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Afghan warlords need help with cable too

By Julian Prictoe, NBC News engineer

It isn’t every day you are invited by an Afghan warlord to visit his compound, and when you have a Kalashnikov pointed your way, you’re not inclined to say no. This was my introduction to life in Afghanistan.

A couple of weeks after the events of 9/11, and with Afghanistan firmly in the sights of the U.S. military, a handful of intrepid engineers and camera crews were dispatched to the northern tip of Afghanistan just across the border with Tajikistan. Armed with a 2.4-meter satellite dish and a good dose of naiveté, I was part of the first NBC News group to get into the country. My mission: to set up live broadcasts from this hot spot.

We were in an area ruled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, along with other journalists we hunted for a place to live. We ended up in a badly damaged building in Khoja Bahauddin, Takhar province, which turned out to be where the revered Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated by suicide bombers posing as a TV crew days before the 9/11 attacks.

It was far from comfortable. There was one makeshift toilet for NBC and dozens of other journalists – a weapon of mass destruction in its own right. We were soon under attack: Sand storms’ dark clouds reduced visibility to a few feet and sandblasted our naked skin.

Our presence was noted by locals one and all. They were also aware that we were setting up a significant technical operation.

One day, a group of heavily armed Northern Alliance men donned in Ray-Bans pulled up at high speed in a 4x4.

“Engine, which is engine?” one of them shouted in broken English.

I thought they wanted equipment. Instead, one of our guards pointed at me and said, “He is engine.”

That is how I ended up being whisked away by these warriors. You could say I was kidnapped.

After driving for about thirty minutes we pulled up at a palatial compound. The resident warlord sat on a large wooden chair that resembled a throne.

“Welcome engine,” he said and smiled. He wore Ray-Bans like many of his men. 

The warlord summoned his minions who showed up with a tray of hot tea, cookies and bits and pieces of a satellite TV system. With broken English and a lot of gestures, he managed to convey that he wanted to watch television.

We went to the roof, where I did the fastest installation ever seen. I was then accompanied to the room where a large group of old men dressed in white sat on cushions on the floor. Verbal communication was limited, but I managed to figure out that they wanted to watch Al-Jazeera, CNN and the BBC.

As I tuned these channels I heard grunts and murmurs behind me. Then, much to my dismay, there was a flash of female flesh on the television. Yes, it was a porn channel with the unusual name of Electric Blue. The murmurs behind me got louder and higher in pitch. I turned to look and saw that some of the men had covered their eyes.

As quickly as possible, I skipped over that channel. There was one man who spoke a bit of English and I explained to him that I would lock out these “offensive” channels so that they could only be watched after entering a code on the remote control.

Job done, I got some near smiles from my otherwise stoic audience. This group of Northern Alliance fighters could now watch television from all over the world. I was escorted back to the 4x4 and with relief I started my journey back to the NBC compound.

We had only gone a hundred meters or so when the car was stopped and armed guards gestured that I needed to get out. At this point, fear-induced adrenaline kicked in and I refused. I just wanted to get back to the NBC compound.

So they came to me instead, handing over a pen and some paper.

“Write code, write code!” one said.

They wanted to watch Electric Blue after all.