Gimme Danger

Drearily Awaiting Death on the Front Line

When the sun comes up nine and a half hours ahead of and a thousand years behind ground zero, the war commute begins.

Tanks and trucks and Japanese rental cars with Dubai plates zoom west across the desert, dodging donkeys, potholes, and piles of wheat drying on the asphalt—and every now and then a group of refugees from Kunduz. The drama is purely theoretical; in practice the sight of teenaged girls in brightly colored dresses, toting ridiculously tiny bags containing everything they own, becomes instantaneously mundane. Likewise the front itself, which has become such a local institution that it now has its own parking attendants for visiting journos.

Self-proclaimed experts on the differences between the various kinds of mines speculate on the F-16 circling the hamlet of Bangi, just outside Kunduz. "He's not going to drop," says Lance from the BBC. "Once they drop they establish a straight line and get the hell out of there." If you squint, you can make out a Taliban bunker a half mile down the valley on a perfectly sunny day. "They've been trying to hit us all day," Lance notes. "They know we're here."

Lance is right. After a few hours photographing and sketching Alliance troops, the heat gets to me, and I hop into my car for the drive back to Taliqan. On the way home, I call my mom to wish her a happy Thanksgiving.

A few minutes after leaving Bangi, the Taliban score a coup; they take out the journalists' parking lot. Some guy from Finnish radio comes to the back of a truck, bleeding from rocks that are still somewhere inside him. And after that, all hell breaks loose when a Taliban commander drives down the road to surrender himself, a pile of guns, and a Ford Expedition.

There's a scramble for the keys to the SUV booty; 25 Northern Alliance soldiers are wounded and one is killed in the ensuing fracas. The visceral thrill that normally pairs up with such brushes with death is oddly absent. In just 24 hours, the place where I was standing a few minutes earlier will be pulverized by mortar shells, and the town I'm living in will be randomly bombed by air force dipshits. Mostly, though, it's a mind-numbingly dull existence. For one thing, I engaged in mere tourism where the locals are born pro. For another, the advantages of life over death aren't quite as apparent here as they are back home.

In the evening they send us back to T-town. "You should go home," Alliance commander Daoud informs the assembly of dehydrated writers and cameramen after another day where the main camera-ready action on the front has been an exchange of bodies.

"What are these guys dying of, old age?" someone asks. We want blood, Robert Capa soldiers falling back dramatically, arms splayed. The closest we get is puffs of smoke in the distance where people and buildings used to be and a camel blown to smithereens by a mine. "We want to stay for the bombing," I tell Daoud. "We've been waiting for hours."

"If you stay after dark," he warns, "some of my troops will rob you. And maybe worse." There's something tantalizing about this possibility. For one thing, I'd have something to write about. For another, it might jump-start the motions and bowels locked solid by days of fending off stooped old ladies in burkas pulling at my clothes in Central Asia's ultimate form of aggressive panhandling. Maybe the sight of all of those guns—every other male carries at least one pointed at me—might spark my sympathy for the millions who lie under graves of stones and green flags hanging limply from mangy sticks.

More likely, some dumb fuck would shoot me just for the hell of it. I don't care to be number 11, not tonight.

So I go home to a dinner of French biscuits from Qatar with a side of Ashi-mashi orange cola, and wait for the bombs to come.

Related Articles:

"Mujahideen Come Home: Things Change—and Remain the Same—in Post-Taliban Jalalabad" by Michael Kamber

"Talking Jihad: Three Views of One War" by Michael Kamber

"The Forgotten Refugees: Stranded for Decades, 2 Million Afghan Refugees Struggle to Survive in Pakistan" by Michael Kamber

"After the Taliban: Could a Coalition Government Withstand Afghan Rivalries?" by Michael Kamber

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