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In the Line of Fire

Article appeared in Zerb - The Journal of the Guild of Television Cameramen, Spring 2002 Issue 55

There’s no easy route into Khodj Baouddin, the first initial staging post for the BBC in Northern Afghanistan. Leaving Dushanbe in Tajikistan for my first trip into Afghanistan you could either join the convoy of journalists heading for the river barrage border crossing - a rough drive of six hours which was later to be my departure route - or if you were lucky you could get a helicopter to take you in. The latter certainly had the better views. However, I wasn’t feeling quite so lucky when the Russian built MI-8 started to descend rapidly and then swerve violently through the treetops. We were flying close to Taliban held territory and near enough for them to take a pot shot, so we knew this wasn’t just the pilot showing off his aerial skills. I should have guessed when I was told to sit on my flak jacket for the flight rather than wear it!  And as it turned out, this was just one of many transportation nightmares I was to experience in the coming days and weeks.

 

My first impressions of Khodj were of a labyrinth of mud huts, walking haystacks with donkeys inside, walking shrouds with women inside and streets layered in what would soon become my biggest enemy - lots and lots of talcum powder like sand.

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The Foreign Ministry compound which housed the BBC satellite dish, an assortment of press tents and the world’s worst toilet facilities appeared to provide the perfect barrier to this mechanical menace. That was until a sandstorm hit - and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Moscow correspondent Caroline Wyatt was about to broadcast live to BBC World TV when the wind suddenly picked up and the canopy she was under began straining for lift off against its tethers.  The noise from the protective bin bag surrounding my camera was deafening and I could barely keep my eyes open on the viewfinder. 

The all clear from the London studio came not a moment too soon. We hastily de rigged and ran for cover. The next morning when the dust had well and truly settled - all 5mm - it was obvious we needed better accommodation.

 

Aid organization ACTED was already providing a couple of rooms in their guesthouse for BBC staff to sleep in.  But when they learned of our predicament they immediately allowed us to move the whole operation there, including the satellite dish. Without their help I doubt we could have continued broadcasting. The rest of that day was spent moving the equipment, food and water supplies, erecting tents and then cleaning everything, including ourselves. This new place also had the luxury of a hand held shower, all be it a cold one but a big improvement on the bucket we’d been using.

 

Keeping us fit and well enough to do our jobs was safety coordinator Bobby Lennox. It was his responsibility to ensure we didn’t put our lives at risk, a role his army background made him more than qualified to do. But his advice wasn’t just about what to do and what not to do. The day after the sandstorm hit it was Bobby’s no nonsense Celtic tones that broke through the decamping chaos. “Everyone eat now”, he ordered and we didn’t dare argue. In true military fashion, dinner was an MRE or Meal ready to eat - portions of sausage and beans or Lancashire hotpot entombed in a metal bag. The miracle happens when you put this in contact with water and the trick is to know when to let go. The resulting chemical reaction and subsequent furnace occurs in seconds although it usually takes a further 720 seconds before your meal is really ready to eat.  Needless to say the impatience of both my colleagues and myself ensured that most meals felt luke warm at best. 


















Reaching the Frontline



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A few days later the US air strikes started. Correspondent Ben Brown and I headed for the frontline along a rutted dirt track. Reaching the end of the track we found ourselves at the Kokcha River where the only way across was by horse with the heavy and expensive broadcast camera balancing precariously on my lap.  The water was flowing quite fast and soon came up to my knees. Occasionally my horse lost it’s footing which really put my balancing abilities to the test. Thankfully I wasn’t told until later about the horse that had recently been swept downstream but luckily there were no such dramas for Champion my wonder horse and me. We eventually reached dry land and then it was a gentle uphill trot to where the Northern Alliance troops were based.

 

Once there we were taken on foot along the trenches to the brow of the hill. As we walked our interpreter pointed out the location of the ‘tourists’ some 500 meters over the brow of the hill - a puzzling thought had we not become used to his rather strange pronunciation of ‘terrorists’, or Talibs. Meanwhile another sandstorm had hit and the visibility was bad. It was really hard to get a perspective on how close the Taliban actually were. I began filming the outgoing gunfire, then a few seconds later heard the crackle of return fire. I remember thinking how much closer it sounded as I sank lower into the trench. However the biggest danger was again from the swirling sandstorm. It whipped around Ben and I so fast that we felt we were being sandblasted. We couldn’t stay there long without the camera being seriously damaged so we worked quickly, got what we needed and then left.

Back down the hill around a hundred other Northern Alliance soldiers were milling about, rocket launchers slung casually over their shoulders.  The sight of a television camera in this remote part of Afghanistan is naturally a source of great fascination. However it took quite a while for the Afghan male fresh from Taliban rule to get his head around the fact that a woman was operating it.  The usual reaction was one of amazement, followed by an attack of the giggles and then finally an overwhelming desire to help - whether it be with the zip of my flak jacket or carrying the tripod. “It’ll do them good”, said Ben. And I’d certainly like to think it did although I suspect I was viewed by many as just a western curiosity. But I’d like to think I left a question mark in at least one or two minds.

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Four weeks later I was back in Northern Afghanistan again, this time in Taloqan. The Northern Alliance soldiers had recaptured the surrounding area but were encountering fierce opposition from the Taliban in nearby Kunduz, primarily from it’s foreign fighters who feared certain death if they surrendered. For a week or two the American B52 bombers had been bombing the area around Kunduz and we spotted their spaghetti-like vapor trails in the sky on the day we arrived. However on this day they were notable in their absence. Amongst the assembled hacks rumors were rife on the reasons for this. Were Taliban soldiers about to surrender? Was the Northern Alliance about to launch a huge attack? 


They soon had their answer when hours later the first of many trucks holding Taliban soldiers sped up the road towards us. A scrum quickly formed around the back of the vehicles as reporters scrambled to interview the occupants. My correspondent Jon Sopel soon had a microphone in front of one soldier, distinctive in his dark turban. Asked why he had surrendered he answered “ We were surrounded, we had no choice”. The look on the other captured soldiers faces made me wonder if they shared the same view. We later heard unconfirmed reports of mass suicides amongst the trapped Taliban. For many believe martyrdom is the only acceptable way to die.

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Two days later news of a successful dawn offensive reached the press pack in Taloqan. Unfortunately roadblocks on the outskirts of town prevented us from immediately confirming this. But by mid afternoon the Northern Alliance finally gave us the paper permission we needed to enter Kunduz. So the race was on to get there, film what was happening and then leave before dark. We nervously set off in convoy alongside BBC Radio and Online, the armored land rover taking the lead. An hour later we knew we were getting close when we passed a huge crater in the middle of the road, the mangled wreckage of a truck lying upside down at the bottom. In the centre of Kunduz there was an almost festive atmosphere. The streets were crowded with local Afghan men happily greeting the Northern Alliance troops as their conquering heroes. Many climbed onto their trucks to shake their hands and embrace them. However, there was also a definite tension in the air as well, which heightened when a captured Taliban soldier was dragged through the streets and beaten in front of the crowd. He was then thrown into a truck, smacked in the head with a rifle butt and driven off. I doubt he lived to see nightfall. But the really frightening moment came when it dawned on me that a lot of these local men where in fact Taliban who, knowing they were defeated had just hidden their guns, changed their dress and were blending in with the locals.

At this point the lack of women on the streets was obvious and understandable. They stayed indoors. As a foreign journalist, I felt relatively immune to the fears they were probably feeling.  However there was no disguising the fact that correspondent Caroline Wyatt and myself were probably the first female faces these men had seen in a very long time. To say we attracted some attention would be putting it mildly. After two hours filming it was time to leave. This wasn’t a safe place to be; even less so after dark and neither was the road leading out of town. This fear was to be confirmed as we drove past a lone Taliban soldier being escorted down from the surrounding hills. I felt a knot form in my stomach as I wondered how many other lone Taliban might still be hiding up there.

 

The next morning we awoke to the shocking news that a Swedish cameraman had been killed overnight. He had been sleeping in a house 200 yards away from the BBC house. A group of armed youths had climbed over the back wall and robbed two print journalists whom they initially wanted to kill. These two were saved by their interpreter who reminded the attackers that it was Ramadan, a time of forgiveness and charitable acts. But unfortunately Ulf Stromberg wasn’t so lucky. He was shot in the chest as the attackers tried to kick in his door and then resorted to shooting through the door. They then stole his money and a satellite phone.

 

An immediate decision was made for the BBC to evacuate and it wasn’t long before EBU and Reuters were following suit. It was clear Taloqan was becoming increasingly lawless with armed bandits roaming the streets intent on robbery by whatever means. Foreign journalists were rich and easy pickings. To stay would be far too dangerous so we de-rigged as quickly as possible, loaded up the Kamaz truck and by noon the BBC convoy was rolling out of town.

Initially the Northern Alliance wouldn’t give us an armed escort but were eventually persuaded. As we set off it was unclear whether they were coming with us or not, however we couldn’t wait any longer. It would be dark in a few hours. Then on the outskirts of town a truck with a commander and three soldiers bearing Kalashnikovs appeared in front of us. I couldn’t decide if this was reassuring or not, especially when after only ten minutes the commander jumped out of his truck and ran away. Now I was nervous!  With most of the other media companies alongside the four-hour bolt for the border resembled a slightly slower version of the Paris to Dakar rally.  

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A string of dust clouds stretched across the desert and although this was undoubtedly the safest way to travel, being in convoy did slow us down a little. But the most sicken part of the journey was when a pickup truck came alongside carrying the coffin of Ulf Stromberg. The road was rough sand the coffin was bouncing around so much that I thought it would bounce right off the back.... nightmare!  A couple of hours into the drive we entered a village, seemingly deserted save for a few herdsmen and their donkeys. Our driver and interpreter became noticeably edgy. This had been a Taliban stronghold only 12 days earlier and maybe they hadn’t all left. Suddenly a couple of motorbikes rode up a hill towards us and passed behind our jeep. A few minutes later another two passed in the opposite direction. Motorbikes were an unusual sight in this area so naturally our guard was up. Were they about to rob us or are they scouts for an ambush up ahead?  A vivid imagination is often your worst enemy in situation like this and thankfully neither scenario happened.

As the sun began to set, we drove below the old frontline where I had filmed five weeks earlier. The Kokcha River was much shallower now, which made it possible for even the smallest jeeps to cross. However this didn’t mean the enterprising horsemen missed out. They could still earn a few dollars galloping in front of the vehicles, guiding them across by the shallowest route. The scene that followed was an epic display of muscle and mechanical horsepower charging into the icy waters. It felt like a scene from Ben Hur.

Finally after a very rough and dusty journey we reached the border and the cable driven river barge. It was cold, dark now and I feared the corrupt custom officials would have us there for hours. Mind you, with 60 journalists trying to cross it was evitable that we would have a long wait. One comfort was the sight of 30 pairs of headlights arriving on the other side of the river...at least we had a ride once we had crossed. But these trivial concerns soon evaporated as I helped carry Ulf Stromberg’s coffin past his silent colleagues. I remember how difficult it was to see the ground. All I could feel was the wet mud beneath my feet and I prayed that I would slip over. Thankfully we got the coffin onto the barge, we placed it down, our job finished. At that moment I was overwhelmed with sorrow. In a war where more western journalists had so far died than armed forces, we were lucky to be leaving Afghanistan with our lives - and we all knew it.

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