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Ben Wedeman: Danger gives no warning in Afghanistan

CNN: A lot of diplomatic missions have recently arrived in Kabul -- the British, the Russians. What can you tell us about that?

WEDEMAN: Well, that is an indication that, certainly, the Northern Alliance is not only consolidating its military and political control on the ground, but it's also been given a diplomatic heads-up from many of the world powers.

The British are here. In fact, the British Ministry of Defense official yesterday held a briefing for journalists here, the first of that sort in many years indeed. The French ambassador or a senior French diplomat returned to Kabul today.

The United States has not yet sent any diplomatic missions here. The U.S. Embassy, which was attacked earlier on in the conflict, remains shuttered up. But otherwise, yes, it seems that the Northern Alliance has been able to show to the world that it can control the situation here in the capital. It can avoid any sort of revenge killings that many people feared would happen. So certainly, it appears that life is getting back to what passes for normal in Afghanistan.

CNN: What's it like for you covering this war in Afghanistan?

WEDEMAN: Well, this is a fairly depressing war. And all wars are actually depressing. But in this one, in Kabul, for instance, you see huge parts of the city which have literally been pulverized -- and pulverized in fights between various factions which have very little, if any, popular support. There is a good deal of anger and resentment against what are, essentially, warlords running this country.

Many people you speak to are very well-spoken. Many people in Kabul, for instance, speak English. They express themselves very well, and many of them say they are really sick and tired of this endless war, which has gone on more than 20 years and destroyed the city, which is, in many ways, very beautiful.

It's a city with a lot of character, many things to see, and you just feel what a terrible waste it all is -- a waste, a city that's really fallen victim through overly ambitious and power-mad warlords, who really have no interest in the welfare of ordinary people. So it's very depressing.

CNN: What about traveling around Afghanistan? How difficult is that?

WEDEMAN: It's very difficult to travel around Afghanistan, as I and all of my colleagues who've come to this country have found out: Getting from point A to B, you have to go through several alphabets in between. There are hardly any decent roads, no infrastructure whatsoever. When you set out on a journey, you never know when you are going to get to your destination.

Nobody really seems to have a precise idea of when you'll get there -- some people say you would be there in 15 minutes; others, tomorrow morning. And somehow, you end up arriving.

And it's also a very dangerous place to travel. We, for instance, traveled from Khwaja Bahauddin, in the north, to Taloqan in the central-north part of the country. It was an affluent area that had just been retaken from the Taliban, but it was not under very good control. We saw dead bodies by the road. We heard gunfire. We saw tracer fire. We had the distinct feeling that we had been a bit rash in traveling to that place at that time.

But there are certain other imperatives here, and that is, we've got to get to the story. And in the process of getting there, I'll confess to you, we had some doubts about what we were doing, but we were very happy when we arrived. So, traveling in this country is definitely an experience.

CNN: You have covered the Israeli-Palestinian fighting for some months now. You had a terrible personal experience: You were shot. Being in Afghanistan now and having had to go through all of that, what's it like for you? Do you take risks?

WEDEMAN: We are always careful, and you know why. We always consult with one another, the crew. We make a decision. We don't force anybody who doesn't want to go into a certain situation to go there, and we're very careful. We take a good look at what we are going into.

For instance, we were on a hilltop in Dasht-e Qalah, where there was some fairly intense fighting. There was a tank at the end of the hill and we realized that as that tank fires out, the Taliban are going to fire back in. So we stayed a good distance from there.

But one thing that's interesting about covering this conflict -- as opposed to, for instance, wars we've covered in Africa, in the Middle East -- is that whereas in those areas, when danger becomes apparent to you and to those around you, there is a certain atmosphere, an electric tension that you feel. Here, that doesn't exist. The soldiers here don't even flinch when they hear gunfire.

So you don't have that sort of trip wire that tells you there's danger. And therefore, one of the things that's really struck me in this conflict is that you can't gauge the level of danger by the reaction of the people, who live in that danger.

So it's a difficult situation here. Seven journalists have died already in this conflict, which is a horrific number, a very high number compared with many other conflicts. So we definitely are trying to minimize the risks we take. At the same time, we have to cover the story.


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