War and dust: the view from the van

Afghanistan: A band of reporters united by a lust for news and adventure covers the story in Babitsky's stubborn vehicle.

February 24, 2002|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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