Maclean’s senior writer Michael Petrou has travelled to the Middle East multiple times, many of them to report for the magazine. In this excerpt from Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World (Dundurn), Petrou describes fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan Northern Alliance, one month after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The first hint that B-52 bombers were circling overhead came from glints of sunlight. The lumbering planes were too high to be properly seen, but as they banked in their slow, graceful arcs, their silver wings caught the sun and sent it into our eyes as we sheltered in Northern Alliance trenches 10,000 m below.
I had awoken that morning, in October 2001, on the ground inside a mud-walled compound run by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia, who controlled a small corner of northeastern Afghanistan and whose fortunes were about to change because of those B-52s and the unseen Americans on the ground directing their bombs. Graham Uden, a British photographer with whom I was travelling, and I then hired a driver with access to one of the jeeps the Russians had left behind during an earlier war. We trundled westward out of Khoja Bahuddin, the small village where we slept, toward the front lines about 15 km away. We passed below Ai-Khanoum, the ruins of a hilltop city once known as Alexandria on the Oxus, where Alexander the Great had established an outpost of his globe-spanning empire 2,300 years ago. Alexander’s empire slowly disintegrated and his city on the Oxus was sacked, leaving pottery shards and marble column pediments scattered among the shell casings and gun emplacements of the Northern Alliance. When we reached the Kocha River, we left the jeep and hired horses from the wranglers who worked its banks. Their animals were skinny but strong, and while saddles could usually be found, none had stirrups, and my legs ached from hanging loosely against the horse’s flanks after a kilometre or two.
There were fewer and fewer people in the fields on either side of the dirt road on which we rode as we got closer to the front lines. Soon the cracks and sharp explosions of small arms could be heard, so different from the muffled rumble of airplane bombs that would occasionally reach us in Khoja Bahuddin. I stopped to talk to Abdul Haq, a lonely-looking farmer, ethnically Uzbek, probably in his late teens, with a flat face and squished features. He wore one brown sock and one black and was hacking at the dirt below him with a hoe. He said that 300 people had left his village because of the fighting nearby. He left too but had nowhere else to go, so he returned with his mother. Then one morning as she dug at the very same dirt, she dropped dead, felled by a stray and almost spent bullet that came from so far away he couldn’t see the shooter. A one-in-a-million chance. “It is difficult to live here now,” he said.
There was one more village before we reached the front lines, and this one really was deserted—“except for the holy warriors,” as the local Northern Alliance commander said. They slept in the shells of buildings, the broken walls of which held belts of ammunition suspended from pegs and nails, and they had boiled tea over fires in houses with blown-off roofs. Enterprising boys from the village down the road brought bread. There were a few mortars set up among the ruins and a larger rocket battery behind the village. A hill rose above the buildings, treeless but with bits of green grass still clinging to its soil, and rolled toward the Taliban trenches visible on the horizon.
We climbed that hill, crouched over and bent at the waist, and then dropped into a trench as we neared its crest. The men and boys who manned that section of the front were happy to have company but warned us to keep our heads below the lip of the trench. “Taliban snipers will get you,” one said, and sure enough, when we did peek, tiny figures could be seen moving through their trenches about half a kilometre away. Until now the Taliban had been imagined more than seen, even when their bullets passed directly over our heads, and now there they were, just out of rifle range. Some were probably closer. I could have thrown a rock into the nearest Taliban trenches, but if they were occupied, the people in them were keeping their heads down, too.
The Northern Alliance fighters in the village below had fired off several mortars and a barrage of rockets as we arrived. Now the Taliban were shooting back. Their mortars were the most unnerving. There was a whooshing sound of rushing air as the small projectile shot in a high, looping arch toward us, and a second explosion when it hit. In between there was nothing to do but wait. I crouched lower in the trench and put my forearms on either side of my head. The Afghans said nothing until the impact bang sounded from a safe distance away, and then they passed around a bag of sunflower seeds.
Abdullah, black-bearded and older than the teenagers around us, scuttled grinning into our trench lugging a .50-calibre machine gun. He swung the barrel over the lip of the trench, cranked open the gun sights so they were set for a distant target, and took aim at the nearest Taliban, who appeared to be digging some sort of machine gun nest themselves. He blazed away, one shot at a time, and then looked at us and smiled again, almost apologetically. “I did my best,” he said.
I went back to sitting on the ground, spitting sunflower shells into no man’s land. There were no sandbags to reinforce the trench walls, only loose dirt piled between the Taliban and us. The trenches themselves were closer to ditches. I could kneel and still look out of them with only a little stretching. One of the fighters, Karim, explained that they spent one night in the trench and the next in the ruins of Chagatay village, below the hill. “The nights are quiet. We watch and we wait,” he said. The Taliban had now finished their tit-for-tat barrage that followed Abdullah’s long shots, and Karim and I could converse easily. A few weeks earlier, he said, he had been given five days leave to visit his wife and children. “I used to be a teacher, and at home I saw some of my former students. When this is over, I’ll teach again.”
It was a surreal experience, in 2001, to ride horses to front lines that had barely budged in months, as though the war were unfolding a century ago. Yet this illusion was shattered easily enough. The commanders had satellite phones, while the grunts on both sides conversed across no man’s land, not by shouting, but through their walkie-talkies. Most exchanges were prefaced with Islamic formalities—“Peace be with you,” “And also with you”—and then the trash talking and entreaties would start.
“You are not true Muslims.”
“Why are you fighting with foreigners?”
But nothing dragged Afghanistan into the 21st century like those behemoth American B-52 Stratofortresses circling overhead.
When they first flashed into view, desperate puffs of smoke rose from the Taliban’s primitive anti-aircraft batteries behind their trenches. They knew what was coming, and there was nothing they could do about it. The planes seemed to circle for a long, long time. My mouth grew dry. The previously cheerful Northern Alliance fighters stopped talking. A few ducked. Then the hill shook and the Taliban position nearest to us disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. The explosions came rapidly, one after the other, like a booming drum roll. I huddled on the ground in a fetal position. When it was over, two of the teenage soldiers grabbed their walkie-talkies and tuned in to the frequency used by their enemies on the next hill. Voices crackled over the airwaves.
“Talib! Talib! Are you okay? What is your condition?”
A Taliban fighter’s scratchy voice from somewhere down the line came through. He was trying to contact his comrades who had been bombed.
The two Northern Alliance soldiers were grinning like school children, barely able to suppress guffaws.
“Ohhh! Ohhh! I’m hurt,” one moaned, pretending to be a wounded Talib, while his partner giggled into his hand.
“What happened?” the real Talib asked over the radio.
“Ohhh! I lost one eye.” There was a long pause. “Now we all only have one eye each.”
The Northern Alliance soldiers burst into laughter while their opponent swore at them over the radio and disconnected. They had been mocking Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader, who really had lost an eye during the war against the Soviets in 1980s.
I watched all this from the floor of the trench, still catching my breath from the bombs that had landed so close, they made the ground tremble beneath us. When I looked behind me I saw another Western reporter I hadn’t noticed before. He was lounging on top of the trench, cradling a large and expensive camera. His balding head was shaved close, a cigarette dangled from his lips, and he wore a checkered keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his neck. He seemed to be posing for someone as he looked down at Graham and me. His voice, when he finally spoke, was a perfect Parisian sneer.
“Is this your first war?” he asked.
He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I can tell because your face is so white.”