Diary From Afghanistan, Part 3

Our eviction was a shock. Despite the squalid conditions in our compound at the town of Spin Boldak, despite the awfulness of war-ravaged Afghanistan, being in the company of the Taliban in the last days of their teetering regime was an experience that no journalist was eager to give up. But we had little choice in the matter when our black-turbaned minders ordered us at 3 p.m. yesterday to leave the country immediately.

The closest I've come to anyplace like Afghanistan in these charged days is Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, during the heyday of warlordism there in the early 1990s. The ubiquitous sense of danger, the throngs of destitute people staring and grabbing when you venture out onto the streets, the grim and gaunt-faced warriors in their pickup trucks stuffed with AK-47s and rocket launchers, the bleak and blasted landscape--southern Afghanistan could be Somalia revisited. The only difference is that in Somalia, I had a clean and safe hotel to return to at night. In Spin Boldak, the conditions were decidedly worse.

Picture 200 people squeezed into a tightly-confined space for three days with no functioning plumbing. Conditions in the handful of toilets soon became unspeakable. Piles of trash accumulated in every corner of the compound--mountains of crumpled cigarette packs, half-finished cans of baked beans, jugs of motor oil, water bottles, milk cartons, candy wrappers and other detritus.

The fly population quadrupled by day three, it seemed, and the air, as one U.S. correspondent delicately put it, "bears the unmistakable aroma of fecal matter." On Wednesday night, when the word got around that we were being offered a deal--spend four more nights in squalid Camp Taliban and get an escorted trip to the Taliban southern stronghold of Kandahar--at least half of us were ready to bail out immediately.

The other difference between Somalia and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is that in Somalia, we at least had the illusion of safety when we were locked inside the heavily guarded Sahafi Hotel. Here, there were no such illusions. On Thursday morning--Thanksgiving in far-away America--several Afghan fixers began spreading the rumor that radical Taliban officials in Kandahar were considering holding us as hostages. Upon hearing that unsettling report, a veteran American correspondent who had covered countless wars began packing his bags. Moreover, the Taliban's security precautions were slipping in front of our eyes: by Thursday the local Afghans who perched on the walls of the compound were becoming increasingly daring, despite the occasional efforts of our Taliban guards to chase them away. Several managed to climb over the wall and mingle with our fixers and minders until they were spotted, beaten and thrown back outside. Our jittery Taliban minders clearly sensed that their ability to protect us was weakening.

At 10 a.m. Thursday the official in charge, a long-haired, black-jacketed man named Najibullah Sheerzio, announced that we would being ejected within the hour; then he relented, saying that departure was optional. Hours later, Sheerzio reversed himself again, and issued his eviction notice. When we saw the CNN crew reluctantly packing their satellite dishes, we knew that the decision was final. We greeted the knowledge with a feeling of liberation--and regret.

So no doubt, did our Taliban guards, who--despite their harsh ideology and the fact that Americans were trying to bomb them into oblivion--had treated us uniformly with respect. Most of them had never laid eyes on a foreigner before and the curiosity they exhibited about our gadgets and our lives was oddly touching. Amid the rush to depart, a few of us broke away for last-minute interviews with them. Many seemed eager to oblige. One surly Talib, however, did not consider this part of the program. Armed with a long wooden stick, he whacked a young guard mid-sentence, seized the notebook of a New York Times correspondent, shoved an Italian journalist and put his Afghan interpreter under arrest. The scene nearly escalated into a dangerous confrontation--until Sheerzio intervened and smoothed things over.

The scariest moment of this experience came minutes after our convoy rolled out of the U.N. compound and back into the streets toward the Pakistan border just a few miles away. Within minutes, we became stuck in a traffic jam in the central market of Spin Boldak. I had an eerie sense of deja vu from similar experiences in Mogadishu at the height of the U.S. attacks against Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993. This time mobs of fascinated Afghan men and boys--women and girls, of course, remain invisible in this radical fundamentalist corner of the world--crowded around our car, reaching inside to slap and pinch my arms until I rolled the window tightly shut. I realized that curiosity could metamorphosize into aggression in a second--and it almost did. A rock thunked hard against the side of our Land Cruiser. I watched a teenage boy lean into the vehicle in front of ours and direct a gob of saliva at the correspondent sitting in the front passenger seat. As I stared back at the gaping throng, it became abundantly clear how easily the Kandahar trip could have ended in disaster. We were at the crowd's mercy, dependent for protection on Taliban guards who simply didn't have the manpower to keep an eye on all of us. All it would take was a single enraged local with an AK-47 rifle to open fire and the Taliban would have had a debacle on their hands.

No doubt all of us--both correspondents and Taliban--breathed sighs of relief when we crossed the border back into Pakistan.