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Still an uphill battle

Monday, March 4, 8:30 a.m.

Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.
Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.  

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

By Martin Savidge

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Alone. Damn!

How stupid can you get?

Never, ever get separated when out at the front. It's the primary rule. If you're with soldiers, stay with them. If you're just a camera crew, stay together.

There's safety in numbers even if there are only two of you. But now there's only one of me. So what do I do?

Go forward and hope to make contact? Or go back, wondering if the soldiers behind have already pulled out? Neither option seems great and time is slipping away.

Then, up ahead by the next rock outcropping I can see movement: Canvas-covered helmets. The good guys. I'm saved.

I join up with them. They admonish me with the obvious. "Don't get separated." I'm not moving unless they do.

'Blowing the caves'

CNN's Martin Savidge reports that after nearly 19 days, largest battle of war against terrorism completed (March 19)

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Images from Operation Anaconda 
Map of Afghanistan  showing the location of the fighting

Savidge reports: The Battlefield

A reporter's reflections
The road home
Getting out
Mining snow

I have no idea where cameraman Scott McWhinnie is, but the soldiers remember seeing him go by. Suddenly explosions echo down the canyon. They come from somewhere forward. All I can think is that Scottie's forward.

A soldier's radio comes to life: "They're blowing the caves."

More explosions. A few minutes later a team comes walking back down the canyon. I'm relieved to see that Scottie's with them. Fighter planes rocket overhead -- more blasts behind us.

I'm startled by another boom, just in front. Up on the face of the canyon there's an explosion of fire and smoke. The soldiers around Scottie shout their satisfaction. Another cave bites the dust along with anyone in it. The team keeps moving back down the narrow valley. Snipers on a ridge a half-mile back are spotting the cave openings and radioing forward their location. Without them we'd unknowingly pass the hideouts.

The cave openings are more like fissures in the rock face, way up high. Large stones and brush have been placed around their entrances. To fighter pilots in the sky they're invisible. That's why they want "boots on the ground," foot soldiers.

A soldier shoulders a missile launcher and takes aim. It rips through the air and impacts wide, to the left of a cave opening. Another missile is fired and it, too, misses. The cave is way up the side of a ridge, a long shot. The third hits home. The soldiers render the missile tubes useless and toss them away.

The commanders on the radio urge them to hurry up. "Push south, keep the enemy off balance."

The soldiers want to dump their heavy backpacks, figuring they can make better time. Officers reject the idea, saying they may need what they carry and might not be back to pick them up. We stagger back down the canyon the way we came. Another six kilometers. At least it's downhill.

'Bounding over watch'

The sun bakes down from the same sky the jets are playing in. The bitter cold of night has been replaced by sweltering heat. We hear more explosions and mortars in the distance. None of us takes notice. Too far off.

Moving past our landing zone, we're traveling a dirt road. Other soldiers are hunkered down as we go by. We're now using a tactic called "bounding over watch": A platoon advances under the cover of the unit behind. Then the advance unit sets up and the rear units leapfrog over them and reset again.

We cautiously go around abandoned villages. Units to the rear will check them. We have to keep going.

I'm trying not to think about land mines. With each step, I reason that there's no strategic value in placing them here. Land mines don't care about strategy.

But we've got enough to worry about.

We enter a broad, sweeping valley ringed by snow-capped peaks. In the distance lies Sher Khan Kiel, otherwise known as "Objective Remington." It's the heart of Operation Anaconda. According to intelligence reports, it's a nest of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

We plod on for another four kilometers. And we have no way of knowing that the worst is still to come.

Next: "Firefight and ice" -- Savidge on the troops' incursion into the valley and a raging battle: "The pristine snow on the peak is charred black and gray. The rising smoke wreathes it like a volcano ..."




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