Escape From Taloqan

It wasn’t hard to make the decision to head south. After yet another journalist covering Afghanistan was killed two days ago—this time in the Northern Alliance-controlled city of Taloqan—the rest of us stationed there packed up our bags and headed out.

Ulf Stromberg, 42, a Swedish TV cameraman, lived in a house about five minutes down the road from me, near the center of the town. Sometime in the early hours of Tuesday morning, five robbers armed with Kalashnikovs broke into Stromberg’s house, took all the high-tech equipment they could find and then shot the Swede at point-blank range. He was the eighth journalist to die in this country since Nov. 11.

Stromberg’s death probably didn’t increase the danger for the other journalists much at all, but it brought the latent threat home in a way that the other killings hadn’t. Stromberg, after all, had been killed “at home,” not on a road known to be dangerous, or after falling off an ambushed tank like some of our other colleagues. It made it exceptionally clear to us that journalists carrying loads of cash and expensive equipment are now dangerously vulnerable.

Even before news spread that armed men also had made an early morning call on at least one other journalists’ house, most of the media contingent had begun packing their bags. We left that afternoon in a slick Toyota wagon, listening to a mix of Afghan music and cheesy Western rock.

Undoubtedly, the departure of the press will compromise coverage of this area of northern Afghanistan. The Taliban may have fallen, but without foreign observers, the Northern Alliance soldiers in cities like Konduz are now freer to loot with impunity. In Taloqan, those in charge were quick to exploit our fear. The Northern Alliance hadn’t provided any security for visiting journalists, but when we wanted to leave they offered us drivers charging $3,000 to get to Kabul—more than the price of a helicopter ride.

We found our own driver and arrived in Pul-E-Khumri about dusk. That night, we ate in a restaurant just below a Soviet-era hotel. On the next raised wooden table over, a group of Uzbek mujahedin sat cross-legged to eat, dozens of Kalashnikovs had been piled up and covered with woolly coats. Just minutes after sitting down, almost the entire restaurant rose, as if on cue, and stood to face us. I realized they were praying when I saw the first men’s lips began to move.

To get from Taloqan to Kabul, we drove through the Salang Pass, a series of scree-filled valleys littered with destroyed or abandoned tanks and armored personnel carriers left over from battles past. In the years since, locals have transformed the debris of war into the necessities of survival. In one village, two tanks had been completely dissected: the rusted husks somehow jammed into the bank of a river and packed in with small river stones, making the perfect foundation for a bridge, while the treads had been laid across the void on red sheet metal to provide traction. In one little rundown maze of huts, a little boy had his mouth pressed to one end of a tank barrel that had been left on a bank. I imagined him talking into the hollow blackness, listening to the echo of his own voice as it reverberated down through the steel shank.

Just a few weeks ago, this side of the Salang Pass was still controlled by the Taliban, and strictly off-limits to journalists. When NEWSWEEK colleague Christian Caryl traveled through on foot coming from the other direction, he was one of the first Western journalists to travel up the pass in years—and he saw Taliban soldiers on the other side.

The Salang Pass is a vital strategic artery. Connecting Kabul with the northern border city of Termez, it was this highway, built in the 1960s, that served as the lifeline to the vast Soviet military presence in Afghanistan after the Red Army invaded in 1979. Virtually all of the Russian soldiers’ supplies, from gasoline to food, came down this road from the then Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. In the late 1990s, at the height of the civil war that followed the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, commanders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance decided to dynamite both ends of the tunnel in order to deny it to advancing Taliban forces. That effectively cut Kabul’s primary road link with the north of the country. No vehicles have passed through it since.

The tunnel still isn’t open to motorized traffic, but it is flooded with pedestrians. There was even one makeshift cart loaded with bags of rice and American food-drop rations that was clunking awkwardly down the stone-covered road. We were told it would take an hour to complete the 1.2 mile hike, and our porters motioned for us to put on our gloves and get our flashlights. To enter the tunnel, we had to climb over a massive pile of rubble and twisted shards of metal pipe. Then the daylight disappeared. In its place was the eerie sight of a wobbly flow of small yellow lights bobbing up and down through the darkness, a sort of phosphorescence of flashlights as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of people were trying to make their way toward the light we had just left.

It was impossible to see their faces, and the distortion of the lights made it hard to tell when, or if, you would run into them. Their beams illuminated the hanging metal cables just inches from our faces. After a while, we noticed the screaming. As entire families waded through the twisted rubble, sometimes slipping where ice had covered the track, small children and babies were wailing in the darkness. I listened to one voice approaching, crying and snuffling in his mother’s arms as he passed, and then listened as they scrambled by me toward the end. I never saw his face.

Besides the weeping children, the tunnel was filled with the sound of coughing as people tried to hack away the ubiquitous dust. Our porters kept motioning us to keep to the sides of the tunnel because the center areas are still mined. The Northern Alliance keeps promising the tunnel will be opened for road traffic within days, but it seems more likely it will be closed for at least another month. Not counting the mines, there are several thousand pounds of rubble scattered throughout that need to be cleared away. And every few feet, huge scraps of twisted metal that used to hold electric wiring have fallen down, swinging through the dark.

When we finally emerged into daylight, we again began haggling with drivers and translators to get a cheap ride to Kabul. Our porters got $10 each—and fought over who would get the flashlights we gave them.

I arrived in Kabul after a day-and-a-half drive on potholed roads. There aren’t as many guns visible on the street here, but news of Stromberg’s death has left its mark. A poster at the Intercontinental Hotel here pays tribute to the journalist and his family, and a sense of insecurity seems to be spreading. The day we arrived, some 50 trucks carrying locals to the capital were looted by armed gangs. The Northern Alliance says security is good in areas it controls, but the events in the north have left people with doubts. Nevertheless, arriving at the NEWSWEEK house in Kabul was like leaving the theater after watching a Western.

The house has everything I haven’t had for the last three weeks—regular electricity, running hot water, a dinner table. A fireplace! It was wonderful and strange to arrive to such comfort. Last night we had banana truffles for dessert. They were all the better knowing that kind of treat may not last very long.