Diary From Southern Afghanistan, Part 1

It's getting toward evening now in the abandoned United Nations compound in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, and the hum of generators mingles with the prayers of the Taliban guards and officials who are stretched out on mats across the grassy field where I'm now typing.

Occasional gunshots ring out in the streets, and dozens of displaced Afghans who fled from the bombed-out cities of Kabul and Kandahar perch atop the compound's high wall, eyeing us with amazement. As one British TV technician puts it, "If a group of Cyclopeans suddenly landed in Putney, I'd be staring, too." Journalists famished from a day of enforced fasting during Ramadan eye their boxes filled with raisins and Granola Bars and cans of sardines, waiting for nightfall--when we can eat without incurring the wrath of our fundamentalist hosts.

I arrived in Afghanistan from Quetta, Pakistan, seven hours ago, after a frantic two days of bureaucratic hassles and stocking up on supplies for what could be a lengthy stint inside this war-shattered country. As it turned out, the last minute shopping was worth it. There's nothing here--no food, no electricity, no drinkable water, no beds, not even an intact building to shelter during the frigid night. I've laid down my $7 sleeping bag in a field alongside 150 other journalists, all of whom were granted visas last week by the Consulate of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Quetta, the last foreign outpost of the dying Taliban regime. The permission came as a total shock: Nobody here can figure out why the Taliban would host a mob of foreign reporters in the last remaining sliver of territory it holds in the country. There were even unsettling rumors swirling around the Serena Hotel in Quetta last night that the invitation was a ruse--that we'd be taken hostage and held as bargaining chips in the Taliban's desperate bid to hold on to power. But no matter. The prospect of entering Afghanistan, and, perhaps, visiting the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, before the regime collapses, was too enticing to pass up. There is a sense of fear after the news that four more journalists were killed. But it hasn't gotten in the way of of us wanting to get to Kandahar.

And besides, it beats the scene at the Serena, a beige adobe brick compound set against barren mountains that could be a holiday resort in New Mexico--if it weren't for the war raging across the border. The jittery Baluchistan government has kept us under round the clock guard, permitting us to travel outside the compound only in the company of armed Pakistani cops--and putting us through bureaucratic hoops any time we want to leave the city. Traveling to the Afghan border, for instance, requires us first to wait in line for hours at the Government Press Office to obtain something called an NOC, or "non objection certificate." Then we gather in the hotel parking lot at 9:00 a.m. and travel in convoys of a dozen or more vehicles, guarded by pickup trucks filled with Pakistani troops, for the three hour drive across a barren moonscape to the ramshackle border town of Chaman. After a half hour spent dodging rocks thrown by angry refugees, we're hustled at gunpoint back into our vehicles for the dreary ride back to Quetta.

Other than that, we've gorged ourselves at the Serena buffet, huddled in the lobby with Soviet-era Pashtun commanders, and tried to fill the news vacuum with tips provided by "informed" sources--most of them unreliable. In the past two days, I've been assured that Mullah Omar had fled Kandahar, that the warlord Ismail Khan and his army were a few miles from the the city, and that Osama bin Laden was trekking with a force of 200 men on the smuggling route through Iran--bound for Iraq. We've also been besieged by shady entrepreneurs offering their services to sneak us to Kandahar. A Pashtun businessman who used to run a Kandahar-Dubai charter air service promised me three Land Cruisers filled with armed tribesmen to protect me. He was one-upped by a veteran correspondent for Pakistani Television who offered to provide a surplus armored personnel carrier-for $85,000. I turned both of them down.

The tedious waiting ended abruptly last Friday morning, when word spread through the hotel that the Taliban was, inexplicably, opening its borders to us. Within an hour, an unruly mob had converged on the shabby compound in the center of Quetta. It was an ugly scene. Beleaguered, black turbaned Taliban officials tried to keep order among the surging crowd. Grown men and women grabbed frantically for the dozen blank application forms that the consulate had managed to muster. I watched a French TV cameraman snatch a visa form out of the hands of a British reporter, then dash behind a tree to fill out the precious document. After an hour of chaos, the Taliban managed to locate a fresh stack of forms; then threw everyone into the street. Over the next five hours they ushered us inside, one by one, to apply for our visas. Pakistani passersby in diesel-spewing buses and rickshaws gaped at the sight of 150 Westerners thronging the gates of the Afghan Consulate--a reversal of the usual scene in the developing world, where long lines of locals clamor for visas at the United States Embassy. It took another three days of bureaucratic hell before I could secure my Pakistani re-entry permit, guaranteeing that I wouldn't be trapped inside Afghanistan. Then, late last night, I learned I was the only one of 150 foreign journalists who was somehow left off this morning's NOC list--requiring a 10 a.m. visit to the Baluchistan Home Secretary's house, to beg to be included on this morning's journey.

But now I'm in Afghanistan, though it's still unclear just why we've been brought here, or how long we'll be permitted to stay. The Taliban seized our passports the moment we crossed the border--an effective means of keeping us under their tight supervision. For now, Kandahar remains off limits; the closest we've come is the wretched dustbowl refugee camp a few miles down the road from Spin Boldak, where desperate Afghans continue to trickle in from the stronghold, bearing tales of massive U.S. bombardments and the near-total destruction of the city. Mullah Omar's circle in Kandahar apparently is furious that the consulate in Quetta decided to open the floodgates to journalists. An angry confrontation between his representatives and our minders broke out just before we arrived; Omar's gang relented.

We've learned at least one thing from our first few hours in Afghanistan: the Taliban remain firmly in control in this corner of the country, and they're determined to keep fighting. "We don't think we are defeated," Mullah Mohammed Saed Haqqani, head of security police for Spin Boldak, told us in an impromptu press conference in the U.N. compound. "The Taliban will remain until the last breath." Now darkness has descended, and the temperature keeps dropping. I'll eat some crackers and sardines before crawling into my sleeping bag on the damp ground, waiting to see what tomorrow will bring.