Hi Mods ... I thought about sharing this article. Its not quite complete and is meant to be a part of a book that never quite happened. Anyway, its for all of you to enjoy if you are bored and Mods, if this isnt the place to post this, then please shift it where you choose. Its not been perfectly proof-read either. Apologies Thanks Vishnu
REPORTING UNDER FIRE - 20 YEARS OF COVERING CONFLICT AND NATURAL DISASTERS.
Vishnu Som, Associate Editor and Senior Anchor, NDTV
When you are 24… in the middle of a war zone .. living out a dream to become a war correspondent … practical sense often gives way to sheer stupidity. It certainly did in my case.
When Kargil happened … I was essentially a cub reporter who managed to get into an area which was seeing the most intense artillery duels that India and Pakistan had waged since the 71 war.
One morning … in early April … my camera person Manvendar Gautam and I were standing outside the Kargil Brigade headquarters looking across the fast flowing Suru river. It was a typically beautiful April day in Kargil, stunning blue skies, a few patchy clouds making their way across the horizon, a mild chill in the air.
Across us lay a ridgeline which the Pakistanis had been shelling for days on end. Their target was an all India Radio transmitter which lay at the edge of the ridge at a distance of no more than 1 kilometre from where we were standing. Pakistani artillery were using three round volleys in trying to hit the transmitter. They had been doing this all week and had been way off the mark It seemed today would be no different. Except that it was.
It began in the usual fashion, large clouds of dust marking the spot an artillery shell hit and then the sound of a muted boom. True to form, the Pakistanis were striking the ridgeline well to the right of the transmitter from where I stood. But then, all of a sudden … and completely unexpectedly … BOOM. Right there, right in front of our eyes.
A direct hit.
The AIR transmitter was now billowing thick black smoke, the artillery shell, as we later found out, had struck a generator room stocked with diesel fuel.
That .. quite frankly …, was all that we needed to report. Instead, Gautam and I decided that the interests of our news report would be best served if we actually drove up and into the AIR transmitter. Driven by our misplaced sense of responsibility and daring, we got into to our black Ambassador taxi hell bent to go where angels dare to tread, completely forgetting in the process that a direct hit didn’t at all mean that the Pakistanis would stop shelling the area.
As we approached the narrow bridge across the Suru … we were flagged down by a fellow journalist from a leading Bengali daily. “Aamiyo Jabo” he told me determined to join us. “It is my responsibility.”
And so we were off … zipping across the narrow bridge …and then up the narrow road carved into the side of the ridgeline. Higher and higher we went … and with each passing moment, a sense of terror creeped into all of us. Who would be the first to back out … to call it quits … or were we all stupid enough to carry on with this little adventure of ours? It was here that our driver Shaukat had had enough. We were idiots he told us as he stopped the car and refused to budge. My Bengali colleague was next to say that he had had enough. His sense of responsibility had now given way to “I have a wife and child. It is absurd to carry on.” At this stage, Gautam and I could, quite easily, have decided to end this madness but instead decided we needed to set an example.
And so … we go out of the Ambassador … and started scampering up the hill side to get to the tower. “Aur chale ?” Gautam asked. “Hahn, kyon nahin?” I replied and so we continued. We were now no more than 300 metres from the tower and Gautam had begun filming his close up shots when our sense of invincibility got the jolt it truly deserved.
Boom .. another direct hit on the tower just as Gautam was filming it. It was at this stage … that better sense started to prevail. Terrified at the earth shaking explosion just a little to our left …, we got on to our back sides … and started sliding down the ridge towards the road and the safety of our taxi when all hell broke lose.
The Pakistanis had fired a second artillery round … and it had missed the transmitter and had probably landed … about a hundred or so metres away from us just on the other side of ridgleline.
I remember this part vividly. All of a sudden … everything seemed to move in slow motion. A searing wave of heat hit my face the shockwave from the blast … followed by the explosion itself .. massive … making both Gautam and I fall to our sides.
By now … we were trying to escape with our lives …and managed to reach the road to discover that the taxi was missing. It was just not there. This seemed to be the end.
Running madly down the road now … we felt the shock wave of the third Pakistani round. Fortunately, it seemed to be far behind us and then, way in the distance, we spotted our taxi, nestled nicely between a convoy of trucks which had been ordered to halt by the military police.
As it turned out, the trucks we saw were actually tankers fully loaded with fuel and the spot that Shaukat, our driver and the Bengali journalist had chosen to hide in … was probably the most unsafe spot in all of India! One lucky artillery round and the entire convoy would have gone up in a the blink of an eyelid.
Tired and traumatised … we slid into the taxi … to bid a speedy retreat. No one spoke a word.
Later that evening … I had a cup of tea with an intelligence officer at the Brigade Headquarters. It would be another bizarre experience. I remember that it was about 5 pm and it was getting dark and I was in this small room with the officer discussing the war when the Pakistanis really let fly … opening up with countless rounds of artillery many of which would have been hitting the steep mountains surrounding Kargil town.
An artillery shell has a sharp pitched whistling sound. In fact … on some days … if you happened to be looking at the right direction, you could actually see a shell as it few by making that distinctive sound. On other occasions, you wouldn’t hear the sound at all.
This evening … as I sipped my cup of tea … the whistling sounds were getting lounder. And I could hear this from inside the tin shed where I was sitting. The officer I was speaking to stated the obvious, “The louder the whistling sound, the closer the shell” and as we continued our conversation … he would stop every few minutes and say “oh that ones really close,” or “don’t worry. That ones quite far away.” It was positively eerie and the fact of the matter was that there was little we could do. If a shell had to land on us, it would.
We returned to our hotel shortly thereafter to see that one part had been flattened by a shell. Fortunately, there were no casualties. The hotel was less than a kilometer away from where I had been sitting.
The next day … I remember … we were scheduled to drive south of Kargil in the direction of Drass. That meant driving through this one part of the national highway which was in direct line of sight of Pakistani gunners who had been picking off targets of opportunity. To go through this stretch of road meant leaving at about 4:30 in the morning, switching off the headlights of the car and then racing through the curvy road almost blind. For reporters covering the Kargil war … this was a definitive experience … the one time when we would all hold our breaths as our drivers drove for their lives
For me as a fledgling journalist, Kargil was a life-transforming event. I went into the Kargil war full of bookish knowledge on what conflicts were about and how they should be reported. I came out of Kargil with the knowledge that covering conflict was all about knowing ones limits. A dead reporter does not deliver news reports.
For news television in India … Kargil was the start of a new chapter. No one really knew how to cover a war. None of us had satellite uplinking vans which dot the countryside these days Sending back a report meant convincing an army or air force chopper pilot to take your precious tapes down to Srinagar or putting them onto a taxi for them to arrive a day later. So, in a sense, as far as images of the war were concerned, what you saw was never really `live.’ The images had been recorded and sent back to centres such as Srinagar through a cumbersome courier system.
What did, however, work brilliantly in generating `live’ news was the satellite phone, technology which has gone on to change the way we report. The Iridium phone was a sturdy, bulky unit with a thick extendable antennae which you pointed in the direction of the satellite. It went with me everywhere and usually worked just fine from some of the most remote locations on earth. On occasions … in complete violation of Army rules … we gave the phone to the occasional army jawan so he could call home to tell his family that he was alive.
Kargil was India’s first televised war and with satellite phone reports coming straight from the warzone … it was live. Kargil brought to the viewer a sense of connect with the events in the Kargil mountains more than what any of us in NDTV could have imaged in the first phases of the conflict. In fact, when I went into the Kargil warzone, my editors were not terribly convinced. Yes, there was artillery shelling alright, but that seemed to be an every day affair between India and Pakistan. How was this different? And where on earth was Kargil?
As it turned out … Kargil was a new chapter for the electronic media in India in covering conflict. And for the institutions … the army and the government at large … it meant thinking up a media strategy in double quick time. Young reporters wielding television cameras were a double edged sword. They could win India the information war and with it secure favourable international opinion. They could also make a mess of things, revealing true casualty statistics or, perhaps, hill features and military positions which could give away the location of sensitive sites.
But this realization came more than a month down the line. In the early phases of the war … there were hardly any rules. The army in Srinagar gave you a cup of tea and an inner line permit and the rest … really … was up to you. By the time, the BBC and CNN got serious about covering the war, the rules had changed. A Major General … Arjun Ray … tasked with handling the information overload … quickly became the man who would define what you could and could not do.
For us … the Kargil story moved from being a straight story on how India and Pakistani forces were squaring off in the high mountains of Kashmir yet again to how this was, in fact, a real war. When the impossible odds the Indian Army faced became apparent … the tone of the reporting changed. Journalists are supposed to keep a distance but when we saw the challenge our jawans and young officers faced in winning back Indian territory … Kargil became a human interest story … a story of national pride … of how, India was fighting for what it held most dear … India itself.
Kargil was, without doubt, a breakthrough for Indian news television in covering conflict. The power of live television was something all of us learned through that experience. I remember, in the initial phases of the conflict, my telephone reports were based on facts which would have been lost to a larger audience. A non-expert viewer cannot understand deployment details or troop strength. One evening, as I was about to do a live report for the News at Nine, Prannoy came on the line and told me, “Vishnu, just tell the story” and that’s when it dawned to me that this was no longer being seen as yet another story of cross border shelling where you spelt out the facts and moved on. This was huge and a story which had quite clearly captured the imagination of the nation. Sitting in Kargil, completely disconnected from the editorial decision making in New Delhi, I had no idea.
But `telling the story’ is often easier said than done, particularly in places like Afghanistan which made reporting in Kargil seem like a walk in the park. For me, Afghanistan remains the biggest professional challenge I have faced. In many ways, it was a nightmare.
When Ajai Shukla and I entered North Afghanistan along with 4 other Indian journalists in the months after 9/11, the Taliban were still in power in Kabul and the terms Taliban and Al-Qaeda were synonymous. The only way to get into Afghanistan was by crossing the Amu Darya (Oxus) river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan into territory held by the Northern Alliance, the anti Taliban force based out of the impenetrable Panjshir Valley to the North east of Kabul.
Crossing over into Afghanistan meant crossing the Amu Darya on a barge powered by a tractor whose wheels had been converted into paddles. From a distance, a remote Al Qaeda post was firing green tracer bullets in our distance. This had the makings of another Kargil I thought. In fact, it was very different.
Arriving on the other bank of the Oxus meant arriving in one of the most primitive and least developed places on earth. Large parts of Northeast Afghanistan are a cold desert, sandy with little vegetation despite the presence of the Amu Darya. There is nothing here, no roads, no food, no electricity and worst of all, no water. It was as if we had arrived on another planet.
For several days, the four of us camped in a hut in the settlement of Khoja Bahawuddin, the military headquarters of the Northern Alliance. This was pretty much as far as the international media managed to make it in the initial phases of the war and it was here that I realized how we were all clueless in how to cover a major international conflict.
There was no friendly Indian Army here ready to offer you a steaming hot meal no matter how difficult the circumstances. The only thing that worked here was hard currency, U.S dollars. And, as we realized in a few hours of arriving, the few thousand dollars we were each carrying would not last us more than a few days. One of us, either Ajay or I, would have to travel all the way back to Dushanbe in Tajikistan to get money sent to us through the Indian Embassy. Ajai eventually agreed to go and I said I would return in the future. That trip, when it happened, more than a month later, turned out to be my final exit from Afghanistan. Inclement weather had snowed over mountain passes making my return to the heart of Afghanistan impossible.
For the first several days, we lived off the kindness of the Northern Alliance who brought us a bucket of rice every day with something that resembled rajma. With crockery an unimaginable luxury, the four of us would dig into the bucket and eat, pretty much, to our hearts content. The problem was water. Rationing water from our meager reserves would last us just a few days and buying water would mean spending our precious dollars.
Compare this with the major Western news media which had arrived in force. Many of their journalists were dressed in military fatigues, armed and stocked with provisions which would last several weeks. The BBC, I remember, had set up a collapsible cabin with fully functional shower facilities. By the time I bid adieu to Afghanistan, I didn’t have a bath in a month ! The BBC’s correspondents were also protected by SAS commandos and travelled in armored Land Rovers. We had to rely on local taxi drivers and their antique Russian built UAZ jeeps.
The big lesson in these early days was realizing that we knew precious little of what was happening in Kabul, hundreds of kilometers to the South of where we were. In fact, the only source of authentic information which we had was from the BBC’s radio service from Washington which was focusing on the impending military strikes by US forces.
On the day the US air strikes did begin, I was asked to do a telephone report. The studio anchor asked me the predictable question, “Vishnu, whats the latest on the war in Afghanistan?” My response may have been a shocker … “I am standing in a town called Khodja Bahawuddin in the North of Afghanistan. There is a hill in front of me and a hill behind me. There is nothing here. No water. No food. No electricity. At the moment, we’re trying to organize our next meal but yes, we are told the air strikes have begun..”
On another occasion, an angry producer in Delhi, completely oblivious of the situation we were in told me, “Vishnu, this is terrible. You haven’t even bothered to tell us the name of the hotel you are staying in and your room number !” On another occasion, another producer asked me why I wasn’t using my credit card if we were running low on cash. But really, I couldn’t blame them. In my experience, the reality of covering conflict is very very different from how its visualized. Reporting the story is often quite easy if basic logistics are taken care of. In Afghanistan, we were looking to survive first and tell the story second.
By the time we got our act together, it had been about two weeks. Now fresh with new funds Ajay managed to bring across from Tajikistan, we were ready to proceed on our big adventure, an extremely risky overland expedition to the Panjsher Valley and to Northern Alliance controlled areas just to the north of Taliban-held Kabul itself.
None of us were ready for what we encountered. For 3 days, we drove on donkey tracks through some of the most remote parts of Afghanistan, up across the Andjuman pass at more than 13,000 feet before finally making it to the relative comfort of the Panjsher Valley, the heart of the Northern Alliance Movement.
For me, the journey was traumatic. Starving just before we began our journey, I had consumed an entire roll of salami, which we had brought across when we entered Afghanistan. As it turns out, the meat had gone bad and by the time we were into day two of our journey, I was extremely sick. This was an out and out case of food poisoning and all I had were a handful of pills our company doctor had insisted we carry when we left Delhi.
Every lurch of the vehicle seemed like a blow to the stomach as I fought an intense fever. There was, obviously, no doctor around. In fact, we had gone well past a point of no return. Safety lay in the Panjsher Valley still a few days away. I would have to hang tight. Through those 3 days, I had very little to eat, not that there was very much available in any case !
Throughout the journey, we confronted AK-47 men guarding villages. Getting through meant paying up, in some cases several hundred dollars but keeping these villagers in good humour was also key to carrying on with our journey. Nights had to be spent in these villages, at the homes of people who eyed us with suspicion but opened up when we told them we were Indian, not Pakistani.
In fact, our nationality was the biggest connect. For years, doctors and medics of the Indian Army had been helping Northern Alliance fighters deal with the injuries they had sustained in battles against forces trained and affiliated to the Pakistani ISI. To the people in these Northern Alliance regions, India was a friend, a country which had provided them medical assistance and, years, ago, entertainment, when Bollywood films used to be screened in cinema halls of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul. Amitabh Bachchan was a star in even these cut off areas and everyone seemed to know who Aamir Khan was.
But we were still no where close to the story. Our journey would continue for several days more. In the end, we would make it not just to the Panjshir Valley but travel all the way to Charikar, just 20 odd kilometres away from Kabul at a time when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were still firmly entrenched in the Afghan capital just down the road.
Things immediately started getting better for us once we were in the Panjsher valley. Fresh fruit, the easy availability of clean drinking water, and warm meals meant that we could finally get serious about our assignment.
Our `operational hub,' effectively home, was a bombed out cement factory in Charikar, one of the only cement plants in the country. Just a few weeks earlier, jets belonging to the Taliban Air Force, based just a short distance away, had left the structure badly scarred and the small building we were staying in, along with a few other international journalists had been singed by the flames. But we had a proper roof over our head and a carpet to place our sleeping bags on. Things were looking up !
Ajai and I were now finally in our elements, among the first batch of international journalists reporting from the frontline and what we saw and reported in the days and weeks ahead were first hand accounts on how the Northern Alliance and their coalition allies were preparing the ground to invade Kabul.
Unlike the CNN or the BBC which had brought in portable satellite uplink equipment .. which was still a bit of a novely in the Indian media those days .. Ajai and I relied on a jury-rigged contraption which actually worked despite the odds. We had a bulky Inmarsat portable phone ... with a relatively large dish which had to be assembled every time we used it. Power came through wires attached to the battery of our UAZ jeep. Shortly before we left for Afghanistan, our engineers in NDTV had managed to hook up the system to a video phone and had somehow managed to squeeze through a video signal in the available bandwidth. This was desi-jugad at its best, a singularly cost-effective and workable solution to the basic requirement of a television journalist: the ability to broadcast. That said, we held our breath every time we fired up the unit. Catching a decent satellite signal and connecting to the NDTV office was never easy but, believe it or not, it worked. We were the only Indian network covering the war with the ability to do videophone reports whenever we wanted. Ajai and I also managed to hook up our camera to the contraption and were able to transmit pictures every now and again albeit in pretty poor quality. How that Inmarsat unit managed to survive as long as it did being despite being stowed away in the back of our jeep as we travelled hundreds of kilometres on thankless, dusty terrain remains a miracle to me.
Throughout this period, there were some amazing reporting opportunities. I was possible the first journalist in the world to enter the just-liberated Bagram airbase, after it was relentlessly bombed by coalition forces. On another day, I remember watching a large number of US Navy fighters in the skies over Charikar. I knew what would be coming next ... and so, I got on the Inmarsat, dialed up NDTV from my vantage point in the cement factory to report that bombing of the area in and around Kabul was about to commence. An angry editor, with no idea of just where we were, came on the line and said, "Vishnu, we can't just report something so big without confirmation from a second source. You know that." Just then, there was a huge explosion, the editor asked, "whats that" to which I smugly answered, "Thats the confirmation. I am standing on a hill looking across what are called the Shomali plains. Just a short distance away is the Bagram airbase, and the explosion you heard is of a bomb hitting that base. I know this because I am watching it happen." The bombing that day was being carried out by US carrier borne FA-18 Hornet fighters. Several years later, in 2008, while shooting our documentary series, The Jet Set, I actually flew a sortie in a Hornet with a pilot who was involved in the bombing campaign over Bagram in the initial days of the air campaign. Chances are that I actually saw him dropping his bombs. The world is truly a small place.
Reporting the war in Afghanistan had any number of strange experiences. For the first time in my career, I came face to face with terrorists who had fought Indian forces in Kashmir. It was during a visit to a prison in the Panjsher Valley where the Northern Alliance held captured Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. In this jail, on the banks of the river Panj, were a number of terrorists who were happy to recount to us their experiences in Kashmir. All of them had been trained in camps in Pakistan ... which was no surprise, but what was a surprise was the ethnic spread of of these men. There was an Urghor tribal from China who spoke fluent Urdu, a Myanmarese man in addition to a couple of Pakistanis all of whom described in great detail how they had been trained to engage Indian forces and how they have been lucky enough to make it out of Kashmir. The international movement of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban had brought them to Afghanistan after their "tour of duty" in Kashmir. Even though they had been captured, they were hopeful that they would be released in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The men we came across hardly fitted the image of battle-hardened, frightening looking terrorists hell bent on death and destruction. They were polite with us and explained their war was against the Indian state, not people like Ajai and me. Clearly indoctrinated ... they saw no logic in what we told them. For them, Kashmir was a basic cause. Fighting there was part of a religious mandate. Rationalising with them was like talking to a war.
If organising food and water had been a headache in our early days of reporting the war, there was a more immediate, and a far more lethal threat in the area from where we now reported: landmines. There were landmines everywhere and they had been indiscriminately placed. There were no marked mine fields, and the instructions for everyone here was basic .. .walk on the centre of the road or path you are on. Venturing off the beaten path was a death-wish and there were times, when we ended up pushing our luck. I remember one day, our Northern Alliance escorts said they would take us to the "frontline," from where we could see Taliban fighters up close, just a few metres away. Their instruction to us was very clear ... follow a single line and do not venture from the path, which in this instance, was less than a foot in breadth. Aak Tak's reporter and camera person, who had made it into Afghanistan with us were a part of this escorted visit. As we finished our shoot and were returning single-file on the same path, we noticed, the Aaj Tak camera person, who was behind us, had veered off the path, walked a good thirty metres to the side to film something. This was suicidal but there was little we could do other than to watch and quiety gesture to the camera person to freeze. I will never forget the look of terror in his eyes when he realised what he had done and the next few moments were unbelievably anxious as he gingerly walked back to the path. This was a known mine field and we had been lucky.
Ultimately though, Afghainstan turned out to be a huge personal disappointment for me. I was never on the frontline to see the fall of Kabul. We had run out of cash and the only way to sustain our operations was to return to Tajikistan to pick up more cash. Ajai had done the initial trip when our money had finished the first time round, and now, it was my turn. There were two options to return, either make the long journey by road alone, which was clearly dangerous or somehow try and convince the Northern Alliance to let us on to one of their helicopters. The latter was the preferable option and I was told to report to a grass landing strip in the Panjshir valley, but when I showed up, the pilot told me and a bunch of other journalists there was no question of getting on to his helicopter. His job was to carry supplies and that was it. Fortunately though ... we were all equipped for this eventuality. A few thousand dollars later, we were onboard, but rather than drop us off in Tajikistan as he had promised, the pilot flew us to Khodja Bahawuddin from where I managed to return to Dushanbe Tajiskistan the following day.
Returning to civilisation as I knew it was an unbelievable relief ... the chance to shower for the first time in a month and to gorge myself on a proper meal. In the days that followed, as it all sunk in .. I was overcome by emotion. I desperately wanted this assignment to end since I was convinced that Kabul was not going to fall that winter but Ajai was determined to hang on and it was up to me to somehow get funds across to him. For the next two weeks, I tried my best to get back onboard a Northern Alliance helicopter but despite the personal intervention of our Ambassador to Tajikistan, someone tasked with liaising closely with the group, my luck ran out. The weather had closed in and the Alliance's two helicopter capable to flying across the Anjuman pass and into the Panjshir Valley had been deployed elsewhere. I was stuck. It was incredibly frustrating.
Ajai Shukla managed to hang tight though. Fresh out of the Indian Army from where he had recently retired as a Colonel, Ajai went into survival mode, protecting his precious dollars till such time as we were able to finally ferry funds across to him. Ajai's decision to hunker down and wait for the collapse of Kabul proved to be the right decision though at the time it seemed the unwise thing to do. It was, however, a courageous call, one which gave him the opportunity to ride into Kabul with the Northern Alliance when the city fell. He was one of the only journalists in the world to witness the fall of Kabul and the reports he brought us of the endgame of the Taliban in Kabul were world exclusives. Somehow or the other, through sheer determination, NDTV, primarily Ajai Shukla, had managed to report the Afghanistan war from the beginning right to the bloody end of the Taliban administration in Kabul. For me, till this date, I regret having missed the fall of Kabul after having done all the hard work on the ground. But there is little I could do to get back. Road access back to the Panjshir valley was impossible since the mountain passes had been snowed under and helicopter access was just not working out.
I returned to NDTV as a bit of a war hero. The real hero returned several months later.