Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD


A-scrounging we will go

What happened to these machines? To their crews?

Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.
Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.  

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

By Martin Savidge

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Let's face it. There's not a lot to do at the Kandahar Airport when you have nothing to do.

The Airport Channel hasn't made it here. The scouts from Starbucks haven't been in. A hot night usually means you sat too close to the communal campfire in the courtyard.

So the primary pastime here is scrounging.

The Kandahar airport is a gold mine of Soviet military leftovers. Wander around the base a while and you can rummage through MiG fighters, attack helicopters and command vehicles. I stumbled across an old Russian barracks one day with one room three feet deep in uniforms -- greatcoats, long underwear, belts, boots and an incredible number of huge sacks filled with bandages. Most of the stuff is too dirty and moth-eaten to consider.

The best tools for this kind of work are a Leatherman device (the multipurpose "pocket survival tool"), elbow grease and patience. Unlike the United States military, the Soviets went with standard flat-head screws, which simplifies the job.

My best success has been at the chopper graveyard spread out underneath the sniper tower. Mashed, mangled, bullet-riddled and shattered, these once mighty beasts of the air sit atop 55-gallon drums or on their sides. I'm not the first to find them. Over the years, many people have visited and taken. In fact, many of the old Soviet military buildings seem to have been built from old aircraft parts, disturbingly plentiful.

PSYOPS units work to remove unexploded ordinance left over from the U.S. bombing campaign that threatens innocent Afghan citizens. CNN's Martin Savidge reports (February 6)

Play video
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
CNN's Martin Savidge reports that after nearly 19 days, largest battle of war against terrorism completed (March 19)

Play video
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
Images from Operation Anaconda 
Map of Afghanistan  showing the location of the fighting

Savidge reports: The Battlefield

A reporter's reflections
The road home
Getting out
Mining snow

I carefully step around them looking for any telltale signs of mines -- much of this base has yet to be thoroughly checked -- and then ease myself inside, again looking for indications of trip wires and booby traps. Seeing none I push deeper into the cockpit. Soon I'm at work, unscrewing, prying and sawing through old wires. Much of the Soviet hardware is wired with connectors that simply twist off. It's as though they built them knowing that one day someone would come seeking the parts. I bet the Russians were good scroungers.

As I work, I often wonder what happened to these machines. What happened to their crews? If only they could talk.

There's a ghostlike quality to them. Aviation gauges are high on my list, then anything with lots of knobs and switches -- and of course Cyrillic lettering.

Piece by piece

As I walk away, I spy a team of heavily armed soldiers moving in on another helicopter. I grow envious when one carries an ax and goes to work on the bird's Plexiglas canopy. Another beside him carries pneumatic tools. These, I observe, are some serious scroungers.

As I watch, I'm stunned to see them pull a body from the cockpit. Could it be that some poor Soviet had been trapped inside all these years? The bubble bursts when I realize they're not scroungers at all and that's no Russian. This is a training exercise for extricating a downed U.S. chopper crew. The Soviet helicopter was just a convenient prop.

As the sun sets, I watch an Air Force crew walking back to their C-17 cargo jet with the rear rotor blades of another Russian war bird. "Hi-ho, hi-ho its off to Rheinmein we will go…"

What will they do with them, I wonder? A ceiling fan? Or are they just destined to "thingamabob" status, trading their Afghan dust for the kind found on some coffee table or desk?

The once-proud might of the Soviet misadventure into Afghanistan is slowly disappearing. Carried off piece-by-piece in cargo holds and backpacks. I'll carry my share.

I just hope some day I don't get a letter from the Kremlin, asking for it back.

Another prized scrounging area I found was barred to me is the huge Soviet aircraft hangar with the large bomb-hole in the roof. Amid the dangers that still exist on this base -- land mines, unexploded ordnance, not to mention the threat of hostile attack -- I was stopped in my tracks by some recently strung yellow plastic tape across the hangar's opening. It read: "Warning. Do Not Enter. Asbestos".

Tomorrow: Savidge on the prayers of a journalist at work, of his children at home -- and of how "the Crusades are still bitterly remembered here ... ."




Back to the top