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.
© 2003 Tracey Eaton. All Rights Reserved.
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.