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In Afghanistan, secure feeling doesn't last long

By Cliff Hackel
CNN

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CNN Producer Cliff Hackel, right, and Christiane Amanpour set up a shot outside Kabul.

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(CNN) -- My first day in Afghanistan's capital began with a warning.

"The situation here in Kabul is what I would call amber -- not green, not red," our British security chief, Will Scully, told the CNN crew. "Use your common sense and you'll be OK."

We were in Afghanistan for our bin Laden documentary, and our assembled group listened intently. The country was a different, more dangerous place than it was two years ago, when most of this team was last there. (Watch CNN crew go to work in a war zone -- 2:42)

We were an international group: a producer from Belgium and two from the United States; cameramen from Australia and South Africa; along with Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, born in Iran; and Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst who was born in the United States but raised in Britain.

I have been to 30 countries -- 10 of them for this story -- but only one was considered dangerous enough to require a security contingent. In Afghanistan, we had more than a dozen well-armed people protecting us. Most of them were Westerners, and they stuck out from the locals.

Kabul was a city of stunning contrasts. Situated in a valley, it had great physical beauty, but most people endured crushing poverty. Many men had fabulous beards while the women were covered head-to-toe in burkas.

We shot a variety of interviews, standups and video for the documentary.

The only impediment was the size of our team. We traveled in a caravan of five SUVs -- not the most optimum situation if you want to be inconspicuous. We stood out in Kabul traffic.

Scully, for security reasons, insisted that no one's vehicle got in between us. On the occasion when one did, Scully purposely slammed into him, knocking him out of the way. Scully was very matter of fact about it, throwing some Afghan money at the bewildered driver for the damages.

On our third day in Kabul, March 12, Producer Ken Shiffman, another American, and I needed to travel to the Pakistan Embassy to get visas. The Danish cartoon controversy made it difficult for journalists to enter Pakistan, and we had been trying for weeks.

Before Ken and I got in an SUV, Scully winked at us and said, "Don't mind the hardware." The vehicle was bulletproof, but our American driver and his French companion were not. On their laps rested M16 assault rifles, their fingers on the triggers.

Our trip to the Pakistan Embassy was fruitless. Despite the fact the embassy had just opened, and a line was stretched around the block, we were informed that there were no visa applications inside. I thought visas were one of the reasons embassies existed. But in this part of the world Western logic doesn't apply. We motored back to the hotel. We'd been gone less than an hour.

When we arrived, the Serena Hotel was abuzz. Only a kilometer away a suicide bomber had killed a government official. Worse, both the staff at the Serena and our own security team learned that a second potential suicide bomber was targeting the hotel.

We were scheduled to leave that day for Jalalabad, so we went to our rooms to pack -- this time with deliberate haste.

The team assembled in the lobby to meet with Scully. His words still stick with me. "The situation," he said in his understated manner, "is slightly more elevated than amber."

We looked at each other warily. My heart skipped a beat.

"When you get into the vehicles, do it quickly, don't linger outside," he said.

I don't remember running to the SUV, but I did move in a hurry.

As we rode in traffic I worried that a car would try slip in between us, as one did a few days earlier. I eyed every car with suspicion. Kabul was choked with traffic, but Scully had somehow secured a route to the airport through the embassy area, supposedly the safest part of town.

Safe indeed. Not only did our own security team have enough weaponry to fight off a small army, towers filled with embassy soldiers pointed heavy weapons in all directions. Sandbags on both sides of us were piled 10 feet high in a snake-like pattern.

It was a bit eerie as we rode along at about 5 miles per hour. We were the only vehicles driving through the embassy compound.

Within 10 minutes we were at the airport. Security whisked us off to the VIP section -- an outdoor area just off the runway filled with picnic benches. It was sunny. Someone brought us bottles of water. We smiled, had some nervous laughter, and toasted our good fortune.

In the months afterward, the fortified embassy area came under rocket attack. And during anti-American riots in Kabul, every picture window in the lobby of the Serena Hotel was shattered by gunfire.

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