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October 8, 2001
"It is very dangerous to go to this place," said Zubair.
We sat cross-legged on the floor of the foreign ministry in Khoja Bachoudin eating kebabs and rice. I was asking for permission to visit a village called Zard Kammar that straddles the front line between the so-called United Front and the Taliban.
The foreign ministry is one of the few buildings in this town not made of straw, mud and animal dung. And Zubair rules the roost. He says where journalists can go and where they can't.
Zubair will find you a driver, a translator, a carpenter; whatever you want. He's a can-do guy, but he's also a civil servant in a government that barely exists.
He is a deputy of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. At least that's what they call it on the visa they stamped in my passport in Tajikistan before we clambered aboard the old Soviet-built chopper that flew us here. It made some unusual noises and was plastered with duct tape.
The United Front holds about 10 percent of Afghanistan and is made up of five groups who lost out to the Taliban in the mid-'90s.
Zubair loves the attention. He had bought 16 plastic chairs and a table and is dying to host another press conference so he can show off his new purchases. He has quickly mastered the nonchalance of someone who pretends the spotlight is all too much.
After the kebabs and rice, he agreed that we could go to Zard Kammar. "Come in morning and I give you letter," he said.
Sure enough, after a little tea and bread with him in the morning, we left for the front in a Toyota pickup and an old Soviet Uaz jeep. We bounced along dirt tracks for an hour through the desert, small towns of mud houses and dusty fields.
We then forded a river with a young boy on horseback guiding us to the shallow waters. He charged us $1.
Finally we arrived at Commander Ishak's headquarters. Zubair's letter was addressed to the commander. He was all I could have hoped for. A leather face, dark beard, and a tall sidekick in immaculate fatigues with a camouflage cap pulled down to his eyebrows.
The negotiations began. Ishak said that Zard Kammar was too dangerous. The front there is porous and he was afraid that Taliban soldiers had crossed and could shoot us from the houses where they were hiding.
We crouched down, a crowd gathered and Ishak began drawing a map of the front in the dust. A compromise. We would visit Zard Kammar, but not the dangerous part.
We drove to the nearest part of the front then walked for an hour to Zard Kammar.
Along the way we met a 16-year-old United Front soldier who's been at war for two years. A pair of older soldiers passed on a donkey. They had Kalashnikovs strapped to their backs and spare magazines strapped to their chests. We smiled and waved. They smiled and waved back. All the while we heard mortars and Kalashnikovs being fired somewhere close by.
When we reached the outskirts of Zard Kammar we met about a dozen soldiers and crept up into the ruins of the part of town that is controlled by the United Front. We ran one-by-one from building to building under constant sniper fire. I was ninth or 10th in line and was sure that if the Taliban gunmen were any good at all they would have their sights trained by the time it was my turn to scamper across.
Our guide had asked me to cover my blond hair with a cap. "If they see you they see Russian and they shoot," he explained.
Through the window of a bombed-out house we could see the front line. It was only 100 yards away just behind a whitewashed building. I pulled out my binoculars, but I could see the lines so clearly with my naked eye that there was no point. The soldier with us pointed at a small building with some men moving about inside and said something that needed no translation.
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