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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Winning over the West
Northern Alliance fighter on bicycle
The Afghan opposition has little modern equipment
By the BBC's Jacky Rowland in Northern Afghanistan

Helicopters had been circulating as wildly as rumours about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

A whisper would ripple round the Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe, sending journalists scurrying to the Afghan Embassy.

Disappointment would inevitably follow.


The sight of a decrepit Russian helicopter on the tarmac sobered me up

So I was sceptical when I found myself bumping along the road to the airport in an old Volga taxi.

The sight of a decrepit Russian helicopter on the tarmac sobered me up.

We took off with difficulty, the machine heaving under the weight of people and their equipment.

We flew high over the mountainous desert of southern Tajikistan, then, once over the border into Afghanistan, we skimmed low over parched plains until touching down in the village of Hujabuhowdin.

Mourning

This is a region still heavily in mourning for the commander of the anti-Taleban forces, Ahmed Shah Masood.

Black flags flutter from rooftops and from car aerials, and Masood's portrait is displayed on windscreens and in windows.

He was killed by men posing as journalists, which made our hosts wary of us.

Ahmed Shah Masood
Masood kept the opposition unbeaten for years against all the odds

The assassins even slept in the same compound where we are staying now.

"Those men were 'tourists'", said Aminallah, a tall, slender Afghan who floats, rather than walks.

"Tourists?" I asked, perplexed.

"No, terrorists!" he said.

He went on to explain that the Northern Alliance wanted to root out "touristic" centres in Afghanistan and that it was ready to join the fight against international "tourism".

I began to feel like a "tourist" myself.

We were among the first journalists to get into Afghanistan and our hosts took us to the front line, one and a half hours away, along bruising rocky tracks.

We drove through an Old Testament landscape - flat, sun-whitened mud houses, donkeys laden with hay, sinuous rivers lacing across an epic flood plain.

Fat cattle stood on the river banks, while thin cattle waded through the water.


At any moment, I expected to see Joseph in his technicolour dream coat

At any moment, I expected to see Joseph in his technicolour dream coat.

The front line was quiet that day.

Old Russian tanks and heavy guns were dug into a dramatic outcrop of rock overlooking the Kokcha river.

The fighters here were a scruffy, underemployed bunch.

One man looked like a cowboy in his ten-gallon hat.

Most of the others were teenagers who made "bang bang" sound effects as they played on a big revolving gun.

We were tired of being international tourists.

We wanted to shake off Aminallah, our minder, and go to where Northern Alliance fighters were engaging the Taleban.

Keeping tabs

I was given the task of distracting Aminallah while Zurab, my cameraman, and Alan, the producer, slipped out of the compound.

It was not long before they were missed and I was summoned to explain.

"Well" - I took a deep breath - "since you told us that you wouldn't impose a programme on us, and since you said you wouldn't censor us, unlike the Taleban, they didn't think they were doing anything wrong."

Alan and Zurab were meanwhile fording the Kokcha astride donkeys.


He was clinging to his Afghan guide as firmly as he was holding on to the camera tripod

It was Alan's first equestrian experience so he was clinging to his Afghan guide as firmly as he was holding on to the camera tripod.

They were posing as Russian journalists.

"If I ever, ever find out that you are Westerners," the local commander had snarled at them, "there will be trouble".

There were no schoolboys manning the advance positions at the village of Karuk.

These were veritable Mujaheddin - battle-hardened men, some of whom had fought against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

They fired off a few shells at Taleban positions 500 metres away, then hastily withdrew.

On the way back over the Kokcha, Alan and Zurab hitched a ride on a tank.

Media circus

Back in Hujabuhowdin, our compound is turning into a media hell-hole.

Alan, Zurab and I were Afghan pioneers, but now American, French and German television crews are starting to arrive.


Satellite telephones have been springing from the cracked earth like alien flowers

Satellite telephones have been springing from the cracked earth like alien flowers.

"Mummy, I got in," a German journalist shrieked into his mouthpiece.

Our hosts are serene, floating around in white, grey or sky-blue robes. And the tea-boy is unshakeably cheerful, despite the constant shouts of "Abdul, chai!"

But fistfights are threatening to break out among the journalists, as they argue about erecting satellite dishes on the roof.

High time

The Northern Alliance feels that its moment has come.

Never before have its dignitaries been courted so fiercely by the international media.

Northern Alliance fighters
The opposition has small forces but high mobility

The Taleban has thrown out Western journalists, but the Northern Alliance is welcoming them as part of its campaign to win over the West.

It hopes that the United States will oust the Taleban like Nato ousted the Serb authorities in Kosovo.

But the Northern Alliance could be disappointed: the Americans want Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban are just a means to an end.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jacky Rowland in Northern Afghanistan
"This ragged army of 15,000 men has been fighting the Taleban for five years"
See also:

26 Sep 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Life plods on in opposition Afghanistan
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
29 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition backs former king
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