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