Seeing History For Yourself

Since September 11, NEWSWEEK's reporters have witnessed many momentous events, from ground zero to Afghanistan. Here, several of our frontline correspondents tell what they saw--and felt--in covering some of the most memorable moments in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

It was the first Friday--Sept. 14--and President Bush had come to inspect the ruined area not yet known as Ground Zero. I noticed a crushed fire truck sitting on the edge of the inferno. Within moments, the president nimbly scrambled aboard. Standing a few feet away, I heard a retired firefighter, whose name is Bob Beckwith, quietly ask Bush if he should step down from the truck. The president, with a bullhorn in hand, draped his arm jauntily over Beckwith's shoulder and whispered to him to stay put. "We can't hear you," someone in the crowd yelled as Bush started speaking. "I can hear you," the president shouted through the bullhorn. "The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

It was a simple enough ad lib, but you could almost see the molecules of presidential leadership being rearranged. Before that morning's service in the National Cathedral, Bush had trouble finding his voice. Even here, it showed. When we arrived, the crowd had chanted "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" but not the president's name. Overshadowed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, dwarfed by the enormity of the event, the president looked small. Now, in an instant, everything was different for him. The bone-tired rescue workers went wild. And as the presidential motorcade made its way north out of the war zone, the flags bloomed and a chant went up: "Bush! Bush! Bush!"

Jonathan Alter

In late October, we decided to go to the front line, which at that point was somewhere between Baghram and Sinjadarra in the north of Afghanistan. We could soon hear the artillery and mortars, and our driver refused to go any farther. So we walked. We walked for about 40 minutes; to the right and left were abandoned villages. Then the soldier accompanying us stopped in his tracks and refused to go any farther. "Look, you're the only one who knows the way, and you're the only one with a Kalashnikov," we protested. He replied: "No, it's too dangerous." We decided to go on alone--this might be our only chance to get to the front. We realized later what a mistake we were making. You should always take it as a serious sign when a soldier picks up and runs in the other direction.

We soon found ourselves in a field between two villages. Then the Taliban started firing at us. You could hear the cracks of bullets going past--machine guns and mortars. We ran behind a half-destroyed clay wall and hit the ground. At first we thought we could wait it out, but then realized they were playing with us. Vladimir saved our lives: he ran to a half-destroyed house and crouched by a window. Within moments a face appeared; it was a Northern Alliance soldier beckoning him to come in. Inside the house, the soldiers were laughing and smoking hashish. They were stoned. Their house was shaking from the mortars, but they said nonchalantly: "We're used to this. This is normal."

Vladimir Volkov and Stanley Greene

On my third night in Afghanistan, I spent time with Charlie Company as they guarded the southern quadrant of the base at Camp Rhino in southern Afghanistan. At the entrance of "Camp Justice for America," the Marines had written what they called "The New Constitution." It read: We the People of the United States of America Are Going to Kick Your A--.

At night, the grunts did virtually anything to keep themselves awake and entertained. Shivering in the 30-degree cold, they sang lewd songs, talked about how ready they were to kill and pondered the discos and clubs they would head out to when they returned home as heroes. Virtually every Marine lamented that their base was so well fortified that no self-respecting Taliban or Qaeda member would ever dare to come near them.

Just as the laughter was getting hearty, a series of gun bursts crackled into the night. "Shoot. Kill it. Kill that motherf---er!" said a voice in the distance. Within perhaps a minute, radio traffic crackled over the group's walkie-talkies. The base lights were suddenly shut off. Marines took up positions, scanning the moonless horizon with their night-vision goggles. They held their rifles at the ready. Finally, after about 10 minutes, word came. "It was a f---ing camel," said one. "They were ambushed by a f---ing camel."

The next morning there was another scare. Finally, the target was identified--another camel, perhaps even the same one. A sergeant moaned: "I can't believe I came all the way to Afghanistan to be attacked by a camel." Then he had an idea. "Let's just shoot it, stick it in a body bag and call it a kill."

Gregory Beals

I returned to Moscow from Afghanistan on Nov. 7. I was relieved to be home, but was soon reminded that home has its problems, too. In the wee hours of a seriously subzero morning a few days before Christmas, the phone rang. "Your office has been broken into," the voice in my ear said.

The damage wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Papers lay scattered, cabinet doors stood ajar and our office safe lay incongruously in the bathroom. They'd evidently taken it in there to muffle the noise as they cracked it. In fact, they hadn't taken much of anything. They had left intact our desktop computers, our scanner, our phones, our fax machines and a very expensive satellite phone. They had taken only one thing: the Toshiba laptop computer I used to write my stories, to do all of my journalistic work. Surely that wasn't what interested them about it?

"This doesn't look like an ordinary robbery," said the detective in charge. He began to describe the oddities we'd already noticed. "This mess is just for show." Had I been preparing any "particularly scandalous stories"--the kind of thing, he implied, that might have given someone in power a reason to take a closer look at me? Nope, I said, there'd been a project or two back during the summer, but lately we'd been preoccupied by Afghanistan. Then the detective wanted to know about possible "business competitors" who might be eager to find out my "professional secrets." Well, gosh. Who would be the best candidate for a Watergate-style dirty-tricks campaign? A colleague at a competing magazine? I figured I'd ask them the next time we went out to dinner together. None of this was calculated to calm our al-ready overheated imaginations. The behavior of the cops wasn't much help, either. My answers to their questions went unrecorded; no statement was taken from me. They collected fingerprints from the furniture, and then, for reference purposes, they fingerprinted me--the only American--but no one among the Russian staff. And when our office manager volunteered the details of the missing computer, the detectives declined: "That won't be necessary," they said. It doesn't get any weirder than that.