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9/11 aftermath: Covering the invasion of Afghanistan

In the hours and days after the attacks of 9/11, the United States grappled with the question: who was responsible? By Oct.7, 2001, American and British forces had teamed up with the Northern Alliance and invaded Afghanistan with the goal of dismantling the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for the attacks and destroying their safe haven in the Taliban-controlled country. 

The international press was there and soon journalists from all over the world were climbing through unfamiliar terrain in Afghanistan. Steve O’Neill, a veteran NBC News cameraman, was part of NBC’s team on the ground. He recounts the heady days right after the attacks and the struggle to cover the news in Afghanistan.     

Archival video from Nov. 2001: A NBC News crew makes the perilous, and uncomfortable, trip to Afghanistan's capital in the first days of the war that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

By Steve O’Neill, NBC News cameraman

“What have you had to eat today?” said Babak Benham. “Six Imodium and a biscuit,” I replied, wincing with Montezuma’s Revenge.  Babak creased up with laughter, became speechless and couldn’t continue filming me.

We were high up in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, headed south for the pass that led into the Panshir Valley, which in turn opens up just 50 miles north of Kabul. 

Conscious of the need to document our journey into the unknown, our producer, Babak said we’d better start filming. Unable to use the hardtop road south, which was controlled by the Taliban, we were using a tortuous rubble and rock-strewn route through this massive mountain range.

Some 30 or so Toyota HiLux 4-wheel drive pickups and their drivers were assembled by the Northern Alliance, who had fought themselves to a stalemate against the Taliban around 25 miles north of the Afghan capital Kabul. We were among representatives of the world’s press who had volunteered to get in from Tajikistan and head south.

So south we went for as far as we could go for four gruelling days.

We had two vehicles of uncertain age and reliability.  NBC sound man/ engineer Rob Grant complained bitterly about the broken seat spring that was stabbing him in the back. I tried to cut the spring with my Leatherman knife but failed. Climbing steeply and scrabbling over the rocks, the Toyota’s engine was always overheated.  So we stopped every time we saw a stream, which was often, pouring water over and in the radiator and cursing the scalding steam.

Life was hell in the car with cart-horse suspension. Rob squealed with pain, my bulky camera flew into the air and I tried to stop the lens being impaled on the bits of jagged metal around my seat.  The route was so bad that local Afghans on donkeys regularly outpaced us. They stared at us as though we were Martians – I guess we were as far as they were concerned.  I remember wishing I was either walking or sitting on a donkey, instead wedged inside the infernal Toyota. (Watch the video embedded above to see footage of the journey).

Producer Babak was a big and unusual man of many talents. He was ethnically Iranian, but raised in the States. He’d bought himself an Afghan hat, and combined with the ability to grow a huge beard seemingly in a matter of hours and his discovery that the local language Dari was very close to his fluent Farsi, led him to assume command of the convoy. He could be seen admonishing drivers and cut a magnificent figure: resplendent with a huge girth and an unforgiving temper.

One night convoy humor snapped.  Other members of the press had presumed Babak was from the Northern Alliance – the anti-Taliban, pro-American forces that controlled some of the north of the country, including the Panshir Valley we were traveling through.

We had stopped in a town to sleep overnight.  We had bad vibes and were worried about theft or worse, mainly because our equipment was sitting exposed on the back of the pickups.  Babak went off and negotiated to rent a house for the night.

Mayhem ensued when the other members of the press saw us driving towards our rented house.  They drove past us at breakneck speed and crammed into the mud-walled building.  We drove into the compound and some French TV guys used sharp elbows to get past us, muttering darkly under their breaths.

“What’s wrong?” I said.  They answered that they knew we were paying off the Northern Alliance commander (Babak) and it was unfair we were getting all the privileges, including this house.  I said he was our producer – he just happens to look the part. 

The French journalists were deeply apologetic.  But by this time there was not a square inch of floor-space left.  Only the stables remained. The floor was covered in hay and poo, and it stank of urine. We looked miserably at French TV and they looked miserably at us, and we all nodded in unspoken agreement. We grabbed what passed for tools and cleaned the barn out as best we could. Despite the stench and snoring, we all slept like babies.

Early days
A few weeks before, I’d walked into my London office. Many faces looked up in dismay at the banks of monitors showing one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on fire.  Then I saw the airliner crash into the second building.  I didn’t wait to be told: I rushed to my home, picked up a bunch of clothes, sleeping bag, mosquito net, head-torch and the vital Imodium, then sped back to the office and got my equipment ready.

Within an hour the word came from on high and I set off to Islamabad, Pakistan. My old pal, NBC correspondent Tom Aspell, arrived.  Seemingly hundreds of journalists followed until the hotels were full to overflowing.

“We’d better get out of Pakistan and get into Afghanistan,” I said to Tom after a few days.  Neither of us was big on crowds.   

In the relative safety of the Panshir Valley, we parted company with our “friends” from the rest of the press. Making our way towards our intended base in Jabal Saraj some 30 miles north of Kabul, we entered a small village at the southern mouth of the valley.

I’d noticed that Tom and Babak’s car in front of us was crabbing sideways a bit. They went round a bend, disappeared and became engulfed in a crowd of about a hundred Afghans. 

I got my camera out, turned it onto record and punched through the throng. Babak’s face came into view; he pointed at Tom sitting next to him. I aimed the camera at Tom who said with a wry smile: “The axle fell off the car.”

To anyone who knows anything about cars, that’s a serious problem. Well, anywhere in the West it is! Within half an hour, 10 men had lifted the car up, and in a shower of sparks, with no protective eye-wear, the village welder fixed the axle back on.

As we prepared to leave the village, Babak let out a mortal scream. “What’s wrong,” I shouted!

“Some m********r has stolen the last case of water!” he yelled.

He was inconsolable. I said the water would have only lasted a couple of days at most. So was it worth getting upset about? It made no difference, the deed had been done.  Murder was on Babak’s mind!

Home base: mud house in Jabal Sarag 
“Sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one.”  

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m counting drops of iodine to purify this river water the driver just fetched,” Babak said. From then on, this was to be our source of drinking water. He looked very unhappy, sitting in our Jabal Sarag mud house compound where we established a base for about six weeks until the Taliban were ousted from Kabul.

Things were looking up. We’d finally managed to get the giant unhappy hornets out of our bedroom. We’d established that if you shouted, “Hot Dog” a young lad would come about half an hour later with a rusty bucket of hot water, perfect for pouring mugs of water over yourself in the absence of a shower. We had running cold water: a channel dug from the filthy ditch outside the mud house, which diverted some of the dirty water into the compound.  “Hot Dog” boy could be seen “cleaning” cutlery and plates in it.

We bought some fresh meat from the local market. Our new cook hung it up in the pantry, which shared a wall and an open window with the latrine, or long drop.  The flies couldn’t get to the meat because it was covered in a layer of vicious-looking wasps.  Both larder and long drop was really a two-roomed cafe for a large percentage of the country’s flies. Hygiene obviously hadn’t been on the builder’s mind!

It was October 2001 and winter was beginning to set in. Soon the Panshir Valley would be blocked off by snow in the northern pass, and we would be cut off from the rest of the world by the same thing, as well as the Taliban in the south.

We asked if some essential supplies could be sent in. The list grew and grew. Eventually a Polish cameraman, Kris Burzynski volunteered to bring it all in from Tajikistan.

Archival video from Nov. 2001: A NBC News crew in Kabul comes face-to-face with the jubilation and tragedy that accompanies the Taliban's defeat.

“Welcome,” I said when he arrived. “We are so happy to see you!” He explained he had to abandon the vehicles on the other side of the pass and negotiated around 20 horses with guides to move the supplies and equipment through the deep snow.

“Surely you didn’t cross over on horseback with those thin clothes and trainers?” I said to him.

“I’m a Pole,” Kris answered, fingering a handlebar moustache.  Clearly 15,000 feet and sub-zero temperatures in the Hindu Kush were nothing for a son of Poland!

After the United States Air Force had “softened up” Taliban positions and equipment, the Northern Alliance promised they would make a push for Kabul. The appointed time came and went several times.  A B-52 dropped one huge bomb about 400 yards from our position and I was beginning to worry a mistake might happen.

“Let’s leave the front line – the push is not going to happen today,” Tom finally said.

The next morning I woke up at 5a.m., switched on the BBC World Service and heard legendary British correspondent John Simpson say he was “liberating” Kabul.  An hour later, we abandoned our mud house and drove south at breakneck speed through the Northern Alliance lines for Kabul in our two pickups loaded with gear.  We passed Simpson who was still walking south on the outskirts of the city.

We arrived at Kabul’s Hotel Inter-Continental, broke out the satellite dish and within 15 minutes or so Tom was going live from parking lot.

We were the first newsmen to arrive at the hotel and I reckon we were the first to go live from Kabul. 

A small boy sat nearby throwing stones at us. An old man with a very long Taliban approved beard turned up and stood patiently nearby. I said good morning, just to be polite and not expecting a coherent reply. He answered in a rich Texan accent with an amazingly big but old-fashioned vocabulary. We immediately secured Mr. Hadari’s services as a translator. Seems he had been something senior in Afghanistan’s Aviation Ministry, and had spent time in the States. Whatever, his age was much respected in Afghan society and he became a valued member of our team.

The capture of Kabul seemed like a decisive achievement at the time but it turned out to be just the beginning of a war that has already lasted a decade.  Over the next 10 years, I worked almost exclusively in Afghanistan and Iraq, usually six months a year or more. Much of it with the U.S. forces, who I grew to admire for their courage, professionalism, sense of patriotism and along with their loved ones, an ability to handle what must have been heart-wrenchingly long separations from family. God bless them all.