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TERENCE SMITH: The war in Afghanistan has so far proven a more deadly assignment for journalists than for western fighting forces. Since the bombing began October 7, no allied troops have been confirmed lost in combat. But in the last eight days, seven journalists lost their lives covering the war.
Yesterday, four journalists — a cameraman and a photographer with Reuters news agency, and two print reporters for Italian and Spanish dailies– were shot east of Kabul. The four were part of a convoy of journalists that included reporters from several U.S. newspapers. They were traveling in a dusty no-man’s-land between the eastern city of Jalalabad and the Afghan capital, Kabul. Their cars were stopped by armed men, reportedly Taliban soldiers or sympathizers, who ordered them from the vehicles and machine-gunned them by the roadside. Their bodies were recovered today.
On November 12, three other journalists traveling with the Northern Alliance were killed near Taloqan, in Northern Afghanistan. Two reporters representing French Radio, one seen here days before her death, and a German magazine writer were killed during a Taliban rocket attack on their convoy. But the Taliban is not the only threat. These pictures shot by an ITN cameraman show Northern Alliance soldiers menacing a crew on the outskirts of Bagram Airbase north of Kabul. Reporter Julian Manyon:
JULIAN MANYON, Independent Television News: The Afghan soldiers here are still trying to interfere with our filming. A short time ago they threatened to shoot us if we went any further.
TERENCE SMITH: In addition to the dangers, the logistical challenges of reporting from a country devastated by decades of war have been huge. Some local profiteers have capitalized on the opportunity, charging reporters for bathrooms and hot water. Perhaps first among the beneficiaries: The Northern Alliance.
ALFONSO ROJO, El Mundo: The Northern Alliance organized a very good racket and they are trying to grab our money. And it is well organized. They force us to take specific cars, specific interpreters.
TERENCE SMITH: Beyond these obstacles, the war in Afghanistan remains for hundreds of western reporters as fluid and as dangerous an assignment as any since Vietnam.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on this dangerous assignment, we’re joined from Kabul by Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN; and by David Rohde, a correspondent with the New York Times. Welcome to you both. Thank you for being with us. Christiane, tell me what the situation in Kabul is today. Is the capital largely secured now?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: It does seem to be that way. It’s a week exactly since the Taliban fled and the Northern Alliance swept in. And of course there were many fears both in the international community, and in Kabul itself, that there may be a spate of revenge killing, but it hasn’t happened. It is mostly secure and the Northern Alliance are patrolling the streets, but we haven’t had any interference with what we’re doing and we’re able to operate pretty much as we would be able to in any city under these circumstances.
TERENCE SMITH: David Rohde, have you been able to move around Kabul reasonably safely, and how do get your information?
DAVID ROHDE: I’ve actually been surprised at how smoothly things have gone here in terms of the change of the army coming into the city. I haven’t had any trouble getting information. There was actually more trouble prior to this up in the Pansher Valley, which the Northern Alliance controlled until they took the city. It’s very, very similar, actually, to a typical reporting assignment in any country around the world, which has been a surprise. But to the Northern Alliance’s credit, things have gone well here so far.
TERENCE SMITH: And David Rohde, you made your way down to Kabul with the Northern Alliance forces?
DAVID ROHDE: Yes. The…actually watched the advance, was right behind it, and basically it was a question of getting a connection with local commanders who would allow you to get close to their units. One unit I was with, unfortunately, we saw an execution of a Taliban prisoner that occurred right in front of us on the very first day of the attack. Since then, we’ve seen Northern Alliance soldiers from other places actually take Taliban prisoners to hospitals. But that was one example of things that can go wrong here.
TERENCE SMITH: Christiane, how did you get to Kabul? What was your route and what did it involve?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Well, I had been following the initial part of this war from Islamabad and I was not in Afghanistan. Just about a week ago I had come via the North, but I was extremely fortunate because at that time, Kabul was on the verge of falling, and I was able to get a helicopter from the Northern Alliance, which some journalists have been able to do, and come straight down to Jabal Saraj, which is just the location where journalists were just near the Pansher Valley just outside of Kabul. So it was quite a smooth trip.
But, of course, the road in, as David will note, was a little bit hairy if you weren’t quite sure where you were going, because obviously it had been a front line and there were some mines. And for those people who weren’t traveling, you know, with experienced drivers or, for instance, maybe at night or tried to go off-road, there was potential trouble.
In fact, the very next day, a minivan full of people, Afghan people, hit a landmine… Actually, it was probably an anti-tank mine, and basically all 15 people inside were killed. It seems to be here the most danger is not from inside the cities, but when you are riding on the roads, and it appears that it is sometimes bandits, sometimes people we don’t know, who are stopping, robbing, ambushing cars. And in the case of our four colleagues yesterday, really met them an extraordinarily tragic end.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. David Rohde, we get conflicting reports, and I know you do, too, in Kabul. I suppose the question is how do you know whom to believe; which sources, and how do you sort things out there?
DAVID ROHDE: I think you end up just relying on what you can see with your own eyes and you try to go to these places to see what’s happening so you can provide accurate reporting. And that’s unfortunately what led to our four colleagues being killed. That’s all you can do in these kinds of situations, and there are many rumors here and you need to go chase them down. And it’s just tragic. I think all of them had just gotten into the region recently and many of us have been here for many weeks. And it’s just… It’s very… It’s almost just basically luck in terms of how these things happen.
TERENCE SMITH: Are… David, are reporters still trying to get up from Jalalabad to Kabul, or does it simply seem too dangerous?
DAVID ROHDE: I’ve got two colleagues, Barry Berrick and Tim Weiner that are there right now in Jalalabad. I’m not sure what they’re going to do. They may try to head back into Pakistan where there may be flights here into Kabul, or they could try to make that drive over the road. There were two reporters from New York “Newsday” who went out on that road again today. They were robbed and threatened at gunpoint again, and luckily survived because their translator begged for their life.
TERENCE SMITH: Christiane, we saw last Friday that you went into some abandoned al-Qaida buildings in Kabul and you came up with some sensitive documents that you reported on on the air. What did you do with the documents when you were finished with them? Did you turn them over to authorities, or is that not your role?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Well, I’m not sure whether it’s our role or not. I frankly wouldn’t have a problem handing them over, or at least sharing the information in them. You know, we’re all sensitive as to exactly what we’re covering here, and we know that this is an extraordinary situation. I think it’s a personal choice, and I myself, I would feel comfortable sharing after I had reported them.
TERENCE SMITH: If reporters are seen to be conduits to authorities, does that make it more difficult or dangerous for you?
DAVID ROHDE: I think when people view us in a hostile way, we’re going to be seen as conduits anyway. And our main thing we’re doing is you first get the information you get the documents and you report it to the public. And if, you know, the…if governments end up using that information also, that’s their business, but our primary responsibility is to the public. So it’s really an issue of an individual issue, but I don’t think this is going to make or break, you know, whether we give these documents or what we do with them is going to determine how we’re viewed.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And I’d just like to say that those people who were killed on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul weren’t asked about documents or any such thing. They were simply pulled from their car apparently, as far as we know, and it may have been any number of things, banditry, Taliban on the run and resentful. I don’t think that particular issue is one that is causing us here any danger.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Christiane, we hear a good deal of reporting from the Pentagon about the presence of U.S. Special Forces on the ground in Afghanistan in various locations. Have you run across any of them? Have you encountered them?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Yes, our reporters, and indeed personally, yes. Yes. It’s very difficult to actually go with them when they’re doing their job, as you can imagine. We haven’t had any access, or there has been no possibility of covering them as they go into combat. But they have been spotted in other parts of the country here.
TERENCE SMITH: So you haven’t been able to communicate with them or get specific information from them?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: You try. American Special Forces are not necessarily… they don’t love journalists that much. And, you know, they’re here to be special and secret. And so when they see you coming, even if you recognize them, they tend to be quiet, turn around and walk off.
TERENCE SMITH: David Rohde, have you encountered any of them?
DAVID ROHDE: Yeah, essentially staking them out early in the morning seeing what road they would leave on, and followed them one day and had some very angry and some threatening things done to my driver and my translator by the Northern Alliance soldiers that were escorting the Americans that day. And then actually, just a couple days ago, two large land cruisers came driving through a checkpoint where I was doing some reporting, and the gentlemen inside it. I thought they were aid workers.
They seemed to fit in pretty well in terms of their clothes and their appearance, and they all of a sudden picked up these scarves they had and put them over their faces to cover themselves up from us. So the photographers got some good pictures of them putting the scarves up. I actually shouted hello to them and told them they had been doing a great job. And that was the closest I got to them.
TERENCE SMITH: Did they shout back?
DAVID ROHDE: No, they just sped off with their faces covered.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. All right. What…Christiane, what are the working conditions there? Are you able to communicate with other parts of the country or with colleagues outside the country? How…what’s it like?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Well, I suppose really it’s easier to communicate outside of the country because we obviously all have satellite phones and a variety of the high-tech gear that journalists today are able to take into these kinds of places with them. What’s more difficult is communicating inside the country if you have to use a landline. Also, inside the country, many people, officials and things, do have their own satellite phones.
But, for instance, I haven’t yet been able to make a domestic… a local phone call here in Kabul. So everything is a question of getting into the car, going down, checking it out and doing it that way. It’s rough, to be very frank. I mean, a lot of these places we go to are. And this is a city that is not prepared for its own population, really, much less an invasion of hordes of journalists who, you know, you can imagine demand a certain level of comfort. It’s not here, that level of comfort, but, you know, it’s not the worst place in the world either.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. David Rohde, what about you? What are you able to do and not do?
DAVID ROHDE: It’s actually easier than a place both Christiane and I reported in, which was in Sarajevo. I mean, there’s not…this is not a surrounded city that’s being shelled randomly and you never know where a shell is going to land or a sniper is going to fire. So it’s easier in that sense, but it is more difficult in terms of just finding out what’s happening ten miles away from here. There’s no way to know except to get there. There’s often bad information from rumors. There are commanders who will mislead you. But, you know, it’s oddly not as dangerous as Bosnia was, and I think some other conflicts other people have covered.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I think…if I could just elaborate on that, David is absolutely right. In Bosnia, you know, the war was against the civilian population, and we journalists were with the civilian population, and so it was much, much more dangerous for journalists there than I believe it is here, because there are vaguely established front lines here, which wasn’t really the case in Bosnia.
TERENCE SMITH: And I assume it’s still very dangerous and very difficult to proceed south, say, to Kandahar or that region?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Yes, it is. We’ve tried and we’ve gotten stopped every time.
DAVID ROHDE: Mm-hmm. And that’s exactly the type of no-man’s-land down in that area, down to the south and also to the east where the four journalists were killed, where there’s really no central control and it’s extremely dangerous.
TERENCE SMITH: David, I know you’ve spent a good deal of time with the Northern Alliance. Were you surprised at the speed with which they rolled up to and into Kabul?
DAVID ROHDE: I was, frankly. I spent a lot of time sitting on that front line watching the American bombing, watching alliance soldiers get ready for the attack, and it seemed that it was actually a combination of factors. The American bombing – this is from prisoners, Taliban prisoners I’ve spoken to who were on that front line and then were captured later on – and they said the American bombing did really over time, especially in the last two weeks of heavy bombing, bring down the morale.
There was a large number of defections also that helped the Northern Alliance, and the Northern Alliance itself actually did carry out a very well-coordinated attack where they used these defections to create lanes where they could send soldiers up through areas they knew that would be safe because of the defections and then get behind the Arab and Pakistani fighters who were much fiercer fighters who would not give up. So it was well carried out, you know, and a combination of a variety of factors.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Christiane Amanpour and David Rohde, thank you so much for joining us, and please, take care of yourselves.
DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Thank you.