As we reached the gates of Gardez, bright gunfire crackled against the side of a mud-walled building near the checkpost. Guards in the lead car of our convoy threw their doors open and ran for cover, screaming, "Get away, get away." Most of us dove into frozen irrigation ditches as more gunfire erupted and sparks ricocheted and faded like phosphorescence against the night sky. An Afghan soldier nudged me along with the barrel of his Kalashnikov, hissing "zaza, zaza"--go, go. When a mortar exploded nearby, it threw us into the dirt again. All five cars of our convoy stood abandoned in the road, with their doors open and lights on. The drivers kept screaming, "Turn the lights off." Eventually, inexplicably, the firing stopped. We clambered into our cars and sped in darkness back to a U.S. Special Forces base two miles away.
The day had begun badly eight hours earlier, when I traveled with two other reporters to the town of Zormat. Our aim was to interview a local Afghan commander, Naim Faruki. Zormat is a rambling collection of shacks on the road to Shahikot, the target of B-52 bombing raids in Operation Anaconda. Nearby hillsides are tarred black with bomb scars, and the locals are a well-armed, suspicious--and suspect--lot. We quickly learned that Faruki had been arrested 12 days earlier by American forces. (He had been taken into custody while trying to negotiate the release of six of his fighters who had been seized for refusing to close an armed checkpoint.) U.S. and Afghan officials believe the Zormat region is home to many Qaeda sympathizers, and that Faruki is one of them.
The crowd that gathered around us in Zormat insisted that in the mountains, there were "just Taliban, no Al Qaeda." "Shhh," they hissed to a man when he began to introduce himself to us as a mullah, "Don't tell them you're a mullah." As we turned to leave, two quiet men perched on a wall spoke up (in Pashto, which our interpreter picked up). "These motherf---ers put our boss in jail. Why shouldn't we keep them as hostages?" one asked. "What are you waiting for?" answered his friend. "Instructions?" We retreated quickly.
Thirty minutes later on the road back to Gardez, an unidentified man threw what appeared to be a grenade at the car of one of my colleagues, Kathleen Kenna, a correspondent for The Toronto Star. The blast tore her right thigh and buttock to shreds. Kenna was traveling behind us on the road, and we were unaware of the attack at the time. But when we reached Gardez that afternoon, Kenna was being treated in the local hospital, where the facilities are abysmal. The prognosis wasn't good, so we transported her back to the Special Forces base.
The Americans took Kenna in and then flew her to Baghram air base near Kabul, probably saving her life. "There is a lot of s--t going on around here that you guys don't know anything about," said one soldier, Mike, as they checked us for weapons and asked if we were secretly filming them. "These guys are getting snatched and they're p--sed. They're really bad guys. If you look like an American they'll kill you."
It was on our return trip to Gardez, after leaving Mike and his companions, that we came under fire near the city gates. Again, we sped back to the Special Forces base, where we found some Americans trying to figure out where the mortar round had come from. They refused to let us on the base, and organized a second convoy of Afghan soldiers to take us back to Gardez. But the Afghans promptly told us that such a journey would be "suicidal." So we pulled our cars onto a patch of frozen desert and prepared to wait for morning. The night sky had begun to glow, first with a giant half moon, and then with an eerie yellow-orange luminescence from bombing on the far side of the Arma Mountains, where Shahikot lies. Helicopter gunships circled the base, casting brilliant flares of light on the ground. On the road, the Afghan soldiers were visible as dark shapes punctuated by the small red eyes of cigarettes. They told us they were concerned about our security and pointed their guns at us. "If you get out of your cars," they said, "we'll shoot." We think they were kidding.