The following account from Amir Shah, the now-retired Afghanistan correspondent for The Associated Press, is excerpted from the book an in-depth look at AP’s coverage of 9/11 and the events that followed.
He was AP's eyes and ears in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, when all foreigners were ordered to leave. His assignment was dangerous, delicate and often terrifying. Here, he remembers some of what happened behind the scenes in those days after the attacks and the early hours of the U.S. bombardment a month later.
ON NAVIGATING KABUL IN THE HOURS AFTER THE 9/11 ATTACKS IN THE U.S.:
The first night after the attacks, I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. I was working, working, working. The information and culture minister of the Taliban, he says, “Come, I want to talk with you about a couple of things.” I go to meet him, and he says, “Be careful, all the Taliban officers left, they went back to Kandahar. The city is controlled by the Arabs, Osama’s people. When you take film and pictures before, if they arrested you, I would help you. But this time, nobody can help you. Please don’t take pictures and film.”
I went to my house to visit my mother and I explained the story to her. She said, “Amir Shah, you have no brother, no father, there’s no other branch of the family. Don’t go out.” I said, “I will do my job, my work.”
ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF THE AIR WAR BY U.S.-LED FORCES AGAINST THE TALIBAN
My satellite telephone was on the second floor of our old AP compound, and the window was near to the street. I put a blanket on top of me to hide the sound of my talking and giving updates. I was passing all the information to Kathy Gannon in Pakistan.
When the bombarding started the first night, I was talking very quietly. It was so quiet outside. I was telling the story through the phone slowly, very slowly. I was afraid because three days before, the Arabs across the street had been looking at all the houses and seeing who was suspicious to them. I was working alone. I was so afraid. I gave Kathy all of the information from under the blanket, and all through the night I reported.
Several times the city was bombarded. The Kabul AP office was shaking. And we had a full window, one window toward the north and one toward the southeast. So sometimes I’d jump up and look through the north window, sometimes through the southeast window, and I just looked at the scene — what was going on on the ground outside. And I just reported that. Because we were under curfew, it was not possible to leave the office at night and go to find what was going on. So I covered the bombarding from a distance.
The first night, after I passed all the information to Kathy, New York headquarters called me. They said, “What do you see?” And I told them that it was quiet except for the barking of the dogs. Wazir Akbar Khan, the diplomatic area of the city, was completely empty.
Anti-aircraft fire was flying into the sky, and F-16s were flying over Kabul. All the night they dropped bombs, but the bombs were very professionally placed. I thought it would be like the civil war when the Afghan pilots dropped bombs on people’s houses, on pharmacies. I remembered that, and I was so worried about my house. So as soon as daylight came at 5 a.m., I took my car and I went to my house. And I saw my house was OK. And when I checked the hospitals, there were no civilian casualties.
I left the AP office to go around the city take some picture and see what was going on. I worked all day and through the second night. I was so sleepy.
ON HOW HE GOT AROUND REPORTING RESTRICTIONS:
We needed photos. I had bought a new Corolla, and I had written a letter to the Traffic Department and I got its registration changed from a private car to a taxi. Why? Because in Kabul, there were no new private cars unless you were Taliban. No one else had new cars. But a taxi is low profile. Nobody knew this taxi belonged to a journalist taking pictures. So I was inside the car, looking like a taxi driver, taking pictures when nobody was looking.
One day I was standing in the city and filming, and suddenly a Taliban — a very big man with a long beard — came up. And thought, “Oh, my God, he saw my camera.” My camera was a little HandiCam, and when he got close, I put it up to my hair, to my head, and I talked like I was on the phone. I said into the phone, “These infidels destroyed Afghanistan.” He looked at me and then he walked away. He never realized it was a camera.