Nic Robertson's diary: A week in Afghanistan
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By Nic Robertson
QUETTA, Pakistan (CNN) -- CNN correspondent Nic Robertson was in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week covering the trial of eight international aid workers when terrorists attacked New York and Washington. For days after other journalists fled the country, he and CNN cameraman/producer Alfredo DeLara were the only international correspondents to remain in the country. They finally left on Wednesday, September 19.
Following is a first-person account of Robertson's week:
It was Tuesday September 11, late in the afternoon our time, Tuesday morning in New York.
We were having a couple of difficult days covering the trial of the international aid workers, who are accused of promoting Christianity in this Muslim nation. The Taliban had really been clamping down on journalists, and we were arrested and placed under armed guard at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel. I was calling the international news desk at CNN's headquarters in Atlanta to tell them our troubles, and a young intern answered the phone.
"It's chaos here," she told me. And I kind of thought, "Well, that's a regular day."
She put me on hold, and while I was on hold CNN Radio was playing -- heard that an airplane had slammed into the World Trade Center in New York. I thought some kid had freaked out and hacked into some air traffic control or navigational database or something.
I hung up and called my wife, Margaret Lowrie, who is a CNN reporter based in London. And while I was on the phone with her, we heard that another plane slammed into the towers.
We kind of looked at each other over the phone, if you know what I mean. When it was two planes, it was clear. We knew, right away, what it meant.
A few minutes later, the desk called and told us to be aware, that these were hallmarks of Osama Bin Laden. By that time, 12-15 journalists and others had streamed into our room, all trying to find out what had happened. Within a half-hour to an hour, a protocol minister of the Taliban had called to get a fix on what was going on.
To back up a little, our videophone - a device which, when connected to a satellite phone, allows us to send out live video reports -- had gone missing about a week earlier. We had ordered another one cargoed from London on Wednesday the week before. It had arrived in Pakistan, but was stuck there in customs. It was quite a chore convincing the Pakistanis to release it. Even though the display of pictures of any live being is banned in Afghanistan (a country in where there is no television), I have always felt it's worth pushing and pushing, even when the effort might seem worthless.
The videophone did make it through customs and finally arrived in Kabul on Tuesday morning, about six hours before the attacks in New York and Washington. Around five hours after the attacks, we used the videophone to show, live, the Taliban foreign minister talking about the situation from the Intercontinental.
At about 2:00 in the morning, after several reports from Kabul, we decided to put our heads down. We had the window open, mainly to keep an ear on what was going on outside. We heard an explosion, and I remember staggering out on the balcony while my cameraman and producer, Alfredo DeLara, grabbed the videophone. I was grabbing the microphone, still buttoning up my shirt. The sound seemed to be coming from the direction of the airport. But Kabul is on a plateau surrounded by mountains, and you get this echo, so it's really hard to tell what's going on. There was lightning and a thunderstorm in the mountains, which was rare, too. Afghanistan has been in a drought for four years. So it was really hard to determine exactly what was happening.
We found out through a Taliban commander that the Northern Alliance (the opposition military grouping that controls a part of the country) was bombing the city in retaliation for the suicide attack on the alliance's leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the weekend before.
The next couple of days, especially on Wednesday, people around us all started getting a little jittery, afraid the Taliban were going to be implicated in the attacks in the U.S. A lot of United Nation workers, international diplomats and journalists left. The city already was under tight control. We just tried to stay low.
Friday was the next big day. By then, the United States government was implying that Bin Laden was a prime suspect in the attacks, and pressuring the Taliban to turn him over. Suddenly, the word was that foreigners weren't going to be safe, and all the other journalists left.
You ride an emotional roller coaster at a time like that. People are freaking out and saying, "We have to leave, we have to leave." But I learned a lot about those situations while working in Baghdad with the CNN team of Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman to cover the Gulf War under fire while in Baghdad. Arnett blocked out what people had to say, once they said they were leaving. I realized now why he did it. You have to ignore. You form your own decision.
There was never a question: I wanted to stay. You just don't walk away from stuff like that. But I began to see where Arnett was coming from. The Pakistani guys whom I'd come to trust and rely on in the years I had worked with them were beginning to have a hard time handling the situation and wanted us all to get out as fast as possible. But we had no hard information that an attack was imminent.
My thinking is, you can get very close to a situation and still not be in danger. The situation is only real if something happens. I just felt we still had an opportunity to tell the story.
So I talked to the deputy chief of protocol for the foreign ministry, Mr. Halimee, and asked him if we could stay. He did not seem encouraging. The people, he said, could be angry. "We are made of steel and concrete," he said. "All the blood has been squeezed out of us." He said he could not guarantee our safety, that if mobs got hold of us they would tear us apart.
"We're made of concrete and steel, too," I told him. "Let us stay." At that point, he kind of looked and me and smiled and said, "Fine. You can stay." He recognized we were taking a bold step by staying.
It was a bit eerie to be the only ones left in town. We needed a translator -- ours had left -- so a young trainee doctor who was working at the hotel as a receptionist agreed to translate for us. We also had other people who helped. We had people who told us they could hide us in the hotel basement if things started to get out of hand
I need to say here: I could not have done this without Alfredo. Along with running the camera, he's also the producer and he has been doing a lot of on-air work for CNN Espanol. It takes two to remain in a situation like that. I couldn't have done any of this without him.
On Saturday, we spent most of the day sitting tight. We did not want to go out into the town too much. We knew we couldn't take photos. It was against the law. And we did not want to draw attention to ourselves. Things quieted down quite a bit. But we knew things weren't getting any better.
On Sunday, they got even worse. There was an edict from the Taliban that all foreigners must absolutely leave. I tried to convince a Taliban official that it was important for the country to have outside broadcasts, because the way the Taliban leadership could get its cause to the rest of the world. I told him that it was also a way to get the plight of Afghanistan's people to the rest of the world. I told him how we had done stories on the Taliban's crackdown on drugs. If anyone stays, I told him, it should be us.
I asked them to let me go to the foreign minister and ask him personally to stay. By that time, a meeting between the Taliban leadership and some Pakistani diplomats was scheduled to be held in Kandahar, about 300 miles to the south of Kabul. That's where the foreign minister was. We had wanted to wait until the next day to drive down, just to buy some time, but we decided it probably was best to drive down overnight.
It was a 14-hour drive. It was the Road from Hell. Really, it wasn't much of a road at all. It was dirty, it was bumpy, there was no tarmac. But the story had switched from Kabul to Kandahar. We had to be there.
On the drive down, I thought that this was a forsaken country. It is just a hard, hard life. Twenty-some odd years of war. The fourth year of a drought. Now the potential of a whole lot more going wrong.
It is a hand-to-mouth life for many Afghans. Driving down to Kandahar, we saw many of the nomadic tribesmen on their camel trains, donkey trains. Beautiful-colored silk clothing. But for some of them, their flocks were all gone because of the drought. We saw dozens and dozens of families like that with the kids, dressed in rags, holding their hands out, hoping someone would throw out some money while they drive by.
We arrived Monday about 11:30 in the morning. Kandahar is much more of a rural town. In Kabul, you get a sense just from the size of the buildings that it is the capital. In Kandahar, there are only one- or two-story buildings. It's a city, but it's very, very rural. There were loads of Taliban around, driving around in their four-wheel-drive vehicles.
A year before CNN had hired a stringer in Kandahar. It is the spiritual capital of the Taliban and the best place to be plugged into Taliban thinking. Kamal had the foresight to set up an office in a large house, it was to this sanctuary we headed
The compound where we stayed had big iron gates all around it, fancy metal work, and had 12-foot-high walls all around it. It was a house, but it also served as an office, all on one level. I noted that there were a lot of windows and thought that, with blast damage, windows were going to be a liability.
But there was a good basement we could work out of, and had a cook who made up some omelets and chips for us. Later, we heard the announcement on the radio that the council of clerics was being called.
By Tuesday, we were still very much on the defensive. We didn't want to go out and say, "Hey, hey, can we stay?" and someone say, "No. You have to go."
Late, late in the day we made contact with the foreign ministry. They knew we were there. They have intelligence all around. They have people who could see us. Still, nobody had been knocking on our door saying, "What are you guys still doing in the country?"
That night, I stayed up all night writing a letter to the foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, outlining all the reasons I thought we should be allowed to stay.
On Wednesday morning, the foreign minister said he wouldn't meet with us, and told our local translator it was time for us to go, that this was an order from the top and it could not be changed. We had enlisted Eason Jordan, the chief news executive for CNN, to talk to one of the foreign ministers on Monday, so the Taliban officials knew that our top-level guys really wanted us to stay, too.
But we had pushed the envelope for five days and before we headed out, finally, for Quetta, Pakistan, we were able to report that the council of clerics was meeting to discuss how to respond U.S. demands.
I felt really bad to go. There's a damn good story there to be told. Afghanistan is a country that has been decimated by 20-some years of war, and it's about to be thrown into it again. There's a good human angle there, and a huge political angle as well. There's international diplomacy, there's military conflict.
The last time I was asked to leave Afghanistan was last October, after the attack on the USS Cole. That was on a Monday. By the next Wednesday, I was back in Kandahar again.
I'm an optimist. I still believe there's a good chance to get back in this time, as well.
Did I think of my family during all this? Of course. Much of this may sound very dangerous, and perhaps some of it is. But I wouldn't go into a situation where I thought I would get killed. No story is worth that.
I'm really lucky that I have a supportive wife who is familiar with reporting tough stories. She was in Beirut, and she's been a lot of other bad places. I think I'm lucky that she can kind of picture the situation and know how it works. I think that helps here.
My two daughters, ages five and nine, are back in London. The truth of the matter is, they are not with me, so they worry. I know it's very tough on them. They don't articulate it, but it bothers them. And that bothers me.
My youngest one is going to turn six next week, and she asked me on the phone (I talk with them quite often while I am on the road) if I were going to be there for her birthday party. I think it was her way of telling me she's worried about me.
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