“Do you think we as a National Geographic film crew could be targets?” I ask Stephane on the rooftop of our hotel. Stephane snorts with laughter. “Are you kidding? A high profile organization like National Geographic? They would love to kidnap you.”
This unwelcome fact comes packaged with troubling news: the Taliban are attacking in the next province over, directly in the path of our ground route to the Wahkan. This is more a problem for our equipment than for ourselves, as we’ll be taking a 5-seater kodiak – but the heavy gear needs to travel by ground. After hearing the reports our driver shakes his head. He won’t go tomorrow, he says. Maybe later, if the reports improve. This could be a serious problem: if our gear doesn’t make it – or doesn’t make it in time – we won’t be able to trap or film the leopards.
During my time in Faizabad with Stephane, the word “target” keeps coming up – and not in an abstract way, unfortunately. First, it turned out our 2-day stay coincided directly with a 2-day police training workshop in the same building. Which makes the building a clear target for insurgents and anyone with a bone to pick with the police – which, it turns out, is a lot of anyones. This morning, we drove to the Provincial Governors compound, our car squeezing past concrete blockades and razor wire along with donkeys and motor carts. “This place has been attacked many times. The central authority always has many enemies,” Stephane told me. It’s a tribal area, and any central governing agency inevitably has bad favor with many of the tribes. AK47s bristle everywhere – I try not to visibly shirk away when their barrels swing past me. Despite the heavy security I feel more vulnerable than ever – as Stephane keeps emphasizing, heavily fortified or armed areas are the least safe places to be. I think about what it must be like to be a NATO soldier in this country, with a red X painted on you all the time. Being here, seeing for myself the atmosphere of violence, I can imagine it in a way I never could from the media reports back home.
The Provincial Governor was good to us, and Stephane even gave him a tranquilizer dart, which he loved. I was able to film a little, but not until after thorough inspection of the camera. The famous Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was killed by a suicide bomb hidden in a camera by two Tunisian extremists posing as Belgian reporters – since then, cameras are an unwelcome prop around officials.
Back in the hotel we lay low, as filming wasn’t an option with the police around. Picking up some interview on the roof, Stephane insisted we never film too long in one place or in view of the street. It’s not good letting people know there’s a film crew around, and in this case, the more influential name brand of National Geographic actually works against us.
I’ve been getting a lot of good survival advice from Stephane on the side. If the Taliban attack the Wahkan, he told me, don’t think twice: swim the river to Tajikistan and let them arrest you for entering without a passport. At least there you’ll have a way out.
I’m looking forward to flying out tomorrow, to someplace where even a worst case scenario can be solved with a 300 meter swim.
Love to all at home,