It used to be said that a taxi driver was a foreign correspondent’s best friend. You know, you’d emerge from the airport, with no clue what was happening, hail a cab, grill the driver and file on arrival at your hotel – much to the admiration of your editor.
While reporting the war in Afghanistan, the nearest man with a gun is your next best bet. Men with guns on roads are generally going to or coming from the front, so by definition they know what is happening (at least in their small area).
It’s also good to know that there are hardly any ranks in Afghanistan, and, since people often only have one name, they are often distinguished from the next man by their job – as in Engineer Ahmed or General Mohammed. The lack of ranks means that any armed man, so long as he is even moderately senior, is called General. Therefore, since every other quote from Afghanistan comes from General this or that, writers can impress their editors with their fantastic access to senior military ranks.
There is no point in going to report a war in a place like Afghanistan unless you are prepared to rough it. For many journalists, Afghanistan is a steep learning curve – not so much on the front lines but more with things like pressure pump petrol lanterns. Don’t forget that, after 22 years of war, most of the country has no electricity, running water or any of the other facilities that usually operate in rich men’s wars.
After a few days, though, you begin to sort out new routines. No water (unless boiled or treated), squat-only toilets, lots of green tea and a basic diet supplemented by stuff from the market. Parts of Afghanistan may well be on the brink of famine, but don’t forget that this doesn’t mean there is no food – only that most people can’t afford to buy it.
The front lines look pretty similar to front lines anywhere else. They involve the usual fights with petty bureaucrats for small bits of paper that give you permission to get to where you want to go. A major problem is translators – or the lack of good ones.
Mines are a constant threat in Afghanistan. They can be avoided, as long as you follow basic and obvious rules. Stay on the “road” (ie. dirt track) or only walk on recently used paths or behind a guide who knows where he is going – and keep asking the locals.
On the front, try and restrain bored soldiers from firing for fun or because they think you want to see them fire. When the enemy returns fire, they think there is nothing funnier than seeing you face down in a dusty trench while bullets zing overhead. Of course, if you are from TV, things are different again. After the first guys have “tipped” the tank crews to let off a few rounds, they’ll come to expect payment.
Money. It’s strange how the poorest countries on Earth can end up being the most expensive. The logistics of getting there, satellite phones, extortionate drivers and translators all push up the costs astronomically. I am a free-lancer and tried to conserve cash, but two months in Afghanistan still cost me almost $16,000. This was then divided between my main sponsors.
But when I told a friend, who happens to be the foreign editor of a major British daily paper, how much I had spent, his face went ashen and he said in a very quiet voice, “er, very reasonable, very reasonable indeed.” I guess his own correspondents were, er, not quite so reasonable.
In pre-PC days they used to say that wars like the one in Afghanistan divided the “men from the boys.” Nowadays, it is noticeable that they divide the free-lancers from the staffers. Staffers – whether they were from television, radio or print – all seemed to suffer fatigue very quickly. Free-lancers seemed to accumulate energy as the conflict went on. No Pulitzers are awarded for guessing why this is. A staffer obviously gets paid the same whether he is working a 9-to-5 routine in Washington or London or wherever. For free-lancers on the Afghan front, this was bonanza time.
Still, unlike the easily accessible and relatively cheap-to-cover Balkan wars, this one was expensive. As a result, not so many free-lancers cover it, and those who are there need to be relatively well-established so they can go with guarantees of expenses and – absolutely essential – war coverage insurance.
Once I was there, however, picking up strings was easy. Also imagine this: It is a brilliant winter morning and you have a grandstand view of the first B-52 carpet-bombing raids on Taliban front-line positions. The columns of smoke and dust rise hundreds of feet into the air, and you can even feel the pressure of the blasts on your chest. You whip out the satellite phone and call the editor who, only a few days ago, told you he would not contribute to your expenses any more because “not much is happening where you are.” Listen to him crawl now. Push up the price. It’s sheer pleasure.
The interesting thing is that the editor now has to pay over the odds because his own staffers are too frightened to come, or he’s seen through their interviews with commanders who live a three-day drive from the nearest action. Spouse or partner pressure also might play a role here because spouses often believe that the two minutes of action you see on TV every night is the way things are 24 hours a day.
This leads to a couple of phenomena. The first is an opening for free-lancers. The second is that, just like with correspondents on other beats, many of the same faces turn up at all the wars.
But still, I hear you ask, isn’t it dangerous? Well, yes and no. The thing about a war is that it is safest when lines are clear and everyone knows where everyone else is – and who is firing in which direction. This means that it is easy to make a rational decision about how far forward you need to go and about how close to the action you actually need to get.
The dangers arise when the lines break, leaving fluid situations behind them. At press time, eight journalists had died in Afghanistan, one of whom was the victim of a robbery at the house where he was staying. Three died when they went with the Northern Alliance across a front line that had crumbled hours before. The Northern Alliance troops told them it was safe, but the soldiers were wrong. Their column of vehicles was ambushed. Four others died in what is believed to have been a hold-up gone wrong.
Despite vague Taliban threats against foreign journalists, none died as a result of them. What is scary, of course, is that none died doing anything rash or anything that anybody else would not have done.
So, yes, it can be dangerous. It can be rough. Diarrhea bouts are no fun, and it’s cold if you have to walk when your jeep gets stuck crossing the Hindu Kush.
But you have to remember why you are in this game in the first place. On the morning of Nov. 13, I walked into Kabul a few hours after the Taliban had left. I don’t think there were any journalists there that morning who thought they’d rather be covering gas station robberies in Boise, Idaho, or courtrooms in the London suburbs. I became a journalist because I wanted to see history being made, and I certainly didn’t want to while away my working years behind a flickering screen in an office while everyone else had fun.
There were two classes of journalists who went on the Afghan campaign. Hundreds of the business-class types got stacked up and will be stuck behind the Pakistani border for almost the entire war – but they will have running water and electricity. But let me tell you something: Just like the property motto – “location, location and location” – in this type of journalism, it’s “dateline, dateline and dateline.”
Imagine the pleasure then: “November 13, Kabul … .” Yes, guys, you might have hot water and working cell phones, but we won the war.
Tim Judah is a free-lance journalist based in London.