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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 18:28 GMT
Death of a journalist
Northern Alliance troops
The rugged country near Taloqan is a Northern Alliance stronghold
Hilary Andersson

There's a wide river that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Its waters flow through a desert, and past the base of steep tawny mountains.

We stood on its banks waiting to cross, by a flat metal barge, into the remote north of Afghanistan, and into the unknown. The road on the other side was said to be safe. Just as well. Because the car I was in didn't have a working battery.

Ulf Stroemberg
Ulf Stroemberg was killed by unknown gunmen

The Afghan driver kept stopping for cigarettes, whilst the man in the passenger seat stretched across to put his foot on the accelerator to stop the car from stalling.

We push-started the car five or six times, knee deep in clouds of fine, choking dust.

At the back of my mind were the four journalists who had been ambushed and killed on a road in Eastern Afghanistan just days before.

The driver ploughed on, in and out of impossible ravines, through water, through dust that restricted visibility at times to a few yards.

When the dust cleared the views were spectacular. This was austere land. A land of imposing hills that seemed to shoot up vertically from the ground, a land where the cold wind and dust sweeps in, and the people slink under their scarves waiting for it to pass.

When the worst has gone by, they go on. And so it is with the war.

Life goes on

Until a month ago this area was Taleban-controlled. The latest war had passed this way. But there were no scenes of disaster to be seen.

Farmers worked fields with ancient ploughs pulled by oxen, markets were busy. There were fresh vegetables. There was huge poverty and no schools or hospitals, but life went on.

Mud houses
Life in much of Afghanistan is unchanged for centuries

After 20 years of war Afghanistan seems to survive in spite of everything and completely on its own.

The towns we passed were made almost entirely of mud. I did not see one telephone or electricity wire, or any sign at all of the outside world.

Six gruelling hours later, in the dark, we arrived at Taloqan, our destination.

Like the other journalists we were staying in an Afghan's house; the front door opened onto a busy narrow road, crowded with people, donkeys, goats, and a wide sewage drain you had to jump over to get inside.

That day the last major Taleban-controlled town in the north, Kunduz, nearby, had just fallen to the Northern Alliance. The atmosphere in Taloqan was charged.

We all fell asleep on the floors, relieved that we had arrived, and glad that we were at least protected from the outside by four walls.

'Senseless' killing

Then at 0200 it happened.

Two-hundred metres down the road armed boys, around 15 years old, broke into a house where Swedish journalists were sleeping.

No one knew who the gunmen were - whether they were criminals, or soldiers

In the first room a translator pleaded with the gunmen not to kill them as they had families at home.

The gunmen burst into another room; and they shot a 42 year-old cameraman in the chest. He was killed.

We learnt what had happened at 0600. That sinking feeling that we were now a target came over a lot of us. Our focus, and that of every media organisation in the town, was now how to get out, and get out quickly.

No-one knew who the gunmen were - whether they were criminals, or soldiers.

We asked the Northern Alliance for armed guards to escort us to the border. At first they refused, saying the road was dangerous. Then they reluctantly promised soldiers would escort us.

In the end the guards refused to come.

Hurried exit

While we packed, the occasional burst of machine-gun fire sounded across the town - Afghans playing with their guns.

A local doctor was washing the body.

In Afghanistan, after so much war, the horrible ritual felt almost normal

The coffin was lifted onto a truck. Our grim convoy finally moved out. We hurtled down the roads trying to make the border before dark.

Our Afghan driver at one point tried to race in front of the car with the coffin. The two cars crashed into each other, metal crunched. The drivers started shouting at each other. Someone calmed them down.

On the plains we drove through, dust swirled 20 feet high in the air. The entire land on that day was shrouded in a surreal haze.

Through this Afghan mist women walked by clad in burqa. The wind billowed around slowly inside the cloth, and they looked like living ghosts.

Then at last a sign that we were nearing the border, a deep bank of water for us to cross.

Fifty or so horsemen had gathered there to help cars cross. One galloped alongside one of our cars, the rider's sword held high in the air.

Borne away by barge

The water was deep and there was a current, but the cars went through, swaying and slipping before gripping to the sides of the bank and moving on.

We reached the border after nightfall, and it was cold. We lifted the coffin onto the barge, and felt the weight of the body inside. The weight of a journalist, who had crossed this river just like us.

Who had been alive just hours before.

In Afghanistan, after so much war, the horrible ritual felt almost normal.

I watched as the barge bore his body slowly across the black water, out of Afghanistan, and back into the world where his death would be seen for what it was: mad and pointless, and impossible to justify or explain.

report by Hilary Andersson
"That sinking feeling that we were now a target came over a lot of us."
See also:

12 Nov 01 | South Asia
The risks of war reporting
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