Panic at the Bangi Bridge

A trip to the front in Afghanistan turns into a nightmare after a Taliban ambush sets off a panic.


Phillip Robertson
December 21, 2001 1:00PM (UTC)

In an unheated apartment in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a few days before crossing the border into Afghanistan, I had a nightmare in which I was making terrible mistakes. It was one of those quick, bad turns your head sometimes takes when you arrive in an unfamiliar place and the dreams are unnaturally vivid. There was a fake tank at a fake checkpoint in a fake war-torn country, and then something happened that couldn't be undone. In the sequence, I had given the wrong answer to a soldier's question.

A bad dream, no big deal, hatched by anxiety and anti-malaria pills, but I remember it now because of what would happen 10 days later, at the bridge over the Bangi River on Nov. 12, the day after the Northern Alliance took Taloqan in a nearly bloodless victory. It was a victory that made us feel all warm and happy inside because we had the good fortune to witness the column of fighters glide into the city, where the population came out to greet them by throwing coins and banknotes onto the hoods of tanks and jeeps as they passed while some even held out pieces of bread to the fighters, which they took and ate as part communion, part welcome.

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The crew of journalists I'd fallen in with, five writers and photographers from the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Portugal, had witnessed the fall of Taloqan from the back of a Toyota pickup.

After the town fell, we spent a cold night on the second floor of a shop in Taloqan, without blankets, crashed out on piles of luggage and coats. In the morning, we found some female doctors at the clinic who told us what life was like under the Taliban, and we were so excited at the prospect of speaking to unveiled women, we fell upon them with a hail of inane questions. The interview went longer than we had expected, and by the time it was over, Daoud Khan's soldiers had already left for the front, now moving west. He had offered to take us with him, but we were stranded, left to find a place to stay in Taloqan.

Our driver, whose name was Kandahar, stopped the Toyota in front of a place on the main street, a house owned by a rich man who claimed that he had rented it to Arabs before the Northern Alliance had arrived. We were welcome for $20 a night, but there would be no food, no running water, no electricity, and rent was to be collected in the morning before we were out of bed. In one long room, the room we would stay in, there were sleeping mats and pillows; covering the windows were sheets of milky plastic. All in all, it wasn't a terrible deal, but we needed shelter from the relentless cold and dust, which would make everyone sick as dogs.

Like our new pad, every house in Taloqan has a garden surrounded by high mud walls. More often than not, the garden will have roses, which are fed by delicate irrigation channels dug into the packed earth, which, if followed to their source, go through the walls, out to the street, finally threading back to the river. The city is a maze of these channels. Old men wash in them, rub their teeth with the water, using it prepare themselves for prayer. On the street, the trees line the irrigation channels, their leaves covered with the dust from passing trucks.

The correspondents milled around the guest house garden wondering what to do next, whether they had enough to file for the day or whether they would have to pile into a car and drive through the rice fields to find the mujahedin column. The consensus was "bad idea," and most of them stuck around to file the hospital story.

I kept talking about driving up to the front toward Kunduz to find the mujahedin, but Kevin Donovan from the Toronto Star told me to forget it, saying it wasn't a good plan since we didn't know what was going on up there. He was a good reporter and swaggered a bit, an act that went well with his Marlboro Man looks. As we debated what to do, the Afghans, a knot of translators and drivers, squatted near some young trees waiting for us to make a decision. Kevin chose to stay, which meant that I was without a ride and a driver.

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A minute later, Sion Touhig, a Welsh photographer, came up and said to me casually, "So how about we go up there and just have a look?" He said it like there were girls having a pillow fight in the next house, and maybe we should take a peek before their brothers get there. I agreed.

Donovan said to me, "You're going. Are you going?"

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"Yes."

"You understand that I can't let you have Kandahar take you up there?"

Donovan didn't need Kandahar, but he wasn't happy about lending him out.

"No problem," I said.

It was a huge problem.

We still had to find a driver, but the owner of the house, always eager to get in on the flow of dollars, said that he would find us a reliable man, a relative of his, to take us to the front.

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I agreed to it and suddenly thought it might be a good idea to shave first, overwhelmed by the urge to be clean after three solid days of muck and sweat gathered by traveling over mountain ranges and down rivers. Abdullah, the water bearer, brought a bucket of hot water to the washroom, a concrete cell with a drain in the center of the floor, and poured it slowly over my head, making the dust come off in muddy rivulets. Abdullah then carefully washed my back with a rag, while I knelt and prayed to a reproachful God of strip malls, fast-food chains, low-interest financing and trout fishing to watch over me, just this once. The prayer was a long apology.

When I was done, Sion was ready to go and pointed out that the driver was outside waiting, the gear was packed and we were late and wasting time. It was the middle of the afternoon; the sun was out. We were ready to go, even though we didn't have a translator. There wasn't time to find anyone on such short notice who could speak English. When we got outside, the driver of the cab told the owner of the house he wanted $600 to take us to the column. We haggled. Sion snorted in disgust at the unreasonable price. The driver came down to $200 and we got in. In Afghanistan, going anywhere by car meant paying extortionate rates, usually an amount set by the Foreign Ministry as a kind of wealth redistribution scheme. If the driver smelled desperation, the price instantly doubled or tripled. We were not allowed to bring drivers, cars or translators from neighboring countries, which made matters much worse.

After all the negotiations were over, the cab's owner, a young man with a thin beard named Sabur Ghalfoor, looked as though he could not believe his good fortune. Ferrying a couple of foreigners up to a front where he thought nothing was happening was a perfect piece of cake. He grinned and pointed out places of interest. Ghalfoor told me the names of the mountains. "Ambarku, Ambarku," he said. They looked like ideal hiding places for snipers.

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We drove in silence on the Soviet-built highway toward Kunduz. In the first four miles, where the asphalt runs down the center of the valley, we watched rice paddies roll by. Uzbek peasants were out on the road where they had spread their harvest, scuffing their feet in the grain to turn it over every so often so it would dry in the sun. Their children made small furrows in the rice with their toes. To the north and south, dust-colored mountains without a single tree formed the river valley's boundaries. After 15 minutes, driving at a remarkably swift 18 miles per hour, we passed through a market town with an iron arch, and as the valley narrowed as we went further west, we climbed into a desolate landscape of dead villages. Rock shards covered the road, thrown out of the cliffs from bombs or rockets. We drove past a dead Taliban fighter left to rot in a field, then a burned-out tank.

The village of Qabil Qazi went by, a set of broken teeth.

Finally we found the mujahedin column parked at a place called Bangi. The town was just south of the river, situated on a hill where Daoud Khan's commanders had positioned three tanks and a rocket launcher, their guns facing west. Most of the column was getting ready to move, and since it was roughly a mile long with at least 1,000 fighters, in trucks and jeeps, there was a sound that rose up from it, transmissions grinding, engines pulling overweight loads.

Sion and I got out of the cab, poked around and decided to keep moving forward with the fighters, so we told Ghalfoor to keep going. He didn't gave us any problems, he just put the car in gear and drove down the hill, over the concrete bridge, over the Bangi River and then up the opposite side, where he pulled over and parked. Once we arrived, Sion hopped out and disappeared up a trail mooching around for a shot, while I walked around taking notes, counting trucks and watching for mines. Then Ghalfoor had a bright idea and turned his cab around so it faced back toward Taloqan on the opposite side of the road. He waved to let me know what he was doing, since we couldn't understand each other. I waved back and walked to the west side of the hill, to the farthest extent of the front, watching the hillside for problems and listening.

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Then the gunfire started.

It was a well-coordinated Taliban ambush. At least one Talib opened up on the Northern Alliance convoy with a machine gun just on the west side of the cut in the road, about 30 feet away. It wasn't short bursts either but long stuttering paragraphs, like he was cleaning up. This was soon followed by rocket-propelled grenades. I skirted the road, avoiding the soft earth on the shoulder, and made my way back toward Ghalfoor's cab, ducking behind jeeps and trucks for cover. Through the spaces between the vehicles, I saw a friend from the New York Times running in slow motion back toward his pickup, and knew it was time to split for real. But it didn't seem like there was all that much to run from, that the fighters would go up into the hills and take control. We just needed a little more distance while they worked.

Sion was nowhere to be found, and the entire mass of fighters was starting to panic, swallowed whole by their terror of the other side of the hill. Jeeps rode up on the hillsides, nearly tipping over, while mujahedin abandoned their weapons, getting into anything that would move. The entire column, more than a thousand fighters, was turning around thinking that there was an entrenched Taliban force waiting to slaughter them all, and they moved as fast as they could to get out of there, without so much as returning fire. By the time I found Ghalfoor in his yellow station wagon, he was ready to go, gunning his engine, and I made him wait until Sion returned.

"OK? OK?" he kept asking, his only English word, wanting desperately to floor it and take off.

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I shook my head and put my hand on him to calm him and make him wait for Sion. The column roared past us back toward Taloqan, the machine-gun fire coming over the hill. It seemed to be coming closer. I got out of the car and looked for Sion, and shouted for him at the top of my lungs, a shout that went nowhere and immediately disappeared into the roar and the engine noise. I got back in the cab. More of the column went by, truck after truck, as the cab sat on the gravel turnout on the hill.

Looking at Ghalfoor sitting behind the wheel with his eyes as wide as saucers made me start to feel what the fighters were feeling, the horse-in-a-burning-barn fear of certain and inevitable doom, but I didn't feel it for very long. He chose that very moment to put the cab in gear and join the stream of panicking fighters. He just took off and that was that, we were moving. Sion had been left behind.

Ghalfoor now had the cab in the column but it wasn't moving fast enough for him and he laid on the horn, coming down hard on the accelerator, unthinking, and we weren't even at the bridge over the Bangi, and he laid on the horn again, but we couldn't hear it, and the fighters running in the road ahead of us couldn't hear it either.

So he ran them down.

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The first man Ghalfoor hit was on my side of the car, his knees snapping where the fender impacted. There was a look of disbelief on his face as he turned toward the road and collapsed in the powdery dust. Ghalfoor found a clear section of road and accelerated. He wasn't making the slightest effort to avoid them, he drove in a straight line, a man possessed.

The next fighter he ran down went up on the hood, coming all the way up to the windshield while the metal buckled under him and made a sound like tympani. When he rolled off the car and hit the ground, I saw his rifle sail through the air and land on the shoulder 30 feet away.

And so it went, man after man. I lost count at eight. It's strange how I can see it now, this nightmare instant, overlaid like a hallucination on the rest of the normal world, an image that can't be discarded because it has a soundtrack of sickening crashes, bones breaking on the fender and clattering weapons.

One fighter who wasn't in front of the car as it cut a path through the Mujahedin, shouted bitter curses at us as Ghalfoor shot past, while I yelled for him to stop, even punching him to get his attention. But he just kept looking straight ahead at the road and when he finally made the decision to drive off the shoulder and into the river, I gave up. Ghalfoor just didn't have time for the bridge, so he steered the cab toward the steep bank.

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There was a rocky edge to the river -- which was low this time of year, running in a few fast and shallow streams in the middle of its stony bed -- and Ghalfoor threw the wheel of the station wagon to the right and just took us down the side and into it. He hit the water at 20 miles an hour and I was sure the engine would stall and we would be stuck there, forced to get out and walk the distance back to Taloqan under fire. But he kept us moving, keeping us out of the deepest part of the river. As we reached the center of the stream, a fighter who was running away from the battle jumped into the passenger window so his head was in my lap, his legs dangling out of the cab. We carried him like that, up onto the opposite bank.

The fighter was crying.

We let him off somewhere on the road back to Taloqan, and just east of Chun Zai, one of the dead villages, I found the car carrying Lois, a writer from the Washington Post, and explained that I lost Sion up at Bangi. I wanted to know if she'd seen him. She hadn't because she was ahead of us in the column, but she was sure he would be OK, and told me not to worry. She didn't know anything definite, it was just something to say. There were only a few correspondents on the hill when the fighting started, perhaps four or five, most of them photographers, so there weren't many people who would know what happened to Sion, and I was sure that he was the last one to leave. We talked for another minute about what happened and then I got back in the cab and we drove on to the market town with the iron arch.

Ghalfoor drove and I said quietly, "I'm going to tell the world what a sick fuck you are."

Ghalfoor shrugged. We kept going.

When we pulled over at the farmer's market, a crowd formed around the cab, mostly Uzbek peasants who worked the fields who wanted to say hello, and ask about the war situation. An elder with a white beard and a black turban greeted me and I explained to him what had happened, making a fist with one hand and running fighters with the fingers of another, I showed the old man how Ghalfoor had run down the Mujahedin by moving the cab-fist over the fighter-fingers and he understood the gesture instantly. When I explained in Dari that Ghalfoor was being paid $200, the elder took him by the coat and shouted at him, admonishing Ghalfoor for his cowardice and his greed. Ghalfoor freed himself from the old man, got back in the car and we drove back to Taloqan.

When we pulled up in front of the guesthouse, I noticed that the cab was beat to hell. It had started out fine but now sported enough dents and scratches to made it look a hundred years old. There was a long gouge on the right-hand side; the left-hand door wouldn't shut properly; both mirrors were gone. Ghalfoor probed at the cab and bent to look at the damage, and I left him there and went inside the guesthouse, thinking that if I had to look at him another second, I would beat him to death.

"Where's Sion?" Kevin Donovan wanted to know.

"I lost him."

"You lost him?" He couldn't believe it. When I told him how Ghalfoor panicked when the column turned around, how we left Sion behind in the chaos, how the driver ran down the fleeing fighters, Donovon recoiled and let me have it, saying at the end of a hackneyed older brother monologue, "I'm through with you."

That was fine. If Sion and I had been among the first journalists in a fallen Kunduz, we would have had a heroic scoop on our hands. Sion would have taken his historic pictures, and we would have been so happy at getting there first while everybody else had decided to cool their heels and file the clinic story. But I didn't say it, because I was now living in the parallel universe where everything had gone wrong, and I was sick with dread about what could be coming next.

Kandahar, who had driven us up the sides of mountains and down fast rivers, got the story of what had happened from some of the men who were hanging around the courtyard, and told me through one of the interpreters that it was a mistake to trust a cab driver to go up to the front. I told him it was all we could get at the time and he pinched my cheek and smiled. Then Afghans, many men who I'd never met, stopped by to say that they knew that Sion was going to be fine, that he would walk out or hitch a ride on a truck back into town, and they would pat me on the shoulder, to let me know it was not a totally fucked situation. They offered their consoling words right up until Donovan, unnerved by the 10 Afghans wandering around the courtyard, threw them out of our compound. "There are too many Afghans in here. Get them out," he said.

After about 20 minutes, I went outside and found Ghalfoor shooting the breeze with a bunch of friends waiting to get paid. I threw the $200 in the dirt at his feet, spat and went back inside, and then waited another hour for Sion to appear. It was now nearly 5, and getting dark, and I was left to mull over worst-case scenarios. I thought Sion had been injured at Bangi or captured by the Taliban, both preludes to an instantaneous execution. There was nothing I could do about the fighters Ghalfoor ran down, except believe that they'd been picked up once the panic subsided. It was impossible to think clearly.

Another hour went by with no sign of him, so I went back outside to get away from the others. I couldn't bear to talk about it anymore, and leaned against the wall and looked down the street into the blue dust until Sion came walking out of it, a retouched image from a Hieronymus Bosch painting -- Man Emerges from the Gloom and Desperation of War.

During the battle, Sion had walked across the Bangi River and back down the road toward Taloqan, getting into a jeep which immediately broke down. He was picked up again by another group of fighters with a truck who took him the rest of the way back to town. He hitched his way out, just as Kandahar said.

"It's OK," he said, like it was no big deal. "I figured the driver legged it when he heard the shots."

A friend wrote in the New York Times the following day that a Northern Alliance soldier had turned the column of fighters back by threatening to shoot anyone who continued to retreat, which made sense, in the logic of Afghanistan, as the only way to stop the panic, the only way to keep the front from collapsing in on itself.

When we returned to Bangi the next day, there was the burned-out shell of a jeep at the crest of the hill, black and pocked with bullets, marking the spot where we had parked the car.

Later, when I heard that 12 mujahedin had died in the ambush, I wondered how many of them had died after being run down.


Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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