Reporter's Diary: Life on Assignment in Afghanistan

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On Thursday, I drove into the mountains to visit a prison, medieval in smell and appearance, where 150 al-Qaida prisoners were held.

On Friday, I explored Osama bin Laden's abandoned house in Jalalabad, and in the evening American planes dropped bombs a few miles from where I was tapping out my story.

Early on Saturday morning, to top it all, Jalalabad was shaken by a small earthquake. It was as though a decade of reporting highlights had been compressed into a single week.

Day-by-Day Risk

Who are the journalists working in Jalalabad?

After the tragedy a week ago, a lot of people understandably pulled out, but there remains a fluctuating population of about 60. At least four in five of us are men; even inside the hotel, the women wear head scarves and long, loose clothing out of respect for Muslim sensibilities.

Perhaps two-thirds of us come from the English-speaking world; the rest from Europe, South America, and Japan.

A few have lodgings in town, but most of us are in Jalalabad's only large hotel, the Spin Ghar. The two-story structure, in broad gardens behind a high metal fence, is guarded by mujahidin. There are signs in Cyrillic; you can feel the ghosts of dead Russian officers of the Soviet occupation brushing past you inside.

The hotel is named after Jalalabad's beautiful white mountains, 25 miles to the south. But as an institution it fails to live up to its graceful name. The beds are narrow and lumpy, the hot water unreliable, and the toilets frequently unspeakable. The food is reasonable, but this is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting; in the evenings we gorge ourselves, but apart from a few biscuits I have not had lunch for nine days.

A power cut one day a week ago coincided with the failure of the hotel's generator, and a panicked scramble began to charge the TV editing suites, cameras, and laptop computers. The most essential and closely guarded items are the portable satellite telephones, without which the most astonishing news story is useless.

After my computer died on me, I wrote my second article by hand and dictated it by the light of a hurricane lamp.

Such practical problems fade in comparison with what the journalists refer to as the "security problem." What it comes down to is the question: Is the work I'm contemplating today likely to result in my injury or death? Without a certain tolerance of risk, one would never step foot in Afghanistan—the difficulty is managing the risk day by day.

Contrary to one popular image of the war correspondent, there are very few swashbucklers or adrenalin junkies among the press corps in Jalalabad. Experience breeds caution. Walking across virgin desert, in a country riddled with landmines, is a stupid idea; we follow car tracks or step within footprints.

But what about the Taliban and military bases, all of which are strewn with unexploded bombs and ammunition? To be completely safe would mean never going near one. But at this stage in the war, they form one of the biggest and most fascinating stories. So we compromise. We tread gingerly, and take the advice of the local mujahidin.

Have I felt in mortal peril? Not at all. But in a time and place like this, you might not know until the danger was on top of you. The four journalists who died were driving in a group along a busy, well-traveled road. The first conclusion to be drawn was the most obvious of all: that it could have happened to any of us.

On Top of It All, Loneliness

There is another hardship that none of us talks about much, but which everyone feels: the simple loneliness of being away from home.

My closest journalist friends are in other parts of Afghanistan. Apart from my translator and constant friend, Nader Farhad, relationships here are transitory. But one of the great pleasures of work like this is the experience of becoming firm friends with people you hardly know at all.

On Thursday night, the Americans in the hotel organized a Thanksgiving dinner, a festival that previously meant little to me. Turkeys were bought from the bazaar and with a lot of improvisation, a grand banquet spread out in the White Mountains' sepulchral dining room. Some pomegranates stepped in for cranberry sauce. We had one bottle of wine between 60 of us. There were speeches and toasts.

It was a happy night, sentimental in the best sense of the word. I missed my girlfriend and our home in safe, rich, Tokyo, and I understood more clearly than ever what an illusion this kind of existence is, how remote from the responsibilities of real life.

But there is an obscure satisfaction in being here. It is an ordeal, a privilege, and it is the experience of a lifetime.

Copyright 2001 The Independent (London)

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