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

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