Foreign Correspondence: David Filipov
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TERENCE SMITH: Our foreign correspondent is David Filipov, Moscow bureau chief of the Boston Globe. From October to Christmas Day, he covered the war in Afghanistan. David, welcome. Welcome home.
DAVID FILIPOV: Thanks for having me.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you come out of this experience optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for any kind of stability in Afghanistan?
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, obviously it’s a positive thing that the Taliban is gone — a regime with an atrocious record on most issues. The situation in Afghanistan is very unstable because it’s that kind of country. I mean, the Taliban is gone, but there are warlords who have influence because they have a lot of men in their arms, the government doesn’t have a lot of support outside of Kabul and outside of the international peacekeepers. So a lot remains to be decided.
TERENCE SMITH: Compare this story, if you will, to others that you’ve covered. I know that you’ve covered both wars in Chechnya, for example.
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, Afghanistan is a lot bigger, and it’s a country that’s been at war for so long. You go through the countryside and there are tanks and bombed- out villages and you say, “Is that recent?” “No, no, that was 20 years ago.” It’s really hard to comprehend just how much damage has been done and how much constant warfare is in the psyche of everybody there.
TERENCE SMITH: The pictures we get back here look like an almost pre-industrial society. I mean, is it that bad?
DAVID FILIPOV: 13th century with modern weapons and Soviet-made jeeps. That’s what it looks like in many parts of Northern Afghanistan. It seems like technology passes by except for the Kalashnikov rifle and the rocket launchers.
TERENCE SMITH: What were the greatest problems for you as a journalist? Was it moving around? You wrote at one point about hiring security guards.
DAVID FILIPOV: We went with security guards for a while to try to get some sort of sense of safety, have somebody with a machine gun in the car traveling. But at one point one of those security guards we hired from General Dostum’s feared militia, we hired him and 20 miles out of town he turned to me and said, “Well, what do I do if the bandits steal my rifle from me?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, what guarantees can you give me?” “Well, the only guarantee I can give you is we’ll probably be dead by then.” At this point he curled up in the fetal position and fell asleep at my shoulder and stayed like that for the rest of the drive. We ended up calling him the “insecurity guard.” So after that, we didn’t really hire too many security guards.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. How could you… Was it difficult getting information, deciding whom to trust? How to sort out what were no doubt conflicting accounts?
DAVID FILIPOV: You know as far as our own personal security as well as figuring out where to go, where to spend the night, I decided that Northern Alliance commanders, since U.S. planes were bombing the Northern Alliance enemy, would be the safest place to go and also the best source of information and the most secure place. So after a while I don’t know if it was necessarily the smartest thing to do, but I would sort of drive up to a new town, find the biggest house, assume that’s where the commander lived or somebody who knew the commander, and say, “Hi, I am an American journalist. Can you put me up for the night?” Generally people were glad to see me, although I imagine that kind of thing will wane, but at the moment, people were very happy to see that the journalists of the country whose planes were helping… Providing them air support show up at their door.
TERENCE SMITH: At one point, I gather you had to make your way in by horseback, which I gather was not something you were very used to.
DAVID FILIPOV: No. Part of my training for The Boston Globe did not involve riding lessons. So there was one river that you had to fjord on horseback, and of course, I had never ridden in my life and the horses didn’t have saddles or stirrups. So they put you on a horse and say these words in Uzbek and off you go. And I kept thinking that I’m going to fall in the river and drown and this is going to end really stupidly. But ultimately I got across and everything was fine.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, there is discussion these days about the question of civilian casualties as a result of the U.S. Bombing. In fact, a professor at the University of New Hampshire has made a study and a survey of it. He’s come up with a number that 3,700… A minimum of 3,700 people were killed accidentally as a result of U.S. bombing. Having been there, does that sound credible to you?
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, it’s really hard to come up with an exact number from the ground, because to do that you would have had to do the empirical work. You know, go to each town, ask people. However, that number does not seem to be totally outlandish. It doesn’t seem to be very exaggerated to me because with the kind of heavy bombardment you had– although it was targeted, although there was an effort to minimize civilian casualties– a lot of bombings took place in areas where there were civilians. It’s not out of the question that that could have taken place. One of the towns that I visited had a large number of cluster bombs that had not exploded when the Taliban were there. They were still lying there when the people came back. As a result, there were casualties, innocent civilians that happened to see them on the ground and pick them up. The after-effects of that kind of bombardment are usually felt for a long time and as a result people die inadvertently.
TERENCE SMITH: You had an article about a village north of Kabul where dozens of civilians were killed by U.S. bombing a month after the Taliban -
DAVID FILIPOV: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: — had left the town.
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, the U.S. has denied that this raid ever took place, but everybody in this town says they saw planes roar in and start bombing. There was a kind of inter- factional violence that everyone is afraid will take place in Afghanistan. Two factions were fighting it out, and the planes came in and bombed and then the fighting stopped. But as a result, about 50 people died, half of them combatants and the rest of them civilians.
TERENCE SMITH: And you went there yourself?
DAVID FILIPOV: I went there after the bombing took place and interviewed the people.
TERENCE SMITH: And you believe bombing did take place?
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, I mean, when an aerial bomb falls, it looks a certain way. When enough people say it was a bombing, then I don’t know anyone else has… who has planes. Of course I could only say “reportedly,” “allegedly,” but it looks about as credible as it gets.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporting this story places a special burden on you because your father, Alexander Filipov, died aboard American Airlines Flight 11, flew into the World Trade Center. What was that like for you and how difficult was it to separate out the personal feelings from the professional?
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, it wasn’t always easy. Afghanistan is a separate and different story from the World Trade Center, although the events that resulted in U.S. being there started, of course, in New York and Virginia. But there were so many things going on, and it’s a country where so many people have been touched by the wars that have been going on there since the late ’70s that it was hard to… It was… I don’t know, maybe it made me a little bit… It made it a little easier for me to empathize with so many people who had been going through this constant deprivation, loss for all these years.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you find yourself cheering inwardly when the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters were routed? I mean was that any sort of satisfaction to you?
DAVID FILIPOV: You know, I mean, I’m a professional reporter. I mean, I write it. I write stories about this kind of thing. I really find it hard to cheer any time during a war. Is it good that the Taliban is gone? Yeah, it didn’t look like they were doing much good for anybody. Did I cheer when the… In Tora Bora when the al-Qaida fighters were being dragged? Not really. I mean, it doesn’t really provide me a whole lot of satisfaction. It’s a separate issue, although it follows from September 11. Now I was at the war and I was reporting on it and I had to keep my mind on my business. When I’d be alone by myself, yeah, I’d often think about it, but I don’t think it really affected me while I was working hopefully.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re going back — back to Moscow I know soon -
DAVID FILIPOV: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: — and back to Afghanistan?
DAVID FILIPOV: Well, it looks like it. I mean, it’s part of my beat. I’ve been there now, so it’s what I do. When there’s something going on in that part of the world, I cover it along with all the other “Globe” reporters. I’m not special in that regard.
TERENCE SMITH: How do you feel about that — about going back there? Something you dread — something you relish?
DAVID FILIPOV: It’s a great story. They’re wonderful people, it’s a very beautiful country and it’s often very frightening. So those all go together. I don’t particularly hope… Well, I don’t plan to buy real estate there, but I’ll continue covering it as long as it’s a story. That’s what I do. It’s my job.
TERENCE SMITH: David Filipov, thank you very much.
DAVID FILIPOV: Thank you.