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War and dust: the view from the van

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE BOXY GRAY Russian van had the temperament of a mule, and now that we were on the very rim of Afghanistan, it refused to budge.

Andrei Babitsky, who is famous for reasons other than his driving, was at the wheel, grinding gears in a fury. He wasn't trying to coax this van up the ramp and off the ferry and into Afghanistan -- he was trying to beat it into submission.

The van, braying in protest, inched against its will up the ramp that lay on the mud that was Afghanistan. Then, it balked and bucked and slid triumphantly back down. It was a short-lived triumph, though, because a big truck behind us on the little river ferry was already making its move, and it slammed into the backside of the boxy gray van. With a yelp of crunching metal, we were propelled fully onto the shore.

Babitsky grinned in triumph. The back door had buckled in, but here we were. The van panted in defeat.

And now all of Afghanistan lay ahead. The song of the open road beguiled us. Freed of the tyranny that afflicts so many foreign correspondents -- the tyranny of the hired driver and the unknown car -- our little band of four that had somehow already grown to seven since leaving Tajikistan behind, about four minutes earlier, was headed for adventure and news in the comfort of our own gray boxy Russian van.

It was mid-November, the Taliban were collapsing, and Afghanistan had just become a place where possibilities for journalists were sprouting up everywhere. Even as we came in from the north, others were flooding in from Pakistan to the east. All of us in the van -- a bunch of Russians and Tajiks, and an Australian and an American -- had the same goal, a town called Taloqan that none of us had ever seen, and hardly any of us had even heard of a day or so earlier. But as temporary headquarters of the Northern Alliance, it was quite obviously the new place to be.

To be a reporter covering a war is to face, invariably, problems you had never before imagined to exist. In Afghanistan, with no water, no electricity, no chairs, and hardly any pavement, just getting through the day felt positively heroic. That's why we banded together, and why we did so in Babitsky's stubborn van. How else were we going to get to the story?

Babitsky -- short, powerful, generous, profane, untiring and, in a peculiar way, shameless -- was our chief. That meant he got to do most of the driving. Babitsky works for the Russian service of Radio Liberty, an American-backed radio network that broadcasts to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He had so angered the Kremlin over his coverage of Chechnya that two years ago he was arrested there, "swapped" to a shadowy group of Chechens, finally released, charged with having a phony passport, and ultimately driven out of the country, to a desk job at Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague. Afghanistan was Babitsky's long-awaited chance to return to the field. He was in high spirits. He liked this van, called an UAZ, the way a farmer likes his mule. Not tenderly, in other words.

We drove about five yards away from the mud bank alongside the Amu Darya River, hit dry land, and thus began our companionship with Afghan dust. For the duration, we were to live with it. Huge oceanic billows of it, rolling like the waves of the sea, a deluge from beneath the van, nearly all of it rising up and flooding in through the mangled back door of the UAZ. Dust found its way into little nooks we didn't even know we had.

We spent the first night in tents in a miserable town near the ferry landing. We found a cafe where we sat on the floor and had a supper of lamb and potato stew with a cilantro sauce, washing it down with green tea in thick glasses while several dozen turbaned and bearded men who had already finished their own suppers sat cross-legged all around and stared at us by the light of a single propane lamp. We were the entertainment, and, judging by the rapt expressions on the men's faces, pretty compelling entertainment at that.

The next morning Taloqan beckoned and, although Babitsky loved driving the UAZ and although we had a built-in interpreter in our group in the person of Rakhmatkarim Davlatov, a Tajik reporter for Radio Liberty, Babitsky decreed that we would hire a driver for this leg -- because who knew how to get to Taloqan? That was how Said Ibrahim joined our party.

Ibrahim was a wiry guy who looked to be about 18 but couldn't say exactly. He had a rollicking time learning how to shift the UAZ as we went along, with Babitsky shouting at him in Russian and Davlatov occasionally bothering to translate into Dari so Ibrahim would be able to understand.

We crossed a wide, dusty plain on which people, donkeys and camels were plodding toward market, following a straight line from whatever little village they lived in, so that men and beasts were spread out randomly for miles, all in motion, all converging.

At the Kokcha River, tractors pulled our laden van across. We kept water from coming in the buckled back door chiefly through the power of worry. We passed a farm cart with about 50 unworried people on it, stranded on the round stones of the river bottom while a tractor labored away to get some traction. Sheep, driven into the sparkling torrent by their shepherds, objected and lit out for any point of land they could find, except for those swept downstream until they came to rest against inundated truck carcasses. Camels with their heads held high haughtily paid the water no mind.

We rejoined the dust and plowed onward until we came to a small stream that crossed the road near a well. Ibrahim managed to find the deepest part of the stream, and through adroit and rapid maneuvering succeeded in getting the battered rear end of our van hopelessly mired in the mud. We climbed out of the van to enjoy a quiet disturbed only by Babitsky's cursing. The well was Swiss-built and gleaming, and we all enjoyed the wetness of it. American B-52 bombers looped high overhead.

A big open-bed truck came along, full of assorted goods with a dozen or so men sitting on top. The truck had once been gaudily painted with intricate designs and catchy phrases, but all of that had faded to a more dignified hue. The truck stopped and everybody looked at our van. Finally we posed the obvious question.

Fifty dollars, came the reply. Davlatov and Ibrahim reacted in shock and outrage. Suit yourself, said the guys from the truck as they all climbed back on. The driver started the engine and the truck began to pull away. "What kind of Muslims are you, anyway?" Davlatov shouted. Slowly, slowly, the truck labored up the slope toward the place where the road crested and turned to the right and out of sight. We studiously did not run after it, much to the surprise of the truckers. It reached the crest and stopped, and then backed down the hill again.

Thirty dollars. A deal -- though their rope broke and by the time we finally had gotten in the clear the price had inched back up to $50, but at least it wasn't $70 and at least we had our self-esteem intact.

"That comes out of Ibrahim's pay," declared Babitsky as we got under way again. Now we asked Ibrahim how much farther it was to Taloqan, and he told us it would be three hours at least. About 10 minutes later we were in the center of town.

For the next week we tooled around Taloqan, with Babitsky again at the wheel. The town was blooming with new life, so there was a lot of dodging past donkeys and Toyota pickups filled with heavily armed fighters and Datsun taxis also filled with heavily armed fighters and men on bicycles and little boys running with hoops and sticks and old Russian Volgas painted white and yellow. Traffic was slowed by speed bumps, which were simply old tank treads draped across the road. At one point Babitsky sideswiped a donkey carrying brush for firewood, but the van wasn't too badly hurt. Babitsky relied on his horn a lot. One morning it got stuck and we drove around all day blaring, until we found a guy who could crawl in under the dash and fix it.

Another day the driveshaft fell off, but the beauty of Russian automotive engineering is that all it required was a guy with a couple of bolts and the right-sized wrench to put it back.

Every morning we bought gas. A Russian-built four-wheel-drive van is not an economizer in that way. We would drive to the gasoline sellers' district -- a series of wooden shacks along the road. Usually a boy would come up, and Davlatov would tell him what we wanted, and he would dart off and come back with the owner of the stall, who'd be lugging a jerrycan of dubious fuel.

"Tell him," Babitsky would say to Davlatov, "that if he sells us good gas, we'll be back tomorrow. But if he doesn't, we won't."

The seller would produce a funnel lined with filthy cheesecloth, and pour a little gas through it into a liter-sized can. Babitsky and Davlatov then began the testing. They would look at the gas. They would smell it. They'd dip their fingers in it and rub them together, and then they'd smell their fingers. It's just possible they tasted them as well. They'd swirl the gas around, usually announce that they weren't very impressed with it, but buy some anyway. Getting the tank topped off meant that all of us had to get out and rock the van from side to side while the gas was being poured. Sometimes the van spent the rest of the day coughing, and sometimes it purred.

Toward the end of our stay, Babitsky, who was generally quite content to rely on the legwork of others, announced that he wanted to interview a traffic cop. We were just wondering how to find one when he slammed into a little Korean van. Naturally a crowd gathered and soon a police officer in a white, peaked hat, with a white belt and an olive drab vaguely British-looking uniform was wading in through the delighted spectators. Take us to your boss, we said, we want to interview him, and, thus neatly deflecting attention from the accident, we succeeded in finding Akhmed Tosh, the 38-year-old chief of the traffic police in Taloqan.

Tosh was sitting in a little booth in the middle of an intersection. Having fled the Taliban a year before, he had just come back to town. But his men had served right through the infamous regime and were now all covered by a general amnesty. Several had crowded into the booth, where their primary function was to spit on the floor.

Like the dozens of Northern Alliance commanders we had met, the traffic chief was thoroughly pleased to find himself being interviewed by Davlatov, whom Babitsky thought of as a translator. But everyone in the Dari-speaking world regarded Davlatov as a genuine broadcast star because they had all listened to his reports on the Radio Liberty Tajik service. They were dazzled by the translator, and ignored the rest of us.

Traffic cops here face two main problems, Tosh explained: guns and laws. There are too many of the former and none at all of the latter.

That is to say, traffic police in Afghanistan are working in a country with no traffic regulations on the books. They're forced to improvise if they want to impress upon someone the recklessness of his driving. But then Problem No. 1 kicks in. "Every car has someone with a gun in it," Tosh said. "Our inspectors are unarmed."

Tosh said he has found a happy compromise. "Certainly there must be very many violations," he said, "but we don't fine anyone, because we've just come into the city and don't want to spoil our relations with the people."

We shook hands all around and sputtered away.

The boxy gray van headed out of town, toward the front, as it then was, between Taloqan and the Taliban redoubt in Kunduz. Soldiers slept crosswise on the road, soaking up the warmth from one of Afghanistan's only paved highways. Babitsky, in a cheerful mood, swerved around them and slammed one of his bootleg Tajik pop music tapes into the deck.

It was a sunny interlude, but we never lost sight of the blood and death that are the hallmarks of Afghanistan. Babitsky habitually stopped to give rides to soldiers and refugees, some sick and some wounded and some just tired out. They'd squeeze in with us in the back of the van, guns to their knees and bundles on their laps. We never really got much in the way of useful information out of them, but they needed a ride. And we had one to give.

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