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