Out of Afghanistan

After witnessing the fall of Kunduz and seeing the dead body of one of his colleagues, our Afghanistan correspondent tries to get out of the country.


Phillip Robertson
December 3, 2001 2:00PM (UTC)

On the morning, of Nov. 24, we got up late. After wandering in shivering, looking for our tea and a hardboiled egg, we ended up watching a near lethal dose of Indian TV, which as far as I could tell was mostly romantic dance numbers and ads for a mysterious powder called Chunky Chat. All the Afghans, including Amin, our devoutly religious jeep driver, couldn't tear their eyes from the fabulous girl in the video. We couldn't either, but they watched with a rapt intensity like someone taking hits from a bong. Finally, at the end of a long, saccharine back and forth, and a strangely erotic and confusing duet between the beauty and her bookish partner, the title of the video flashed up on the screen, "It's All About Loving Your Parents." Sion, the photographer, involuntarily coughed up an egg fragment that shot across the room. The Afghans stared silently.

It was time to head up to the front at Bangi.

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On the road, Uzbek peasants were driving their donkeys to the market in Taloqan, loaded down with firewood and rice, while fighters carrying their Kalashnikovs and blankets were thumbing for a lift to Bangi. As we passed the dead village of Chun Zai, there was a row of white stones placed across the road which forced Amin to slow down a bit and mutter a long string of complaints in Dari. When I asked what the roadblock meant, he would only say that it was the work of the Pashtun villagers. Amin is a Tajik and doesn't care much for Pashtuns, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of the Taliban fighters. The stones, laid in a trail of disconnected vertebrae across the road, did not seem like a good omen. Anything that slowed the jeep down in the middle of nowhere was a bad thing, and when the jeep had to stop in the middle of nowhere, it was a full blown crisis. We hated unscheduled delays like the plague.

So Amin drove over the rock barrier at 40 miles an hour.

When we made it up to the front, a hill overlooking the long Bangi River valley, Sion went off to take photographs while I walked around trying to keep warm. The mujahedin were resting on carpets of hay, utterly bored. I sat down with them.

Abdul Rakhman, a fighter, came up to me to explain that when Ahmed Shah Masoud died, Abdul had died also. I said, "But you are very much alive." Abdul nodded. "Ahmed Shah Masoud was the father of all mujahedin, that's why when he died, we all died." Masoud, the charismatic Tajik commander of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated by agents of Osama bin Laden shortly before the Trade Center bombings as a favor to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. In this part of Afghanistan, Masoud's image is everywhere -- on vehicles, across the walls of houses -- part of a cult of personality which has elevated him to the status of a secular saint. Children are named after him.

Abdul then asked me the question I heard all the time. "Can you take me to America?" He was having trouble with his Kalashnikov, the stock was dragging on the ground because Abdul is very short. Abdul is very short because he is 9 years old. He spoke of America as if it were heaven, or the magical kingdom of Oz. I told Abdul he could come to America with me but he would have to travel as checked baggage, or in a very small box with air holes punched in it. When he heard that, he jumped up and down, overjoyed, thinking it was a done deal. The joke started to crumble out from under me. The older fighters in Abdul's unit laughed like crazy.

"Going to America is not like going to the bazaar," I had to explain, "There are all sorts of permission letters, visas, plane tickets and passports which make the journey difficult for an Afghan. When it is night here, the sun is shining in America, that's how far it is. My house is on the other side of the world." Abdul said he understood, but he looked stricken as he walked back to his friends. I felt like a rotten liar.

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There were movements on the front line, so I went up to figure out what was going on. Everyone was talking about Taliban defectors from Khanabad, the nearest opposition held town, and how they were due any minute. I walked down to the stone bridge where commander Nazir Mohammed said that the defectors were not going to come down the main road, where they were likely to be shot by foreigners within the Taliban. Instead, they would take a longer route along the foothills through a village called Amirabad. Sion reappeared and we hiked off to go get Amin so we could drive most of the distance. When we found him, he had the jeep's engine in pieces, and was happy to tell us that we couldn't go yet. It was an extremely clever technique of avoiding the drive through the front, but we made him put everything back together in a hurry, and then piled into the jeep desperately worried that we would miss the show. On the way to the Amirabad road, as we rolled through the abandoned village of Choga, we saw the first truckload of Taliban defectors. As they passed us in the back of their captured pickup, the crowd of young Pashtun fighters in black turbans looked at us with incredible hatred -- an axiomatic, unshakable hatred I'd never seen before. I waved at them. They did not wave back. We kept going, finally parking the jeep in a clearing with a few Northern Alliance vehicles, where we promptly stepped out into a black and white photograph. This side of the valley was extremely dry, with no trees and no vegetation. The low river, now reduced to a pitiful stream, barely providing any nourishment at all.

As we headed out to Amirabad on foot, skirting the mountains, we joined a long line of fighters going down the road toward the place where the Taliban commander, Amidullah Khan, was to surrender. The distance, as it turned out, was several miles, much farther than we had guessed, all of it below bluffs and escarpments which made perfect cover for snipers. Sion said he felt like the last man on earth. Soon, we had walked farther west than we had ever been, the front on the northern side of the valley being much closer to Khanabad, and therefore much closer to the Taliban controlled zone. Two days before, the mujahedin had retreated in a panic from this exact spot, leaving it in no man's land, so we all felt a little nervous without Amin there to drive us back to Bangi if needed. It was like being an astronaut on a spacewalk.

At noon, in a deep V-shaped channel, dug so that the road could pass through a hill, we arrived at the spot where the Taliban commanders would bring their men and vehicles. Several hundred mujahedin covered the hillsides, waiting with their guns on the ground. In a few minutes, a new-looking Chevy Suburban with tinted windows drove down the road and an emissary from the Taliban side got out to greet Mullah Taj Muhammad, a Northern Alliance commander. They hugged and kissed, stroking their beards. The emissary drove back to the Taliban side. Soon after he left, with his last assurance of safety for the men who were about to give themselves up, there was a convoy of vehicles coming down the rutted track, carrying hundreds of Talibs, who were packed like sardines into trucks, vans, and tanks. All of them in the regulation black turbans, all with the same hateful stares I saw in Choga.

We waited for the fighting to start. A single shot fired would have been enough. One Taliban fighter who went by in the back of a pickup, held a tripod mounted machine gun he pointed at the mujahedin on the nearby hillsides. We could see his finger on the trigger, and he was very nervous, thinking that he would be betrayed at the last minute. Nothing happened.

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The mujahedin on the hills were watching the spectacle like baseball fans, and cheered every time a new tank or pickup came through. I was struck by how new the Taliban pickups looked. Many of them were less than a year old and in great condition, not at all like the rusty, battered hulks the Northern Alliance used to get around. Somebody had been buying the Taliban very expensive toys, and for Taj Muhammad, the commander who would get to keep the best of the lot, it was Christmas.

Kunduz had to go in the next 24 hours, we thought. There was no way the Taliban could hold it more than another day.

War for the Afghans is mostly an afternoon and evening affair. By 4 on Sunday, a massive column of at least nine tanks and what seemed like acres of jeeps and pickups had assembled on the main Taloqan-Kunduz road, just west of Bangi. Thousands of fighters were arrayed in a line that was at least a mile long. The air smelled of diesel fumes and smoke and there was constant noise and shouting. Fighters took their weapons off safety, in a chorus of metallic clicks. People ran around like mad, the mujahedin jockeying for position in the column, commanders yelling at their fighters to stay in their groups, but our plan was simple. Sion, Amin, our translater Nazar and myself would join the column and ride with it to Khanabad, possibly all the way to Kunduz. "Khanabad, Kunduz, finished," the fighters said. We believed them. In fact, an hour earlier, we were treated to a press conference at Choga given by Gen. Daoud Khan, who said in no uncertain terms to the world media, "Our forces are now entering Kunduz."

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As we were waiting for the word to start off down the road, a friend who works for the Washington Post came up to me in a panic. "I just hate these situations and I keep thinking of my kids," she said. "Going with the column could be a really stupid idea." Her voice shook. She wanted to know if she could use my satellite phone if she was separated from her driver and translator. I told her I thought that we wouldn't have a problem, that the Taliban had probably fled west toward Kunduz, away from the Northern Alliance column. To help us identify her car, she cut a strip from her scarf and tied it to one of the side mirrors.

Another 30 minutes passed with no movement, and then suddenly, the column started to roar off without us. We let most of it go past, thinking that if there was going to be a nasty firefight, it wasn't smart to be the first ones to get it. The key was to travel somewhere in the middle, closer to the end, but not be dead last.

I asked Amin to start driving and instead of pulling out, he went on and on in Dari with Nazar offering a condensed, and probably more polite, translation. "Phillip, it is very dangerous. We should not go." We told Amin and Nazar that they were wasting precious time, that it was getting dark, and we had to get a move on before we were stranded without any Northern Alliance forces on the road with us. The negotiations between Sion and I, and Nazar and Amin, dragged on for crucial minutes while the column disappeared toward Khanabad. When Amin put the jeep in gear and drove off down the road into the gloom and the dust, we were greeted by a scene of increasing weirdness.

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Just past the recently abandoned Taliban front line, across from Choge Nawabad, we found a 50-foot B-52 bomb crater planted squarely in the middle of the road, next to a completely demolished building. Amin managed to get the jeep around the lip of the crater and we kept going toward Khanabad, where we were presented with an unexpected horrifying choice. It was a fork in the road. Sion said, "Nazar, which is the correct way to Khanabad?"

"What?"

"We have a choice, which is the right direction?" Sion was furious.

"I don't understand," Nazar whined.

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Two cars full of journalists were following us. Any mistake we made would be theirs as well.

Amin picked a direction and kept going. In a minute, we were all in Khanabad, which was completely deserted except for a few villagers who came out to talk to us. I asked them when the Taliban had left Khanabad, and the villagers said they had left an hour ago. My friend from the Washington Post turned her car around and drove back to Bangi.

The light failed us then. The road was dark and Amin and Nazar were close to absolute panic. The plan was to scoot another kilometer to find the others, and we ultimately got there by begging Amin to go forward in increments of 200 meters. At a place called Ludin, we found a group of mujahedin waiting for orders to proceed. Amin stopped the car, and Sion asked why we were stopping.

"Because we have to figure out what's going on."

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"We're wasting time, let's go now."

"I want to ask these guys where the front is."

"The front is down there, going toward Kunduz. Come on."

"What if it isn't? This could be it." I was starting to have this feeling that Kunduz was not at all finished, and that tales of Kunduz's fall had been greatly exaggerated. Nazar got out with me and we started to ask various commanders questions. The answer came back, "You can't go forward."

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"Why?"

"Because this is the front line."

A commander pointed to a nearby village where we watched the lights of the mujahedin pickups and jeeps as they drove through the town like crazy. "See that village? It is Taliban." I didn't see any shooting, but there was enough activity to make me think there had just been a firefight. We were hearing bursts of gunfire, and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from.

I went back to the jeep and told Sion to forget about going on to Kunduz, which made him livid. After a long heated argument about why we should keep going because it was safer to go west than to go back east, since we were somewhere in the middle. I walked away and Sion got out of the jeep and ran straight into a bunch of his colleagues. One of them was James Nachtwey, a celebrated photojournalist who has documented some of the world's most hideous situations at terrible personal risk. For me that was the nail in the coffin: If Nachtwey had stopped, it would be absurd to keep driving.

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At one point when we were conferring with the mujahedin and the other journalists who had come this far, we looked back toward Amin's pristine jeep and saw clouds of hashish smoke billowing from the windows. For a second, I thought he'd set it on fire.

We piled back into the jeep and turned back for Bangi, as the stars burned in their dark curtain, watching the road very carefully.

In Sufi Momeen's restaurant in Taloqan, we found the entire clientele holding portable radios to their ears, where I heard the unmistakable nasal whine of Daoud Khan giving a speech.

"What's that, Nazar?"

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"Daoud Khan on Radio Iran."

"Really. What's he saying."

"He says that the forces of the mujahedin are entering the city. He says that Kunduz has fallen."

It was a bald lie.

At Ludin, the road was open, so we could have indeed plowed on toward Kunduz. But if we'd kept going, all four of us would have been murdered.

Our killers were waiting for us just down the road.

The new plan was to wait until 4:30 the next morning and drive toward Kunduz.

Amin and Nazar were late and didn't show up until 6 a.m. When they arrived, we got in to the jeep and drove in complete silence out of Taloqan, west, through Bangi, up to the previous front line without seeing very many other vehicles and no checkpoints. Every so often, we would pass a truck full of fighters, but the road was really quiet. In 20 minutes, we were at the huge crater across from Choge Nawabad. It was too cold to take notes; my fingers wouldn't write. Ten minutes later, we passed through Khanabad, and the mist was starting to burn off the rice fields. Amin, still unusually quiet, pulled over when we found the column very close to the spot where we had left it the night before. It was 7 in the morning. Nazar hadn't said a word either.

Sion wanted to keep driving so he popped out of the jeep with his camera gear, and was immediately stopped by a group of five young mujahedin, who tried to explain to him that it wasn't possible to go any further down the road. Sion wouldn't have it. "I'm going to Kunduz, that's all there is to it." There were a few other photographers, standing in a bunch, 100 yards away and he wanted to go and join them, but the mujahedin were grabbing his clothes trying to hold him back. When they were all clutching at him, Sion pulled a great London pub-brawl move, suddenly raising his arms, sending all the armed guys scattering to the winds. From where I was standing, it seemed like the fighters exploded away from him as he thumped his way down toward Kunduz.

A little worried that one of the dumber ones would shoot him, I told Nazar to run down and translate between Sion and the fighters. When Nazar got there, Sion didn't need a translator. He just told all of them to fuck off and kept on marching down the road. It was almost beautiful. Sion got smaller and smaller, looking a little top heavy in his Kevlar vest, while Nazar came running back to me with the crowd of mujahedin and said, "These men want to take the car and stop him." The fighters jumped into the jeep, ready to go. Amin froze, waiting for me to say something.

I spoke to the fighters in low tones, greeting them and carefully explaining that Sion was a war photographer and a lunatic, and that I would go down and talk to him myself, without anyone else present. And amazingly, they bought it, hook line and sinker, all of them getting out of the jeep politely and shaking my hand. The fighters told me through Nazar that there were Taliban holed up in a small white building near the road, and that Sion would be killed, but the breathless way they told me made me think it was bullshit. The mujahedin, almost to a man, were terrified of the Taliban, as if their enemy had been invested with supernatural powers.

Amin drove me down to where Sion waited with the other photographers and just then, at around 7:30, the column started to move to Kunduz. It was a perfect morning. We walked with the mujahedin as they trundled along at 5 miles an hour, and after mile or so, I sent Nazar back to get Amin, because he was waiting for us. The photographers got great shots of fighters walking through the morning mist and some fighters pulled me into the back of their truck. They made a space for me on the bench, and I asked them the usual questions, holding up my end of the secret deal, which is: I write down their names and ages and they keep me from getting killed.

Everyone was in a great mood. The war was coming to an end. The mujahedin were going to win.

I rode with them for a few miles, thanked them and jumped back on to the road where I soon caught sight of Amin. Sion was back in the jeep with Nazar, and when we passed Nachtwey, we slowed down to give him a lift into town.

On the outskirts of Kunduz, there were crowds of onlookers who had come out to see the mujahedin take the town, but unlike in Taloqan, they were not cheering. Older men, many of them Pashtuns, stood at the side of the road and stared at us. No jubilant shouting, no thrown coins, not even a raised hand in acknowledgement. This was first sign that the fall of Kunduz wouldn't be like the fall of its sister city.

The column kept moving to the center of the city, where we saw hundreds more silent onlookers, some of them children. We had just crossed main bazaar when Amin told Nazar to tell me something.

"Phillip, these are Kandahari people."

The men on the street were Taliban. I had just enough time to see a fighter 10 feet away in a black turban whirl around the corner of a building like a ballet dancer. Then the shooting started.

It was a carefully planned ambush, the obligatory accompaniment to any Northern Alliance advance. The shooting started at 8 sharp. Rockets flew down the street in our direction, bright red explosive embers. The mujahedin turned their trucks around and returned fire. Rocket-propelled grenades flew over Amin's cherished jeep in both directions, knocking walls out of the buildings on the other side of the street, while fighters opened up with Kalashnikovs and machine guns. In the middle of it all, James and Sion hopped out into the street, and started snapping pictures.

Amin was terrified. He threw the wheel over and gunned it, driving back down the street and out of town, but he was stopped by the rest of the Khan's fighters who had formed a defensive perimeter at the end of the market. Amin pulled over and as soon as he had a clear shot at the road, he started driving out of town. I told Nazar to explain to Amin that the shooting was confined to the market and not to panic. "Tell him Nazar. Tell Amin to stop right here."

Nazar said nothing. He was white with fear. "Tell him to stop!" Nazar wouldn't translate the command so I punched him until he said it in Dari. Amin pulled over. I got out, asked Nazar to come with me and he flatly refused. We had driven halfway out of town.

As I was trying to figure out how to get up to the market to see what was going on without being killed, Amin and Nazar promptly drove off. I walked up the street listening to sniper bullets, which sound like summer bugs and make a low pitched whirr as they go past. Every so often I'd duck into a doorway. When I stepped out into the street, more whirring. I was close to the site of the original shooting when the fighting stopped and the Kunduz residents came out to surround the dead and dying. At one place in the street, where Nazar mysteriously reappeared, there was a crowd of onlookers poking at a figure on the ground.

Nazar said, "This man says he wants to kill the injured Talib," pointing at an angry man. The crowd surged around the wounded fighter every time he moved. Some men dragged the fighter to the sidewalk, where he was instantly again surrounded by gawkers.

An old man got up on a set of stairs, and begged for the life of the wounded man, which seemed to calm everyone down. I saw at least five dead Taliban scattered around the market. All of them had been shot and they were lying in large pools of blood. In the street, mujahedin were rounding up prisoners and vehicles, driving them out of town at amazing speeds. Khan's people wouldn't even take the time to hotwire a Taliban truck because they were afraid it would mean they would lose it to a rival commander. A fleet of pickups and jeeps left the city, towed by mujahedin at really respectable speeds, causing the crowds to scatter.

At 8:45 Sion found us after being pinned down by grenade fire in the street. Amin reappeared with the jeep and we decided to drive to the airport where there had been numerous reports of planes evacuating Pakistani commanders the previous evening.

Near the traffic circle that marked the center of town, Amin told me point blank that he wanted $1,000 to drive us to the airport.

"Forget it. You can't raise the rates just because we are in a bad situation," I said.

When our driver heard that, he just turned off the car. Amin had come to the conclusion that he wasn't being paid enough and simply went on strike. We didn't have time to work it out, because the Northern Alliance commanders started shooting at each other, in yet another exchange of rockets which flew over the car. I ducked and lay across the seat, and Amin ended his strike and got us back to the traffic circle but then drove off and left us for the second time.

More chaos and running. At the traffic circle, right after commander Mullah Taj Mohammed made a ridiculous speech to some recent captives, there was more shooting and several thousand panicked Kunduz residents ran down the market street like it was the end of the world. I asked a fighter what was going on and he said, "It's happy. Happy!" He tried to explain that there weren't any Taliban left and that the explosions were just jubilation, a very earnest attempt at a face-saving lie.

Soon, regular army troops came in and prevented me from going back to the traffic circle, the scene of so much internecine Northern Alliance conflict. I had witnessed several very heated arguments between truckloads of mujahedin and I had by that time seen enough to understand what was going on. Explosions around the city were probably the result similar conflicts, not just the final shootouts with the Taliban. They wanted the trucks.

During one particularly intense stampede, a Portuguese journalist named Daniel pulled me into a giant truck and drove me halfway out of town. The rest of the morning we spent walking the streets of Kunduz, being pulled down streets by throngs of people who were trying to show us things, who couldn't explain in English or Russian, but we couldn't go with them because we were afraid of running into hiding Taliban fighters in the side streets. Children held up Russian copy books for us to inspect. A beggar stroked my beard and asked me how I was. A 19-year-old English teacher tried to bring us to his house for tea. Taliban snipers shot at Westerners all morning and missed every time.

It all happened at a hundred miles an hour.

By 10 the city was calm and I trudged around looking for Amin so I could call the BBC and do a radio interview with the satellite phone. When he reappeared, I climbed into the jeep, looked up the number and gave them an incoherent 40 second interview about the situation in Kunduz on the day it fell to the Northern Alliance.

After meeting back up on the main street, Amin drove us back to Taloqan, only talking when he saw the second wave of journalists come toward the city. "See, this is when you go into the city, with these journalists." Amin was really mad. I told him, as the bombproof, mineproof, sniperproof, BBC mobile went past, that these people were late for their supper.

The people who had struck out for Kunduz after seven in the morning had been stopped at roadblocks by the government, thus missing the firefight, the war spoils dust-ups and a host of other events which were never properly reported. At the time, I felt that it was a perfect atmosphere for summary execution of prisoners, but I didn't see anything like that happen. So much happened so fast, that it was impossible to get it all. It would have been great if there were more observers in the city to get all the facts. As it was, Kunduz fell in total chaos and it almost took us with it.

What happened in that city between rival mujahedin commanders over the division of the captured trucks, presages the future of Afghanistan under the Northern Alliance. Greed, brutality and narrow mindedness will all have their day.

After we got back to the guest house, Sion fell dead asleep with a very high fever. I paid Nazar and Amin, and told them to take the next day off.

Yuri Kozyrev, our house mate, a fantastic photographer who was working for the Los Angeles Times, came early the next day and woke me up. He told me, after I followed him out into the garden, that we had to leave immediately because another journalist had been killed, this time in Taloqan, by masked gunmen who robbed a Swedish crew and shot their cameraman in cold blood. It was quite some time before we heard all the details of the killing, but at that moment, we were concentrating on how to move as fast as we could to a safe location.

We should go somewhere together, I think, Yuri said. I was all for that, and went in to wake up Sion. Soon, our host Atiq was sniffing around trying to understand why we were packing so quickly. As we got the gear into Yuri's car, Atiq came up to me and asked, "Mister, where are you going?"

I wouldn't tell him, but the idea was that we would go and ask for the protection of a local warlord named Mutalab Bek, and possibly stay at his house for the night, a heavily guarded compound. When Sion was ready, we piled into the cab and drove off to the foreign ministry, where we found almost all of our colleagues lining up to get out of the country. The convoy took up the whole block. In the back of a pickup was Ulf Stromberg's body.

We weren't getting on the convoy, because no one told us about it, so there were some tearful goodbyes and anxious looks.

Before we left the ministry for the warlord's house, a middle-aged man in front of the ministry compound quietly asked me, "And where are you going?"

"I don't know," I said, hating him.

"You don't know?"

"No."

He was sneering just enough to let me know he thought it was funny that we were all on the run. As we were driving off toward our safe house, a soldier leaned in very close to my window as a menacing last fuck you.

We arrived at Mutalab Bek's place, a two-story concrete palace, and spent hours trying to figure out what to do next. Yuri was going to Mazar-e-Sharif with a writer for the Los Angeles Times, and they were going to take a really long route. He wanted to know my plans. Sion was definitely getting out the following morning and was trying to talk me into leaving, but I couldn't decide yet. I counted people and there were only 15 of us left in Taloqan that night, everybody having moved into the guarded compound.

Upstairs, Jeanette, a French Canadian, produced the first cheese we had seen in a month and asked if we were hungry. In her room, she had an incredible stash of wine and crackers and some other high-grade non-Muslim contraband. It was so civilized we almost wept. She poured me out a healthy shot of Glenfiddich for my birthday and gave us little presents of food. Sitting at her table, thinking about Ulf Stromberg, I decided to leave Afghanistan on the next convoy, early the next morning, but it made me feel sick and ashamed.

The previous night, Nov. 26, Stromberg and the other Sweden TV4 people were resting at their guest house when a group of masked men burst in and started demanding dollars, more dollars. They rummaged around in the bags of the Swedish crew, gathering up satellite phones, computers and $3,500 in cash, and when Ulf opened a door, one of the gunmen shot him in the chest. His friends called a heart specialist in Sweden who carefully explained how to keep pressure on the wound, and they brought him down to a pickup truck and drove him as fast as they could to the hospital in Taloqan. Stromberg bled to death before they could get him there.

He had offered no resistance to the gunmen.

The translator for the Swedish crew said that the voices of the attackers were high pitched, like adolescents. Later on, the foreign ministry would place the responsibility for the attacks on the Swedes, saying that they should have been in a government-sponsored guest house with an armed guard. All of us thought it was a ridiculous assertion.

Down the hall, Justin Huggler was filing a story on the cameraman's death with his copy department at the Independent, reading his article over the phone. When he read his piece, we all stopped and listened with bowed heads, because it was a eulogy and so bitterly sad, this death of Ulf Stromberg, an event so needless and at the same time lost in the sea of the other deaths in Afghanistan. We walked around Mutalab Bek's protection-money palace in a daze.

Bill and Jeanette made a few calls and found us a driver and a fixer for the trip to the border via Dashte Kala. We told them to be out front at 6. It would cost each of us about $500 to leave the country.

We heard that the convoy leaving for Dushanbe via Dashte Kala was leaving from the CBS compound, so the next morning, after jumping out of our sleeping bags, and into our clothes, we hook up with the driver and head over to CBS with Bill and Jeanette coming in a separate car. After a few minutes, Sion comes up and says, "Do you know where this convoy is going?"

"Yes, dude, it's going to Dushanbe."

"Well, I just heard an Afghan guy say it was going to Kabul."

"Oh Jesus."

We tore out of there for the foreign ministry where we hoped to catch the right convoy out of town. As we drove down Taloqan's main street, Sion saw the Sky News jeep headed west going in the exact opposite direction. We turned around, following them and finally lost their jeep in a cloud of dust.

"Could you speed up?" we asked the driver.

The fixer told me that he didn't like the dust, which is why we were so far behind him.

"Just catch up to him."

Ironically, this ride was the most uncertain ride of all, as we beat it out of town without armed escort, with no one else on the road in clouds of billowing powder. I waited for the Taliban to come sprinting out of the hills. It never happened. At one point, a Jeep with dark windows seemed to follow us for a while, shattering our nerves, but that was all. Sion was totally calm, and I was trying not to lose it, while our fixer chatted away in Russian.

Bactrian camels drifted across the road. We saw caves cut in sheer cliffs, and when we made it to the first river, in territory that had never been held by the Taliban, I felt that we were out of the woods. When we forded it, the water came up past the doors of the jeep, and the driver floated us across using a secret Afghan driving technique. We were so relieved. After a six-hour drive, we were at the ferry crossing of the Amu Darya River and out of the country.


Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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