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[] WPO 6.10.01: Waiting For War, Reporters Occupy Rebel Territory,
Washington Post
October 6, 2001
Waiting For War, Reporters Occupy Rebel Territory

By Peter Baker, Washington Post Foreign Service

JABAL SARAJ, Oct. 5 -- If American troops even now are mounting a covert operation in the mountains of Afghanistan, they have done a masterful job of keeping hidden. Another invasion force from the West, however, has been a little less discreet.

One interloper arrived by donkey over the Afghan mountains. Another sneaked into Taliban territory disguised as a woman, covered head to toe in a traditional burkha. Others convoyed for five days along bumpy roads straddling steep slopes, with both their vehicles and their sanity breaking down along the way.

Once here, they have taken over houses, raided the bazaar and swamped the local economy with more dollars than anyone has seen in these parts since the days when the United States funded the guerrilla war against Soviet troops. They have set up ambushes to snare poor, bedraggled refugees, and enticed rebel troops at the sleepy front line into firing artillery shells at nothing in particular.

The swarm and descent of the international media horde is never a pretty sight.

It has been nearly three weeks since the first few correspondents made their way to Jabal Saraj, a town in the rebel-held part of Afghanistan just 40 miles from Kabul. Waves of reporters, photographers, producers and camera and sound technicians followed, with the result that around 160 foreign journalists now occupy this dusty pit stop, whose residents are more accustomed to seeing a herd of unruly camels tromp down the main street than a herd of unruly journalists.

Another 60 or so are up in Khoja Bahauddin, a desolate dirt town on the border with Tajikistan. Scores more are queued up in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, waiting for a helicopter or plane ride south.

All to cover a war that isn't, at least for now. Scores of journalists race around the Panjshir Valley in off-road vehicles every day, touring the front lines of Afghanistan's civil war -- which hasn't changed in two years -- and previewing an American bombing campaign that could start next week, next month, next year. No one knows.

So everyone works as best he can, and waits.

Journalists are staying in several "guesthouses." The best, perhaps naturally, is CNN's abode; another is sometimes called "the barrio"for the urban coziness and familiarity of its accommodations. Those staying in "Russia House" -- Russian journalists, mostly -- were just kicked out because the rebel commander who usually stays there wanted his place back.

Here in the other guesthouse, a two-story concrete building with a garden, journalists sleep on cushions on the floor, six or seven in a room with plastic sheeting covering the windows. The ancient Japanese and Russian generators purchased by the news organizations provide a paltry amount of energy and break down daily, usually around time to file stories via power-hungry satellite telephones. To bathe, journalists pour cold water from a bucket over their heads. To brush their teeth, now that the bottled water has run out, some resort to using tea. To use the toilet, well, it's best not to.

No need to consult a menu. The meals are always the same -- bread and jam for breakfast, bread and rice for lunch, bread and rice for dinner. Sometimes a mystery meat is served, or even fruit and vegetables, but only some take the risk of eating them. Lately, journalists have ventured to the bazaar for more culinary variety, scooping up canned tuna from Thailand and Pepsi produced in Iran (trust only the cans; the bottles have been emptied and refilled with some other dark liquid).

But the more adventurous eaters have paid in more than afghanis. Weak Western constitutions have succumbed to salmonella, dysentery, fever, tonsillitis, giardiasis and even spontaneous bleeding. More than a few have been hospitalized or even evacuated from the country by helicopter.

And then there are the fleas.

The journalists are here, of course, to cover the rebel soldiers who presumably would fight in tandem with any U.S.-led assault on the ruling Taliban regime. The truth is, though, that they seem anything but anxious fighters on the edge of battle. Shots ring out irregularly on the front lines, but they seem half-hearted. Guerrillas while away the hours playing volleyball.

Their commanders, likewise, appear rather relaxed as they cheerfully invite passing correspondents to sit on carpets under the trees and listen to them plot military strategy. The commanders are an interesting breed, though hardly an exclusive one. Their rank is not marked by insignia or uniform, but in any room the commander is usually the largest man, the one who looks like a character out of an Indiana Jones movie.

And every room will have its own commander. Nearly everyone, it seems, is a commander. There are dozens of them here in the valley alone, and each boasts of having about 2,000 men under his command. If that were true, adding it up, the Northern Alliance rebel force would roughly equal the Chinese army -- instead of the modest band of 15,000 guerrillas that has been fighting the Taliban regime in obscurity for more than five years.

The task of giving a public face to the opposition movement falls to Abdullah, who is considered the rebel alliance's foreign minister. Like a few rock stars and many Afghans, Abdullah generally uses just one name. Sometimes, though, he is referred to as Abdullah Abdullah, and sometimes as Dr. Abdullah, since he is a physician.

It usually becomes clear that Abdullah plans to give a news conference when a wooden chair with plush cushions suddenly appears here in the garden of the guesthouse. Then a small table appears and Afghan helpers scurry about picking flowers to place in front of him so they will appear in the television picture. Abdullah is smooth and unflappable, and when he doesn't want to answer a question, he just takes a long sip of his tea.

Television correspondents, though, need action pictures. In the early days of the media invasion, a rebel commander at the front helpfully fired his artillery at the behest of a German television crew. The idea caught on, and now at least once a week the rebels stage a "training exercise" to provide images of tanks rolling and soldiers shooting.

Some correspondents have grown even more desperate. The other day, half a dozen of them set up their own checkpoint on the road from Kabul, waiting around for hours for a couple trucks of refugees to pass through and then forcing them to stop to answer questions. A French cameraman climbed aboard one truck; the bewildered refugees stared wide-eyed, then tried to shoo him off.

Another French reporter spent part of a day wandering around the bazaar in Jabal Saraj trying to give his viewers back home an idea of what it's like to be a woman in this conservative Muslim country. For effect, he borrowed a burkha, draped it over his camera and walked down the road filming through the lace that normally covers a woman's eyes. After watching his report, French viewers might be forgiven for thinking that Afghans typically stare at a woman as if she were a truly strange bird.

Cars are a must for getting around, along with a driver who knows precisely where the best ruts are in each dirt road to provide the least bumpy ride. Interpreters are in such short supply that some journalists have tried stealing the good ones from one another. The bad ones still manage to find work. The talent pool is rather thin.

Consider the following job interviews.

Question: "How old are you?"

Answer: "I am fine."

(That interpreter got hired for at least a day.)

Question: "Where were you born?"

Answer: "I'm unemployed."

(With that level of English, no surprise.)

The Afghans at the bazaar have quickly figured out how to profit from all this. The dollar has lost two-thirds of its buying power in just three weeks. When the first correspondents showed up, they received 76,000 afghanis to the dollar; by early this week they were getting just 58,000, and in the last three days the value of a dollar has plummeted to 28,000.

The most valuable commodity, though, is a white piece of paper issued to those who flew here on rebel helicopters. It is considered a round-trip ticket -- but one with rather ominous fine print: "The flights to Afghanistan are not scheduled and therefore this receipt does not necessarily guarantee the availability of the flights on specific dates or times."

Maybe the donkey is still available.

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