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Drawn to the Front

As a reporter for radio and the Village Voice, cartoonist Ted Rall saw an Afghanistan where danger and despair are one's nearest neighbors.

January 07, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Rall, war reporter, is just back from the Afghan front--a place as nonexistent as his reporting credentials, he says. "Anywhere in Afghanistan is arguably the front. It's any bend in the road, it constantly changes, it could easily be called The Side or The Back."

Rall has never covered a war before, nor has he ever worked as a reporter. Most days, he's an award-winning political cartoonist, author and a world-class cynic--the kind of guy who likes to marinate in a warm bath, then draw his corrosive cartoon characters from an easel at home in his slippers.

With no experience and no actual battle lines to cover, Rall considered himself ideal for the Afghanistan correspondent job. How bad could it be? He's had a passion for Central Asia since childhood, when he read about it in National Geographic. And wouldn't it be great to see Afghanistan on "somebody else's nickel?"

It wasn't hard for him to get an assignment. "There apparently aren't a lot of American journalists dying to go to Afghanistan," he says. And he does have two Robert F. Kennedy awards (1995 and 2000), and a Pulitzer Prize finalist's title to wave as credentials. In any event, two local radio stations (KFI-AM and KLAC-AM) and one newspaper (the Village Voice in Manhattan) hired the 38-year-old curmudgeon to take the trip and send back stirring communiques.

He enlisted his wife, Judy Chang, 37, to take pictures, since her dot-com job had recently ended. On Nov. 16, the pair flew to Tajikistan and immediately joined a convoy of 45 real reporters, who were traveling to the Afghanistan border.

Rall believed he was a step ahead of his colleagues, because most of them had never been to that part of the planet. He, on the other hand, had traveled there extensively, and even led a quirky five-week tour for 24 people in 2000 to countries whose names end in "stan." (Tajikistan, Turkhmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrigyzstan.) They couldn't enter Afghanistan because "there was fighting, as usual." Rall charged no fee for his services. He did it out of his love for the area and his interest in "random human experimentation."

From that experience, he says, "I knew some pitfalls we might encounter in Afghanistan. But even I was astonished by the insanity of the conditions we found there."

The first thing he realized is that "things are even worse than they are portrayed in the media. We're talking about a country that uses treads from ancient Soviet tanks as speed bumps in the few existing roads. A place in which all housing and other buildings in village after village has been totally flattened, erased, by bombs. A place where people talk only in past tense.

"They'll say, 'I had a great friend, but he died. I had a good father, but he was killed. There was a town here, but it's gone. A museum there, but it was bombed.' Afghanistan is all about what was, not what is. Because there is nothing now. It's like driving through a ghost town in Nevada, except it's almost the whole country," Rall says.

To get from the border to the town of Taloqan, about 20 kilometers into Afghanistan, the reporters had to negotiate for their own transportation. There were plenty of rides available, Rall says, because Afghanistan "has an even more developed car culture than Los Angeles. There are SUVs, Jeeps, leftover Soviet trucks. Osama [bin Laden] bought loyalty by giving these vehicles to his followers." But there was a hitch. "For a 20-kilometer ride, the Afghans wanted $1,400 per person," Rall says, still sounding amazed. The appropriate fee would have been about $1, he adds.

Right away, he says, he noticed "a kind of civil war between TV and print media." "The big TV guys, like the BBC and CNN, came with pockets bursting with cash. They paid the most exorbitant amounts for even the smallest service."

Some paid the asking price for the ride to Taloqan, he says. Most bargained and paid between $400 and $800. Rall was in despair. He and his wife only had $7,000 for the entire trip, he says, and at that rate his money would be gone before he had done his work. "I was like a kid waiting for a kickball. I waited and waited. Finally, when all the others had left, we got someone to take us for $20 each."

Of course, he got there before the others, because the drivers took the big spenders in a huge, unnecessary circle in order to justify the immense fees they had been paid.

The press contingent ended up in the relatively intact town of Taloqan because the siege of Kunduz was taking place not far away. "Kunduz is at the crossroads of the only two major paved roads in Afghanistan. We had to wait for Kunduz to fall so we could travel past it. If we tried to get around it on the few atrocious unpaved roads, there was certainty of being robbed and killed," he says.

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