Perils of covering Afghan war. Tough Soviet line, spy network scare off writers
Peshawar, Pakistan — ``We can take you right to Dr. Najib's palace,'' an Afghan resistance commander proclaimed, as if he were advertising a sightseeing tour of the Afghan communist leader's residence rather than offering to smuggle a Western journalist into the heart of Kabul, capital of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. He is unlikely to find many takers.
Although a hard core of journalists -- mostly Europeans -- continues to make regular trips into distant corners of Afghanistan for several months each year, many others prefer to report on the war from Peshawar, in neighboring Pakistan. Apprehension about going into Afghanistan has grown since the capture of French journalist Jacques Abouchar in September 1984 and subsequent Soviet warnings that any reporter caught entering Afghanistan with the mujahideen (resistance fighters) would be killed. The following year, an American reporter was killed when Soviet helicopter gunships attacked his jeep in southern Afghanistan. Informed observers believe the Soviets were tipped off by Afghan agents among the mujahideen in Pakistan.
Western reporters say that in Afghanistan, even when they are hidden, word of their movements travels fast in the small border towns. On what was supposed to be a secret departure, one American said mujahideen on the streets here greeted him with, ``Have a good trip to Jegdelek,'' his destination in Afghanistan.
The informant network has grown since high rewards have been offered by the Afghan government for assistance in the capture of Westerners. Dominique Vergos, a French photographer who has spent a total of three years inside Afghanistan since the war began in 1979, described how rapidly information can travel: ``I had stayed in one house near Herat only for a morning. And three hours after I left, regime officials came around asking where the Western journalist was. We crossed the highway at night and stopped in a village beyond. By morning six tanks and armored personnel carriers had surrounded the village, followed by trucks carrying 500 Afghan Army soldiers. The mujahideen fought them all day and finally escaped.''
Improved Soviet intelligence and the sharp increase in nighttime ambushes on resistance caravans have created concern -- even among the old-timers. ``In the old days, we could travel wherever we wanted in the countryside, often in broad daylight,'' says French photographer Pierre Issot-Sargent.``But it's definitely gotten a lot tougher now.''
At a time when journalists are having increasing doubts about going into Afghanistan, some mujahideen commanders are growing less eager to take them. They feel that the Afghan cause has not been furthered as they had hoped.
``Film crews and writers have been coming and going for years,'' one shrugs, ``but we haven't seen many results -- either in bringing our problems to the attention of the world or in getting the weapons supply we need.''
Extensive reporting about guerrilla strongholds can often do more harm than good. Many observers believe the April attack on Jawar, a key guerrilla supply base near the Pakistan border, was triggered in part by a spate of articles published in European newspapers. ``Certainly the Soviets had that information already from informants, but all the publicity made it a question of prestige for them to knock out Jawar,'' says Peter Jouvenal, a British photographer.
There are no permanent newspaper correspondents or Western news bureaus in Peshawar. Most news on the fighting is written by the wire services in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and is largely based on reports from Western embassies in Kabul. Observers are at times skeptical of their accuracy, as the diplomats have little freedom of movement.
Resistance reports -- the other main source used -- suffer from exaggerated claims of Soviet and Afghan casualties and mujahideen victories. Even Westerners who work full time in Peshawar with the Afghans on humanitarian aid projects find it difficult to obtain an accurate picture of events in Afghanistan.
Many correspondents spend only a few weeks in Peshawar and rely on information given by resistance party spokesmen. ``They are talking to the talkers, not the fighters,'' one guerrilla complains. ``You never see all those politicians and bureaucrats at the battlefield. Journalists need to go to the front to see things for themselves.'' But when reporters do report from ``inside,'' they are often able only to catch a glimpse of limited territory.
One proposed way to reduce the need for Westerners to go into Afghanistan and to provide more consistent, on-the-spot reporting would be to use Afghans.
Several Western-sponsored projects are underway to train Afghan cameramen who will be stationed in key spots throughout the country. There is also talk of equipping some of the new reporters with electronic transmitters to enable them to relay reports to Pakistan instantaneously.