Firefight and ice
First of three parts: Monday, March 4, 4 p.m.
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- As we push into the Lower Sahi Kot valley we can hear a major battle raging on the far side of the mountain beside us.
Heavy machine guns, small-arms fire, explosions and mortars -- it sounds like a hell of a fight. We just don't know who's fighting it, most likely Special Forces. Someone's taking a beating. Warplanes are buzzing around the mountaintop like bees around a hive, constantly bombing and strafing. The pristine snow on the peak is charred black and gray. The rising smoke wreathes it like a volcano.
We're continuing to follow along a dirt road near the valley floor. It may not seem like the wisest course, but the small hills it winds through offer coalition forces the only shelter from the Taliban and al Qaeda mortar positions high on the mountains all around the valley. After more than a decade of fighting in this place, there's hardly a square foot of the area they can't target in a heartbeat.
We come across an abandoned red Toyota pickup truck hidden from our approach by a small depression. The soldiers advance cautiously: It's one of the favorite modes of transportation for Taliban fighters. The truck's empty. Why it's abandoned we don't know. To make sure it stays that way, a Canadian sniper steps forward and aims his 50-caliber rifle at the grille. The shot explodes into the engine block penetrating it instantly and kicks up a cloud of dust behind the back wheels. The shot went clean through the entire truck.
Not satisfied. Other soldiers pack it with C-4 explosive. In a massive blast, the truck is reduced to a burning twisted hulk.
We move on before coming to a halt about one kilometer from the village of Sher Khan Keil, Operation Anaconda's primary objective. From a distance it looks deserted. We know better. The battalion is told to head off the valley floor and take up positions on a line of serrated ridges about a third of the way up the sides of the mountains just below the snow line.
We settle in with Delta Company, a heavy-weapons unit located on the ridge closest to the village. They use rocks and brush to disguise the barrel of the 50-caliber machine gun they've lugged into position.
We place our backpacks and sleeping bags behind their position. The lieutenant thinks it's the safest place to be if we're mortared. The lower the better.
As the sun heads for the horizon, a public affairs officer walks up to tell us about an al Qaeda compound discovered nearby. It's supposedly filled with weapons, documents and the hurriedly abandoned personal effects of those who fled it. Cameraman Scott McWhinnie says that if we're going to get shots of it we'd better hurry. Once the sun is gone we won't be able to video the find.
Five of us, including two armed escorts, scurry down from our position heading for the compound.
As we pass more soldiers settling in for the night, they shout hello. Scottie's an outgoing type with an English dialect, he's known by many. One soldier shouts to the two of us, "What are you doing here? Aren't you afraid of dying?"
Scottie tosses back, "It ain't my time, mate!" He says it with assurance because when he was in Kabul a month ago Scottie had his palm read by an ancient-looking Afghan. He told him he would live to at least 75. I've often wondered what the man would have found in my hands.
We trot down the mountain into the evening dusk that's starting to shroud the valley floor.
In just a few hours, we'll come so close to proving the old man wrong ...
Coming: More from Savidge of "Firefight and ice:" -- "Suddenly I hear a sound and recognize it instantly. It's the distinctive "Bee-Now" of an AK-47. It ain't the good guys."
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