December 30th, 2009
11:43 AM ET

Inside a journey from Kabul to Kandahar

A CNN cameraman details some of his experiences since arriving in Afghanistan in December. Read Part 1 on arriving in Kabul, Part 2 on decorating a Christmas tree in Afghanistan and Part 3 for a behind-the-scenes look at a presidential press conference.

An early wake-up call. At 5am it is still dark outside. First priority: a morning coffee. I boil a whole kettle of water, enough to fill my thermos.

Today, we are traveling to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. (See more photos of Kandahar) Before departure I check e-mail, my Facebook page and watch the news. No breakfast. I'm still stuffed from yesterday's Christmas dinner. We had turkey, baked potatoes, various veggies. All topped with gravy. Mashed potatoes were on the menu, but at the last minute they ended up on the kitchen floor. An accidental drop while taking a hot plate out of the oven. A bit of a disappointment but the rest is more than enough to feed us and a few guests.

We depart early. At this time of the day the traffic is light. The air is crisp. A smog hangs over the streets. Before the sun comes out, it's cold. We arrive at the airport and load our bags onto a trolley manned by a grubby-looking porter. Our driver negotiates the fee.

First stop: the airport security check. As we approach, a bus pulls up spilling a dozen or so men onto the sidewalk. They are all men. Some dressed in the traditional peron e tombon topped with cheap-looking jackets. Others a bit more elegant draped in a wool shawl called patu.

Their baggage mostly consist of rectangular shaped metal boxes. The locks sealed with strips of paper. Stamped. Looking official. Suddenly our porter picks up his pace. He is nearly running. Pushing the trolly. Rushing to beat the ensuring cue. It was a worthless effort. The men from the bus head straight for the door ignoring all the rest.

A security man. A young Afghani manning the door tries to convince them to join the queue. No chance. They push, shove and demand entry without their baggage being hand checked. At the end a settlement is reached. Personal bags are piled up for the check but mental boxes are not. They all skip the queue and enter the departure lounge.

We follow soon but not before our local producer protests to the security men. Compared to my Presidential Palace experience the airport security is a joke. As I try to pass through the entrance doors the guard suddenly stops me. He gesticulates waving his arms up and down. I have no idea what he wants but he insists. Turns out he wants to pad me down. Me? Why me? There are two dozen men entering at will but the guard pads down the two Westerners... The logic behind it all.

Our porter after dumping the luggage leaves us in the departure lounge. He returns a few minutes later asking for his fee. We tell him that our driver was paying him. He insists on us paying. We refuse. It turns out that our driver had already paid him the agreed fee, but he thought that he can get more from us...

The bliss of flying domestic airlines in developing worlds is the same everywhere. There are no queues for check-in. Every man is for himself. And here it is all men except for correspondent Atia and one other female passenger. Herat, Mazar-e Sharif but no Kandahar queue. We are a bit early for the 9am flight. Men stare at us. We stand out even though my camera is hidden in a duffel bag. We try to keep a low profile. At least not letting everyone know that we are journalists.

Our producer goes to investigate. A few minutes later he comes back with an ironic smile on his face. The Kandahar flight is at 11:30am – a four-hour wait. Although we bought the tickets yesterday and it clearly showed 9am departure, the morning flight to Kandahar has been moved to 11:30am. according to the airline representative, that change came a week ago, but no one informed the ticket counter located in the city center.

There is nothing else to do but wait. I pull out my laptop and write. Atia chats with the only other female passenger and our producer naps. There is nowhere to sit. There are no restaurants or a café. We sit on our luggage. The departure hall of the domestic terminal has a particular flair. It's straight out of the late 60's. A Soviet type of architecture so familiar to me from my travels in Russia.

Eventually our check-in counter opens. A mêlée ensures... again no queue. Then we make it into the departure waiting area and an hour later board our flight.

It takes one hour and fifteen minutes to reach Kandahar. As we land, the plane passes by an American base. It's huge. Spreading along the whole length of the runway... Planes, helicopters, trucks... massive tents. In a distance I see an American flag lazily flapping over the base. And later we pass by a banner proclaiming in English: Welcome to Kandahar Airport.

The drive into the center of the city takes some half hour. As we exit the airport's security zone our driver points out places where recently bombs exploded. He says that the drive along this road is dangerous. Along the way a long convoy of American troops passes by in the opposite direction. All cars stop and move to the shoulder of the road. The rules of the roads here are tough. Civilian cars are not allowed to pass a military vehicle. We wait on the shoulder of the road. The American convoy moves lazily in the opposite direction.

The rest of the day passes quickly. After finding our filming location we spend about and hour gathering all the necessary footage for the story we came to do. The report will run on CNN in few days.

All our filming locations are within people's houses or compounds. For security reasons we do not film street scenes in Kandahar. And only glance at Kandahar through the window of our car while passing along busy streets.

As dusk shrouds the city in darkness we enter a secure guesthouse. A large "villa" of rather ugly architectural design. Guarded by armed men. It's set behind a high reinforced walls with barbed wire topping the perimeter. The rooms are basic. Clean and warm if you keep a small Chinese-made space heater on all the time. There is a wireless Internet through the house and a TV with more channels than I can flip through in one sitting.

As I was shown to my room I noticed two distinct features. A very small single bed set against one of the wall and a huge curtain running along almost the whole width of another wall. An ironic scene. The bed too small for the size of the room looked misplaced as if from a Lilliputian movie set. The huge curtain belonging to a mansion. I pull the curtain apart expecting a view of city of Kandahar, but as many things in this country are shrouded so is my view.

Obscured by a concrete wall with a slit of a window by the ceiling... All I see is barbed wire.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Peter Sturken

    Thank you for your posting...

    An NGO with project in Afghanistan is seeking freelance cameraman in Kabul. Any suggestions?

    Thanks

    Peter Sturken
    psturken @ gmail.com

    July 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ALEE H

    Thanks for posting this my husband is currently serving there and it gives me an idea of what it's likeove rthere since we have little or no time to talk about much.

    March 5, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Popsiq

    Pulling over for military convoys is not an act of respect for the warriors' endeavours, it's a matter of personal survival. From published reports convoys are a nerve-rackng activity for the military and any non-military traffic that doesn't 'abide by the rules' can find itself a shot-up piece if roadside litter.

    About not filming on the street – again this isn't done out of any particular deference or requirement of opsec. It's personal security. Foreign correspondents are prime targets for kidnap and ransom. Despite a strong security presence in Kandahar City, if you're taken, you'll probably be gone a while. Working in public areas advertises your presence.

    February 2, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Debra Mc

    I do appreciate your respect, "Civilian cars are not allowed to pass a military vehicle. We wait on the shoulder of the road.", and "for security reasons we do not film street scenes in Kandahar." It's comforting to know that my fiance' serving in Kandahar is in the company of a media that truly understands the seriousness in keeping the occupation of the military classified.

    January 9, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Steve Carnine

    Do the people of Afghanistan have a clear vision of what they want their country to be and to look like in the future. Before a building or city is destroyed there is often times and artist conception of the new place. Do they have a dream and a plan to get there or is everything just focused on the demolition? Personally, if they have no realistic plan or a dream then I think we should get out until they do.

    Steve C.

    January 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TomU

    Thanks for pulling off to the side of the road as the U.S. Army convoy passed by; my son might have been in one of those vehicles!! Stay safe.

    December 30, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |