For one week only, we are just another story

The reporters - A personal diary from Jalalabad
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The Independent Online

Perhaps at some time or other, walking around a hotel or driving through the streets of Jalalabad, I did see Harry Barton, Julio Fuentes, Aziz Haidari and Maria Grazia Cutuli, who was buried yesterday. But I never put a name to a face and the only impressions I have of them belong to other people. Maria, a striking Italian, who had been reporting on Afghanistan for years; Aziz, the gentlemanly Afghan photographer working for Reuters; Julio, the bold Spanish reporter, and Harry, an Australian who was already concerned about his safety and wasn't sure he wanted to be here anyway.

But it was sickening, none the less, to drive back into Jalalabad's Wide Mountains Hotel on Monday afternoon to be told that just two hours ago the four of them had been killed. They were shot by an unidentified gunman on the road from Jalalabad to the Afghan capital Kabul. On Wednesday the Red Cross drove their bodies into Pakistan for repatriation. And life at the White Mountains Hotel has not been the same since.

How many thousands of Afghans have died in this war nobody knows, but so far there have been only seven confirmed foreign deaths. They would not be B52 pilots or members of the SAS but journalists – the four who died last week and three who were killed earlier this month in northern Afghanistan. An unwritten rule decrees that reporters shall not write about the life of reporters. But perhaps this is the week to make an exception.

Compared with Kandahar (where the Taliban leadership is holed up under American bombardment) or Kunduz (where thousands of Taliban and al-Qa'ida holy warriors are in the process of surrendering under siege), Jalalabad is a peaceful backwater but still, for sheer variety of dramatic stories, I have never known a week like this one. Last Sunday, I was standing in a Taliban base amid unexploded cluster bombs and the wrecks of 200 tanks and artillery pieces. The next morning, I visited an opium farm, and in the afternoon four of my colleagues were murdered.

Wednesday was a slow day – reading arms manuals in a terrorist hide-out, and interviews with the rival mujahedin commanders who are manoeuvring for control of Jalalabad. On Thursday, I drove into the mountains to visit a prison, medieval in smell and appearance, where 150 al-Qa'ida prisoners were being held. On Friday, I explored Osama bin Laden's abandoned house in Jalalabad, and in the evening American planes dropped bombs a few miles from where I was tapping out my story. Early on Saturday morning, to top it all, Jalalabad was shaken by a small earthquake. It is as if a decade of reporting highlights has been compressed into a single week, and each of my colleagues here could compile a similar diary.

Who are the journalists working in Jalalabad? After the tragedy on Monday, a lot of people understandably pulled out, but there remains a fluctuating population of around 60. At least four out of five of us are men; even inside the hotel, the women wear headscarves and long loose clothing out of respect for Muslim sensibilities. Perhaps two-thirds of us come from the English-speaking world, the rest from Europe, South America and Japan.

A few have found lodgings in town, but most of us are based in Jalalabad's only large hotel, the Spin Ghar. The two-storey concrete structure is set in broad gardens behind a high metal fence, guarded by young mujahedin. Here and there are signs in Cyrillic; you can feel the ghosts of dead Russian officers of the Soviet occupation brushing past you in the corridors. The hotel is named after Jalalabad's most famous landmark, the beautiful white mountains, 25 miles to the south; as an institution it fails to live up to its graceful name.

The beds are narrow and lumpy, the hot water unreliable, and the toilets frequently unspeakable. The food is reasonable, but this is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and the local population does not eat during the hours of daylight. In the evenings we gorge ourselves, but apart from a few biscuits I have not had lunch for nine days.

On Tuesday night, a power cut coincided with the failure of the hotel's generator, and a panicked scramble began to charge up the numerous TV editing suites, cameras, and laptop computers. The most essential and closely guarded items are the portable satellite telephones, without which the most astonishing news story is useless. After my computer died, I wrote my second article by hand and dictated it, through fading batteries, by the light of a hurricane lamp.

Such practical problems fade in comparison with what the journalist euphemistically refer to as the "security problem''. What it comes down to is an unspoken question. Is the work which I am contemplating today likely to result in my injury or death? Without a certain tolerance of risk one would never step foot in Afghanistan – the difficulty is in managing the risks which one encounters day by day.

Contrary to the popular image of the war correspondent, there are very few swashbucklers or adrenalin junkies among the press corps in Jalalabad. Experience, it seems, breeds caution rather than its opposite. Walking across a patch of virgin desert, in a country riddled with landmines, is obviously a stupid idea; we follow car tracks or step in the footprints of those who have gone before. But what about the Taliban and military bases, all of which are strewn with unexploded bombs and ammunition? To be completely safe, one would never go near one – but at this stage in the war they are one of the biggest and most fascinating stories.

So we compromise by treading gingerly, and always taking the advice of the local mujahedin. Have I felt myself to be in mortal peril? Not at all. But in a time and place like this, you might not know until the danger was on top of you. The four journalists who died were driving in a group along a busy and well travelled road. The first conclusion to be drawn was the most obvious of all: that it could have happened to any of us.

There is another hardship which none of us talk about much but which everyone feels: the simple loneliness of being away from home. My closest journalist friends are all in other parts of Afghanistan. Apart from my translator and constant friend, Nader Farhad, relationships here are transitory. But one of the great pleasures of work like this is the experience of becoming firm friends with people you hardly know at all.

On Thursday night, the Americans in the hotel organised a Thanksgiving dinner, a festival which previously meant little to me. Turkeys were purchased from the bazaar and with a lot of improvisation, a grand banquet spread out in the White Mountains' sepulchral dining room. Local pomegranates were substituted for cranberry sauce. There was one bottle of wine between 60 people. But it is amazing how drunk you can feel when you really need to. There were speeches in which we toasted our dead colleagues and one another. It was a happy night, sentimental in the best sense of the word. I missed my girlfriend and our home in safe, rich, uneventful Tokyo, and I understood more clearly than ever what an illusion this kind of existence is, how remote from the responsibilities of real life. But there is an obscure satisfaction in being here among all this that is hard to pin down. It is an ordeal, a privilege, and the experience of a lifetime.