Afghan Chronicles: Day Four, Navigating a War Zone

2:30 a.m. I am jolted awake with a muscle spasm in my calve. I am off my exercise routine of daily running and weight lifting. Like a packed mule, I lug over 60 pounds of camera equipment, but the exercise is not the same. I move between cramped car to a shoot, scrambling to capture the story, and then settle back into a cramped car for an hour and then pounce again.

The pain or spasm in my leg is a concern. A couple of years ago, after two days of extensive travel, I had a dull pain in my calf that did not go away. I thought I pulled a muscle while running. After a couple of weeks, I went to my doctor, who sent me for a sonogram and they found a blood clot in my calf. After a few conversations with family members I discovered all the male cousins on my father’s side of the family have the same blood disorder, .

According to the it is the most common hereditary blood disorder in the US, and 5% of the white population and 1.2% of the black population have it. Some call it the silent killer because it’s often undiagnosed and the clot can travel from the leg or arm to the lungs, heart or brain and a person dies instantly.

I had no idea any of this existed. In addition to cumidin, (blood thinners) it is suggested that I get 45 minutes of daily aerobic activity to oxidize the blood. I run every day at home. In Kabul, it’s nearly impossible, unless I run around the tiny Gandamack courtyard 5,000 times. Suffice to say, it is a manageable condition under doctor supervision. I have traveled to India, Dubai, Tanzania and now Afghanistan, and have not had an incident. I love doing this type of work and would never think of stopping because of this medical condition. It actually motivates me to keep fit.

If anyone has any questions please contact your doctor or feel free to contact me through this website.

As long as we are on diseases, Afghanistan is the fourth , rumbling stomach, gassy and sulfer burps. If I can leave here with a touch of intestinal virus and all my body parts and camera equipment intact, I would feel very lucky.

During the day, the clock is always ticking. Each interview is about one hour. After the scheduled interview I beg for a bit more time to get b-roll, I think of the editing room back home. Coverage, get it now. No going back once I am in New York. The answer is always no because we are over scheduled, but Nancy sees the pained expression in my face and can’t bear to see a grown man cry. She rolls her eyes, sighs and gives me an extra five minutes. I shoot like mad. She yells, “we’re late, get in the car.” I grab my gear and throw it into the back of the car, hoping I turn the camera on and off at the right times.

Running on stress and adrenaline takes a different toll on a body. Ever since the plane landed, I nod off for an hour or two, wake up for another two hours, nod for another two, then it’s 5:30 a.m. and I am up for the rest of the day. At 5 p.m. I start to fade. By 9 p.m. I am catatonic and need to avoid people at all costs. It is the time I review and categorize my “dailies”, and get ready for the next day’s shoot. By 11 p.m. I fall asleep on my keyboard and crawl to bed.

The schedule is a killer, but I am learning so much and loving every minute of it.

On this night I went to a Lebanese restaurant, called “The Grill” with some of the ACKU staff; Royce, Laila and ACKU president, Sandra Cooke.

Three machine gun-toting soldiers kept guard. The restaurant has three blast walls to hurdle instead of the usual two.

When entering a new place never take one step without a translator. I made that mistake, and I still don’t know how it happened, but I was turned away and everyone had already entered. Fortunately Nazir hadn’t left yet and I waved him down and he negotiated my entrance. It’s maddening. I want to do things myself but I am totally dependent on others.

Royce is the only international person I have met who travels around the city by himself. He speaks Dari and bikes to work. Every other international worker I have met travels with a driver and translator.

We have chicken kebab, pita bread and salad. It is nice to interact with people without a camera. I like this group a lot. They are smart and dedicated to their mission: restoring Afghan memory by cataloging documents from the last 30 years of war. They also publish books for new literates and promote literacy throughout the country. Who can argue with that?

They say they feel safe living in Kabul. During the day, for the most part, I believe them. When the skies darken, it is a different matter. My wild imagination goes into overdrive. But the days have been filled with interviews with international and local officials. I am grateful for the access, and the people I have met are extremely articulate.

Most organizations don’t address long-range planning. Afghanistan has been decimated over the last 30 years by the Russians, civil war, Taliban, and now with the inflammatory mix of the US and NATO troops, the corrupt Karzai government and the latest crop of Taliban/Afghan/Pakistan/Iranian/Arab insurgents. Afghanistan is in a free fall and will take at least a couple of generations to rebuild itself, but no one has the patience or collective vision to bring this country out of the toilet.

He speaks about the international obsession for a “quick fix”, e.g., throw a lot of money at a project, check it off as a deliverable for the folks back home as proof that their tax dollars are “making a difference,” and leave.

He says the international community has a lot to learn from Nancy’s example. Nancy is in this for the long term. She has committed decades of her life to making a difference, which is why she is so revered by the Afghan people.

To watch Nancy explain why she has devoted her life to the Afghan people click below.


Our first appointment of the day was a visit to the Afghanistan Election Commission. Nancy and her organization (Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University Box Library Extension), ABLE, commissioned a series of three books for new literates on the importance of democracy. The books will be distributed to schools and villages around the country. She presented the first book to the head of the commission.

To watch Nancy at the Afghanistan Election Commission click below.


People fall over themselves to meet Nancy. I know it sounds trite but she really is one of their national treasures, and it’s inspiring to witness. No matter how many times she rolls her eyes and yells at me, I feel so lucky to be documenting this extraordinary complex woman and the work she has done. I don’t think I have ever met someone who has genuinely committed their life to helping a group of people. Most people I know might spend a couple of years in the Peace Corps, and then go corporate, but 50 years of service?

One time I was swept up in the moment and told her the work she does is extraordinary and she told me that, as a journalist, I should not lose my objectivity.

No time for sentiment.

Our next meeting was with Anders Fange at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. To get there from the Election Commission, we had to travel on what some call the “lethal highway” to Pakistan. We dodge two-feet-deep potholes, and pass through the omnipresent sand-filled air, chaotic drivers, blast walls topped by a sea of barbed wire, thousands of sandbags, and nests of gun-toting guards eyeing each car. I think about the previous night’s conversation about how safe Kabul is. After a while I guess people get used to the precautions. To me, the images are a constant reminder of where I am. People at the moment feel a reprieve. Over the past two months there have been no kidnappings or bombings in Kabul.

I am still unnerved by it all. I don’t trust the calm. I am anticipating, always. Before I came to Kabul, Columbia Journalism offered security training by ex-military. They said always be alert and watch everyone. In a city of over three million, that lasted 30 seconds. I do remember two things, always vary travel patterns, and if gunmen are shooting at my parked car, get out and hide behind the tire. For some reason behind the tire is the safest place to be if your car is under attack.

It sounds cliche but I feel on 9/11 I was infected with out of my head. War is no longer an abstract. It has come to my neighborhood. All eyes are watching the terror unfold in the neighborhood I ran so freely at 7 a.m. and is now in lock down with checkpoints every few blocks. The air so thick and putrid with burnt steel and rubber that I can only take short breaths through my t-shirt.

Please click below to view part one of New York Diary, the short video segment on the first night and week of the 9/11 aftermath. Part one and two were broadcast on WNET/Thirteen, New York’s PBS station.

I don’t think I would be in Afghanistan today if I wasn’t in New York on 9/11. It’s quite fascinating the twists life throw you.

Back to Kabul.

I feel lucky to have access to this part of Afghan society, and lulled into a sense of security, yet the brief glimpses of imminent danger constantly pierce my protective bubble. The confused caller from P___ telling me my car is on the way when I am already in it. Convinced I have suddenly been kidnapped I experience one of the most profound moments of bone-chilling terror in my life.

I had another moment today, but not as scary.

On our way back from the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan we drive on the crowded Kabul-Pakistan highway. Someone in our party gives us somosas, a fried pastry stuffed with meat and cheese. Nancy and my translator, Nazir, sit in the back, eating. I am in the front seat, preparing my camera battery and tape for the next shoot.

Traffic slows to a crawl. An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy is behind us. When that happens, all cars must pull off to the side of the road. If you do not, the military might think you are an insurgent and shoot you. This happens too frequently and many innocent civilians have been killed. Every time it happens, it gives ammunition to the insurgents: Insurgents 3, US/NATO 0. The insurgents send a message, “the US and NATO don’t care about Muslims, they kill innocent Afghans.”

We take no chances and drive very slowly on the side of the road with the hundreds of other drivers. When the convoy gets closer we stop. A small white car with two men in the front seat drives next to our car for a couple of miles. Both men stare at me. The man in the passenger seat, looks to be in his forties. He has dark skin, big brown eyes and never takes his eyes off me. I keep my camera on my lap and toil away, very conscious I am being watched. I stare back. The passenger stares at me with a dead, menacing look. He picks up his cell phone and starts talking, his eyes, never leaving mine. The driver looks a bit kinder. He is younger, has a softer, rounder face, dark curly hair, but the passenger begins to unnerve me with his suspicious piercing gaze. He is speaking on the phone, and I am convinced he has someone on his way to blow me apart.

Nancy asks me what I think of the somosa. I tell her I am still working on my camera and will eat it soon. It smells great I tell her. I want to tell Nancy and Nazir to look at the guy in the next car. I decide not to burden her or Nazir with my madness. Where do I begin? “Help, Nancy, tell that man to stop staring at me!”

As the ISAF convoy passes us, we stop our cars. As soon as we stop, the passenger from the other car disappears. I look around for him. He’s gone. There is chaos. Other drivers have gotten out of their cars, and some men talk in groups. I want to tell our driver to go, but we can’t move. Nancy and Nazir talk about the pastry, and are having a nice relaxed conversation. Like a horror movie, I stare out all windows, everything is in slow motion and the only thing I can hear is the pounding of my heart as I wait for the passenger to pounce on the windshield and blow me to smithereens, or drag me from the car at gun point.

It is these moments, these anonymous menacing glances, that feel like annihilation is a moment away. Real or imagined, it is always there. The looks are probably benign curiosity, as my looks are when I watch people. With my shaved head, even the Afghans I work with ask me if I am military/contractor.

Some Afghans, like the passenger most likely see me as menacing as I see them. It is made more intense by the paranoia or hysteria or drama that seems to always linger on the surface. I am told again and again by internationals and Afghans alike, “trust no one.”

Finally, the traffic loosens up, we drive away. The small white car, gone. On to the next moment. My heart rate returns to normal, I breathe and take a bite of the pastry.

We meet Herat. He fears many young people, even the world at large, do not know of the rich Sufi cultural heritage in Afghanistan and only associate it with Islamic extremism.

Afterwards, Nazir and I head to the bombed-out Dar-ul-Aman Palace that looms on a hill near the University. from a Tim Burton movie. The architecture shows the grand and cultural richness of a once thriving city. The hollowed, bullet-ridden building is still stunning with it’s massive columns and sweeping archways. It depicts a thriving culture Dr. Fayez speaks about. The building can serve as a metaphor for the decaying city below, the splendid columns and other architectural remanents are a shadow of the former parliament building, yet it offers a bit of hope. This sophisticated architecture is part of their culture. Yet at the same time it offers a cautionary tale, because of the warring factions that paved the way for the Taliban, they willingly destroyed the building, and along with it, their country.

Click here for Day Five: Building A School Library.