in search of al qaeda
homethe journeyinside the tribal areasground zero: pakistandiscussion
producers' dispatches from the front


+ "On the Road to Chitral"

from Marcela Gaviria

click here for a larger map "To Whom It May Concern: This certifies that Ms. Marcela Gaviria, Mr. Scott Anger, and Martin Smith are journalists and have permission to conduct their journalistic activities."

The letter does not quite specify where we can "conduct our activities," but it seems to be just the paper we are looking for. And so, permit in hand, we head to Chitral, a town in the Northwestern Frontier of Pakistan, where bin Laden has allegedly been spotted just weeks ago and where there are reports that Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is operating.

The route will take us through the valley of Charshadda and up the mountains of Bat Kheela, Wuch, Wardi Posst, and finally to Chitral. Our contact in Islamabad is very nervous. He does not volunteer to come. We venture north on the advice of General Qureshi, Musharraf's right hand, who says, "It's safe. No problems. Go."

"Long Live Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden."
The road to Chitral is the most beautiful I've ever taken. It begins with a tree-lined road and that stretches for miles and miles. The air is rich with the smell of sugar cane. After an hour or two we arrive in Takht Bhai, a bustling little town with dusty roads and a fine restaurant called the Village View, which overlooks a brick factory.

A few miles past Takht Bhai, we hit the first mountains. It's a steep and winding road, that hugs the Panjkora River. It's hard not to want to stop at every corner. The images are stunning. There are little girls in colored veils herding goat. Children playing in the powerful rapids of the Panjkora. Men crossing the river with a pulley and basket. Groups of men praying on mats next to the road. Incredibly, we pass two cricket matches at the foot of the river. We ask to step out of the van and film, but we are not allowed. Our fixer Shameem and driver Faizal, are clearly agitated.

Every once in a while there is a sign in Pashto, which reads "Death to America." "We will not accept slaves of America. We will be slaves of our God." "Heaven is reachable through Jihad."

We stop in front of one farm house, which sits on the banks of the river. Two cows graze lazily in front of a sign that reads, "Long live Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden."

I think it hits us at that moment. Here we are in a place that feels like Shangri La, but in fact we are at the epicenter of hatred towards America. Back in September, roughly 7,000 jihadists left this area for Afghanistan and never returned. Their families would like to seek revenge for this loss the old fashioned way -- an eye for an eye. I wonder briefly if we will fall in the crossfire.

I do not feel the tension, but both Shameem and Faizal seem agitated. I am reminded of something Martin always says when we are stuck in a dicey situation: "In a movie you always know something bad is going to happen because of the music. In real life, it just happens, there are no prompts."

We hit the first armed checkpoint at Pimer Gara. Faizal our driver does not want to stop, but we insist. We'd like to film the gated entrance to the tribal areas and ask if the policemen have seen any Arabs moving about. They say they are looking for terrorists, but have not found any.

Frontier Corps search vehicles at a checkpoint in the Northwest Frontier Province near Dir. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)
The stop at the checkpoint proves to have its consequences. We now have a permanent police escort through the windy roads towards Dir. It might sound like a good idea, but when you are trying to lay low, having an armed convoy blaring sirens while village onlookers check you out seems like a really stupid idea.

There is no shaking these Pakistani cops. We are stuck in a relay race, being passed on from escort to escort every time we reach a different checkpoint. It only takes one corrupt cop to rat us out. And suddenly, every police checkpoint for miles knows that three Americans are headed for Chitral.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

+ On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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