War Zones for Idiots

Travel Stories: The "World Series of Journalism" had begun in Afghanistan, and Tom Bissell didn't have to qualify to play. He just had to show up.

10.21.02 | 10:54 PM ET

Friendship BridgePhoto courtesy Tom Bissell

“Tell me what it was like,” Douglas said suddenly. “What was it like?”


Douglas nodded solemnly.

Converse sat up. “You should really ask a grunt ... A lot of time I was in hotels. Sometimes I went out to the line. Not a lot. I was too scared. Once I was so scared I cried.”

“Is that unusual?”

“I have the impression,” Converse said, “that it’s fairly unusual. I think it’s usual to cry when you’re hurt. But to cry before is uncool.”

“But you went,” Douglas said. “That’s the important thing.”

—Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers

The structure that connects Termez, Uzbekistan, to northern Afghanistan is known as the Friendship Bridge. Never mind that when the Soviet Union launched its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of tons of Russian hardware rumbled over it. Or that when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1997, the Uzbek government, terrified of a similar Islamist insurgency, sealed it off. On a bright, cold afternoon this past December, Danish journalist Michael Andersen and I gazed upon the Friendship Bridge from a dusty road on the outskirts of Termez, hoping to cross. That is, Michael hoped to cross to report on one of the most important stories of his career. My hopes were a bit more complicated.

I had promised concerned family members that while in Uzbekistan, I would, under no circumstances, try to get into Afghanistan—an easy promise to make. I had no desire to fall prey to straggling Taliban intending to collect on the $25,000 bounty Mullah Omar Mohammed had placed on the heads of Western journalists before disappearing. Two months prior to the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl seven European reporters had already been killed, and the war was already considered among the most dangerous in history for non-combatant reporters. But privately I had been telling myself something slightly different. The biggest stories, of course, were in Afghanistan, and I might perhaps try to get in, I determined, if I could attach myself to some larger convoy of journalists or aid workers and had a failsafe exit plan. All this promised to keep my options open while guaranteeing I would not do something incredibly foolish such as, just for instance, crossing into a war zone on foot with a single other reporter.

A converse silhouette of crosshatched white girders, the bridge was perhaps five hundred yards from where we stood. Before us a grassy bay of thigh-high vegetation swung back and forth in the breeze. A quarter-mile away, on the other side of the motionless Amu Darya River—as unremarkable as I imagined the view of North Dakota might appear from South Dakota—was Afghanistan.

Some cows, looking legless in the tall grass, drank from pools of swampy standing water near the river, which was itself blocked off with electrified fence and cyclonic coils of barbed wire. Michael thought that some great photos of the Friendship Bridge could be snapped from deeper in the field, and convinced me to follow him.

“Nyet, nyet!” our driver Sobir yelled. We turned, already up to our knees in the grass. He began calling out a single word in Russian while performing an ominous-looking hand motion. I asked Michael what this word meant. He said nothing, his mouth squirming thoughtfully within his blond goatee. He looked at his feet, and then around them.

“He’s saying,” Michael began, “that there are landmines here.” His head shook with a sudden decisiveness. “But I think he’s mistaken.”

For a while neither of us moved. Finally I said, “You do?”

“People live nearby. Children. Wouldn’t you think they’d put up a fence first?”

We stood there. The cows’ heads lifted, then lowered again to drink. Quiet faraway houses. The never-ending shush of the moving grass. Sobir, shaking his head, calling us back, my friends, please, toward the safety of the road’s gravel edge.

I turned to Michael, prepared to agree with him. Instead I said: “Um.”

“Yeah,” Michael said, and, taking my arm, retraced our steps to Sobir’s car.

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