Follow Cold War correspondent Melissa Burch as she documents the conflict between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen.
My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker (Mosaic Press, 2016) by Melissa Burch is the adventurous memoir of a war corespondent. Burch examines how, through outward action and inward exploration, life can unfold in mysterious ways. In this excerpt from chapter 1 "Afghanistan Ambush" Burch takes the reader through a day spent following the mujahedeen.
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Outside the rustic house, the soldiers and I stood looking at the first rays of the morning sun in the sky, a splash of orange-yellow light. Large reddish boulders blocked the dirt road. There was no turning back. The anxiety that kept me up in the night had to be suppressed. I had to go forward, take up my camera, and shoot.
The sun was rising and the sunbeams blinded my eyes. I grabbed my sunglasses out of my backpack. My Ray-Ban knockoffs, bought in New York City’s Chinatown, instantly made me stand out. Otherwise, the mujahedeen and I dressed alike, in earth tone pajama suits with ropes tied around our waists to keep our baggy pants up. The major difference was that I wore a long tunic tightly stretched over my size 40DDD bra. Patu wool blankets hung over our shoulders like wrapped prayer shawls. Our uniforms included deflated, soufflé-shaped wool caps. You could buy these Afghani hats at any flea market in the U.S. Instead of a Soviet automatic rifle, I transported an old-fashioned 16mm wind-up Bolex film camera.
My first day of battle. The whole trip until now had been preparation for this upcoming ambush on a Soviet convoy. I was not filming refugee camps or interviewing commanders in Pakistan or standing on the border for a photo op like Dan Rather. I was partaking in a guerrilla ambush, late in the season, when the mujahedeen had usually stopped fighting.
Standing, drinking my glass of tea, now cold and bitter, I watched the mujahedeen lay out their patu blankets on the ground, in single file. They faced Mecca, knelt, and prostrated. Doc led the group invocation. I stood alone. The only woman. The only foreigner.
I didn’t believe in a paternalistic God to beseech to spare our lives. My God was all around us. A force in nature. What was meant to happen would happen. Death was beyond our control. I didn’t believe prayers could change the outcome or that a martyr’s death pleased God more than any other death.
Fumbling in my blue backpack, I grabbed the roll of stiff Pakistani toilet paper, left the men praying, and hurried to the bathroom. The wooden outhouse had a hole on a board. The manure gasses permeated the tiny room. The stench was unbearable but a strong breeze pushed the putrid smell through the slats in the wooden wall.
When I returned, Sleepy poured each of us a fresh helping of hot green tea in short French tumbler glasses filled halfway with refined white sugar. No stirring allowed. Before the next refill, a luxurious syrup sweetened the last sips. A piece of day-old Afghani flatbread completed the breakfast. It was almost time to leave.
I double checked that the Bolex 16mm film camera was loaded, cranked tight, and ready to roll. Then, I went through my inventory. The Canon 35mm still camera, 20 rolls of 16mm film, 10 rolls of 35mm film, and a black bag for changing the movie film were safely packed in the backpack. The film equipment and stock had been donated by CBS. The still rolls came from Time magazine. The 35mm camera was mine. My familiar tools of the trade were prepped.
Commander Doc, honorable as an ambassador, held authority over all of us in a tough-love mode; calm and strict, he handed out the prime weapon. He opened a dented, large, green metal box and passed the fifteen-pound RPG-7 rocket launcher to Grumpy. Doc’s plan, an attack on a nearby convoy, hinged on Grumpy. Grumpy slung the weapon over his shoulder effortlessly, as if he were bounding into his backyard woods to shoot a squirrel with his brand new slingshot. He would have to fire a warhead that would destroy a Soviet armed vehicle, preferably a tank — a military prize for the mujahedeen.
Doc calculated each attack on the basis of its purpose and his anemic military supplies. He weighed the benefits and losses of the surefire retaliation the Soviets would wreak on local villages. In this case, Doc needed me to capture the Soviet tank attack on film — otherwise known as “blood and guts” footage — to appeal to Western news agencies. The agencies would publicize the Afghan cause, and the hope was that the United States, and possibly Pakistan and China, would send much needed military arms, in response.
The mujahedeen had their supplies ready: over 1000 rounds of AK-47 steel-cased ammunition. Each fighter carried about eight pounds of bullets across his chest. Doc had formed this group three years ago, immediately after the Soviet invasion, when Commander Muslim, the local tribal leader, called him to lead. Doc picked strong men who understood guerrilla warfare. The motto was: “Sting your opponent, get some attention, and then clear out.”
Our motley gang in our pajama-style pants and tunics surrounded Doc. The mujahedeen hoisted their rifles and their Kalashnikovs across their shoulders, ready for the signal to move out. We looked more like Robin Hood’s bandits than a military operation ready to attack the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire that now occupied Afghanistan. Doc posed for me while I took still photos of him standing erect with his gun. He looked strong and fierce, in spite of his casual outfit. His dark brown eyes met mine and held my gaze steadily. He was experienced, having led this kind of action numerous times. I lacked experience but, as I faced him with my camera, there was mutual respect.
A skinny nine-year-old boy, with darting, star-like eyes, ran panting into the middle of our camp shouting in Pashtu, the local language, “The Russians are coming.” In response, the men yelled the chorus, “Allahu Akbar.” God is greatest.
Doc led the way down a dirt path lined with pomegranate trees and mud-baked houses on either side. He was followed by Grumpy, carrying the oversized prized weapon, then me with the cameras. Dopey, Sleepy, and the rest of the mujahedeen, including the two crazy guys, brought up the rear. We walked purposefully, swaggering out in the open under the winter sun. Staring at the bright ball, I tried to absorb the sun’s energy. Then, as I briefly shut my eyes, black spots appeared on the horizon.
As we marched by a village, a gaggle of dirty children in colorful rags stood upright and stiff like small soldiers. The neighborhood was a cross between ancient-looking mud buildings and a modern trailer park, so run-down that there was no landscaping — no grass, no plants. The village was covered in a layer of beige dust, a monochrome site. In the distance, a mother screamed for her brood. The children ran in a pack in the direction of her voice. At the side of the road, an old man with a white beard bent over his work, repairing shoes. He focused intently, hitting tiny brass nails into the heel of a worn-out shoe. He didn’t look up, even as I, a Western woman carrying a camera and surrounded by Afghani guerrilla fighters — not exactly a common sight — walked by.
After a few blocks, we stopped in front of a row of three abandoned dirt buildings, flat topped and shaped like giant, rectangular Lego pieces. Afghani villagers once stored cloths, canned foods, piles of grains, and orange, yellow, and red spices in burlap sacks in these storehouses. Now, these simple structures were empty shells abandoned for demolition. The villagers knew they were too exposed to potential attacks to be used anymore.
The Soviet strategy was to take a few minor hits from the mujahedeen and then destroy village markets, storehouses, and homes. Collateral civilian damage. These actions were intended to encourage the people to turn against the mujahedeen and stop hiding them, but the opposite happened. This strategy incited more solidarity among the Afghani people.
The buildings’ ghostly front walls stood facing the north side of the Kandahar-Herat highway, one of the few paved roads running through Afghanistan. An occasional car sped by on the two lanes. Doc stood next to a lone, bare tree and motioned for us to move into the storehouses. I took deeper breaths and held them longer, while my heart quickened. I recognized my fear, it was part of me but not in control of me. I moved quickly into place, assessing which building had the best view of the road. Then, I chose the middle mud structure, which had two open windows facing the road where the Soviet trucks, soldiers, and perhaps tanks would drive by, a hundred feet away. I crouched inside the sandy-colored shelter, comprised of dirt floors, four walls, and a roof. My fully loaded camera, tightly wound, was ready to go. I gave it one last crank to make sure.
Grumpy hung outside the buildings, patiently pointing his missile launcher over the roof for an arc-like trajectory. Rumbling started like a small earthquake. I heard loud whispers in Pashtu but couldn’t make out any of the words. Dopey ran away, back to the edge of the town, like a deserter; a panic attack had gotten the best of him. The two crazy guys stood by the lone tree, arms folded, waiting for the action to begin.
I pointed my long telephoto lens through an open window at a rainbow steam mirage rising from the pavement. I stared through my camera’s viewfinder. I’d been trained to aim and shoot one thing at a time, but never in a war zone. I would need to remember to hold the image steady, in order to succeed in the midst of the chaos that was about to ensue.
The first Soviet military truck passed in front of the storehouse where I was hiding. The open window gave me a perfect view for filming the attack on the convoy. The ruddy, clean-shaven face of the blonde Russian driver looked straight ahead. He was no older than the Afghani mujahedeen. On the passing truck, the red flag stamped with a hammer and sickle and a golden star stood erect, flapping in the wind. Six more trucks followed. No tanks.
Some soldiers rode an open-air, flatbed truck. Ricochet gunfire blasted from both directions. The Soviet soldiers pointed their sleek automatic rifles toward us. The soldier passing in front of my camera had his eyes focused through the rangefinder of his AK-47. It was the first time I saw a loaded gun pointed at me, but I was not afraid. I was breathing deeply and my heart was beating slower. The action slowed time down. My right thumb held the camera button down. The smooth whir, a gentle mechanical sound, assured me that the film inside the metal camera box was capturing the ambush.
I was calm, fearless. I was in a zone that hardened me — I felt invincible and calculating, filled with courage. There was a pause in the matrix, sounds muffled. I had entered an alternate reality, like a ninja who could grab a speeding bullet because it moved in frozen time. I photographed the scene.
A distinctive whirring sound ripped from behind me. Grumpy’s warhead had been launched from outside the building. Then there was a loud explosion. He’d done it. Through the window, I saw in my viewfinder that he had hit one of the smaller Soviet trucks. Smoke billowed from the blazing truck. Flint particles flew into the room through the window and scratched my arms. Two Russian soldiers jumped out of the front seat of the truck and dashed away from us. The burning truck blocked the caravan’s passage.
After four minutes of shooting, winding the camera crank counter-clockwise every 28 seconds, I heard a loud click. The film flapped on the bottom camera spindle, hitting the inside of the metal box. I grabbed my backpack from the floor and ran outside to sit under the lonely tree in the back of the building. Under a patu blanket, my hands slipped into the sleeves of the black changing bag. I knew what I needed to feel: the smooth canister of 100-foot 16mm film. I unlocked the camera, unhooked the bottom reel, opened the cool metallic can, took out the new roll of film, placed the exposed film in the can, and taped it shut to keep the light out. After threading the fresh film, I measured the loop for the perfect tension using my left thumb and closed up the camera. Just then, a deafening explosion pounded the ground.
The building I had been filming in minutes before was shattered in seconds. Clouds of beige dust covered us, bits of clay flew through the air, and the wooden door fell flat on the ground. The scene was as dreamlike as a Schwarzenegger action film in a Cineplex: mujahedeen soldiers ran through the blast, out of the buildings, leaping from harm. Walls collapsed, the ceiling fell and broke into large pieces, becoming a pile of rubble. Smoky dust was everywhere. But despite the destruction around me, I felt calm. I seemed to have no relation to my healthy body sitting on the ground, felt no connection to the decimated building 40 feet away. Instead, I was pulled into a sense of timelessness, weightlessness, absoluteness.
Nobody on our side had been hurt. Our gang bolted. We grabbed our things and ran, past the shoe repairman, who was still sitting by the side of the road as if it were an ordinary work day. The Soviets did not pursue us. No, that was not how guerrilla warfare worked. They would pick some local village and destroy their livelihood, damage aqueducts, and turn homes into rubble. It was the women, children, and old people who suffered the most in war.