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Death on the Road to Kabul

November 22, 2001
© 2001 The Baltimore Sun Company, all rights reserved

KABUL, Afghanistan

On the night before he was murdered along the lawless road to Kabul, news photographer Aziz Haidari stayed almost as busy helping his colleagues as he did doing his own work. And he did so with the utmost patience and good humor.

I know because I needed his help most. I was a mildly nagging presence at his shoulder for hours, waiting to bum a few minutes on his satellite phone. I wanted to send a news story and photo from Jalalabad back to Baltimore.

Aziz was trying to send his day's work to his wire service employer, Reuters.

But the satellite kept letting us down, rejecting every attempt with a stern error message on the screen of his laptop. Perhaps because he was born in Afghanistan, a place where everything seems to have been broken for years, Aziz was almost jolly in his mounting frustration.

"Don't worry," he kept saying, "we'll keep trying," making it a team effort, even though it was his machine and his effort.

A few feet away, Reuters TV cameraman Harry Burton, young and bearded and wearing a baseball cap, was chatting on another satellite phone with someone back home in Australia. I remembered him from the hotel breakfast table that morning. He'd told a funny story I'd already repeated twice to other colleagues. Laughs are among the best things you'll find this far from home.

"It was my girlfriend," Harry said as he hung up the phone. "She's really angry with the company." Meaning he'd probably been on assignment for weeks, even months.

Harry, too, would be killed the next afternoon on the road to Kabul. All three of us, and perhaps a dozen or so other journalists, were gathered that night in the upstairs breezeway of the Hotel Spin Ghar, a dirty, disheveled little hotel—but Jalalabad's best—set back in a grove of orange trees just off the Kabul road.

The lobby-like room was a nest of cables and television editing equipment, of newspaper reporters seated on chairs and pounding on laptops in the dim light.

And just about everyone, having decided that the big story was now farther down the highway, was set on joining a convoy the next morning to Kabul.

About 9 the next morning, we all set out together. But as the drive progressed, our vehicles began to drift apart. Three cars in particular, their drivers impatient with a lumbering bus in the group, zoomed in front, darting back and forth in front of each other.

Only one of those cars would make it to Kabul, partly by luck, partly by the skill of its driver. It was the car in which I was riding, along with Michael Hedges of the Houston Chronicle, Michael Kamber of The Village Voice, our translator Rafi Sayad and driver Mohammad Hassan.

The other two cars would be stopped, their riders shot dead or chased into the hills. The rest of the convoy, when confronted by a pair of running drivers and tales of death and gunfire, would turn back to Jalalabad.

It is only about 100 miles to Kabul, but it seems like far more. A few miles out of Jalalabad, the pavement vanishes. It happens shortly after passing a bombed lakeside home that supposedly belonged to Osama bin Laden (local men who'd picked through the ruins are stationed outside it now, selling the Saudi passports they found). From then on, it's an up-and-down, lurching, head-against-the-window journey, with drivers swerving around holes and each other in a mad dash through the dust that soon coats everything inside the car, no matter how tightly you shut the windows.

The passage can seem like time travel—mud hut villages along the way in the flood plain of the Kabul River. Cow patties flattened against the walls, drying to be used for fuel. Bulls and goats wandering across the road. Boys no older than 5 working as beasts of burden, huge piles of sticks strapped to their backs as they struggle barefoot up a hill toward home.

Somewhere at the end of this dusty rainbow, five hours distant in an elevated valley, there is Kabul. But to get there you must go up and over a narrow, teetering pass through the bare rocks. The view is spectacular. But every turn, as the Russians found time and again in the 1980s, is an invitation to ambush, a place tailored for the sort of armed mischief that Afghanistan seems to have in abundance.

It was just a few miles after completing this final big climb, as we neared a dam perhaps 25 miles from Kabul, that things began to go wrong. Two men holding Kalashnikov rifles stood on either side of the road, ambling toward the middle.

The one on the left slowly waved his gun, grinning—the lazy grin of a thug, the grin is unforgettable—and seemed to say something. He may have worn military pants, but his shirt and pants were civilian clothes, disheveled.

He was young, in his 20s, lank hair, no beard. This was not a mujahedeen or Taliban fighter, as some have suggested, unless he was working for them only for money. This was a privateer, a criminal.

I was too busy watching him to notice what the other one looked like, or was doing.

Our driver accelerated, then swerved, and the man on the left had to step back slightly. I turned and looked back through the rear window. He shouted angrily, then cocked a round into the chamber of his Kalashnikov.

"He's cocking it. He's going to shoot," I shouted. All of us ducked while Mohammad accelerated. We waited for the sound of a shot, hoping that the luggage piled in the back might stop or slow it. It never came. We rounded a curve. We'd made it. It was over, we figured, a false alarm or they would have fired. Maybe it would have been less risky if we'd stopped.

"Thieves," Mohammad said. "Those were thieves."

Then again, maybe not. The gunman used his loaded round on the next car, of course, although we wouldn't put all the pieces together for more than two days from Kabul, where news seeps in slowly from the outside world. It was the sort of event that makes reporters question the value of their stories and the measures they take to pursue them.

Within a day of the shooting, seemingly every foreign journalist in Kabul—and there are hundreds—was vowing never to ride down the Kabul-Jalalabad road again.

Yesterday, an additional 24 hours later, more were arriving by that same route and still others were plotting a return journey to Jalalabad, posting a sign-up sheet for a Thursday convoy on the door of a local hotel. By last night, at least 20 had signed up.

This, then, is the business of covering wars and their aftermath. To those who've never done it, it's an obvious danger, foolhardy, even stupid.

Both sides, of course, are correct. But it sometimes takes the awful news of an event like Monday's to make journalists believe that both sides might have merit.

As a matter of mere odds, it is almost undoubtedly more hazardous to be a child growing up in the poorest parts of Baltimore than to cover a few months of war and strife every few years. The difference is that no one yet has volunteered for the former, but thousands ask for the latter at every opportunity.

The appeal?

Hard to explain. It's not the shooting, at least not for most. That's the scary part, and no one is in this business for the fear. Is it the adventure? Only in the sense that places like this show you a part of the world that you will otherwise never hope to see.

And you make your circuit with interpreters and drivers who are paid to usher you as deeply inside this world as you care to go. You can ask prying questions, share pots of tea with tribal lords and people who might as well be living in another century. You get to break all those barriers that tourists can't.

But sometimes, as on Monday, for an unlucky few, an exorbitant bill comes due. The survivors can't help but wonder, if only for a day, or even a moment, if any of their efforts has been worth it.

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