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On the Road

Jabal Saraj Dispatch

We were stuck in the border zone between Tajikistan and Afghanistan—some 15 journalists from all over the world in a caravan of Russian Lada Nivas and Volgas, Land Cruisers, Mitsubishi jeeps, and minivans. For five hours, since setting out from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the caravan had been scattering dust squalls over fields of bursting cotton and parched earth. Down here in the border zone, though, the dust took on a different, unsettling aspect. We had a lot of time to notice because it was 5:10 p.m. and the Russian and Tajik border guards had closed their office at 5:00. The guards were still there, of course, but now there would be negotiations, payoffs, Tajik KGB bureaucracy. We spilled out of the cars into the sandy valley lined with Soviet barbed wire, wondering who was in charge. We exchanged anxious stories we'd heard from journalists inside Afghanistan—malaria, dysentery, lice, crabs, hepatitis, typhoid, astronomical expenses for vehicles, four to five days on mountain passes made for goats with rock-climbing shoes, sleeping on mud floors, ten to a room, no water, no electricity. "And there's no war!" said one American photographer. "And no stories," said another. We heard about TV crews encouraging the Northern Alliance, by whom most foreign media are protected, to fire off artillery for the cameras.

But then there was the disturbing dust: whitish, ashen, like wet, fine-powdered clay—like fallout, which is what made it so unsettling. It had the same texture, color, and disaster-zone quality as the ash that carpeted Liberty Plaza and enveloped firemen, policemen, and office workers as they fled from the crashing World Trade Center towers. Now here we were 6,700 miles away, a babble of newspeople urgently pressing our way into Afghanistan. At times the circus of it all, and the experience of being robbed blind by the Embassy of the Islamic State of Afghanistan and the "Afghan tours"—the Tajik minister of foreign affairs had never seen so many hundreds of dollars piling up on his desk as he doled out press accreditations and new visas at exorbitant rates—left us with a cynical aftertaste. But it was washed away by the memory of that ash. And by the latest BBC news highlights, broadcast across the sandy frontier from someone's shortwave: the one-month anniversary of the attacks on New York and D.C.; a third anthrax case, in New York; V.S. Naipaul receiving the Nobel Prize. The third was perhaps the most shocking, signaling that indeed there has been a seismic change in the world's political order.

After the news, a young Tajik man traveling with us asked me to describe what had happened that day. "And all those people in the buildings died?" he kept asking. And then he began to cry. As an American correspondent covering other people's wars for seven years, I've rarely if ever encountered a similar sympathy toward America. Nor can I remember anything like a fellow journalist typing an e-mail from someplace as remote as Afghanistan to tell his colleagues back home in New York, "[E]verything's pretty safe here, but please take care of yourself and promise to take your anthrax medicine religiously." Or the Irishman in our convoy who worked with an American TV company. He was a former army officer so neurotic about security that he wore his bulletproof vest. For a while, he shouted at dozens of us to turn off our flashlights so we wouldn't provoke Taliban sniper fire. But when he heard I was from New York, his demeanor changed from scorn to solemnity. "At least," he said, "you've got a reason to be here."

But he wasn't quite right: New Yorkers weren't the only ones with a reason. With us was an Afghan photographer, a short, funny man who had worked for the Associated Press in Kabul until the Taliban imprisoned him three years ago. They caught him photographing a site hit by Clinton's cruise missiles, one of them a former bin Laden lair. Leave forever or die, they told him. So he moved to Spain. Now he was on his way home for the first time.

Finally, a Russian officer appeared and the roll call began: drivers on one side, journalists on the other, and eventually we were shuttled down to the sandy shores of the Panj River. The border guards, middlemen of the Tajik and Afghan drug trade, boarded us and our gear onto a giant metal raft and ferried us to the Afghan shore. Dark shadows moved about, jeeps pulled up, men shouted, "Get in, get in, fifty dollars, one hundred dollars." An Afghan in fatigues offered me some homemade brandy hidden in a cup inside his army jacket for fear of Allah's gaze. I accepted and found myself waiting for a Russian colleague from Moscow, a known fixer for foreign journalists and a journalist himself, who was transporting hundreds of kilos of supplies to a TV crew in the Panjshir Valley, not far from Kabul.

As the cargo came off the rafts, the Afghan photographer pulled out a pile of 8x10 prints of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan general who became a legend first as a mujahedin commander fighting the Soviets and more recently as the leader of the Northern Alliance. Massoud was killed when two Arabs, posing as journalists and carrying explosives concealed in cameras, assassinated him two days before the September 11 attacks. The Afghan crew and guards kissed the photographs and stored them away, repeating Massoud's name over and over.

BY THE NEXT morning, Friday, I was in a Toyota pickup heading out with a Russian, an Austrian, and two Afghans to Massoud's land, the Panjshir Valley, looking for the frontline foot soldiers in America's war on terrorism. Massoud's hagiography was nearly complete before his murder, but as we moved deeper into Northern Alliance territory, his absence became more and more palpable. "He was our father," said an educated, English-speaking shop owner in Faizabad. A commander at the front lines just 22 miles north of Kabul told me, "We are also looking for a leader to fill this vacuum, and nothing is clear now."

We stopped for a few supplies at a bazaar in the border town of Hedjibourodin, which looks like an African desert town, with long, white stone walls along the avenues. Now it has been transformed into a campground for hundreds of news agencies and correspondents. But despite their presence, I still stuck out, a freak in a traveling carnival show. Within five minutes, scores of men were crowding in on our pickup truck to stare. Most men here don't have televisions, nor are they accustomed to seeing women walking the street without head-to-toe burqas. Six days later, when I finally bumped into a group of unveiled women in the garden of a commander's home, we embraced and pawed each other as if meeting long-lost family, though we were complete strangers. It was hard to leave them and go back to the male-only street.

By nighttime we reached Faizabad, the northern town that's home to the recognized Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and was once a stopover for Marco Polo. Security services immediately stopped us and ushered us to the only hotel, they said, where foreigners could stay. But it turned out there weren't any rooms in that guest house, and we were taken to another, built near the side of a mountain over rushing river rapids.

Inside, by the window in my room, lay a small Afghan treasure, a 1998 diary of a former guest. It was his learning journal—English sentences, notes about computer programs in Dari (a dialect of Persian that is one of the main Afghan languages), instructions on writing humanitarian aid and business reports. The exercises of a man determined to make something of himself, the kind of man Naipaul mocked in his harsher works about the borrowed ambitions of men from the developing world. His pages read like found poetry, filled with Afghan history and the intrusion of "international community lingo." Here is just a sampling:

"[Y]ou are like a winter's day; short, dark and dirty."
"He expressed deep regret over the continuation of bloodshed in Afghanistan."
"It was as pleasant a day as I have ever spent."
"He is reputed the best engineer."
"What would you do if you governed the world?"

Then came a list of vocabulary. "Assassinate, landslide, defect, project, bullet, enhance, vicious, raid, dissidence, war crime committed, radiation, combat, crude inception." Then a page of prayers in Arabic and the words in English: "To know Allah's will is our greatest treasure, to do Allah's will is our greatest pleasure."

WHETHER IT’S 25 years of war or the culture of the mountains, much of Afghanistan still sustains itself as people did in the Middle Ages. Each mountainside village is a tableau in shades of sand and gold, houses of smooth stone walls cobbled along the riverbeds, drying maize blanketing the rooftops. Yoked oxen pull wooden plows as they have since the wars of the desert tribes 2,000 years ago. You get to know the few other voyagers on the road at the travelers' lodges, mud and straw huts with smoky rooms where they serve tea and tud, a fruit filled with energy that the mujahedin carried around in bags to fuel their fight against the Soviets.

Trundling along the empty roads through the most spectacular mountains, valleys, rising-and-falling sand and mud formations, you begin to apprehend the full meaning of inshallah—if Allah wills it. If your car breaks down, you may not see another for hours, only donkeys and shepherds; night may fall. The debris of the Soviets' humiliating defeat, their tanks, armored personnel carriers, rockets, cluster bombs, have been absorbed into the unforgiving Central Asian environment of sand and wind. They form roadside reinforcers, jungle gyms for kids. Tank shells make vases or, lined up together, form the border of a walkway. The old Soviet stone and mud brick barracks were taken over by Massoud's men. Russian TV loves to air this historical detritus to remind the government of its past folly.

By the fourth day, our engine was miserable. Sometimes we had to get out and walk. We were just beginning to climb the 15,000 feet to the mountain paths, and our Toyota couldn't take any more. Neither could we, in our halfconscious, oxygen-deprived state. It was tempting to give in as we asked ourselves, "Where are we trying to get to anyway?" But the engine revived and our driver gave himself over completely to hashish, smoking it from dawn until way past midnight, for we were hardly stopping for breaks anymore. As we began our descent, back in the truck, Tahir, our jokester driver, put on my black Ray-Bans beneath his checkered black-and-white head cloth. Leaning back in his gray tunic and full beard, he turned up the Afghan love song of Ahmed Zahir, a popular singer killed in the 1970s, which had droned on for 40 hours. It was the only cassette we had and it was disintegrating in sync with the motor. He gripped the wheel, growled, howled, and pushed full speed ahead, flying over shards of the mountain. The Russian and the Austrian in the back were as giddy as children on a roller coaster ride. I had no feeling left whatsoever.

That night we pulled into a high-mountain guest house. A scruffy boy showed me the fresh trout he'd just pulled out of the river, but there wouldn't be any left for the guests, the owner said. Later they offered eggs, but those never arrived either. "Sorry, we just finished them," the owner said. The hyperactive young driver in the other pickup truck, which had been following our same journey, shook his head at my ragged hair and dust-encrusted clothes and said, "You shouldn't come here, you have such better accommodations in America." I was ashamed at my reply, but it was the sleeplessness. "Your men came to America. We had to come here." A stupid thing to say on several fronts, but he laughed anyway.

FINALLY, THE NEXT DAY we began our descent into the Panjshir Valley, where our driver Tahir was born. Everywhere rivulets ran down the mountains, creating clusters of fertile grain and yellowing poplar ash and willow trees. As the landscape grew more fertile, it also grew more littered with war. Almost every home and shop had a black cross hung outside with white Islamic prayers scripted in memory of the fallen hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud. There were huge marble homes beside the river, built on the emeralds found in the Panjshir and probably on the heroin trade. It is said that the Taliban process the poppy and then sell it to the Alliance members in the Panjshir, who then transport it north to the ferry, then on to the Tajik border guards. The Massoud legends have reached their peak here in the valley, where a few working tanks are kept, along with Russian multiple rocket launchers and Russian MI8 helicopters. And, of course, war hospitals and prison camps where you can see Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistani prisoners of war dressed in black robes and white headdresses working the fields.

After dark we pulled into Jabal Saraj, the town closest to the front lines where Taliban rockets still could not reach us. In the center of town sits a compound that houses CNN, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the hotel quartering dozens of news teams. As I got out of the car to greet an old photographer friend with a flair for drama, he picked me up and spun me around. The crowd of 50 men became 100. It was dark and uncomfortable, and as I walked away, framed on either side by ten men, a radio crew put a microphone to my mouth and the reporter asked in his thick, French-accented English, "You just arrived? Did you see how those hundred men wanted to eat you?" "I'm new here," I said. "I know nothing. Interview someone else." But no, no, no, we just saw it and want to know how does it feel as a woman to have all these men about to eat you alive with their eyes. As a woman, we want to know how does it feel? "Je m'enfou." I don't care. "C'est tout." "Merci beaucoup," they said.

SIX DAYS AFTER setting out from Dushanbe, in search of the foot soldiers at the front lines of this new, twenty-first century war, I went to Bagram, where a friend introduced me to his uncle, a local commander. Outside Bagram village lies a sprawling airbase about 22 miles north of Kabul. It will be a strategic operations base if America tries to flush the Taliban out of the capital. For now, it is a tired front line of wrecked, rusting metal homes with their roofs blown off, and shell-blasted barracks built by the Russians. The Talibs control one half, the Alliance the other.

In a big, old, crumbling house with a handsome mosaic archway still partially intact, we found one of the foot soldiers, a boy who looked 17, dressed in a black corduroy tunic, with black eyes and curly hair, a hint of a mustache, and smooth olive skin. And, of course, a Kalashnikov. His name was Baba Saheb, and he's been fighting for five years, ever since the Taliban swept in, burned down his school, and he picked up a gun. He needed no training—his father, uncle, and brother had all fought in the wars of the past 25 years. And, as he said, every Afghan child knows how to use a Kalashnikov and an RPG.

Three years earlier, the front line came to his house and the Taliban swept north, forcing the Alliance to retreat from here. "Ahmed Massoud commanded us to come back, and three days later we had the Taliban soldiers encircled." Baba pointed to an open road heading east. There had been so many dead Taliban lining the pavement. He said, "Look, you can still see the Taliban turban hanging from the tree." A long, green fabric rose and fell in the wind. When I asked him what he thought of the American bombing of Kabul, he wasn't particularly fazed. "We're fighting to save our country from terrorists and Pakistanis, as we always have. If the Americans want us to help them fight terrorists, we will." The Americans' political alliance with the Pakistanis had little influence on Baba's thinking, for he knew where the Taliban got their main support.

We were standing on what was left of his roof, perched behind an aluminum chimney, looking at the Taliban on a roof not far away. And Baba's friend, Saizal, decked out in ragged mujahedin-wear—a black-and-white scarf wrapped over his head, a gray tunic over an argyle sweater, black Adidas—switched on his walkie-talkie and asked me, "Do you want to speak to one?" "Talib," he called out. "Lungi, lungi, it's pakul." The two Afghan head coverings that will soon become a cartoonist's ready-made symbol for good and evil: The lungi is a Taliban turban; the pakul is a rolled-up wool khaki hat worn by the mujahedin and ordinary Afghans. A scratchy reply came back from the Talib: "I'm putting snuff in my mouth—I can't talk with you now." A few minutes later, a round of greetings and curses were exchanged, and Saizal said, "Hey, you're not Afghan." The Talib said, "I am. We're all Muslims, we are brothers, and anything you want we'll do for you." Saizal warned him gently, "Soon you will have to flee. Something is about to happen. So keep yourself warm." The Talib told Saizal that his commander was coming and the static stopped. "Why are you afraid of your commander, Talib?" Saizal mocked. "You see, I'm not afraid of mine." (Rumor has it that Taliban commanders have forbidden the holy warriors from using their walkie-talkies for fear they'll be lured into defecting to the Alliance side.)

For Saizal and Talib and Baba, these are the banal rituals of daily life in the trenches and along the rooftops around Bagram airport—a spot that has suddenly been lofted onto the world's stage as potentially one of the key strategic outposts in America's war on terrorism. One bearded man who has been sitting on his roof with his Kalashnikov has become the embodiment of evil, and the other bearded man who has been on his roof for years with his Kalashnikov now embodies the good fight.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.