Our man in Afghanistan
When the Soviets were the enemy, brave Americans smuggled themselves into a war zone to bring much-needed help to a people decimated by war. Apparently, the struggle for peace there is unending.
I remember looking at the Toyota long-bed truck and wondering if this would be where I would die. Bullet holes had already penetrated the side of the truck bed where I would soon be lying. The trucks had become the mode of transportation in the war zone, carrying the Afghan warriors from one firefight to the next. Small, rusty troop carriers, yet very dependable over the rough roads pockmarked by Soviet bombs. Could this be a metal coffin for a foolish journalist?
When I pointed to the holes, our driver nonchalantly pointed to more holes near the front grill and wickedly smiled at the nervous foreigner. As I would be reminded countless times over the coming weeks, these people were fearless, ruthless warriors who stared death in the face for generations. In August 1985, the Afghan people were in a bloody stalemate with the Soviets.
As tough and vicious as they were, the Afghans could also be accommodating and generous with what they had, and now, they were offering me a chance to get great video and background on a story with international scope. A video photographer and I were on assignment for a television station to cover the war story of the decade.
By lying under some musty rugs and oily rags, we were being smuggled into No Man’s Land, a tribal area lying right on the border between war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan, its neighbor to the east. We were to visit a training camp for mujahideen, the Muslim guerilla fighters who fight the jihad, a war against the unbelievers. These men, mostly young, were being taught how to more effectively kill people with captured Russian AK-47s, explosives and Chinese rocket launchers before they went into Afghanistan. It was whispered that the funding for the camp came from the CIA. This trip was a scary proposition for a sane person, abundantly attractive for a reporter.
But first we had to travel through the tribal lands of the northwest frontier of Pakistan where there was no recognized local government. We had already been told this area was off-limits to foreign journalists, but many had made the trip before us, illegally.
So our driver set out with an English-speaking mujahideen commander along to ride shotgun as we hid in the bed of the Toyota. After bumping over non-existent and dusty roads in 100-degree-plus heat, we started to reach the checkpoints near the border that amounted to toll roads for tribal leaders. We had already learned our lesson that baksheesh, or bribes, were the currency of access, and some money was passed to the checkpoint guards. If journalists and camera gear had been spotted in back, a king’s ransom would have to be paid.
We finally made it to the camp and it didn’t meet our expectations. It was set among barren gray and rocky hills that had all the appeal of central Nevada. Not a tree in sight. Who would fight to the death for this type of land? Well, hundreds of men came running to the truck to answer the question. We were honored guests of the approximately 2,000 mujahideen fighters and they were paying their respects by acknowledging our arrival.
Honoring guests, we soon realized, was more important than their comfort or accommodations. When I asked, through our interpreter, where they slept—no barracks were seen—they pointed to the ground. When I saw that a few of the younger men were barefoot, they said shoes don’t fight. They were killers in waiting; there weren’t enough arms available at that point to send these volunteers into battle inside Afghanistan. Tough, austere men, simply anxious for the means to maim and kill the invader who had done the same to them.
Attempting to question them on the political motivations of their country was fruitless because there was no real country or centralized government for them to identify with. Leaders of their village or larger tribal grouping recruited them. When I tried to ask about Afghanistan politics and long-term goals, the conversation would come back to their religious duty to fight the enemies of Islam, with a sprinkling of nasty comments about butchering young Soviet soldiers. Pushing the political point brought frowns from our host, Colonel Safi. He told me that like young men everywhere, these recruits would simply do as they were told. Just as their great-great-grandfathers had done against the British and the czarist Russians before them.
Many of the fighters had come from the Pakistan refugee camps that to this day continue to be a breeding ground for hate. They were mostly Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in western Afghanistan, with just a smattering of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and a few idealistic Pakistanis willing to fight alongside their Muslim brothers. They trained together, but I was surprised to hear that they stayed apart in their ethnic divisions or tribes when off duty. The net that could be thrown over them all was in being Muslim, and their dedication to jihad, or the holy war against the infidels.
Photographer Matt Williams and I climbed up the side of one mountain to witness some enthusiastic machine-gun training and explosives detonations. I had read about the mountain-goat-like aspects of the Afghans and marveled at how quickly and efficiently they scaled the jagged mountains. We decided to watch from below because their enthusiasm was better than their aim with the machine guns. When a large-caliber machine gun was fired, occasionally near a target, a scream to Allah went up. It was also obvious that there weren’t enough weapons to go around for comprehensive training; the show was mostly for us.
Another scream. This time the Afghans were telling their leaders that the American photographer had passed out from the heat. Matt was carried down by stretcher (they called it an Afghan ambulance) and he and his equipment were laid down in a small mud hut surrounding a water well. Covered in damp cloths, he recovered in time for an honorary meal.
The commanders stood in the searing heat and gave a polite bow when we staggered into the area where a cloth was spread on the ground. In a time of meager rations for the troops, lying before us was a meal of roasted chicken, nan and a Coca-Cola, which we were told was a rare treat.
I sensed they were extremely anxious to impress and please, beyond their famous hospitality. The reason: There were rumors that the Americans might be sending over Stinger missiles to knock the deadly Soviet helicopters from the sky.
After reading of the Afghans historical battles against the British and the czarist Russians and how both powers had been beaten, and then spending weeks with these men in hospitals and refugee camps, I began to wonder if the Soviets had a chance. Here were people who knew generations of fighting, depravation, suffering … and the scary part was, they were OK with it. I saw that their ability to wage war and survive was a deep, and necessary, part of their lives.
So the world is now, once again, turning its eyes to Afghanistan and its people. In 1986 I thought the distressed country had been brutalized beyond belief. Apparently it wasn’t tortured enough, and bombs are falling again. Back then, ironically, Americans were risking their lives, and sometimes losing them, to help the Afghan people, the same people who are now being killed by Americans.
When I first laid eyes on Jim Lindelof, he was rolling around on a bed in Greens Hotel in the border town of Peshawar, Pakistan. He was suffering from an intestinal malady that brought intense cramping. Jim had intentionally eaten the spoiled local food to acclimate himself for a grueling trip ahead into Afghanistan. Looking at him suffering from something that may have been dysentery, I thought to myself that this bearded California hippie, with his high, soft voice and gentle manner, wouldn’t last in a combat zone.
Jim had been a paramedic in Los Angeles and met a doctor who had smuggled himself into Afghanistan. He had completely bought into the heroics of the doctor’s exploits. Jim had paid his way to Peshawar and was now about to travel over a mountain range to get deep into the war zone to treat the wounded and diseased.
He had volunteered to trek into Afghanistan with medical supplies and set up makeshift hospitals in caves. These cave clinics manned by doctors and paramedics from Europe and the United States were increasingly becoming targets of the Soviets. His mission required that he travel on foot across a war zone, climb up the treacherous Hindu Kush Mountains to 18,000 feet, and along the way, dodge Soviet bombs and rockets for 15 days. And not get paid a penny.
Jim said he simply wanted to help a people suffering the ravages of war and he was willing to risk his life to do it. He didn’t see himself as a person from a capitalist nation fighting a communist regime, or that it had anything to do with his personal politics. Naive? To a degree. Noble? I thought so.
Peshawar was not a town you’d want to be in if you were delirious with fever as Jim was. It was the hottest part of the summer and the open sewers were giving off a stench that at times dissolved nose hairs.
This town in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan was basically a cauldron of profiteers, opium dealers, gem smugglers and a full assortment of spies and soldiers of fortune, all with varying degrees of honesty and loyalty.
One night in a makeshift bar and restaurant called LaLa’s, a French doctor tried to indoctrinate me on some of the intrigue. It was a plotline out of Casablanca meets The Year of Living Dangerously. There were a dozen Afghan tribes of various ethnicities vying for superiority and virtually none of the leaders could be trusted. The warlords fighting in Afghanistan all had representatives in Peshawar to get their share of the weapons coming through. The despised secret police of Pakistan, known as the ISI, were wreaking havoc and demanding payoffs to move anything through the frontier. Bombs were going off almost weekly in Peshawar in attempts to kill tribal leaders, but the Afghans claimed the Soviet spies were doing it to destabilize the mujahideen’s shaky alliance. The CIA was pumping millions of dollars into the campaign to defeat the Russians and much of that money was coming through Peshawar and into the hands of corrupt warlords. Muslims from outside the area had set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) to help funnel freedom fighters and money from Arab countries. (Their leader in Peshawar was a man called Osama bin Laden.) Tons of opium would flow out of Afghanistan to the east and much of it came through Peshawar, and of course there were the gem smugglers familiar to the region. You almost expected to see Indiana Jones walking though the bazaar.
Into this throw reporters from all over the world scraping the bowels of Peshawar reality for contacts and information while on occasion sneaking in and out of the war zone. My photographer and I had traveled 12,000 miles to cover the story, or at least our slice of it. KSL-TV news in Salt Lake City had paid for us to follow medical supplies donated in Utah and see if they indeed made it into Afghanistan. There had been serious questions about how much aid from the U.S. was making it into the country. Some experts thought as little as 25 percent actually made it in; corruption ate up the rest.
The Association for a Free Afghanistan, a U.S. aid organization, had connected us up with Jim. He had agreed to take the Utah medical supplies deep into the Panjsheer Valley of Afghanistan for a three-month stay. The television station would not allow us to go into Afghanistan for weeks or months—the company’s insurance wouldn’t cover us in a recognized war zone. So, we had hired a freelance photographer to follow Jim around for the video inside Afghanistan. But in the finest tradition of Peshawar, the freelancer disappeared after we fronted him expense money.
So I had a problem, but Jim had a still camera and was willing to help—that was his nature. He was about to go into Afghanistan anyway, so I gave him a crash course in photojournalism and asked him to keep a detailed journal. After hearing from foreign correspondents about how dangerous it was to trek around during a shooting war, I figured Jim had a 50-50 chance of making it back out, so I started making plans on how to rearrange the story in the event he died.
I saw that Jim was more than curious about the news media and how it worked. He was also a sincere and engaging man who wanted to know more about the people who had fled from the war. In the end, this wanting to do more, and a curiosity about how to tell the story of war, proved to be a fatal attraction.
While Jim waited for his caravan of a guide and donkey to take him into the hostilities, he followed us around the border area learning about the devastation the war was bringing to the Afghan people.
We came around a bend in the road north of Peshawar and out in front of us was a sea of tents stretching out for miles. One hundred and fifty refugee camps were spread along the border and we were entering one of the biggest. Nothing seemed to move, except for swirling dust devils. A singularly depressing place of brown tents built on concrete posing as earth; there were no jobs outside of standing in line for food or carrying water. Many of the residents had been recently torn from their villages; there were no schools or mosques, and little hope for a better life. Most of the Afghan people had that blank, hungry stare of refugees.
The more permanent residents on the sprawling site were building mud walls, mostly to keep the prying eyes of outsiders off the women. When we had traveled from the large city of Karachi to the less-populated frontier, we noticed that the code of Islamic law was followed more closely. For the women, a headscarf wrapped around their face became the norm. Large Afghan eyes would peek out occasionally from behind the shroud, but then turn away. A long history of subjugation of females had preceded us. Not one Muslim woman with a veil agreed to talk with us on camera.
We had climbed to the roof of a Peshawar clinic one day to shoot video of a mullah singing the call to prayer at sunset. When men in surrounding buildings saw the video camera shooting a panoramic shot of the sun setting, they assumed the foreigners were using a zoom lens to view their uncovered Muslim wives and daughters in their apartments, and a mini riot ensued. The clinic director had to lock the door of the building to keep the screaming men from us.
There were actually very few men in the nearby refugee camps; many of the women were widowed by war and the children left fatherless. The men who were there were taking a break from fighting and eating U.N. rations. They easily crossed the border to join the fighting when needed.
Their stories of atrocities committed by the Soviets were hard to believe. A group of recent refugees claimed that the Soviets were hanging people in trees, then throwing gasoline on the bodies and lighting them on fire to strike fear into the hearts of the mujahideen. The men we spoke to said the atrocities didn’t scare them away. But I noticed the stories seemed to get Jim’s attention.
A Pakistani doctor’s narration of one hospital tour went like this: “This man is suffering from gangrene; this one from a bullet wound to the skull; this fighter from Mendahar has shattered bones from a machine gun blast; this one had a limb blown off by a mine … ”
The wounds were months, if not years, old and to the extremities of the body. That’s because a wound to the chest or belly in Afghanistan is a killer due to a lack of battlefield medics. We saw hundreds of the injured lying about with missing limbs or wounds that would kill mere mortals. Many said they had been carried out to Pakistan by their comrades or on the backs of donkeys. Some of these warriors were able to walk out of Afghanistan before they died of blood loss, shock or infection.
We came to the bed of a 12-year-old boy with bandages over his hands and eyes. He picked up a bright green piece of plastic in an Afghan village and thought it to be a toy plane. It was a small Soviet anti-personnel butterfly bomb that exploded in his hands. The bombs don’t kill, they are designed to maim. The Soviets knew an injured person was more of a liability than a corpse in Afghanistan.
They also knew that if you killed doctors, more of the wounded would die. Ninety percent of the Afghan doctors and nurses had been killed or left the country by this time. Yet the Afghan rebels continued to fling themselves into battle in the name of the jihad, causing untold numbers of casualties. There was very little medical care, for both civilians and mujahideen alike.
So people like Jim felt compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice for Afghanistan. Americans and Europeans were willing to risk their health and safety for a people they didn’t know.
Almost half way around the world from Utah, I watched Jim put the syringes and orthopedic plaster into boxes for the trip into the Himalayas. Jim and Ron, a young surgeon from Houston, had already bartered some of the basic medical supplies on the black market for much-needed saline solution, which ironically had been produced in Communist China. That day the two nervous young men were in a “safe house” waiting for the call to set out into the war. The Western men had already changed to Afghan dress, dyed their hair and were now applying skin toner in order to look like mujahideen.
Then one night they disappeared without a word.
They spent almost two weeks hiking into Afghanistan behind donkeys loaded down with medical supplies. The doctor and paramedic crossed some of the most rugged, demanding trails in the country to get to the Panjsheer Valley. One of the donkeys slid off the trail and died. Some of the valuable cargo was lost. Soviet helicopters had flown over. But the two men eventually made it in unharmed.
They set up makeshift M.A.S.H. units in caves and operated in the dirt by candlelight. The American medical team sawed legs off land-mine victims, who didn’t cry out despite the lack of painkillers. All the while the Soviet MIGS bombed near the cave and helicopters patrolled over the valley. A larger bomb had hit a few meters above Jim’s head near the opening of the cave, yet the bomb was unable to deeply penetrate the rock and collapse the cave. It was soon apparent to Jim why this system of caves was such an important defense against the well-armed Soviets. The entrances and the paths leading to them seemed to blend into the rock, and he said even he had a hard time spotting them from across narrow valleys.
The medical team also provided the locals with basic medical care. There was a little girl with fearful eyes whose infected chicken pox had turned black. Jim was able to treat her with topical antibiotics from Utah. Hemingway would have been impressed by the stories and pictures Jim kept detailing of their work in this Afghan emergency room. He told of surgeries and attacks by the Soviets. All the while we had no idea if he was alive or dead. We didn’t know the ending to our story, or if we would get it.
After his three months were up, Jim walked back out of the country and returned to the U.S. with the first evidence of the Soviets using napalm. He had carried out a small portion of the substance with him along with pictures and displayed it at a Washington, D.C., press conference.
He flew to Utah to deliver the story he promised to tell. After finishing our videotaped interviews in Salt Lake City, I took Jim to a bar where we swapped stories about the characters we knew at Greens Hotel where I first met him. He soaked up the air conditioning and beer that he had gone without for months, and spent time just looking at the faces of women. He said he wouldn’t miss the smell of death that lingered in the caves. But over the next days and weeks he had a difficult time talking about anything other than his war experiences. While my photographer and I had moved on to other stories and settled back into our American lives, Jim couldn’t let go of the courageous Afghan people and what he had been through. When he returned to Utah months later and stayed at my house, he told me the Wasatch Mountains nearby reminded him of the Hindu Kush, and he wondered how long the Afghans could hold out against the Soviets. He talked of going back to help out, again.
This despite the recent bad news that a journalist we both got to know in Peshawar had been killed in Afghanistan while following a medical team. Charles Thornton of the Arizona Republic had died in a caravan ambush while following a medical team that he had been hooked up with at the same time we had met Jim. I remember feeling jealous when Thornton told me his newspaper was allowing him to go into the war zone.
When told of Thornton’s death, Jim said that it could easily have been him who died in an ambush, but fate apparently stepped in.
It had been a story of millions; the numbers were both staggering and depressing to think about. Estimates were that a million had died or been wounded on both sides, 1 million refugees had fled to Iran, 2 million had found their way to Pakistan, 2 million inside Afghanistan were left homeless. Their societal framework was crumbling and the hope for a reconstruction was dim.
Upon my return I had been asked to lecture on the conflict, one time to graduate students in political science. My conclusion that day: The withdrawal of Soviet troops wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing for the Afghan people. It would cause the previously fractious, warring tribes to fight for control and the bloodshed wouldn’t end. A college newspaper reporter in the crowd smelled a story. He questioned me about the cynical tone of my little speech. I told him that I didn’t see any unity among the warlords, that many were corrupt, and while I wasn’t hoping for it, I thought a civil war would break out. After all, the internal rivalries have made it so there hadn’t been a strong central government there in 400 years. Why would someone predict peace now?
Jim had obviously craved a return to Afghanistan in 1987 and had also been infected with the journalism bug and couldn’t shake it. I told him it wasn’t a wise career move, but he ignored me. The Russians were now hunting down journalists in Afghanistan to stop the pictures of the war from getting out and hurting them internationally and at home where dissatisfaction with the war was growing. Jim was now recommitted to the cause. This time he reasoned that he would stop the war by bringing the pictures of horror into people’s living rooms. The Soviet’s Vietnam.
He found his vehicle to re-enter the fray when he hooked up with documentary filmmaker Lee Shapiro. In May 1987 I got this postcard:
Greetings from Peshawar,
How things have changed in the past two years! Remember how LaLa’s Grill used to have just us regulars and a few French doctors and nurses? Now, all you find there are bureaucrats, and, worst of all, tourists. Lots of U.S. money flowing in. We’re getting some great footage of border bombings. Filmed the bombing of a village the MIGs bombed for hours. Now it’s a virtual ghost town except for the enlarged graveyard and jigsaw puzzle of horses (60 if re-assembled). Two artillery shells hit while we were filming. I plan on doing some trekking in the Himalayas soon [meaning he was going inside Afghanistan]. Wish me luck. Hope to see you in November for a nice cold brew! Jim.
The coverage of the war had advanced, or retreated, depending on your view of the “big bang” theory of war coverage. By 1987 you needed spectacular footage of guns, bombs and death to sell to the networks. The more difficult story of explaining what was happening to the cultural fabric of Afghanistan and its people, or why the war was being fought so viciously, might not sell so quickly or bring as much money. After all, this was the biggest “hot war” going on at the time.
The U.S. Information Agency knew how to draw all the journalists with secret information into their expansive air-conditioned house in Peshawar: serve liquor and barbecue and have attractive Western women serve it. The USIA would get the reporters liquored up and encourage them to brag about what brave acts they had performed to get their story, what they had seen, and who helped them inside the war zone. All that braggadocio was gathered for the CIA.
One freelancer had some spectacular pictures of Soviet tanks in action and land mines going off. Most pictures at the time had necessarily been shot from far away; these were the first real close-ups and it was hot property. Years later he was accused of staging the footage with captured tanks and rigging land mines. That was the competition Jim faced going in and he knew he’d have to take risks. Perhaps the best war photographer of all time, Robert Capa, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t getting close enough.”
So this nice, caring man, a paramedic-turned-photojournalist, went into the northern region of Afghanistan, where the Soviets were thickest and the fighting fiercest.
He wrote: “I know this trip is crazy, but for the pictures and the story we’re after, it’s worth the risk; that is, as long as we don’t get killed.”
After five months of hiking through evil, Jim and his partner got what they were after. He got great “bang” and believed they had the first pictures of an American-made, CIA-supplied, Stinger missile knocking a Soviet jet out of the sky.
The journey had taken its toll—Jim was suffering from hepatitis. But he was about to reach his goal of showing the world the horrors of war.
The caravan was one day away from the border when it was spotted by a group of Soviet helicopters. Jim had survived two ambushes during this trip, but not this one. A witness said he took a direct hit from a rocket.
He died and his story of horrors died with him; the film was never found.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Jim’s story did appear on film, in the documentary “The Last Images of War.” It was about journalists who died in the war trying to uncover the truth and how that coverage helped convince the Russians to withdraw from their 10-year Vietnam. So Jim had made a difference. Or had he? Writing about his death left me feeling that his optimism and do-gooder instincts had been wasted on a country whose destiny was violence and instability.
Once the Soviets had left, the interest of the U.S. faded, the CIA dollars dried up, and the media swarm went somewhere else. Another vicious free-for-all, however, was about to begin.
There was a short-lived coalition government formed in Kabul in 1991, and it lasted a couple of months before the betrayals and blood feuds emerged as they always do. The true nature of the country and its tribes revealed itself in a civil war that decimated still more sections of the country. The coalitions fell apart, and the mujahideen took their CIA-supplied training and weapons and turned them on themselves. Who wouldn’t get cynical reading the accounts of the continued fighting, torture and rape? I wondered who was left to kill. Of course, that never seems to be a problem in Afghanistan.
Then in 1996 the Taliban emerged to restore order. And repression. They were Pashtun and many of them had grown up in the refugee camps in Pakistan and were trained by the ISI. Much of the international reporting focused on their fundamentalism and their atrocious treatment of women. But it’s that famous thirst for war and vengeance, and to some degree, their hospitality, that has brought back international attention.
During the destruction and mayhem of the civil war, terrorist camps were built by a man with construction expertise in his family background and, more importantly, money. The Taliban’s most famous guest was Osama bin Laden, a man who learned about the Muslim warlords and their politics in Peshawar and obviously knows of their proclivity toward betrayal. He must trust just a few and certainly has built a network of those impervious caves and hideaways that make his quick capture difficult.
The ultimatum to give up bin Laden goes against the Pashtun’s code of hospitality. Even though he is a suspected murderer, he’s their guest. And if you insult them and their guest, you have insulted their honor. And if you have insulted their honor, the only thing to do, of course, is to seek revenge against you. That you are an infidel is just one more reason.
So now, as it can only be, Afghanistan is in the middle of more war and destruction. Their former friends, the Americans, are bombing what is left of Afghanistan and its people, and at times even the Red Cross. My cynicism grows. The story of millions is swelling into multimillions as the bombing and the ongoing drought will certainly push the country into a darker age and the refugees will flow like the water they desperately need.
Journalists are pouring back into Peshawar and I’m sure Greens Hotel is booked solid. I see them covering the protests against America and many have sneaked into Afghanistan; a few have been caught and will have a harrowing tale to tell.
The CIA money tap has probably reopened and the spies have certainly crept back into Peshawar. All this as the mujahideen warlords, who are neither Taliban nor Northern Alliance, sit in fine large Peshawar houses paid for with the graft and corruption. They are sitting back, waiting to fight for control of what is left inside Afghanistan.
Months from now there will be yet another call for a broad-based, coalition government to be formed in Kabul, when and if the Taliban fall. The Americans may try to prop up the exiled and retired king, Zahir Shah. Or will it be someone from the Northern Alliance who can’t be tied to their rapes and brutality? Pakistan could promote a Pashtun who betrayed the Taliban.
Amid my speculation I sometimes wonder now what Afghanistan would be like if the foreign invaders, from the British to the Soviets, the Americans to Al Qaeda, had just stayed the hell out of that country. Would the Afghans have naturally turned in and destroyed themselves, or is the motivation for full-scale war external? I only have the feeling I know what will happen in the end: more fighting.
In reading the current accounts, I also wonder what Jim would think of this, the death and destruction taking place 14 years after his heroic efforts. As the American jets replace the Soviet’s, would he have gone to help or become cynical?