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Boston Globe
November 11, 2001
Journey through a land of loss

By David Filipov, Globe Staff

ON THE KOKCHA RIVER, Afghanistan _ I knew I had no business being here. Beneath me, the muddy rapids of the Kokcha river swirled, as my horse, flank-deep in muck, bucked and shied. Overhead, two American B-52s were dropping conducting a saturation bombing raid on Taliban positions on the hill just up the river.

I was certain the horse was going to throw me into the river. But even in that moment of desperation, it was hard to ignore the beauty of the place - the river, the lush valley, the snowcapped Hindu Kush in the distance. If I ever get out of this one, I thought to myself, what a great story to tell my...


But of course I couldn't.

My father, Alexander M. Filipov, was on American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center two months ago today. From that and from other events of Sept. 11, all this craziness followed - American bombs crashing into Afghan clay, me on a skittish steed without a saddle and waist-deep in rapids, these strange men with guns laughing and leading the way. That was the day the world changed for all of us, for some more than others.

But to do my job and cover this story, I had to put my own story away, disconnect my mourning, my sense of loss, from everything that was going on around me. As I quickly found out, the murky conflict in Afghanistan has little to offer someone looking for resolution. It was a good thing I had not come here looking for vengeance, because there was none here to be had.

People have asked me what it was like reporting on the war that began, essentially, with my father's death. Was I out to avenge that death? Could I separate the personal from the professional?

I found out that I could, at least most of the time. But to report and write a story like this, I had to be detached and tough. Luckily, it gets dark early, and there is no electricity in northern Afghanistan. When thoughts of Dad came up, I could go off into the darkness and cry.

When a radio interviewer asked me one day, after a long talk about what I'd seen at the front, how I felt about being here after my dad's death, suddenly I found I could barely stand. Suddenly all the pain and sorrow and unfinished grieving I had put away burst out. I finished the interview and ran off into an abandoned barnyard to weep.

But in a place filled with so many armed, desperate men, where so many people have suffered for so many years, bawling in the hay in the dark is not the right image for an outsider to project. I hoped I hadn't been seen.

As Afghans were quick to point out, the Northern Alliance has been fighting a losing battle against the Taliban for six years. Everyone has suffered. My translator, Wahid, has been arrested and tortured by the Taliban three times. Most of the alliance fighters left their families behind when they were driven out of areas the Taliban now control.

''I'm just waiting for the war to be over, and to return to my family and work on my farm,'' said a field commander on the front named Daud, a farmer whom the Taliban had imprisoned in his native Kunduz Province. He managed to bribe someone to help him escape - dressed in the burka, the woman's full-body covering - to Takhar Province, where he became a commander for the Northern Alliance irregulars in Zartkamar.

Daud's men, mostly farmers from Kunduz, like him, resembled a post-cookout militia more than battle-ready front-line troops. Although they were fighting a life-and-death battle with an implacable foe, they always had time for tea and horseplay.

This is a strange war, this civil war in Afghanistan. As a pure civil war, it was already a very serious conflict that had killed more than 50,000 people before the United States got involved. Many more will die if the Northern Alliance carries out the broad offensive its commanders say the US-led air campaign will eventually make possible. Even more will die of hunger if the 30 percent of Afghanistan's 21 million people who aid agencies say need food don't get it because of the war.

But it is not entirely the battle of us against them, good against evil, that some might have you believe. In my three weeks of on-the-ground reporting in a place that evoked images of the 13th century plus modern weapons, I was struck by how easy it is for Afghans to switch sides. Theirs is a different interpretation of loyalty.

And as with any air campaign, when the US bombs started falling, it was hard to say that they were always achieving their objectives, and not killing innocent civilians or tearing up acres of useless mountain soil. People on the Northern Alliance side often looked genuinely happy that the United States was bombing their enemies, the Taliban. (At first I found this hard to believe - as did one Globe reader, who in a letter to the editor described my report on the celebrations as ''bogus'' and ''insulting.'')

It was impossible to say how villagers on the other side of the lines felt. It was nearly as hard to say that the bombs meant peace and that stability would come to this impoverished, drought- and war-stricken land any sooner.

The front is the place that least makes sense in this war. A commander was killed in Zartkamar last week by a Taliban sniper, so Commander Daud made me hide in a hole in the wall, so that the Taliban snipers a few hundred yards away could not see us. Then, when we were done talking, we walked out in front of the wall, in plain view of the snipers.

When the Taliban fired a few rockets our way, it was like a big game for the commander's men. They fired back. The Taliban fired at them. They fired back. Everyone laughed. The two sides had been doing this for a year.

''This is the front line,'' exclaimed one young fighter named Aghamir, as one of his comrades fired off a rocket-propelled grenade. ''Anything can happen here.''

From this front row seat, the bombings look like another form of entertainment. In the strange calm that followed the American airstrike, Daud examined the smoking craters that pockmarked the Taliban positions.

''We feel very happy when we hear that bombing sound,'' he said.

But Daud is also a thoughtful man. This is how he put it all together: ''It means America and the world now understands how important it is to fight the terrorists.''

Back on the Kokcha, the horses were fighting their way across the river. For me, on a horse for the fourth time in my life, it was a life-and-death situation. For the Northern Alliance fighters, it was another game.

''Ahmed Zahir,'' said the Uzbek horse trader who accompanied us, using the name I gained because of my striking resemblance to the late, great Afghan singer. ''Ahmed Zahir, he's a quiet horse, don't worry.'' As the horse trader spoke, he mercilessly whipped the poor animal with an old fan belt, as my translator, Wahid, shouted out the translation and his own horse galloped off through the rapids. ''Ahmed Zahir, he doesn't mind the bombs.''

Being called Ahmed Zahir had started three weeks earlier, the moment I dashed across an abandoned railroad bridge over the Syrdarya River from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan. It became more frequent when I crossed into northern Afghanistan; if Tajikistan loves Ahmed Zahir, for the ethnic Tajiks of northern Afghanistan he is an idol.

Imagine Elvis Presley walks into your backyard and starts asking you your opinions about terrorism, anthrax, the war, only in a foreign language. That was me. I was Elvis Presley, resurrected and walking around Memphis, incoherently mumbling phrases no one understood. Everywhere I went in Afghanistan, people would crowd around and stare in wonder.

My dad would have appreciated the tale of Ahmed Zahir riding into the certain death of a saturation bombing raid like some crazy Dr. Strangelove-of-the-saddle. (My mom would have stopped enjoying it as soon as I got to the part about being on a horse.) Dad would have listened calmly, then probably told me of one of his own adventures from his days as a college kid exploring the Canadian Arctic, some run-in with a wolf or a polar bear that was no less cool than anything I could tell him.

I was imagining that conversation when my horse stopped in midstream.

''Ahmed Zahir,'' Aghamir laughed, waving his machine gun at me as he jokingly tried to pull another fighter off his horse. ''Ahmed Zahir! Come on! It's OK to go on.''

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