just four days prior.

 

Days before German journalist Volker Handloik was killed in the vicinity of this bunker on the frontlines of Taliban-controlled territory, Cheryl Diaz Meyer is photographed by writer Tracey Eaton working with Northern Alliance soldiers in Puze Pulekhomri, Afghanistan, on Nov. 10, 2003. 

Days before German journalist Volker Handloik was killed in the vicinity of this bunker on the frontlines of Taliban-controlled territory, Cheryl Diaz Meyer is photographed by writer Tracey Eaton working with Northern Alliance soldiers in Puze Pulekhomri, Afghanistan, on Nov. 10, 2003. 

© 2003 Tracey Eaton. All Rights Reserved.

Cheryl-Afghanistan-Frontlines.jpg

 

As it so happened, I had met the German fellow the week before at the local warlord's house where we were conducting an interview. He was freelancing for Stern magazine in Germany, kind of a wild-haired guy, literally and figuratively. His partner, Thomas Hegenbart, a photographer, had offered me fruit and we sat in the morning sunshine sharing our frustrations and exchanging tales and tips about logistics. It's hard to believe the writer, Volker Handloik, is dead. I woke up two nights ago thinking about him and physically wanted to throw up.

Thomas went out there and retrieved the body with Northern Alliance soldiers; already he had been stripped of all his money, some $2,000. All that remained were some rings. The following day the body was taken to the Khoja Bahauddin hospital where the rings disappeared as well.

We jumped on a convoy into Afghanistan that Friday. At that point, our goal was to reach Kabul. The ferry ride was uneventful; only the negotiations for a vehicle to Taloqan were notable. A group of Italian journalists, fearful of being left behind, agreed to pay $900 for a Toyota Land Cruiser for a four-hour ride on the bumpy roads to Taloqan. That set the tone for everyone else's negotiations. I played hardball and got us a Russian Jeep for $600 – still a hugely inflated price.

We had agreed with the Italians that we would convoy to Taloqan for safety. Indeed, they got stuck several times, and we waited for them. The ride was harrowing. We were joined by a New Yorker magazine writer who shared the back seat with me and our teetering luggage, and we spent the evening alternately yelping in pain as we knocked our heads about the rear of the vehicle.

About 15 miles short of Taloqan, at 9 p.m., we ran out of gas. The driver didn't fill the tanks. It was very cold outside, and we proceeded to try to get help through whatever phone numbers we could dig up. The Italians never looked back. The magazine writer was calling with his handheld satellite phone, I set up my full-sized sat phone in the dark (which is a major undertaking) and sought help from my boss, John, a war-seasoned former Vietnam vet who tried to sound calm, but who clearly recognized the gravity of the situation. I then called my other boss, Ken, who tried to call a contact in Taloqan for us.

We were in territory that not even a week beforehand was controlled by the Taliban. It was not a safe place to be, but there we were in the dead of dark under a starry sky screaming into our satellite phones through bad connections, trying our best to get someone, anyone, to help. In the end, a military vehicle drove past and promised to return with gas. Eventually, it did, and we got to Taloqan at 1 a.m. I was soooooo cranky.

The next morning we found out that the city of Kandahar had fallen in the south of Afghanistan, and we were only miles from the last Taliban holdout, the city of Kunduz. We decided to stay.

We promptly found a house with one of the richest men in Taloqan, parking ourselves in his guest-room with lovely Afghan carpets adorning the floor and cushions galore. The best part of the whole deal, though, is the tiled bathroom, Turkish-style, but tiled nevertheless. And his wife prepares lovely meals each evening and a warm bath for me every two days. I am in heaven after Khoja Bahauddin.

Love,

Cheryl

A dust storm of epic proportions

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,

 

We arrived in Khoja Bahauddin, Afghanistan eight nights ago and it has gone by in a flash.  The drive from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan was in itself a story.  We began the day at the Tajik Foreign Ministry building where all the journalists who had signed up for the convoy gathered.  So me of us were first timers and others were returning after an initial stint in Afghanistan and a few days break in Tajikistan.  Our hotel in Tajikistan was quite old, a classic Russian building -- not much personality, a lot of bureaucracy and a staff that could only try to appear hospitable.  At that point it seemed hard to imagine Tajikistan as a respite because it seemed a terribly uncivil place, especially compared to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where our journey began.  In any case, after an initial scuffle between a testy female Russian TV journalist who could communicate with a Tajik police representative, it was determined that the $10 per vehicle bribe would be forgone and off we went.

The drive was punctuated by a series of military checkpoints, and a snack and lunch break for our police guide.  Most of the journalists were too nervous to eat the food along the route and stood around wondering why we had stopped.  The drivers, being all "good city drivers" treated the drive like a race and we sped along mountain passes, over taking each other's vehicles, feeling like the video game might end in one of us careening over the many cliffs we were admiring.  At the second to the last checkpoint, a driver for CBS tried to extract more money from his passengers by not taking them the last two kilometers.  CBS had prepaid the driver and this gave him full license to take advantage.  CBS had several vehicles so they promptly unpacked the baggage and cozied up in another vehicle.  CBS also had the only Mercedes in the convoy, but that gave up the ghost and that rider ended up with his baggage in one of our cars.  A Russian Volga, no less.  A few times, there were three cars over taking another convoy car, as if we were going to get there any sooner for their herculean driving maneuvers.  I somehow ended up with the most heroic all the convoy drivers and he was intent on getting me to our destination first.  I could only hope to live and see Afghanistan.

The drive began at 9:30 am and somewhere midway the convoy got stopped and held up.  My driver had blown past every checkpoint and we were so far ahead of the rest that we waited with a few others for the group to show up.  About an hour later the first few vehicles arrived and apparently they were stopped because a journalist inadvertently took a pix of a helicopter at a military installation.  After a bit of negotiations, the group was permitted to continue with threats that any further incursions would be cause for the entire convoy to be turned away at the border.

Towards the final checkpoint, the dust began billowing and each car was sucking in the prior one's dust.  At that checkpoint we were required to declare the value of our belongings and money.  A woman from Hong Kong before me declared $500.  It was so preposterous considering the prices journalists were paying in Afghanistan, yet the official seemed to accept it, so I declared $600.  Tracey, my writer/pal declared $1600.  Far, far below the thousands of dollars we had tucked in numerous places all over our bodies.  No bribes were requested.  I was amazed.

At the very last Tajik checkpoint, we waited around aimlessly and several false starts had every journalist jumping in their cars thinking the gate would be opened, but alas, another half hour wait ahead of us.  Was it money they wanted or were they just messing with us?  No one knew.  It was growing dark.  Finally, the gate opened and the drivers jockeyed for position with only inches between them trying to pass as quickly as possible, fearful that the gate would close upon us again.  We made it, with a sigh of relief.  Another kilometer and we reached the river where a ferry would come for us.  The Taliban forces were but fourteen kilometers away we were told.  The ferry would cross at dusk for safety. 

The mood became light, almost immediately.  I had been desperate to make pix for two weeks since I arrived in Uzbekistan so I started to make pictures of the men on the ferry.  Later I found out that these were not ferrying staff, these were taxi drivers trying to secure fares for the other side.  They helped us with our baggage and laughed with us.  But the minute we arrived on the Afghan side the mood changed swiftly and intense negotiations began -- they wanted $300 for a 30-kilometer ride from the ferry to Khoja Bahauddin, the town where we hoped to work out of.  We teamed up with another group of journalists from Hong Kong, hired a truck and split the cost two ways.  It was around 6 p.m. and we were quite tired from the bouncy ride to the border.  But now we had a two-hour drive to our little town.

It was very very dark, no electricity in the area, or perhaps none to attract Taliban forces at night.  The driver took off down a dusty path that didn't even appear to be a road.  It looked like moguls on a ski hill, but not as even.  The entire drive was like that.  Billows of dust as I could never have imagined, and bumps that shook the insides of my head.  I got lucky; I was proffered a seat next to the driver.  A TV engineer from the Hong Kong team got the seat next to me and he had to hang on to the door the whole ride because it wouldn't shut.  We did get stuck in some dust earlier in the ride and we piled out to push our vehicle out, but other than that, the ride was uneventful, if taxing.

Being that it was pitch dark, the place looked completely deserted except for some mud walls, which our vehicle's headlights would illuminate from time to time.  After what seemed like an endless carnival ride, we finally came to a town.  A few lights shone from a few structures.  We were dropped off at the Foreign Ministry compound in Khoja Bahauddin, which was guarded by several soldiers.  Through a little chitchat with some other journalists, I secured us a tent for the night.  It was around 9 p.m. at that point and we simply wanted to lay our heads down -- anywhere.  Tracey, bless his heart, carried everything from the truck to the tent while I guarded our stuff by the vehicle.  With all of our expensive stuff and the route we had just endured, the last thing we needed was for one bag to walk away.

After getting all our belongings into the tent, I went about the business of finding a sleeping bag for Tracey.  Neither of us had brought sleeping bags from the U.S., not knowing where we would be and what we needed, but we had figured perhaps a nice hotel near the front lines of Afghanistan would work for us.  In any case, I had scammed a New Zealander for his sleeping bag in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.  He had just purchased the purple wonder but couldn't get his papers to get into Afghanistan.  So the sweet thing became mine for a fair price.  At that point, I figured I had my ducks lined up pretty well.

As it turned out, our tent happened to sit on the CBS compound and I ran into a guy that I had met in our hotel in Dushanbe.  CBS had brought in tremendous gear for the current team and the next team, and they had extra sleeping bags.  Paul came by and dropped one off for us.

We were home free.  The tent was dusty, but we fit our bags and provisions in there and laid out our sleeping bags.  I said to Tracey, "You know, this is really quite rural," and he responded, "Rural?  We're in the f****** middle of nowhere!"  And on that note we fell asleep.  Tracey, who claims a formidable snore, didn't make a peep the whole night.

We awoke, rearing to be productive, so we hired a translator and walked to the local hospital where victims of Taliban fighting, mines and malaria were the offerings of the day.  Tracey and I were thrilled with the friendliness and generosity of the staff and the patients.  The business of hiring a translator was actually not a simple task.  We interviewed three men and when we finally made our pick we were required to inform the foreign ministry, whereupon the three translators began a fight.  This one accused the other of taking his clients.  An older gentleman English teacher's pride was injured, etc.  So the foreign ministry told us we were causing too much of a ruckus and we were assigned a translator, because they can do that.

He was a totally new guy, not one of our three warring factions.  His name is Mir Abdullatif, but please, we should call him Zia.  And furthermore, I am a doctor.  So we nicknamed him Dr. Zia, our translator.  Imagine that.  Our first day was quite productive.  Tracey wrote a story for the next days' paper and I transmitted some 14 photos.  We had brought a generator from Dushanbe, but the dust was so bad that we didn't set it up immediately.  We both checked in with our bosses on the satellite phone the first night.  We are fine; did you get the pictures? We're safe, we have a tent, etc.  After packing the satellite phone and computer laptops away, we hunkered down for the night.

Not 30 minutes later the wind began to pick up.  The tent was beginning to flap noisily and the dust was blowing through the gap on my side.  I tried to close it by laying my heavy luggage on it, but it blew that over.  The air was getting very thick with dust and we were beginning to realize that this might not end too soon.  I had purchased a scarf in Tajikistan to cover my hair and I was using it as a filter to breathe but Tracey was coughing and gagging for breath.  All of our things were getting covered in dust and still the storm continued.

Tracey took our videophone cases, which are quite large and heavy and used them to secure the edges of our tent.  The bottled water jugs worked well also.  We had nowhere else to go because the whole compound was full of journalists.  Our tent sat on a little cliff and the wind was blowing in from underneath and trying to pick it up.  It was petrifying.  Both Tracey and I sunk deep into our sleeping bags and waited for morning.

When we finally came out of our cocoons, the light filtering in was a strange color of yellow.  The wind was still blowing and the atmosphere was laden with dust.  Both Tracey and I were utterly exhausted.  As we looked around the camp, seven of the fourteen tents had blown away.  Ours was one of the few left standing.  CBS staff told us that despite the building they were housed in and numerous preparations, they had severe damage to their equipment.  Their satellite dish was turned while in the locked position -- which they said would take 100-mile hour winds!  Wah!  I looked around and simply wanted to cry.  But I wanted to put on a brave face for Tracey who was being such a trooper, so I stiffened my back and tried to collect my bearings.

Our first order of business was to find a place to stay.  We took our translator, hired a driver and began a search. We found a lovely place, but the foreign ministry would not permit us to rent it for "security reasons."  I guess the landlord wasn't on the in with the foreign ministry, so a representative from the ministry accompanied us to show us some properties which were available.  Two were under construction and one was already packed with journalists with no room for us and our equipment, water and provisions.  Several were leaving the following day, but we needed a place immediately.  The foreign ministry here completely controls the media.  I was getting quite ornery.  None of the options seemed viable.  The representative insisted that these construction sites could be finished quickly and we could move in the same afternoon.  Tracey convinced me that we really had no choice.

So we picked one of the construction sites, and sure enough, they put plastic on the windows, got a carpet to cover the mud floor and dug a new hole in the yard for our toilet.  We gathered our dusty belongings from the tent, attempting to shake off as much as possible and daintily entered our new place.  It was a palace.  A mud palace.  We agreed to a price of $20 per day per person.  And we were thrilled.  Our own place.  We bought two wooden desks and chairs, an extravagant purchase but well worth it since my back was killing me after I had spent four hours on the floor working on my computer the first night in our tent.  Oh, the deliciousness of it all.

Well, today is Day 8 in Afghanistan.  We have been to the front lines twice, worked on a story about a smuggling town between Taliban and United Front territory, visited a girl's school, photographed the beggar women outside the local mosque and tried several times to get into the jail, where I hear a couple of Taliban soldiers are holed up.  The jailer is a fickle man who accommodates journalists at his absolute convenience, asking them to return over and over again until he grants them permission, whereupon the prisoners are lined up outside, shotgun fashion, to be photographed and interviewed.  One journalist tells of a Taliban soldier who was captured once, let out, and then captured again.  He is quoted as saying:

 

“You let me out of here and I’ll find Osama bin Laden myself!”
— Taliban prisoner

Our dear translator, the inscrutable Dr. Zia is becoming a bigger and bigger mystery to both Tracey and me.  I have decided that he gives me the heebie-jeebies and I wouldn't feel safe without Tracey around.  As Tracey aptly put it, there's too much intrigue surrounding the guy.  We're scheming to find a different translator.  The only good reason to hang on to him is that his wife is coming from Taloqan in two days.  She's a doctor as well, but more importantly, she speaks English and I need a woman to help me translate for a story about women.  Men cannot talk to women here, especially if they are covered in a "burka," the full veil.  It is prohibited and supposedly the local mullah or imam or priest has spies to catch those who disobey.  I found that out today as I photographed beggar women outside the mosque and tried desperately to get the help of my translator.

Admittedly, our sense of humor has deteriorated and our translator has become a source of plenty of our jokes. He, Tracey's escapades, our living conditions and the oddities of the culture here give us lots to hoot and holler about.  The Doctor told me one day that he doesn't do soap.  What do you mean you don't do soap? Well, I don't touch anything dirty, he says.  My jaw drops and my mind goes to the gutter and I start thinking about the whole bathroom thing and the lack of toilet paper.  And so: no soap?  NO SOAP?  As Tracey put it, what's with washing the feet five times a day and not wiping?  We have concluded that we will never understand these people because we differ on such basic matters as basic manners.

Anyway, on another note, working here is really really difficult.  We get followed closely by people wherever we go.  And if we stop, they surround us curiously as if we were zoo animals.  This makes my job very challenging because I usually like to be a fly on the wall observing, and it seems that I am now the observed.  A few days ago, I ventured but three blocks away from our house and became surrounded by some children, who were staring blatantly, then by men who also were staring blatantly, and before I knew it I was encircled by some 50 males, all simply staring.  They would talk about me to each other and then continue to stare.  For the fun of it, I started shooting pix of the faces, and they enjoyed that.  People here love to be photographed.  They'll do everything to get in the pix.

After a few minutes of us staring at each other and their determining that I was ok, they began to get rowdy and began pushing each other into me.  It was slightly disconcerting, but men here seem pretty respectful of foreign women that I didn't get too nervous.  My translator wasn't too far away and he broke it up pretty quickly.  On our first trip to a refugee camp, I had some 20 children following me and we had to ask an elder to follow me around to shoo the children away.  It wasn't much help.  Anytime I would approach a situation a new group would surround my subject and me.  I was getting pretty frustrated with the whole staring business.  Today, I've lost most of my patience for it and simply try to keep a pleasant smile on my face despite my utter disgust.  What am I to do?

Another thing worth noting about Afghanistan is the roads.  They are beyond bad.  A 30-mile trip takes one and a half-hours by jeep and turns my spine to Jell-O.  After our first visit to the front lines I decided to charge the paper for excessive wear and tear on my mammaries.  I swear the roads have taken 10 years. 

Tracey and I came into Afghanistan with our guns blazing hoping to do story after story, but the realities of life here take patience and time.  We will have to find even more perseverance. 

Our topics of conversation range from food, what we'd do for a can of Pringles and some chocolate, the condition of our bowels and soap.

Until next time.

Love,

Cheryl

Negotiating our way to Afghanistan

Ken and John,

More people came in last night from Khoja Bahauddin, Masood's town, which is some 1 1/2 hours from the Tajik border where many journalists are staying and where the aid organizations are also located.  It's not on the map because it was created four years ago when Masood was pushed north by the Taliban.

This town is where we anticipate to work out of.

News is that the Monday convoy, which we were supposed to be on, was held up at the border overnight by Russian guards.  They left at 10 am and arrived in Khoja at 10 am the following day.  They slept on the ground or whatever.

Rumor is that they wanted more paperwork or bribes, and another rumor is that there was fighting on the Afghan side and they wanted the journalist convoy to wait.  Can't get a sure answer on it.  The response on this end from the Afghan Embassy is to tell all journalists to get a letter from the Embassy stating your mission along with a number of xerox copies of passport, visa, accreditation card, etc.

Another piece of news is that the first group of journalists has gotten stuck on the pass to Panjshir, the way south to Kabul.  They satellite phoned for help but they are in the middle of a 3-4 day drive and there seems to be little resources to get them out.  It has iced over and there will be no traveling now until spring.

In Khoja Bahauddin we should be 1 or 3 hours away from the front lines-- there are varied reports.  It's a drive plus an hour on a horse through a river.  Supposedly the Northern Alliance cannot make a move because they have inferior weaponry so they are simply waiting for the U.S. to bomb the Taliban there.  There is some firing back and forth but it's just a show.  They are too far from each other.

The Northern Alliance got a hold of a bunch of rations dropped by the U.S. and have kept most of it and pawned the rest at the market where journalists can find American peanut butter and other items the Afghans have no clue what to do with.  They eat rice and beans most of the time.

The Foreign Ministry in Khoja Bahauddin was Masood's place before he was killed.  NBC is camped on his property.  Many others have simply pitched tents in the "garden."  Word is that they are serving free rice three times a day for the journalists.  I will pick up some hard cheese and salami for the first week or so and then we'll go to canned meats and fish after that. 

I have decided to hire a second car for the ride to the border because we simply have too much baggage now that we are loaded down with water and other supplies.  I found a freelance shooter last night from Time and Newsweek who will ride in the second car to offset the cost.  He doesn't have too much stuff--yet.

We are anticipating to pay $100 a day for a driver and another $100 a day for a translator.  Tracey and I did get more money in Uzbekistan and recently the hotel here is permitting us to get money from our credit cards.  Although mine didn't release any money in Tashkent, I tried $100 yesterday here and it did go through, although with many fees.  It's good to know it's accessible though because before this journalists were having to travel back to Tashkent to get money--a major pain in the rear since there are no flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent and the route is quite circuitous.

I am thrilled that I think I have convinced a fellow from Bloomberg to part with his sleeping bag after he leaves in some four days.  It's fancy, small and very very light.  The ones at the local sport shop weigh a ton.  It might be naive on our part, but Tracey and I have decided to not get the local one, use our mega winter clothing at night, to get us through the first night or so.  NBC did offer us stuff, anticipating that they would have excess gear.

Apparently we must buy a generator.  There is little electricity there and with all our equipment needing recharging, we won't be able to rely on kindness.  Apparently journalists are feeling frustrated by the amount of equipment breaking down due to the sand and are getting quite ornery about whatever is working.  I tried to scam a beautiful red small generator off an Austrian fellow who's returning to Moscow soon but he was too fearful of the repercussions with Russian customs.  It was quite a lovely one, however.

For your comfort, some 1300 or more journalists have gotten accredited in Dushanbe on their way to Afghanistan and no one has gotten hurt. So things are rough but not terribly dangerous it seems.  There's more danger to our equipment and personal health than anthing.

Hmmmm, Tracey just informed me that the BBC has reported that the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan has been closed as of late last night.  That hasn't been confirmed yet.  But the more delays, the more chance of us not getting in.  Phew....I'm sure hoping it isn't true.

Cheryl

Preparing for my first war zone

Editor's note: On Oct. 10, 2001 Cheryl Diaz Meyer, staff photographer for The Dallas Morning News, left Dallas for Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to join News reporter Tracey Eaton. The pair have journeyed to Dushanbe (D-YOU-SHAHM-BEH), Tajikistan, where they ventured across the Afghan border to Khoja Bahauddin (HO-juh BO-DEEN). After nearly two weeks in Khoja Bahauddin, they have moved on to Taloqan (TAHL-oh-KAHN), where they were awaiting the fall of Kunduz (koon-DOOZ).

 

A couple of oblique references need to be clarified: "John" is John Davidson, visuals editor. "Massood" is Ahmed Shah Massood, former leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated in September.

Cheryl and Tracey are more than our co-workers, they are our friends, part of our newspaper family. Through Cheryl's e-mail journals, we've been able to feel and be part of their incredible journey.

 

Ken Geiger

Director of Photography

 

Ken and John,

More people came in last night from Khoja Bahauddin, Massood's town, which is some 1 1/2 hours from the Tajik border where many journalists are staying and where the aid organizations are also located. It's not on the map because it was created four years ago when Massood was pushed north by the Taliban. 

This town is where we anticipate to work out of. News is that the Monday convoy, which we were supposed to be on, was held up at the border overnight by Russian guards. They left at 10 a.m. and arrived in Khoja at 10 a.m. the following day. They slept on the ground or whatever.

In Khoja Bahauddin, we should be 1 or 3 hours away from the front lines – there are varied reports. It's a drive plus an hour on a horse through a river. Supposedly the Northern Alliance cannot make a move because they have inferior weaponry so they are simply waiting for the U.S. to bomb the Taliban there. There is some firing back and forth, but it's just a show. They are too far from each other.

The Northern Alliance got hold of a bunch of rations dropped by the U.S. and have kept most of it and pawned the rest at the market where journalists can find American peanut butter and other items the Afghans have no clue what to do with. They eat rice and beans most of the time.

The foreign ministry in Khoja Bahauddin was Massood's place before he was killed. NBC is camped on his property. Many others have simply pitched tents in the so-called "garden." Word is that they are serving free rice three times a day for the journalists. I will pick up some hard cheese and salami for the first week or so, and then we'll go to canned meats and fish after that. I have decided to hire a second car for the ride to the border because we simply have too much baggage; we are loaded down with water and other supplies.

I am thrilled to think I have convinced a fellow from Bloomberg to part with his sleeping bag after he leaves in some four days. It's fancy, small and very, very light. The ones at the local sport shop weigh a ton.

Apparently we must buy a generator. There is little electricity there, and with all our equipment needing recharging, we won't be able to rely on kindness. Apparently journalists are feeling frustrated by the amount of equipment breaking down due to the sand and are getting quite ornery about whatever is working. I tried to scam a beautiful red small generator off an Austrian fellow who's returning to Moscow soon, but he was too fearful of the repercussions with Russian customs. It was quite a lovely one, however.

 For your comfort, some 1,300 or more journalists have gotten accredited in Dushanbe on their way to Afghanistan, and no one has gotten hurt. So things are rough but not terribly dangerous, it seems. There's more danger to our equipment and personal health than anything.

Cheryl

Second stop: Tajikistan

Dear Family and Friends,

Sunday morning I got to talking to a woman from ABC Australia during breakfast and she had just returned from Afghanistan.  I picked her brain about what's what over there and she said we needed all our provisions for the time we expected to be there.  All the food, water, cooking supplies, tents, sleeping bags, everything for the month we expected to be there.  We had some power bars to last us about a week and a half, and nothing else.  I was frantic.

I had two shoots in the morning, one with an Afghan family living here in Dushanbe for 3 years and another was a memorial for Ahmad Masoud, the Northern Alliance military leader killed some 40 days ago.  The memorial was really interesting.  Only men attended it, including Masoud's only son, a 13-year-old with a weary face.  My translator is great.  We found him in the market place.  He's Afghan, 17 years old, and not tainted by the greed, which seems to hang over everyone in contact with the hundreds of journalists.

Tracey, the writer, has been sick since Friday with diarrhea.  He hasn't been super functional except to attend the Masoud thing and use the internet for research at the cafe in our hotel.  Poor guy.  So although we had been scheduled to leave on a Monday convoy to Afghanistan, we decided to hold off for the next convoy Wednesday.  Today is Tuesday and Tracey is still not well and I believe he must have some kind of bad bug so I got him a doctor at the hotel and got a prescription for him of Tetracycline.  And an extra supply for me just in case.

On my way to the pharmacist I negotiated for a vehicle, found a nice man with a Russian Volga who will charge us the going rate of $150 one way for both Tracey and me and all of our gear and provisions.  I hope we fit.  We had originally booked a van for Monday, paid the guy $30 for gas but had to cancel.  I tried to get him for Wednesday but he's gotten greedier and now he wants to pocket the money and ask for another $250.  This is a year's salary in Tajikistan.  A teacher earns $5 a day.  So obviously things have gotten completely out of control.  While I attempted to negotiate with him he was trying to sell me out to another crew from whom he was hoping to get $400.  I told the guys what happened and they told me to start screaming and throw a fit then and there--to convince the driver to accept my offer.  I thought about it, and decided that I wasn't at that point yet. 

In any case, I got the Volga.  So we're set.

Next point of action was to get the new driver on "the list."  The Tajik Foreign Ministry accompanies journalists on convoys to the border to secure their safety and to keep the Russian guards from harassing and requesting too many bribes along the way.  I went there and found out that Wednesday's convoy has been rescheduled for Thursday.  I have been here since October 12 and am nearly going out of my mind with all the waiting and bureaucracy.  I want to make pictures, but until I get to Afghanistan, everything is peripheral.  There are some feature stories we can do, but they are just things to bide the time.  The story is in Afghanistan!!!

OK, so I get the driver on the list.  If we don't have him on the list, they'll harass us the whole way and rumor has it that one group had to turn around back to Dushanbe.

So while I'm at the Foreign Ministry, another journalist says that we now need some letter from the Afghan Embassy permitting us entry into Afghanistan, besides the visa.  So now I get on a new mission, if we need this piece of paper, it's probably a new way for them to ask for more fees.  But if we need it, then I need to secure the papers before Thursday morning.  So I huff and I puff over to the Afghan Embassy some five blocks away and talk to a fellow who says that the letter is to secure the visa--if we have our visas, we're set.  Another rumor put to rest.

Other journalist groups here have fixers who run around doing this entire minutia for them.  For Tracey and me, it's me.  I'm the fixer, the photographer, the provision provider/shopper, the driver coordinator, the everything.  It's so crazy how much bureaucracy is involved in getting to Afghanistan.

There are already hundreds of journalists who have taken this same path over there so it's safe, but our bosses need to know all the logistics before we leave.  And of course, the longer we sit in this hotel the more money we are using that could be necessary in Afghanistan.  Supposedly we can get money from a Visa or MasterCard but mine don't seem to work here.  We have to make it on the money we have.

I have long since forgotten about my lust for a carpet.  Now my mind is just on getting to Afghanistan.  Tracey and I have nixed the idea of buying a tent and sleeping bag.  We have been told that most journalists are staying in ngo compounds (non-governmental organizations) with guards, some are renting rooms from families.  There are wells in the compounds and many have pitched tents in the gardens.  I checked on the tents here at the local sports shop and they are incredibly heavy, same with the sleeping bags.  An NBC engineer who got on Monday's convoy said they have a lot of supplies already in Afghanistan and they are arriving with more.  So probably they'll have spare tents and sleeping bags.  We really don't know what will happen, but we hope we can borrow stuff.  Many who have left simply left their stuff there.  I figure food is the most important.  I am relishing every moment of hot water baths in our hotel in Tajikistan.

Apparently the compounds in Afghanistan where journalists are staying have electricity 15 minutes a day.  Journalists have bought generators there or bought generators in Dushanbe and transported them.  We have all battery-operated gear, which will need to be recharged regularly, we hope to get some access to the power.  We'll find out when we get there.

Well, that's all I know for today.  We think we are leaving Thursday morning.

 

Love,

Cheryl

First stop: Uzbekistan

Dear family and friends,

I am currently in Uzbekistan working on coverage of the war on terrorism.  I am travelling with our Cuba bureau writer Tracey Eaton, a wonderful guy with whom I worked last year on our story about Hidden Wars in Guatemala.

So far Uzbekistan is a lot more developed than I thought it would be.  It apparently was the wealthiest and most developed of Russia's republics in Central Asia.  The young people are very fashionable.  The women wear these black tight pants with a little flair on the end and high heels.  They are always in heels!  The people here are beautiful.  The mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and Caucasian has created a blend that is stunning.  There are lots of people that would be great models.

We are currently staying at a really nice hotel.  We moved because we couldn't get a good satellite signal from our other hotel.  This one is deluxe!  Feather pillows and feather blankets.  It is really clean and well staffed.  I used one of the bell boys for a translator for a day or so and he was so great.  I paid him $5 an hour and he's ecstatic.  The driver that Tracey found wanted $15 an hour including the vehicle.  But truly, every car on the road practically will pick up passengers and it costs a pittance when the translator arranges the ride.  On average a taxi ride costs $.40 cents.  Whenever I'm with Tracey the price goes up.  He's such a gringo!!!

I really love the food here.  It's a blend of East and West.  It's hard to describe.  But it is so flavorful.  One of the big things here is rice pilaf, a delicious dish of rice, raisins, beef, and some other vegetables I'm not familiar with.  The other big thing here is nan bread, similar to the kind you get in an Indian restaurant in the U.S., but thicker.  Uzbeks eat it with every meal.  Oh, and the last real strong tradition here is tea, chai, as they call it.  They are always inviting me for chai.

This was probably my downfall yesterday when I visited with one lovely family in Tashkent's old town.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.  Chai always come with a huge table prepared with candy, salted tomatoes, raisins, nuts, nan, etc.  Well yesterday I dared a potato meat dish that the wife heated for me and when I bit into the meat it was some type of liver, brain or some such thing and I nearly couldn't get it down.  Later last night I experienced my first violence in this country.  I am still recuperating today.

People here are so kind.  I am very charmed by this country.  I wish I could understand them a little.  It's such a different language from any that I know. 

I'm lusting for a carpet and hope that I might be able to buy one on our way back through here.  A silk one that is supposedly 70 years old, I'm not so sure about the validity of that claim, was $500.  And that's negotiable.  So $300 might do it.  A wool one is less, $250 starting price, with a claim that it's 40 years old.  The silk one didn't lie flat but that was just an initial investigation.  I'm sure with a little looking, a good deal would surface.  The carpets are around 4x6 feet.  Really pretty.  I'm just drooling to have one.  I guess the large ones are all machine made, wool, but just factory made.  Our driver was telling us that locals are not interested in small expensive carpets.  They want large ones that fit a whole room.  It makes sense, but what a pity that visitors are buying these treasures.  A silk one doesn't take up too much room, they're thinner than the wool ones.  Who knows, maybe I'll afford two.  When will I ever be in this part of the world again?

Tracey, my partner in crime, has been transmitting via videophone the past couple of nights.  We stay up until 2 am or so every morning because the TV stations don't call in until 1 am.  Needless to say, it's pretty tiring.  There is very little going on in Tashkent that relates to the war on terrorism so we are getting very creative.  We've been transmitting from the balcony of our hotel room and we are thinking that maybe some fireworks might add some excitement to our news coverage.  I could go down to the first floor and let off a few while Tracey is being interviewed and he can jump up and start talking about how we are escaping the scud missiles.  Maybe we'd look a little more heroic than the impression of us in a high end hotel in the city center where nothing is happening.  We're getting a little punchy.

Tomorrow we will be flying to the border town of Termez, which overlooks Afghanistan.  The whole border is lined by a river and there is only one bridge that connects Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and it is closed.  The Russians built it for their troops travelling to and from Russia, but since all the violence in Afghanistan, the bridge has been closed for years.  In any case there is nothing going on there either, despite threats from Afghanistan that it will send 10,000 troops to attack Uzbekistan.  Uzbekistan wants nothing to do with Afghanistan, despite being 80% Muslim.  They don't want the instability and violence.  In 1999 there were several terrorist bomb attacks simultaneouly throughout the city of Tashkent, the president was nearly killed.  He keeps the place pretty clamped down to keep it safe, of course that also impedes on people's freedom.  Because of it, the country is very safe.

We will be travelling to Tajikistan in several days.  It is and was the poorest of the Soviet republics in Central Asia.  It should be an interesting contrast to Uzbekistan.

I hope to write regularly to keep you updated with my experiences.

Love,

Cheryl