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Afghanistan: A Reporter's Notebook


Irris Makler is just back from a month in Afghanistan reporting on the conflict. In this reporter's notebook, she tells what it was like, as a journalist and as a woman, to live and work in northern Afghanistan.

My friends were worried when I said I was going into Afghanistan. But since I was going to the north, that tiny portion of the country, about10 percent, which is not under Taleban control - I thought that it was not going to be so dangerous. And it wasn't. What it was, was grueling.

Afghanistan is one of the hardest places I have ever worked, and this is due to several factors.

The first is infrastructure, or the lack of it. Modern newsgathering relies on electricity and good telecommunications. These were in very short supply in the town where I spent most of my time, Khodja Bahaoudin in northern Afghanistan. It is a desolate town of 35,000 in a desert basin ringed by refugee camps. Houses are made of mud brick. There are no paved roads, no running water, no sewers and no electricity. When the sun sets, the darkness is complete.

If it weren't for the Russian jeeps clattering along the sand, and the Kalashnikovs, you could be back in Old Testament times.

That's the sound of the donkey delivering water to the compound where I lived, along with many journalists. Toilets were just a hole in the ground. In fact, as the number of journalists increased, one hole in the ground serviced more than 100 people.

Khodja Bahaoudin was unprepared for the influx of journalists. There are no hotels, and while some "guest houses" were found, the foreign ministry compound where most journalists stayed soon turned into a tent city. It's hard to work while you're camping - especially in the extreme weather of Khodja Bahaoudin.

Temperatures reached 50 degrees centigrade this summer, and can plunge to minus 30 in the winter.

The heat was exacerbated by dust, as fine as cake flour, but gritty. It was everywhere and got into everything. Clothes. Eyes. Equipment. We were never free of dust, even before the dust storms began.

I knew I had been in Khodja Bahaoudin too long when I started asking people if they'd been there for the first dust storm a terrible event, when you had to fight to walk, and the air was white with dust, like a snow storm. Many TV broadcasters had to shut down operations, their equipment irreparably damaged.

There was one other factor that made my job more difficult - and that was being a female journalist. Women in Khodja Bahaoudin are distant presences. They walk at a distance, covered from head to foot in brightly colored burkas. You never see a woman's face, and she sees out only through a mesh screen in her veil. For although this is not Taleban territory, the brand of Islam practiced here is very strict.

Even the place that you usually see women - the market - is closed to women here. That's the decision of the regional commander, who is a traditionalist. So when I went out, covered from head to foot and wearing a scarf over my hair, and sunglasses, but nevertheless with my part of my face visible, I caused a sensation. I was followed by a gaggle of men from place to place. My every exchange in the market - from buying apples to shoelaces was watched by a huge crowd.

This does impede newsgathering somewhat.

And then there was the shelling and bombing. But they were at a distance. When I go back, I'll be nearer to Kabul, and the Taleban and the impending winter.

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