taloqan, afghanistan -- at 7 am every morning, I climb into a jeep driven by Amin, a former fighter and devout Muslim. After a breakfast of tea and bread, we drive off to Bangi Pol on the front lines. After 20 years of war and a complete collapse of the education system, many mujahedeen are illiterate, so when they see a notebook and a pen, it's not unusual for a crowd to gather: hip cats with their Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and tripod-mounted machine guns.
The standard Afghan technique for greeting someone from another country is to stand uncomfortably close and stare, which unnerves westerners who haven't figured out how to cope with it. Many members of the international press scuttle away, hoping the fighters will fuck off and leave them alone. What the journalists rarely understand is that the mujahedeen are just waiting to shake hands.
Mostly, the mujahedeen protect me. Out at Bangi and on the other front lines they follow me everywhere, sometimes taking me around, showing me what's going on and making sure to never let me out of their sight. There's a secret deal between me and the fighters: I write down their names and ages and they save my life.
I am also on the lookout for actual news, which, despite the many stories about Kunduz in the media, is scarce. There are reports that a U.S. bombing raid accidentally hit a village, Choge Nawabad, killing whole families. But the place has been impossible to visit despite the fact that it's very close to Northern Alliance lines. Wednesday, November 21, is my lucky day. I make my daily pilgrimage to the front lines. After some milling around, I walk down through the nearest abandoned village, Choga, with my translator, Nazar, who spends most of his time begging me to turn back.
We are heading down to the stone bridge where we can see the American air strikes. It's at the bridge that I have my stroke of good luck and run into an Afghan friend, Nazir Mohammed, a commander from the Panjshir valley. He's a beautiful man who takes care of his beard and sports amber aviator glasses along with a traditional Tajik pakul wool cap.
We touch cheeks and talk about the American bombs that fell on Choge Nawabad, which reportedly killed at least 12 civilians and created waves of refugees. I ask Nazir if we can go there. He collects seven men, and they form a circle around me. We walk west, in the direction of ever increasing weirdness, toward Kunduz. Foreigners aren't allowed this far into the lines.
We walk single file, watching the ground for mines. Above us, tanks firing from the mountains down on Amirabad create deafening explosions that echo off the opposite ridge.
At Kaleh Surhakh, a village elder from Choge Nawabad, comes out to greet us. Commander Nazir leads us to a house filled with rotting onions. On the roof, he shows me the craters from other bombs that have fallen. The old man carefully recounts the names of those who were killed. He watches as I write them down: Boi Malang, 35; Shiringol Malang, 40; Emam Gul, 30; Gul Bibi, 60; Khoda Gul; Said Bibi; Kamela Malang. And then the children: Gul Khan, 8; Amit Khan, 12; Sher Khan, 13; Ismail Khan, 12; Zar Khan, 11.
We head back toward Bangi Pol. I've spent my day protected by Northern Alliance soldiers, but that night one almost kills me. The country's supposed liberators are also, many of them, thugs and bandits. I make a mistake, one that begins with an attempted phone call. The pathetic and unreliable gadget I use to talk to the world is an Iridium satellite phone, the poor man's version of a proper communication set-up for this country. To get it to work at all, I have to go outside into the cold. I put on a coat, gather up the phone and cables and step into a pitch-black street full of wood smoke and dust. I boot my computer and turn on the phone. I notice a soldier standing very still. This one isn't dressed like a mujahedeen, but is instead wearing a new Chinese military uniform.
He yells at me in Farsi, wanting to know who I am. I tell him I'm an American. In one sickening instant, he pulls back the bolt on the Kalashnikov and raises the gun to take his shot. Here it comes, I think, alone in this empty place. I turn away and run down the street. Maybe the sonofabitch will miss me. That's when I hear him fire.
I run down the block until I see a hut with a single electric bulb and figures tending a mud oven. Little kids with shaved heads are peering at me, this strange man who has shown up out of breath and who keeps saying "Salaam Aleikum" like it's some kind of prayer. One man then steps out from behind the oven and motions me to sit down, and I fall to my knees right there, sick with fear for the first time since arriving in Afghanistan. His name is Nangulee and he's a baker, working through the night to make cookies to sell in the bazaar the next day. He talks to me in near-perfect English.
He sits me down near the fire and tells me he won't let the soldiers in because I'm now part of his family. While I'm in the back room sleeping, the soldier who had shot at me comes back with 17 friends to finish the job. Nangulee tells them to go screw themselves. Eventually, they go away. Nangulee says they wanted my money and telephone. "Most of these soldiers are crazy," he says.
I've been here two weeks, and Northern Alliance soldiers have both protected me and tried to kill me. My protectors by day turn into thugs and bandits at night. I'd hoped Kunduz would fall soon and this war might be over, so I could go home. Now that it's fallen, peace seems as elusive as ever.