Afghan Press Odyssey

In Afghanistan, the frontlines were difficult to find and a fistful of dollars was more useful than a bullet-proof vest.

Afghan Press Odyssey

In Afghanistan, the frontlines were difficult to find and a fistful of dollars was more useful than a bullet-proof vest.

There were two must-haves for every foreign correspondent who covered the war in Afghanistan. The first was a fistful of US dollars. The second a tolerance for primitive sanitation.

Money bought privilege, a smooth path through bureaucracy and a torrent of information from self-appointed spokesmen. The journalist got his story - and for a few dollars more, could even send it out.

Afghan people could hardly believe their good fortune at this influx of thousands of foreigners sprinkling money around like seed corn. Living standards in the areas visited by the press corps showed a marked improvement.

Local entrepreneurs swiftly mastered the art of press relations. They knew that with few fixed front lines, foreign correspondents found it difficult to witness the conflict for themselves. So, for more of those dollars, they were only too happy to brief frustrated correspondents on the fortunes of war that day.

As a specialist in Persian-speaking communities, I went to Afghanistan with a foreign television company. I had last visited the country 15 years ago, as an interpreter for a group of Soviet advisors and was keen to see what had changed.

In those days, the Afghan people had roads, electricity and gas. Now the visiting journalist found that, often as not, there were no toilets and no water. Proper roads were non-existent. At night villages and towns were dark through lack of electricity. People lived in a bleak medieval fashion. Everything was grey - the houses, the walls, even the faces of the Afghans themselves.

Nevertheless journalists tended to adapt easily. The first rule was to bring in as many of your own supplies as you can. The most experienced of my colleagues advised me to eat tinned food or soups from packets and to drink only brought-in water or local water that had been boiled for 10-15 minutes.

The dollar trail started before you even got to Afghanistan. The main route from the north is through Tajikistan where a friendly border guard absolved me from tedious form filling for a mere ten dollars. His superior officer observed the transaction and demanded another ten dollars for himself.

Taxi drivers jostled for our patronage and charged shockingly high prices. The once-neglected hotels of the Tajik capital Dushanbe were thriving. The most favoured by journalists, the Tajikistan Hotel, offered highly priced rooms along with a telephone line, an internet connection, the usual hotel services, taxis, medical treatment and most importantly, information.

One man who spoke fairly poor Russian and called himself Murat stopped me in the street and offered me information on Afghanistan. I was curious to hear what someone living in Dushanbe could possibly know. He assured me that he could provide reports on military actions in Afghanistan and could organise two hours of video shooting on the frontline. He spoke of people who, for the right price, could take me there by helicopter.

Every Tuesday and Saturday an escorted convoy of vehicles headed out of the Tajik capital towards the Afghan border. It costs about one dollar per person per km for the 250-km ride.

At the border, large numbers of friendly Afghanis swooped on you offering transport for 200-300 dollars. Again there were border controls and here I was lucky. The guard who dealt with me was an ethnic Uzbek and when he found I spoke his language he whisked me through the formalities and installed me in a Russian jeep for a very reasonable price. In Afghanistan I noticed repeatedly that people supported members of their own ethnic group even if it meant breaking orders.

For the most part, foreign journalists stayed in Khodja Bahaudin, which is 35 km from the Afghani-Tajik border and the site of the Afghani interior ministry. The city has about 10,000 inhabitants in addition to its new population of 2,000 journalists.

At the interior ministry you could find drivers who, for 100-150 dollars a day, would take a journalist wherever he or she wanted, even into battle zones. An Afghani interpreter costs about the same price.

Each driver paid 20 dollars a day to park outside the ministry. Interpreters had to obtain a license for 200 dollars. Any journalist who hired a driver not on the approved list or an unlicensed interpreter was obliged to sit around till after lunch before being allowed to leave. And after that he could be sure of running into big problems at checkpoints along the way.

The information system was highly organised. Whether you are at the front or back in town, the news you got was the same and often turned out to be wrong. I saw Afghan military commanders who had been surrounded by journalists all day patiently answering questions in detail. Journalists found it next to impossible to interview Taleban representatives on their own territory. But the Northern Alliance seemed all too keen to give interviews, regardless of whatever military action is going on around them.

Some journalists wanted to know about the underground battles that were supposed to raging in caves. One field commander promised to show us a ruined underground system. When we got there we found only old army trenches and foxholes. So off we went off take yet more shots of American air strikes on Taleban positions.

We asked to interview a Northern Alliance field commander and were taken to see an officer named General Yusuf. He said his forces were ready to attack as soon as the orders came. He assured us the situation at the front remained unchanged and that the Taleban were digging in their positions. In short, we heard everything we already knew.

Later I found that General Yusuf commanded only about 500 soldiers. In Afghanistan, every field commander is titled "General Soyeb" (Mr General).

If you wanted to be up-to-date on military planning it was best to find a relative of some highly placed officer and - yet again - pay him handsomely.

One evening I got talking with our translator, Abdul Khasan, and he said, "Tomorrow they'll take Mazari-Sharif". In the morning, we learned that the forces of General Dostum had indeed captured the city.

I was interested by the attitude of Afghans towards the Americans. Ordinary people as a rule hold no opinion, believing that everything happens according to the will of the Almighty. Afghan politicians and commanders said that even without US help they would have eventually defeated the Taleban. They thought the Taleban was going through a crisis in relations with the population.

Avazbek Atakhanov is an IWPR contributor.

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