Nic Robertson: First days in Afghanistan
(CNN) -- Much of what the outside world knows about "Operation Enduring Freedom," it learned from Nic Robertson. Living and working in a war zone for weeks on end, the CNN correspondent delivered words and pictures that few of his Western colleagues could match. Robertson spoke with CNN's Judy Woodruff about his experiences in Afghanistan from CNN Center in Atlanta.
WOODRUFF: Remind us about how you happened to be in Afghanistan on September 11. If I understood it, you were practically the only, if not the only, Western journalist there.
ROBERTSON: We were there covering the trial of some Christian aid workers, including two American ladies. They were accused by the Taliban of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. And we had gone there because we had heard they were coming to trial. There was a possibility they could be sentenced to death. Nobody really knew. So we were in Kabul. We arrived, I think, on the 3rd of September. So we were there about a week before the September 11 attacks.
WOODRUFF: After September 11, how did things change for you?
ROBERTSON: Immediately the Taliban decided they wanted to get all foreigners ... out of the country. They didn't want to have international reporters, they didn't want to have the international diplomats who were there. Most other people pulled out. There was a tiny handful of international diplomats and a small handful of other reporters [remaining]. They left the country within a couple of days. That left us there, petitioning the Taliban [to allow] us to stay.
Of course, this was a huge story. We wanted to be there to cover it and see how the Taliban were responding to the situation ... [to the] idea that was beginning to develop at that time that Osama bin Laden was perhaps behind all of this. We wanted to be there. But the Taliban wanted to get us out. So it was a matter of intense negotiations in petitioning them to let us stay.
WOODRUFF: Nic, we know you were threatened. You had to leave the country, even though you fought hard against it. You left, but then you came back. When we saw you on television from over there, you were pretty pulled together, you were informed, you were articulate. Talk about how hard it is to get information to do your job in that situation.
ROBERTSON: One of the challenges is to get good and accurate information, and you [couldn't] necessarily rely on the Taliban telling you what [was] happening out there on the streets. You [had] to get out there yourself. You [had] to go and talk to people, and that [meant] taking your translators out. Even at that stage, our translators were very scared ... about going out onto the streets.
So we would talk to whomever we could. We convinced them to take us out in a car ... [to] see how people were responding to the situation, stopping and talking with market vendors. We talked with a businessman at one point and anybody who would spend time with us and talk with us so we were informed.
I think that was perhaps one of the biggest challenges -- as the Taliban put more and more of a crimp on what we could actually do, then it became more and more of a challenge to find people to talk to, to gauge their opinions, and oftentimes we would do this by going to the markets and places like that.
But from the Taliban's point of view, every time we stepped out of the hotel this was a problem for them. And ... we were always followed by Taliban security officials, not immediately obvious to us, perhaps, but there on the streets.
WOODRUFF: And, Nic, what were you finding in the way of pro-American sentiment, or at least not anti-American sentiment, among just the ordinary Afghans?
ROBERTSON: ... I think this is perhaps one of the things that a lot of people have learned about Afghanistan -- Afghans ... tend to stay behind whomever seems to be in the dominant position. ... The majority of people we talked to in the early days said ... they would back the Taliban.
It became clear when the Taliban left Kabul and left other parts of Afghanistan, people immediately came out and told you other feelings -- that they were very, very pleased to have the international community there. And that's very much the feeling that we get now, that there is just huge support of the international community.
They see the international community as being there to disarm the warlords inside Afghanistan, and that's where they look to the new peacekeeping force and the other humanitarian organizations to be able to do that.
WOODRUFF: Nic, what was the scariest moment for you, the moment you were most afraid, would you say?
ROBERTSON: I think perhaps [there were] a couple of moments there. When the Taliban was telling us that we had to leave and that it was unsafe, and our translators were saying they thought it was unsafe and advising us to leave, and we were trying ... to find other people there who would assure us of our security.
And perhaps driving back into Kandahar, when the Taliban had just left Kandahar, knowing [that] as the first journalists going in ... perhaps we might be subject to airstrikes. Perhaps there could be bandits on the road, even Taliban out there. That was ... a time we were very concerned.
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