All crazy on the Kunduz front

Greetings from the 10th century, where the Northern Alliance fighters who protect me by day try to kill me for my phone at night.

Published November 27, 2001 2:54AM (EST)

I had no idea when I arrived in Afghanistan how much of my time would be spent waiting. I based myself in Taloqan, and I was in luck: Almost immediately I watched that city fall to the Northern Alliance. Kunduz, just 50 miles west, would be the next to go, I was told, and I had a seat at the front. But for almost two weeks, I watched and waited for the fall of Kunduz, in vain.

On Monday, the city finally fell, but actually witnessing peace will require more waiting. Northern Alliance commanders are now fighting among themselves, and there's no way to tell which side will prevail. Meanwhile, fighting continues in Mazar-I-Sharif, where Taliban prisoners revolted, and hundreds are reported dead. Farther south, U.S. Marines have landed at Kandahar. A string of quick Northern Alliance victories -- Mazar-I-Sharif, Kabul, Taloqan -- was supposed to mean the end of the Taliban, but didn't. All of this could go on for a while.

I have no idea how to get out of here.

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The war began for me, for real, almost three weeks ago. I woke up at 7 a.m. Nov. 8 in a hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, deathly ill after being poisoned by the notoriously foul water. My local fixer was waiting for me outside the Hotel Tajikistan in his lime green Zhiguli sedan. I almost couldn't make it downstairs, and Azam, my elfin, bald protector, wanted to know if I'd been drinking.

"Mr. Phillip, I am very fond of you," he said. "Have you been at the bar?" Azam, this shrewd man in his 50s, looked like the Mongolian version of the great American physicist Robert Oppenheimer in his later years. Completely unable to speak, I piled into the car and we drove to the Foreign Ministry building where a convoy of journalists was getting ready to drive to the Afghan border. Breakfast was a handful of Cipro and a malaria pill.

After the obligatory mumbling and checking of names on a special list, the cops gave the OK, and a Tajik police car with wailing sirens and squawking bullhorn led our convoy of six cars up into the dust-colored hills, past the ruins of Soviet agricultural collectives. Soon the road degenerated into a rutted track, and in the small villages, everyone came out to wave at us as we passed. Tajiks stood by the road by the hundreds. The women with their hair covered by bright scarves, decked out in velvet dresses and looking very much like Hollywood fortunetellers, raised their hands and tried to peek in the windows of the passing cars.

At one of the last checkpoints before the ferry crossing to Afghanistan, Graham Day, a freelance cameraman from London, got out of his car and fed Jelly Bellies to the tribal elders. One bearded and turbaned ancient was unsure whether he should take one when Graham said, "Go on, don't be daft. Now pop it in." The old man ate the ruby-colored nubbin and moved on, after a puzzled grunt of thanks.

It took us another three spine-jolting hours to get to the border. By that time the light was failing, turning the Amu Darya river the color of motor oil. At the ferry, all was chaos as we handed over our magic safe-passage letters to the Russian troops, without which we were utterly screwed. Buses full of Afghans, journalists with expensive television equipment and mujahedin all piled onto a rusted platform on which we tried to arrange the weight so it wouldn't sink. Then, midway across the river, just as I noticed that the ferry was powered by a tractor engine, the shelling started, and all of us shut up. Taliban positions were just a few kilometers away, and when the shells hit, every 20 seconds or so, I felt the concussions in my chest.

On the other side, we cleared customs and lied to the Northern Alliance fighters about how much money we were carrying. Afghanistan is fundamentally a feudal society, awash in cheap Soviet weapons, where the most reliable form of transportation is a donkey. Next on the list of desirable transportation choices is the tricked-out pickup truck, a vehicle that has a monster suspension rendering it capable of fording rivers and driving up the sides of mountains. Afghans reverently call these "Datsuns," no matter who the manufacturer happens to be.

The familiar features of the West were beginning to disappear for me. The Hindu Kush mountains take the place of the Rockies, reducing them to foothills. Cars turn into horse-drawn carriages. Dust storms beat out rain. Women disappear. Men grow Kalashnikovs on their backs, and children become rocket bearers. After a long journey, I'd finally reached my destination, in the 10th century A.D.

I was in time to witness the quick fall of Taloqan to the Northern Alliance on Nov. 11, but the very next day, on the road to Kunduz, I saw the Alliance's limits. Probably the most dramatic clash I witnessed was at Bangi Pol on Nov. 12, the scene of a horrifying Northern Alliance retreat in which 12 fighters and one commander were killed, as the column hurtled down the road in a blind panic. After that, there was little action for more than a week.

I began to feel like I was waiting for the Northern Alliance to reach the end of its patience, gather up its nerve and finally invade Kunduz. Though they encircle the city quickly, they seem reluctant to capture it.

Instead, the benighted city becomes the subject of endless peace negotiations, international intrigue and infighting among Northern Alliance commanders. The one constant is wave after wave of bombing runs by American B-52s. I make a morning pilgrimage to the front lines to watch the airstrikes, which are biblical in their intensity. After the B-52s release their payloads, whole mountains seem to dissolve into dust, and mushroom clouds rise 1,000 feet in the air.

The Northern Alliance fighters, or mujahedin as they are called here, love the show and practically dance up and down when they spot an explosion. But it isn't a happy situation. The bombs and a Taliban ethnic-cleansing policy have created a massive flow of refugees out of the area around Kunduz. The journey from Kunduz to Taloqan runs the length of the Bangi River valley, a green ribbon surrounded by the barren Ambarku mountains. Mud-brick villages line the river, but the settlements near the front at Bangi have been abandoned, the residents having fled for safer ground. Beyond the safety of the Bangi bridge, where all the television reporters congregate, the villages on the way to Kunduz are named Choga, Kaleh Surhakh and Choge Nawabad, and they're in a no-man's land, controlled by neither the Alliance nor the Taliban. Behind Taliban lines, there is Amirabad, Khanabad and, finally, Kunduz, which lies just over a mountain ridge, and thats the war zone in a nutshell. The remaining territory in this part of the country has fallen to the Northern Alliance.

After a walk that can easily take days, mostly Tajik and Uzbek refugees from Khanabad, Amirabad and Kunduz arrive in Taloqan, without food or a place to stay. This stately march of tribesmen with their donkeys and children is part of an equation in which misery increases geometrically with time. For each day of airstrikes, and each day that Kunduz isn't taken by the Northern Alliance, there is a day of ethnic cleansing, and hundreds of fleeing people on the road. Refugees have also brought with them stories of massacres -- of Tajiks and Uzbeks killed by ethnic Pashtun Taliban; and of Pashtun Taliban killed by the fearsome foreign Muslim Taliban, who've come from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya, even China to join this jihad.

At around 7 every morning, I climb into a jeep driven by Amin, a former fighter who is a devout Muslim; my translator Nazar; and my friend Sion Touhig, a Welsh photojournalist. After a breakfast of tea and bread, we drive off to Bangi Pol, the lunar place that was the scene of the horrifying Nov. 12 Northern Alliance retreat. Vehicle tracks are still visible in the river, where half the column jumped the bank and plowed through the water to relative safety.

In northern Afghanistan, the war follows the road. Columns of mujahedin typically race down what's left of the Russian blacktop until they capture an abandoned city or run directly into an ambush, and the war at Bangi, where the Alliance has been stopped for close to two weeks now, is no exception. The ambush, the game where one side doesn't know it's playing until it's too late, has been elevated to a national pastime in this country.

But the truth is that I prefer being out there with the fighters, and at Bangi the filth and intrigue of Taloqan -- squabbling Northern Alliance forces, increasingly thuggish mafia elements in the foreign ministry -- all recede into distant hassles. The mujahedin are mostly friendly and eager to help a foreign journalist cover the war, even if they have no idea what's really going on, either. After 20 years of war, and a complete collapse of the education system, many are illiterate, and when they see a notebook and a pen, it's not unusual to attract a crowd: hip cats with their Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and tripod-mounted machine guns. Plus, at Bangi, the fighters and their commanders have spent the last week bored out of their minds waiting for orders that never come. When they see a stranger, its a big show -- and the visitor is the entertainment.

The standard Afghan technique for greeting someone from another country is to stand uncomfortably close and stare, which unnerves Westerners who haven't figured out how to cope with it. Many members of the international press scuttle away, hoping the fighters will fuck off and leave them alone. What the journalists rarely understand is that the mujahedin are just waiting to shake hands and say hello -- have a bit of human contact in its pure, primate sense. They want to know what sort of alien being would come here dressed so strangely, what it sounds like when it talks, which country it comes from.

Of course, the situation isn't quite so benign for female journalists. At Bangi, bored young Tajik and Uzbek mujahedin like to check out the women in the international press corps. The women have to keep moving around, because if they stand too long in a single spot, or make the mistake of chatting with a Western man, a crowd of heavily armed gawkers will instantly materialize. Mobs of fighters surrounding female journalists are commonplace. A photographer from the Dallas Morning News, who kept getting pokes in the ass, had started to punch her assailants back.

But mostly the mujahedin protect me. Out at Bangi and on the other front lines, they follow me everywhere, sometimes taking me around, showing me what's going on and making sure to never let me out of their sight, until I arrive at a secure place. The secret deal between me and the fighters seems to be this: I write down their names and ages, and they save my life.

I am also on the lookout for actual news, which, despite the many stories about Kunduz on the cable networks and newspapers, is scarce. On Nov. 19, there are reports that a U.S. bombing raid accidentally hit a village, Choge Nawabad, killing whole families. But the place has been impossible to visit, despite the fact that it was very close to Northern Alliance lines. Every commander I spoke to gave me the same answer: No, you can't go, it's in Taliban-controlled territory -- even though technically, it was in the no-man's land controlled by neither the Taliban nor the Alliance.

But Wednesday, Nov. 21, was my lucky day, or seemed like it. I made my daily pilgrimage to the front lines, where nothing much was happening, as usual. After some milling around, I walked down through the nearest abandoned village, Choga, with my translator Nazar, who spends most of his time begging me to turn back. "Phillip, this is a very bad place. Very dangerous." I tried to be patient with Nazar, whose blood sugar was perilously low due to Ramadan fasting.

We were heading down to the stone bridge, a favorite spot, well away from the pack of bored mujahedin and TV people, to where we could see the American airstrikes. It's at the bridge where I had my stroke of good luck, and ran into an Afghan friend, Nazir Mohammed, a 26-year-old commander from the Panjshir valley. Hes a beautiful man who takes care of his beard, and sports '70s amber aviator glasses along with a traditional Tajik Pakula wool cap, which many of the fighters wear. Mohammed is also very levelheaded, one of the few people I trust.

We touch cheeks and talk about the American bombs that fell on Choge Nawabad, which reportedly killed at least 12 civilians and created waves of refugees. I asked Nazir if we could go, despite having been rebuffed by so many other commanders. He simply said yes, knowing that he was giving me a gift. Nazir collected seven of his men, which included his younger brother, and without saying anything about it, they formed a circle around me, and we walked west, in the direction of ever increasing weirdness, down the road toward Kunduz. Foreigners arent allowed this far into the lines, and it made me feel like a king.

At the point on the road where Northern Alliance control essentially stopped, and no-man's land started, Nazir Mohammed turned south, cutting across the rice fields, where we walked single file, watching the ground for mines. Above us, tanks firing down on Amirabad from the mountains created deafening explosions that echoed off the opposite ridge. The shells, traveling on invisible arcs, sailed over our heads on the way to their targets.

We kept going for another half-mile or so. Then, at Kaleh Surhakh, a village elder from Choge Nawabad came out to greet us. I explained through the translator that I was here to see the place where the bomb landed, and he nodded and fell in with us. Commander Nazir, who didn't want to stay out in the open for very long, led us to a two-story house filled with rotting onions. On the roof, he showed me the craters from other bombs that had fallen in the wrong place. Then the old man carefully recounted the names of those who were killed, adding their ages when he had them. He watches as I write them down. First the adults: Boi Malang, 35; Shiringol Malang, 40; Emam Gul, 30; Gul Bibi, 60; Khoda Gul; Said Bibi; Kamela Malang. And then the children: Gul Khan, 8; Amit Khan, 12; Sher Khan, 13; Ismail Khan, 12; Zar Khan, 11.

My friend Nazir wouldn't let me go any farther, and so we headed back toward Bangi Pol. I'd spent my day protected by Northern Alliance soldiers, but that night, one almost killed me. It reminded me that the country's supposed liberators are also, many of them, thugs and bandits, and there are very few Nazir Mohammeds, to say the least.

I made a mistake, one that began with an attempted phone call. The pathetic and unreliable gadget I use to talk to the world is an Iridium satellite phone, the poor man's version of a proper communication setup for this country. Iridium, the Motorola project that went spectacularly bankrupt and has been recently rescued by the Defense Department, is a frightening way to have a conversation with someone back home. Static, freakish sound effects and dropped calls are totally normal, reminiscent of early cellphone days. The Iridium network is also far too slow to receive e-mail, though I can send it, very slowly.

To get the Motorola to work at all, I have to step outside in the cold, survey the immediate area for obstacles that will prevent it from seeing the sky and watch the display until the signal strength seems sufficient to make the call. The window of opportunity lasts about four minutes. It is a ridiculous dance, one that usually takes place in the dead of night, on the roof of wherever I'm staying.

But the night after my Choge Nowabad expedition, the owner of the house where I stay had squirreled away his ladder, and the only place I could get a decent signal at midnight, when it was time to send a message, was the street. Like many Afghan houses, his place has a courtyard surrounded by high mud walls and a steel door with a bolt. I put on a coat, gathered up the phone and cables, and stepped outside into a pitch-black street, which smelled of wood smoke and dust. Everything in Taloqan is coated in this lunar, powdery substance -- the roses in the garden, the leaves on the trees -- and the street is made out of it, a tan ribbon of dust. During the day, old men scoop water from the irrigation ditches and throw it over the road, so that when horse-drawn carriages and donkeys go down the street, the visibility doesnt drop to zero. Walking on it feels like new-fallen snow.

Once I'm outside, I boot my computer, turn on the phone and get ready to send a message. Nothing seems out of the ordinary; it's another quiet night in this quiet neighborhood. A few minutes later, while the phone is still trying to make a proper connection to the network, I notice that about 100 feet down the road there is a soldier, who is standing very still. This one isn't dressed like a mujahedin, who usually wear traditional blankets and Tajik caps, but is instead wearing a new Chinese military uniform.

The soldier yells at me in Persian, wanting to know who I am. I tell him I'm an American, and he steps away from the building into the road where he can get a better look. He heard me just fine, but he's starting to act like there's a serious problem, and in one sickening instant, he pulls back the bolt on the Kalashnikov and raises the gun to take his shot. The sound of the gun is a horrible promise. Here it comes, I think, alone in this empty place with the dark pounding in my ears, and I turn away and run down the street. I'm thinking, maybe the sonofabitch will miss me in the dark, and that's when I hear him fire.

In the complete blackness, I run halfway down the block, listen for footsteps, don't hear any and keep going until I see a single electric bulb. I stop there; my plan was simply to beg whoever owned the light to let me in, until the soldier gave up on the idea of killing a foreigner.

Under the bulb, I see figures moving around, tending a mud oven. Little kids with shaved heads are peering at me, this strange man who has shown up out of breath, and who keeps saying "Salaam Aleikum," over and over like it's some kind of prayer. One man then steps out from behind the oven and motions me to sit down, and I fall to my knees right there, sick with fear for the first time since arriving in Afghanistan. His name is Nangulee, and he's a baker, working through the night to make cookies, which he sells in the bazaar the next day. The little kids are his trainee assistants at his Old Tonga Til bakery, this haven adorned with the magic 50-watt bulb. Nangulee says to me, in near-perfect English, "Please tell me what happened to you." I tell him everything.

He sits me down near the fire, and tells me that he won't let the soldiers in, because I'm now part of his family. He tells me that if the soldiers come he'll fight with them and tell them to go away. He tells me not to worry. I believe it all, every word. After a few minutes, Nangulee's father comes out and tells me to relax, in Persian, and asks me if I need something to eat. I say no, thanks. We go into Nangulee's house, where his cousin Hassan brings out a sleeping mat. They wedge me in between the father and Hassan, in a warm room filled with cooling sweets. After an hour of racing thoughts, I sleep and feel safe.

Which I was, but only thanks to Nangulee. While I was in the back room sleeping, the soldier who had shot at me came back with 17 friends to finish the job. They collared the trainee assistants out front and asked them if they knew anything about the foreigner. The kids ran inside and asked Nangulee what they should tell them. "Tell them you are only students and don't know anything about a foreigner." Nangulee went out after a few minutes and told them to go screw themselves. Eventually they went away. When I asked Nangulee why they wanted to find me so badly, he said they wanted my money and telephone. Northern Alliance soldiers are not paid a regular salary, and most of them cannot read or write. "Most of these soldiers are crazy," Nangulee said. "Never go out at night."

I'd been here two weeks, and Northern Alliance soldiers had both protected me and tried to kill me. I knew it was even possible that some who were my protectors by day turned into thugs and bandits at night. In the morning, I walked back down the street to the guest house, very much aware it was Thanksgiving Day. I was intensely grateful to Nangulee and his family, but I was hoping Kunduz would fall soon and this war might be over, so I could go home. And now it's fallen, and peace seems as elusive as ever.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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