KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The Afghan doctors all knew the two Western photographers.
For the past four days, they had visited the Kabul hospital regularly, walking the hallways, visiting patients in the wards. The atmosphere was congenial.
A doctor received a fax from an Afghan official that journalists could only enter the hospital with an approval letter. The photographers asked to stay for a few more minutes. The doctor pulled out a pistol, cocked it, and held it - with shaking hands - to their heads.
"It's getting more and more crazy," says Time magazine's Anthony Suau, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the photographers at the hospital. "Everywhere in Afghanistan is dangerous."
With eight journalists killed - and one kidnapped on Tuesday - Afghanistan is now the deadliest place in the world to practice this profession, according to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. No US troops have been reported killed in combat, though the CIA confirmed yesterday that one of its officers was killed in Mazar-e Sharif this week.
The risks are rising now, in part, because the battle lines are vague. Anti-Taliban forces control all but one of the major cities, but the countryside is lawless. Bandits, scattered Taliban and Al Qaeda militiamen, and Northern Alliance forces roam the mountains and highways outside the urban areas. Journalists carrying cash, cameras, and other expensive equipment are tempting targets.
Most journalists feel a professional competitive pressure to test the limits of safety to get a story. They are aware of the risks. But covering one of the most important stories in a decade means, if inadvertently, sometimes crossing the line between observer and combatant.
"It's more dangerous here for foreign journalists than in Lebanon or Kurdistan, because the anarchy is worse, and there's more pressure on journalists to get the story than almost any crisis since World War II," says Patrick Cockburn, a veteran correspondent for The Independent newspaper in London.
There are also indications that the foreign media are being specifically targeted.
Sitting atop a hill overlooking Kabul, the Hotel Intercontinental offers an excellent vantage point, and should be the perfect haven for journalists. Most of the live television shots are taken from its cable-strewn roof, and balconies are choked with satellite phones transmitting the latest news of America's war on terrorism.
But according to security men of the Northern Alliance, this hotel also may be a target. A rumor spread through the hotel - now full with foreign reporters - that an Afghan translator had tried to enter with explosives strapped to his body.
Though probably not true, the result is that all taxis and journalists' vehicles are now being kept at the bottom of the long drive, requiring a 250-yard walk entering or departing the hotel. Translators - who are now required to produce two different documents to reach the hotel - are frisked at the door.
"I'm not worried about you," a uniformed security guard tells this reporter at the hotel door. "I don't trust him," he says, as he pats down the translator for weapons.
The rising risks are prompting many news organizations to reevaluate their priorities. The BBC, several major US television networks, and wire agencies pulled their correspondents out of northern Afghanistan after the death of a Swedish journalist Tuesday night.
In the northern city of Taloqan, a Swedish cameraman was shot by masked gunmen in a house he shared with other journalists. Also on Tuesday, a Canadian freelance correspondent was reportedly kidnapped by the Taliban in the southern town of Spin Boldak. He was reportedly bound hand and foot, and kept in a small cell. Last week, four journalists were ambushed and killed on the road between the eastern city of Jalalabad and Kabul.
Days later, several journalists ventured down the same road and were robbed, but apparently saved from injury by the deft intervention of their translator. He was told by the gunmen that a local mullah had put a price on the head of any Westerner.
Afghanistan is certainly not the first country where foreign journalists have become targets during a military conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 19 journalists were killed during the Bosnia war from 1992 to 1995, as combatants accused them of taking sides.
In Sierra Leone last year, four journalists with half a century of conflict experience among them drove up a road where many had been before. But Kurt Schork of Reuters and Miguel Gil Morena de Mora of AP television were killed in an ambush.
The two survivors - both friends of this correspondent, as were the victims - are also covering this war in Afghanistan. As a reminder to take care, they wear vials with the crematory ash of their fallen colleagues around their necks.
But those kinds of losses - that happen with even seasoned and careful reporters - are causing many journalists and editors to think twice before taking further risks in Afghanistan.
A battle-front story for the French newspaper Libération was held for a day - to the consternation of its correspondent here - because editors in Paris were concerned about the risks taken to get the story. Associated Press television - which suffered losses in Macedonia earlier this year - ordered its cameraman in Afghanistan to be cautious, despite complaints from clients that some footage was too far from the action.
Some correspondents wear bullet-proof vests. An AP photographer's life was saved by his vest when he was shot in the chest during the Northern Alliance offensive to take Kabul. But many journalists here don't have them.
The stories of looting and threats are rising. A Knight Ridder correspondent had his computer and satellite phone stolen as he changed a flat tire roadside on Tuesday. Cameras and money are more and more often stolen as reporters walk through the markets in Afghan cities.
Two American photographers were pinned in a ditch for two hours by heavy gunfire last week, during a failed alliance offensive south of Kabul. As they lay huddled, the rebel next to them was shot and killed. Trying to get around a rebel checkpoint by foot last week, this correspondent was shot at repeatedly by alliance soldiers.
Despite the risks, the drive to find out what's happening, to put a spotlight on events in Afghanistan, continues. Now the shop talk is of who will be first into Kandahar - near where US combat troops are deploying to hunt down Osama bin Laden and finish off the Taliban. Local ethnic Pashtuns - who dominate the Taliban - have even had trouble on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, with windows of their buses smashed, and frequent robberies.