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Dust to Dust
From Ground Zero to Afghanistan
A Correspondent’s Journal
You never think you’re living history. That’s something you read about. Maybe, for some of us, something you studied in college. There are events that happen, of course, that are obviously historic at the time they happen, the fall of the Berlin wall, for instance, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy; things that occur to other people and which historians eventually put into perspective by other larger and smaller events. But on the morning of September 11th, 2001, we all witnessed one of the crystalline moments of world history, a moment so pivotal it was as if God reached down and gave the earth a flick of his finger and set everything off on a different spin. It has all changed for us, for America, for the world. The rules of how we live, of whom we trust, of how we view our own security, of how we conduct war, of how we define peace, of what we hold most important.
In the eighteen years I’ve been a professional journalist I’ve seen some horrible things: Rows of skulls stacked roadside in Uganda, thousands of skulls from thousands of victims of the civil war, picked up from shallow graves in verdant fields by farmers whose cattle were tripping over the piles of bones.
The baleful eyes of a nine-year-old soldier peering at me down the sights of an AK-47, weighing the entertainment value of splattering my brains over the inside of my jeep versus the trouble he might get in by his commanders if I was, indeed, allowed to pass the checkpoint.
The twisted, smoking, impossibly bloody wreckage of what, moments earlier before I happened upon it on a deserted road in Southwest Africa, had been a car, but which, after running over a landmine, was now yet another sculpture of war; still-life of wasted lives.
The shattered arm of a young Kosovar Albanian boy, who fought through tears to tell me the story of when the Serbs came to his home, and shot his entire family – mother, sisters, brothers – then set fire to the house. He stifled his cries of pain from the bullet wound in his arm and played dead while the flames grew more intense, then when the masked soldiers left, he tried to pick up his whimpering baby sister and carry her out the window. But because of the broken bone, his arm wouldn’t do what his mind was telling it to, so at the last minute as his home became engulfed, he had to leave his sister behind and run through the night. He has nightmares, he tells me, of looking back through the window and meeting her terrified gaze.
But none of what I’ve seen and reported on compares to the events of that Tuesday morning, when a handful of warped and resentful men managed to extinguish thousands of innocent lives and seize the hearts of millions of blameless others with fear and confusion.
Before September 11th, the world was out there, with its troubles and complexities and sorrows. I, as a documentary maker and later, network correspondent, visited the world and reported back to my fellow Americans on the horrors/beauties that it held for me. But the attacks of that day erased whatever veil or window or lens we used to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. It’s all gone now. There is evil walking amongst us now, a very real, tangible, lethal, and deliberate evil. It came here, and we all saw it, and we are forever different.
Through a quirk of fate, I was an eyewitness to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and reported on them and the proceeding events for ABC-News. I then volunteered for and was sent to Afghanistan to report on the other side of the story; the retribution. That meant spending time on the front lines of a long-forgotten, little understood war in a country most Americans couldn’t have picked on a map if you gave them a hemisphere’s head start.
I went from walking through the dust of a pulverized symbol of audacious accomplishment, to the dust of a country victimized by centuries of neglect and invasion and drought. The similarities are many. The answers few.
The book I’m proposing would take readers from the first few moments of the World Trade Center attack through the long days that followed from the perspective of a working reporter – what I did, and how I did it. This opening section would include the chronology of events and introduce you to the determined rescuers and family members of missing persons I met while working two weeks around the clock at Ground Zero. I intend to also inject bits of information that have come to light since September 11th – what was happening on the planes at the time, for instance, what was typically going on in the WTC prior to the attack and how much destructive force was exerted when the towers collapsed. But for the most part this is a personal account of what it was like to report on the most devastating event of my life that happened to occur in front of my own eyes, to my own neighborhood.
The second part of the book will focus on the war in Afghanistan, to which I was dispatched within a day of wrapping up my coverage of Ground Zero. In my career I’ve traveled to over a hundred countries, but I’ve never seen anything like the biblical surroundings of northern Afghanistan. Stepping off the Soviet-era helicopter we took from Dusanbe, Tajikistan, after five days of arduous travel and frustrating, agonizing red-tape, was the equivalent of stepping out of a time-machine. First-century images clashed with 21st century weaponry – Kalashnikov rifles and T-55 tanks co-existing with donkeys and camels. In this section I will introduce readers to Northern Alliance soldiers and commanders, describe what 3rd World warfare is like, and what happens when 1st World technology makes an appearance, as when the U.S. began its assault on the Taliban. Woven in with these stories will be appropriate flash-backs to other wars and other experiences I’ve had covering them. Readers will also see behind-the-scenes; how we go about our daily lives, sleeping in tents, rigging up a gravity-powered shower, and eating rice and beans or the occasional U.S. Army MRE for a change of pace, if not taste.
Being a war correspondent is not glamorous. Not even slightly. And oftentimes, because of long periods apart and the simple fact that no matter how much talking you do, no one can fully understand what you’ve seen and experienced, the first casualty of the job is your relationships with friends and loved-ones. I can’t avoid that issue, in the book or in my life. My girlfriend, Katie Thomas, has waged her own personal struggle with the events of September 11th, which she also witnessed, and my subsequent assignment in a very dangerous place. The book will reflect all this honestly, even as we continue to come to terms with it.
But mainly, Dust to Dust will be a very personal account from the one person who is eyewitness to both sides of this terrible and sad story which is still unfolding. There will certainly be a flurry of books published about what happened and when, but my hope is that our book will go beyond the news accounts and touch readers on a human level, not only from my perspective but also the perspectives of the people whom I have come in contact with along the way, and whose lives, like mine, have been inexorably altered.
Part One: Ground Zero
The day the world changed I awoke from a sleep troubled by forces outside my control. Economic ones. I was being laid off.
My bosses at ABC-News had informed me weeks earlier that, since my contract was coming up and they faced mandatory cutbacks, I lost the lottery. It was nothing personal, they assured, and my work was respected and they really, really didn’t want to lose me, but numbers were numbers. In a fit of corporate downsizing ABC’s parent company, Disney, handed down the law that only a handful of contracts could be renewed, and mine was not one of them.
I had one week to go before I was to clean out my office. It was not a good morning.
I’ve been fired from a job only once in my life, while working my way through college as a bartender. I heard one thing from a cocktail waitress but the customer had ordered something different. The customer happened to be the short-tempered bar owner. End of job. For the son of a hard-charging, tough as nails, Bull Meecham kind of Air Force Colonel, getting sacked is about as humiliating as being discovered dancing around your bedroom in a tutu. Twenty years later and I still get a sinking feeling in my chest over that one.
So here I was after climbing to the top of the career mountain, getting to finally work as a correspondent on ABC’s news magazine shows only to be told a few months later I would no longer be needed. I suddenly had new empathy for dot-com executives and auto workers who’d faced the pink slips over the past year, the men and women whose turn of luck I’d reported on. It was like one long drawn out punch in the stomach. I’d reached the top of the mountain, alright, only to find it was an active volcano.
Katie, sensing my darkened mood throughout the night, was already up and quietly clacking away at her computer in our Tribeca loft, from which she works as a corporate education consultant for a major consulting firm. In the year we’ve been together we’d never spoken a cross word, but that morning not even the sight of her padding across the loft wearing next to nothing, coffee cup in hand and blonde hair twisted over one shoulder, could lift my spirits. And that was a first.
I roused from bed later than usual and poured myself a cup, mumbling an attempt at a civil greeting. Our loft is one large room on the third floor of a converted warehouse, considered classic and trendy now, but not too many years ago was marginal living for artists who could afford little else. Living room, kitchen, office and bedroom are all points of the compass, with no walls breaking up the space. Eighteen-foot ceilings, exposed brick and hardwood floors make it seem more spacious than a typical cookie-cutter New York City apartment, and long ago I decided not to partition it into rooms. As a result, my walk that morning from covers to coffee-maker took me through no doorways. I was headed to the couch with a mug of Starbucks Kenyan AA when the sound split the air.
It was like a giant ripping of fabric, a shriek and deep roar all at once, followed by a huge explosion. It was a sound I’d heard before, but only in countries at war. Never in the U.S., and certainly not in lower Manhattan.
“That’s a missile,” I said to Katie, not believing it as I said it, but not thinking it could be anything else.
“No, that’s just a truck or something,” she replied, but her eyes showed uncertainty. By that time, I’d made it to the window and looked up just as a massive fireball billowed out of the side of WTC Building.
“They’ve hit the World Trade Center,” I said. I had no idea who “they” were, but even then in an unexplainable way it seemed to me like an act of aggression not an accident, and I was still pretty sure it was some kind of missile that opened a gigantic gaping hole in one of the world’s largest buildings. Looking up into the maw I could see twenty-foot flames gouting out. The interior of the hole was dark, but through the smoke and flames some of the building’s enormous steel support beams were visible.
I spun around and began searching for the phone. The clock next to the bed said 8:49.
Our television stands to the right of the windows, and it seemed like mere seconds before Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America were saying something about reports of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. I finally located the phone’s handset and dialed the GMA control room, a number I knew by heart through years of early morning conversations with the show’s producers while on assignment for them in one place or another.
Melissa Thomas, a bright and extremely competent young producer answered. I quickly told her I was just a few blocks away from the WTC and was looking right at the burning building. Without hesitation, Melissa shouted “Phoner! Dahler’s on line 6 at the scene!” and in an instant my voice was patched in live to the studio, where I tried to put into words what I was seeing.
That was the beginning of my two weeks of straight around-the-clock coverage of the most important story of our lives. I was describing the flames and whether there were any rescue attempts visible when the second plane hit, and for days later radio news programs would replay my astonished reaction, “Oh my God!” as if it were the “Oh, the humanity” of our times.
When World Trade Center Building Two began to collapse, and floor after floor folded in on themselves with the exponential power of a small nuclear weapon, I had to explain to a disbelieving Peter Jennings on nationwide TV that, no, it wasn’t just part of the building that had fallen, it was the entire structure. I remember the odd feeling of hearing the thuds of each floor pulverizing the next come to me through the ground first, and then the air, like the coming of a terrible train you feel first through the tracks.
I’m told I was the first on the air that morning, explaining to a stunned nation that their eyes weren’t lying to them. I wouldn’t know; I didn’t see television, or listen to a radio, or even read a newspaper for a week. I stayed downtown, afraid to leave the area because the NYPD wasn’t letting people come back in, even credentialed press whose passes state clearly they are to be allowed past police and fire lines wherever formed. I took naps in my apartment that was without power or phones, and worked a story that became all-consuming.
What stand out in my memory are the voices, and the faces behind them. The police K-9 rescue team who jumped in their truck moments after the first plane hit and drove straight through from Illinois. I met them at 3:30am Wednesday morning as John and Dale lay on a restaurant’s stoop, catching a few hours of sleep. Tucked under Dale’s beefy arm, her chest rising in silent harmony to her handler’s snores, was Miranda, their German Shepherd search dog. The men were gruff spoken and shy, and you loved them for that. They worked fifteen hour shifts and by the time they reluctantly packed up their truck and left for home four days later, Miranda’s paws were shredded from the hot, ragged metal she’d been climbing over. After that first night they’d moved from their sidewalk beds to the floor of my apartment, refusing to dirty the couch or bed, but since our working hours were opposed I never got to know them much better than my first impression. And my first impression was, these are the kind of men who build nations.
Or the resident surgeon, who’d just gotten to New York on vacation early that Tuesday, and watched the events of September 11th unfold, like the rest of the world, on television. When Mayor Rudolf Giuliani went on local TV to ask for help from medical personnel, he hopped in the cab not bothering to change, since, like most medical students, he slept in a bootleg set of scrubs. An hour later he found himself perched on a metal beam over a bottomless chasm, working to keep a Port Authority cop whose leg was trapped between two steel support columns alive. While stabilizing the cop’s vital signs, he chatted with him, and prayed with him, and secretly hoped he’d be able to save the guy’s leg. He did. And when I interviewed him as he wearily walked up Church Street to catch a cab back to his hotel, all he could talk about was how amazed he was at the bravery of the firemen who had been working all around him.
Throughout the days to follow I made numerous trips to “ground zero” usually as a journalist, sometimes as a volunteer, and due to police restrictions on cameras, often had to rely simply on words to describe to millions of viewers what was happening at the place where their friends, loved ones, co-workers or simply fellow Americans had vanished from our world. I interviewed rescuers who awed me with their humility and determination, and searchers who tore my heart with their pleas for help, all the while denying a fading belief that they’d ever find the husband or mother whose face was on that piece of paper. They held back their desperation with sheer, steely strength, but it shone in their eyes, and their eyes haunt me still. Their eyes said, tell me you saw this person walking around, or in a hospital, or being interviewed, or sitting dazed by the street. Please tell me you saw them, alive. The fact that I could never once answer yes, is why I can never forget the question.
Part Two: Afghanistan
Through the binoculars, ominous figures in dark robes could be seen moving about the mountain ridges to the west. This was the Taliban’s front line near the city of Taloqan, dotted with mortar emplacements and riven with trenches carved into the beige, barren ground. Intermingled were soldiers in fatigues, but it was the mysterious black-clad men that sent a chill up the spine.
Osama bin Laden’s al Queda organization has soldiers and training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan, even here in the north. General Mohammed Ayun, who is the Northern Alliance commander in charge of this region along the Kowkcheh River, says he has captured Taliban fighters who were Arabic-speaking, or Chechen (from the region of Russia undergoing its own tortured civil war), or even Chinese, which the General says means they’re al Queda mercenaries.
One thing was for sure, the figures in black were clearly not from around here.
Here was a place it had taken us six-hours of grueling travel over mountain and desert and riverbed to reach, being slammed back and forth in a four-wheel drive Toyota pickup that had been liberated from the al Queda by Alliance troops. It was two-weeks after my arrival in Afghanistan and my fourth trip to one of the myriad front-lines.
The Northern Alliance holds the high ground overlooking Taloqan. They were pushed into these dusky peaks by a Taliban offensive last year that robbed the Alliance of the city and a supply road to armies in the north near the oft-contested key city of Mazar e-Sharif. It was a devastating loss, but General Ayun ordered the retreat when he saw the Taliban shelling Taloqan itself, causing massive civilian casualties. Rather than watch the destruction of innocent lives and a beautiful city, he pulled his men back into these mountain parapets, and began the long chess game of tank and mortar fire.
Along the ridges, the Alliance has set up a series of bunkers and gun emplacements. There are Soviet-era T-55 tanks buried up to their turrets for added protection, which, as of a few weeks ago, is evidently not that necessary anymore. A lucky or amazingly accurate shot from an Alliance tank took out the Taliban’s only artillery gun capable of reaching the mountaintops, so now the Alliance fighters rain shells on their enemy’s positions at their leisure. They do so infrequently, though, because they’re saving their ammunition for the day, soon to come they say, when the American air strikes have softened up the Taliban sufficiently and it’s time to roll down from the heights and retake Taloqan. That’s a day they’re all praying for.
Late one night, we shivered in the cold as we watched the lights of Taliban vehicles moving around in the valley below and the occasional rooster-tail of anti-aircraft tracers lift into the skies, reaching out for high-altitude American warplanes either real or imagined. Overhead, though, the only thing visible to us was the stunning light show from a zillion stars on this moonless night, the Milky Way stretched out like salt cast onto a deep blue tablecloth. I caught myself wanting to tell Katie about this sight; she, who would point out Orion’s belt or Cassiopeia and then stare upwards far longer than I -- out of appreciation or simply just day-dreaming. She seemed as far away now as those stars.
A soldier’s face materialized out of the dark next to me, lit up by a match that flared and was quickly extinguished, giving way to the glow of a cigarette cherry. Almost all the soldiers smoke here, and after a few weeks of enduring the relentless wind storms that send talc-like dust into our tents and mouths and lungs, compared to just breathing the air, smoking began to seem like a benign habit. The dust has became a fifth element of existence for us in northern Afghanistan, pervasive and invasive and relentless. I took to bathing once a week, not just for lack of water, but since I was immediately coated with a fine patina of beige as soon as I toweled off I simply began to wonder, what was the point?
The soldier, whom I dubbed Canada for the one, albeit incongruous word he knew of English, offered me a drag and I declined. The night was cemetery-quiet. We could see no jets, and neither could we hear any. The Americans had struck here the two preceding evenings and we were hoping to witness another air strike this night. A handful of Alliance soldiers hung around with us, even though most of their comrades were cozy and warm in their bunkers, one of which was equipped with a black & white television set powered by a bootleg generator. The movie tonight was Broadcast News, dubbed in Pashtu, I think. I thought back on the best line from that film -- William Hurt: What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams? Albert Brooks: Keep it to yourself.
One of the sentries, also named Mohammed Ayun, no relation to the General, knelt down next to us and put his hands together at the wrists in the sign of bondage. “Taliban,” he said. It turns out he’d been a prisoner of war for a year, and still had his International Committee of the Red Cross prisoner-exchange voucher. He kept it in a small leather wallet hanging from a thong around his neck, like some kind of talisman. Or maybe, a get out of jail free card.
It was when he lifted his shirt and showed me a still-suppurating bullet wound in his stomach that I began to understand the determination these men have to rid their country of the Taliban. Ayun had been wounded three times, held captive for over a year where he was only fed one piece of bread in the mornings, and here he stood, as close to the enemy as a John Elway touchdown pass. “I don’t have a choice,” he says. “They come here, they invade our country, they ruin our lives. We have to fight.”
Given Afghanistan’s history of dealing with uninvited visitors, Ghengis Khan to the British to the Soviets, I’d say the odds favor the Afghanis. The invaders always leave with fewer men than they came with. And the Taliban, being largely from Pakistan or Arabic countries, are seen as a foreign presence. It is, however, part of the complexity of this land that the Alliance is largely comprised of ethnic groups from other areas too, Tajiks and Uzbeks and Shiites, but they consider themselves to be Afghani as well.
At a little after 1a.m., the Taliban sent a stream of anti-aircraft fire skyward over Taloqan, but no bombs rained down on their front lines. Instead, we saw three enormous flashes of light far to the north that could only have been caused by huge explosions.
We found out later the only thing in that area that could’ve been a target was a suspected al Queda training camp. The fist of American retribution was reaching out for those it held responsible for the loss and sorrow and inhumanity of the September 11th attacks, and throughout this parched, impossibly rugged country, terrorists were beginning to learn what real terror was.
Weeks later, during a brief respite from my assignment covering the war for ABC-News, which had decided, after-all, to renew my contract, I walked down to the block where the World Trade Center once stood and watched the cranes lift huge, perversely twisted sections of seven-foot wide steel girders. In the short time I had back home, Katie and I were slowly trying to re-connect, trying to reach that place of wordless trust and comfort that had existed before the sound of the low-flying jet ripped a hole in our lives and sucked us into this alternate universe that still seemed foreign and unreal. I couldn’t get the map of our future folded back the way it goes, no matter how I wrestled with it, and all the plans we’d made didn’t quite seem to fit together anymore.
A piece of paper blew past, drawing my eye downward, and I noticed I was still wearing the Jean Baptiste Rautueau boots I’d picked up in Soho years ago, the same sturdy pair that had accompanied me to Kosovo and Croatia, to Columbine and Oklahoma City. These boots had supported me during some of my toughest assignments, the leather molding itself to my feet, shielding me against rock and thorn and fatigue, and I dread the day they finally wear out. I take better care of those boots than I do my own teeth; two re-treads, and there’s always time at the airport for a quick stop at the shoeshine stand no matter how tight the airline connection.
But this afternoon I saw they were not their normally polished black gloss, rather a drab, filthy greyish brown. And I realized, because of my hurried 48 hours of travel that brought me back from Afghanistan without a stop along the way, they still carried on them the dust of Khoja Bahauddin, the dregs of frontline trenches from a fight against shadowy foes, the desiccated topsoil of a country wracked by years of drought and despair. I lifted my foot and stomped down on the concrete at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Plaza.
A small cloud rose from the top of the boot, and a small cloud rose from under its sole, the pervasive residue from September 11th that still and may forever coat the buildings and streets of lower Manhattan. The two puffs floated together, dust to dust, before dissipating on the breeze.
I have learned the world is an immensely large place connected by the smallest of things. I have learned that people have the capacity for hate and violence that exceed all reason, and the capacity for generosity and bravery that exceed all logic. I have learned that knowledge does not equal understanding.
And I have learned that our lives spin in no certain direction at a terrifying speed. It’s a far better journey if you have a tight grip on someone else.
(Katie and I ultimately married, and I did two other tours in Afghanistan covering the war there and a total of four embedded assignments in Iraq. This book proposal made the rounds but because of the large number of similar projects, it failed to ever see the light of day. Perhaps someday it will).
Copyright 2004 Don Dahler