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.

At noon we followed an MSF Land Cruiser out of Mazar and into Afghanistan’s countryside. We were on our way to Camp Number Four, where, we were told, one or two children were dying a month. While this was unacceptable in human terms it was much better than it could have been. Camp Number Four was actually “one of the better ones,” we were told.

War appeared to do two things to landscape. First, war took the land by its bedspread edge and shook it free of people. Then war tore it to pieces. War had not needed much help here, as half a decade of drought had driven away all but the land’s most mulish inhabitants. The American bombing had provided these souls with a final pharaoh to flee—to the mountains, we had heard, where they squatted in camps unreachable by aid groups and ate grass. The nail-gray sky hung close above the lowly rolling hills, locking in the cold. That morning, I had opened my eyes to see thick white cumulus issuing from my mouth.

On our portside the saltine-colored Kalai Jangi fortress drifted by, as long as several city blocks. This was the site of Mazar’s 25 November prison uprising, a three-day skirmish that ended after a strafing run by American fighter planes and the flooding of the prisoners holding out in the fort’s basement with hundreds of gallons of freezing water. Four-hundred Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were ultimately bombed into paradise—their bodies had been piled like faggots of wood alongside this very road—as well as 150 Northern Alliance soldiers and one American CIA officer. Despite the posthumous heroism bestowed by our president upon Johnny (“Mike”) Spann, no explanation had yet been provided as to what he and his partner, a man known in Mazar only as “Dave,” had been doing here. Mazar, not surprisingly, eddied with rumors: that in visiting the fort the agents had been deeply off-mission, that Spann and his partner had threatened John Walker—the American talib who had been captured here—with his life if he did not talk, that their appearance in the fort had been the uprising’s trigger, that during the fighting’s initial stages Spann’s partner either abandoned him to his fate or tried valiantly to save him and either way wound up shooting his way out of the fort, saving the lives of two Red Cross officials also trapped inside.

Suddenly the outline of Camp Number Four formed surreally along the horizon. A ring of small rock houses encircled a mustard-colored three-story building with charred windows and a partially crumbled facade. The rest was open space, as much open space as a bad dream. As we pulled through the camp’s gates a gale of watery sleet hit the windshield, the wind roaring. Michael and Solim and I climbed out, and a forty-strong crowd of IDPs amassed around us.

In my heavy boots I slid around in the mud, trying very hard not to fall, while the camp residents looked upon my efforts with obvious amusement. Most of them were wearing plastic slippers, their feet bluish and raw. The camp’s spokesman came forward and welcomed us, Solim offering running translation. He spoke through his thick curly brown beard without emphasis or hysteria, his huge brown eyes blinking away the sleet. They were very glad to see us at Camp Number Four, the spokesman announced. They were Tajik, he went on, illiterate mountain people who had been living in camps for three years, many much more than that. Some of them had been driven from the Tajik border because of Tajikistan’s civil war, which lasted from 1992 until 1997, others because of Afghanistan’s long-running drought. They were very hungry and very happy to see us.

We walked along the perimeter of stone houses. The crowd grew as we walked, a few shivering, expressionless children stepping out into the cold to have a look at us. A few were bare-armed. Many were barefoot. I asked our accompanying Italian aid worker how long he had been in Afghanistan. “Three weeks,” he said. He had come to Mazar from Africa. Unbidden came his belief that Afghans were more “frustrating” to deal with than Africans because most Afghans had once enjoyed better lives. “Of course,” he said, “if it’s frustrating for us imagine what it’s like for them.”

Michael and I had, on the sneak, begun to take photos, but we were quickly discovered by the IDPs and then, to our wonder, encouraged to take more. People arranged themselves into smiling clusters for us, their chins drawn up in kingly pride. A thought—this is not appropriate—inscribed itself in fire across my mind. But they were happy to pose. And so I whirled and snapped, laughing when I slipped and muddied my knee. The IDPs laughed too. I called myself “tentak,” Uzbek for “stupid,” and shot myself in the head with a finger pistol. The few IDPs who understood Uzbek clapped in delight.

Michael had dropped back fifty yards or so with the Italian and Solim, who was translating for Michael as he recorded some dialogue for use on his radio show. One of the Uzbek-speaking IDPs and I embarked upon a friendly pidgin conversation, and we ventured out even farther ahead. He was hungry, he said. I nodded and wrote that down. This seemed to satisfy him—that a stranger thought his hunger notable enough to record. From one of the stone houses came a tall, laughing IDP. Laughter, I thought. How indomitable! When he drew closer—when, in fact, he was upon me—I realized this man was not laughing. He was screaming, thrusting his finger at me, his voice breaking apart. I tried, in my shock, to double-back toward Michael and Solim, but the momentum of my admiring crowd had cut off my path. The only way through was to push. I turned back toward the man, now fully deranged with anger. The Uzbek-speaking IDP tried to tell me what he was saying, but my concentration hung in shreds. For the first time I smelled around me a thick humidity of shit and sweat and human sadness. These people’s beards were falling out due to malnutrition, small white nits embedding the hair that was left. They were, I was certain, about to tear me apart.

But the man was led away by two camp neighbors. I swallowed a peal of nervous, inexplicable laughter as my palsied hands returned my camera to my backpack. The remaining IDPs hugged themselves and looked at the ground. Michael and Solim and the Italian, having seen some sort of disturbance, came running up. “Everything all right?” the Italian asked. Great, I told him. Everything is fine.

We did not get very far before another angry IDP appeared. He hectored us as we walked past him, our disgraced silence frustrating enough to impel him to remove his headwrap and throw it at our feet. We turned to him. The man’s house had collapsed the night before, Solim translated, killing two of the man’s daughters. Behind him stood a house whose roof had indeed collapsed. He had buried his daughters last night, he said. He would show us the graves. Three children a day were dying here. Why was not the West doing anything for them? They were starving. They had no firewood.

I looked over at Michael. He stood there holding his pack, eyes fixed upon the cold muddy goulash at his feet, his face as colorless as ice. The Italian materialized next to me. Look here, he said quietly, they know you’re journalists, and they know their “mortality status” determines the amount of aid they receive. Three children a day are not dying here. They dig false graves and show them to him, too, sometimes. These people are receiving aid. He pointed around the camp. Most of the houses were covered with white plastic tarps to keep out the rain, and these had come in an aid shipment that arrived just a few days ago. You see? I did see. I also saw the screaming man, who fell to his knees, his nearly toothless mouth wide open in anguish. I wondered if it even mattered whether his daughters had died, if this man fit upon any matrix of honesty. Was he somehow less desperate if his daughters, rather than crushed, were merely crying and starving?

Eighty percent of the food aid donated to the World Food Program for use in Afghanistan had come from America, but neither U.N. nor American troops were doing anything to protect this province’s roads. A month later, to the surprise of no one in Afghanistan, the country’s interim president, Hamid Karzai, would call for a nation-wide deployment of peacekeeping troops. Fighting among warlord factions would erupt around Mazar soon thereafter, and Ravi and Jeff would file a piece about a mountain village north of Mazar whose starving inhabitants had been reduced to eating grass, just as Michael and I had heard.

Some refugees led this spent, crying man away, his rubbery legs sliding in the mud. Solim told us that the refugees were telling him that this was not Michael’s and my fault. We were here to help. I nodded, not exactly hearing him. Something had blown loose inside me, cognitive hoses ripped from their moral bulkhead. The real war correspondents back at the hotel call this condition emotional dehydration, and I was both ashamed and relieved I had achieved it after seeing so little. My brain quietly powered down, capable of handling only the most basic functions. Walking, for instance, which I now did, though I was no longer in Camp Number Four. The merciful incoming data of other realities was all I could process. My birthday in a few days. Probably call my folks from Termez tomorrow. They would be worried. Hi. Merry Christmas. Everything is fine.

I awoke halfway back to Mazar, along another empty road. Michael mentioned he wanted to visit some more aid agencies. I told him to drop me at the hotel, and he sent me off with a grim, fraternal clap on the back. I wandered upstairs and toppled onto my bed. The pillow was hard as a sack of wheat. This had bothered me the night before. I dozed, woke up headachy, then tried to read a little of The Iliad, which I had carried with me, thinking it would make for interesting reading. “But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans that troubles me,” I read, “as the thought of you, when some bronze-armored Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty, in tears.” I put the book down and went through my things. Ah. Tylenol. The cap was tricky. I could not quite align the child-proof arrows. Finally I popped the cap off, the bottle squirting from between my convulsive hands and the pills shooting across the hotel-room floor in a fan of separate trajectories.

Soon it was night, and Michael had not yet returned. I found Jeff Schaeffer, who had just enjoyed dinner in the canteen and was returning to his room. Among the war correspondents at the Barat, Jeff was arguably the most normal-seeming of all. He ran the Paris bureau for Associated Press Television News and had about him the sweatered, conscientious air of a high school guidance counselor.

Jeff took one look at me and insisted I join him for a nightcap. I sat on his bed as he poured a double shot of Jack Daniels. My empty stomach clenched around the booze, searching for nutrients. I told Jeff we went to the camps today. He nodded and poured me another. Did I have enough for a story? “Maybe,” I said, “the story is about finding out that in a war there is no story.”

“A process piece,” he said, unfazed.

I looked at him in wonder. Didn’t this place, I asked, frighten him?

He sat down on a chair across from me and for a long time said nothing. “The soldiers outside,” he said at last, “they don’t want to hurt you. Sometimes guns mean stability.”

I shook my head. Could that be true?

He leaned forward and spoke very slowly. “They don’t want to hurt you. It has nothing to do with us.”

That Jeff could not see what I saw—that he might have been right—pained my dull, useless eyes. Michael and I were planning to leave the next day (though we would be turned back at the Friendship Bridge and would spend our very strange Christmas in Mazar-i-Sharif); Jeff, for his part, would live for three of his next five months in Afghanistan. My eyes began to burn. “I have to get out of here,” I said. My head shook and shook.

In my own room I found Michael listening to some taped interviews he had conducted earlier in the afternoon. “I got it,” he announced with bitter satisfaction. Got what? I wondered. “I got someone from Save the Children saying that ‘scores’ of deaths could be directly attributed to the Americans’ and Uzbeks’ dithering on the bridge.”

“Congratulations,” was all I could think to say.



Tom Bissell worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and a book editor for W. W. Norton and Henry Holt. He is the author of "Chasing the Sea," "The Father of All Things" and "God Lives in St. Petersburg," and his work has appeared in Harperís, Esquire, Menís Journal, and Agni, among other magazines.


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