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Afghanistan Chronicles, Part 4: Kill the Journalist, Kill the Story, Kill the Truth

It was November 19, 2001, when the bus arrived in Jalalabad, the first real city in Afghanistan after crossing the border from Pakistan at the Khyber Pass. Independent cameraman Jim Burroughs shared a ride from Peshawar, Pakistan, with an ABC crew from New York. Jalalabad had just fallen to the anti-Taliban mujahedin a week before, but Kabul was still under the control of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Spinghar Hotel was the gathering post in Jalalabad for news crews from around the world arriving to cover the final days of the Taliban regime. They were waiting for word that Kabul had fallen before heading north. That made some sense.

It was November 19, 2001, when the bus arrived in Jalalabad, the first real city in Afghanistan after crossing the border from Pakistan at the Khyber Pass. Independent cameraman Jim Burroughs shared a ride from Peshawar, Pakistan, with an ABC crew from New York. Jalalabad had just fallen to the anti-Taliban mujahedin a week before, but Kabul was still under the control of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Spinghar Hotel was the gathering post in Jalalabad for news crews from around the world arriving to cover the final days of the Taliban regime. They were waiting for word that Kabul had fallen before heading north. That made some sense.

Unfortunately, there was only floor space available at the Spinghar, and it made no difference that ABC’s line producer screamed in English at the hotel manager that she had made reservations. The guy behind the counter simply shrugged and gestured to the hotel lobby where people were toe to toe. All the rooms, ante rooms and patios were filled, he mumbled. While the producer fumed, Jim searched the crowd to find Lal Agha, a translator and guide that his contacts from earlier shoots had arranged for him. Lal told Jim that Haji Zaman, the newly appointed anti-Taliban deputy governor of Jalalabad, had invited some journalists to stay at his nearby compound. As the ABC crew searched the hallways for couches and chairs, Jim bid goodbye and hopped with Lal into the truck Haji had sent to the hotel.

The next morning, Jim returned to the Spinghar to learn that a caravan of journalists, including the ABC crew, had decided to make the dash for Kabul. For them, there seemed nothing worth covering in Jalalabad even though it had been Osama bin-Laden’s favorite location in Afghanistan. Jim considered the possibility of joining the convoy, but when he heard there would be no armed escort, he decided to pass. In Afghanistan, you always traveled with particular mujahedin, well-trained, armed men who had a reputation for trustworthiness. Jim slipped into the one room ABC had managed to procure for its on-camera host, and as the vehicles left, he hit the mattress and fell asleep.

Several hours later, he awoke to a great ruckus. Vehicles screeched around the driveway, car doors slammed, TV crews and drivers ran back and forth shouting in many different languages. Jim jumped into his Afghan clothes, grabbed his camera and headed downstairs. Clearly, no one knew exactly what had had happened, but a couple of hours into the journey, the lead car of the caravan had been stopped by men with automatic weapons and was left behind by the others who turned back to escape the ambush.

Burroughs recounts what happened next in “Blood on the Lens,” his memoir of the filming of “Shadow of Afghanistan”: “Any journalist will tell you, panic can cause people to act out of character or perhaps very much in that hidden character they suppress or repress. Outgoing, outspoken people go silent. Quiet, reflective folks cannot stop screaming and telling you over and over again what they have experienced. The reactions here were no departure, except this time the people who asked the questions and wrote the stories were the story.”

The only one filming the scene, Jim moved through the crowd trying to learn more. Most of the journalists were dressed in Western garb including backward baseball hats and Hard Rock T-shirts. Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, and this was Ramadan, the month of fasting, but a few of the journalists had already opened their stashes of beer and scotch and were drinking in front of the Afghans. Two old pickup trucks came to a loud, dusty stop outside the hotel with a dozen well-armed mujahedin riding in the back. Jim recognized one of the drivers from Haji Zaman’s the night before and approached him. Jim made his plea in broken Dari, received a smile back and climbed into the back seat where he was quickly joined by two other journalists. One was a Frenchman named Louis and the other a German named Altaf. None of the other journalists seemed to take an interest. The trucks took off and their driver turned on his cassette player to a song in Arabic by Yusef Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, strains of Cat’s “Peace Train” scoring the journey.

“I was jostled from my ruminations as the road began tracking the Kabul River,” Jim writes in “Blood on the Lens.” “The sun was sinking low, and the stark landscape was taking on a Biblical hue. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing actual things in the countryside or if they were heat mirages. I could make out an occasional ragged tent, a grazing camel, and ruins that resembled ancient Judea except for the trashed Soviet tanks. We passed kids shepherding goats, women in burqas running from the road, and tall, thin men wearing blankets, who gave us unwavering stares.

“A stray bullet – or so it seemed – kicked up dust in the road behind us that sent the guys in the rear off road briefly to search for phantom gunmen. The shadows are dangerous here in this land of fast-setting suns. Our drivers stopped the few vehicles coming the other way to ask if they’d seen the journalists. No one had (or chose not to say) until one driver said he had seen them, a few miles up ahead, lying beside the road. We asked him if they were alive or dead. They weren’t moving, he said.

“A few miles farther, without warning, our drivers pulled off the road at a mud building where several large, funky rigs were parked. The Ramadan sun had set and even though our grim destination was nearby, our men wanted to break their fast as soon as possible. We followed them into the café with our cameras. The crowd inside took immediate notice. We were shown a place on the floor beside a dozen others who were seated cross-legged at the long kilim [a woven rug] that served as the dinner table. Several gas lanterns hissed, producing harsh white light and deep shadows. The black metal weapons stood out in silhouette. Two transistor radios played at speaker-cracking volume, one in Urdu, the other in English. The local men talked with each other as they sipped tea and watched us, their Kalashnikovs on the floor in front of them. Everyone seemed friendly enough – that is, they only stared at us – and shortly our naan and tea were delivered followed by plates of traditional mutton stew.

“Suddenly, a local mujahedin commander burst into the café and sought out the commander of our caravan. All eyes followed him, and I raised my camera. Through the lens I saw the mood of the placed was changing fast. Altaf had joined the two commanders who were discussing the situation. His face tightened, and his eyes darted about, belying his smile. He turned to me in halting English, ‘This commander is from here and says we must go back now and stop looking for the journalists. They are dead. The canyon is narrow and there are men shooting down from up high.’ The commander added a final thought that the German quickly translated. ‘He says there are men here in this café who will kill us too. He says we should go – the quicker the better.’

“As I panned around the room, I saw many of the younger men and boys had pulled in close. One stood right in front of the lens and smiled, blocking my shot. Then another kid joined him and waved at the camera. Another guy raised his fist at me. ‘Photo me!’ he shouted. ‘Photo me now!’ It was an order, not a request. Others had come to their feet and gathered around us as well, weapons in hand. Our driver tugged at my arm and headed for the door.

“When we arrived back at the hotel later that night, lights were on everywhere – lights for correspondent on-camera reports; lights on the big satellite uplink being built in the front garden; and lights to illuminate workspaces, satellite phones, and the lighting process itself. Understandably the media army swarmed over us grasping at any new bit of information that might be useful in their reports…. That night I hung out with Lal and got word hours later that Haji Zaman’s troops had found the journalists, indeed dead, and were returning with the bodies to the Jalalabad hospital. Lal and I left the hotel early in the morning and hailed a rickshaw on the main road.

“At the hospital, Lal managed to talk our way into the morgue. An ambulance pulled up and the heavy wooden boxes were unloaded and carried through the emergency room doors and down the long dark corridor to the refrigeration chamber. In the cold, white room, an attendant briefly opened one of the caskets. I wished he hadn’t. Her white, silent face was bruised and cut, and a small hole revealed where the bullet entered her forehead…. I stepped back as the attendants slid the heavy coffins into separate vaults. When they left the room, I stayed to film in the icy silence. Here were three Western journalists – Harry Burton, Julio Fuentes, and Maria Cutuli – and one Afghan photographer, Azizullah Haidari. They had been brutally beaten and then shot repeatedly in the head and chest. They had died just as many other journalists had during the Soviet and Civil War that followed – so many of them without the benefit of coffins or ID tags to identify their remains.”

These four dead journalists are victims of things gone very wrong in network news and journalism in general. Were they too brave or too foolhardy? Even the Afghan, Haidari, spent most of his life outside Afghanistan after fleeing the Soviet invasion as a child. Were they not seasoned enough to know that one always traveled with carefully chosen armed escorts in war zones? Were they disconnected from the political and cultural realities of where they’d been sent? Had the not been properly trained by the corporate news elite? Had they studied how al-Qaeda and the Taliban operated? Were they left to their own devices in harm’s way by the US government or military that failed to give them enough relevant information to make the best choices in a very dangerous job?

From 1989 until 2001, Afghanistan was considered yesterday’s war, hardly covered. For a brief time, while American and NATO forces participated in successfully driving the Taliban from power, Afghanistan made the front page and the nightly news. From 2002 until 2010, it became yesterday’s war again. Iraq always ended up as today’s war. No American network was inclined to air a proper history of Afghanistan while Saddam Hussein lived and breathed and made for better “news.” With the Iraq war, the practice of “embedding” journalists with the troops was supposed to help minimize accidents, but how much could a reporter see of the big picture if he or she were locked into an embedded berth where one’s every move would be decided by the US military, the US government and their corporate ‘news-as-entertainment’ bosses?

Something dramatically new changed the media landscape when US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan jumped into the fray with their own footage and blog postings. They became an inspiration along with independent journalists posting their reports on Internet news outlets such as Truthout. Still, the corporate media ignore the work to this day and toss insightful footage and stories into another cold, white freezer.

Kill the journalist – or the story – and the truth can be hidden from view.

Watch part one in this series: “The United States Bombs Afghanistan”

Watch part two in this series: A Search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains

Watch part three in this series: Children of Terror

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