Reporters on the front-line prepare for long campaign

War against terrorism: The media
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The hardships of reporting from Afghanistan are stretching even foreign correspondents whose work has taken them to some of the world's worst troublespots, from Sarajevo to Saigon.

About 100 journalists have set up home in Jabal Seraj, 25 miles north of Kabul, where luxury is defined as a diet of onion sandwiches and water channelled from the gutters into half-built buildings.

Gaby Rado, covering the conflict for Channel 4 News, has one of the most sought-after billetings, sharing four rooms with 20 journalists who are the object of some envy because they have a sit-down lavatory, even if it does not flush. He previously shared with about 50 journalists in another semi-derelict house where the "stench was impossible to bear".

Water supply is made up of streams coming off the mountains into the village and running through the streets where people use it to wash and drink. The home used by Mr Rado is more desirable than others in that old metal pipes have been used to channel water from the road into a tank in the building. His team has bought a wood-fired stove to heat it up so they can have a warm bath.

"This is the Four Seasons Jabal Seraj compared to other places," he told The Independent yesterday. "The house is half-built and appears to have been shelled or bombed in some conflict in the past two decades. The Northern Alliance have put window frames in the rooms and plastic sheets across."

Food supplies in the village are limited, and his staple diet has become onions placed between some "gritty" pita bread, while a meal out consists of pieces of lamb in a rickety structure journalists have named "the kebab house".

The village is the nearest point to Kabul that journalists can safely reach. Other British teams in the area include the ITN Asia correspondent, Julian Manyon, who has covered most troublespots since the fall of Saigon. Jonathan Munro, ITN's head of news-gathering, said a supply chain from Tajikistan had been set up to keep the team equipped with food as well as technical back-up. Health was an issue and one producer had been recalled to Moscow with dysentery, although he was expected to return to the front line.

"All our people there are extremely experienced but it is a very difficult situation. In the Gulf War it was more self-contained. We were involved in going in with land forces. Some correspondents were on the front line, others were in a media centre. There is no media centre in northern Afghanistan," he said.

ITN's deployment includes a Channel 5 team fronted by the reporter James Bays. They have just arrived in Jabal Seraj after a four-day journey by road from Feyzabad. They were forced to make the journey by lorry because all Northern Alliance flights to the area have stopped, but as they ascended an 8,000ft mountain their vehicle proved incapable of coping with the incline.

Deborah Turness, deputy editor of Channel 5 News, said: "They had to walk up with Northern Alliance troops, and soldiers were collapsing because they could not breathe. There were dead horses by the side of the road. The cameraman and their guide got altitude sickness and they had to spent a night in a hut with 30 other people. I was concerned for them that night because it was so remote. They are nearer the front line now, but at least they are nearer civilisation in Afghan terms," she said.

The BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, arrived in the area on Friday after joining a convoy moving slowly down from northern Afghanistan. His colleague Ben Brown is with the Northern Alliance troops.

The radio reporter Kate Clark, who was expelled from Kabul, and the central Asian reporter, Caroline Davis, are also near the front line, but most of the corporation's correspondents are at Khodj Bokhoudin, near the border with Tajikstan.

Jonathan Baker, BBC world news editor, said the corporation had about 20 people in total and teams were rotated so they were given a rest after about 10 days.

"Initial conditions in the compound were poor and sanitation was absolutely disgusting. They were sleeping under canvas and food was initially quite patchy. Water had to be brought in by hand."

Mr Baker said the extreme cold of the approaching Afghan winter meant conditions at the base would have to be improved. "We are taking stock ... We will get extra warm clothes and blankets in to people. We may have to build a shelter. We simply do not know how long we will be there."