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.