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CNN Correspondent Alessio Vinci  

Reporter's notebook: A scene of human carnage and rubble

Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci covered the November 2001 prison uprising at Qala-i-Jangi for CNN. Vinci and TIME reporter Alex Perry were among the first journalists to enter Mazar-e Sharif after it was captured by the Northern Alliance. Vinci joined CNN in 1989 and has covered several conflicts for the network, including the Balkans and Chechnya. He was the only television journalist to report live worldwide from Belgrade during the uprising that toppled Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. The article that follows was written exclusively for CNN.com.

By Alessio Vinci
CNN

(CNN) -- There is one image I will never forget of the prison uprising in Mazar-e Sharif. It is not a picture of a mutilated body (there were hundreds) or that of a fighter using a dead corpse to rest his heavy machine gun while firing it like crazy on the last day of the uprising.

What I remember the most from that uprising are the dozens of reporters crammed outside the fortress while the battle inside was raging on. All around us there were bodies of dead Taliban fighters, left there from the first hours of the uprising. We were busy taking notes, talking to commanders, filming tanks moving around, simply assuming that those dead bodies were now part of the landscape of the story we were covering. There was so little interest in them.

I remember this picture because I also remember how much we wanted to know whether a U.S. soldier had been killed inside the fortress. CIA operative Mike Spann became the first U.S. casualty killed in combat in Afghanistan and he is now a hero to many Americans. There were no heroes laying on that field but simply dead bodies, with no names.

If what I remember the most is reporters being totally accustomed to the sight of dead bodies scattered around while conducting interviews, the sheer number of those dead in one place and at the same made Mazar one of the hardest stories I had to cover. These were fighters who wanted to kill Americans and (possibly) even reporters, but they were human beings too.

"We have to collect the bodies, identify them and try to get in touch with their families," said Olivier Martin, the head of the Red Cross in Mazar-e Sharif. "These people have a dignity too." Olivier is a good friend and we spent a lot of time together while I was in Mazar. Identifying the bodies, he once said, is going to be extremely tough.

A number of journalists, including CNN's Alessio Vinci and TIME's Alex Perry, covered the battle from start to finish. So far, it is the only battle in Afghanistan in which journalists had close access to the fighting.  

Another difficult task for reporters was sorting out all the information about what was happening. "I dug all morning with my bare hands" were the first words out of the mouth of a dust-covered Afghan fighter as I arrived at the fortress on November 26, 2001. A U.S. bomb had mistakenly struck the wrong side of the fortress, killing several Northern Alliance fighters and wounding a handful of U.S. Special Forces and British SAS soldiers.

"There are a lot of people dead, also Americans." Was it true? It took a while to figure it out. Each fighter at the scene had a different story to tell. Two American soldiers dead, no five, perhaps three. In the end we were told that some of the Northern Alliance fighters who died in that friendly fire attack were given U.S. uniforms. To date U.S. military officials say no U.S. personnel was killed as a result of that friendly fire incident.

Unlike in the United States where Pentagon officials regularly briefed reporters, in Afghanistan there was no such luxury. The result was that too often reporters on the ground got conflicting information depending on whom they were talking to. This made our job extremely hard, especially when trying to confirm information before going to air with it.

I believe the Taliban fighters who died there chose to fight. I interviewed a few of them as they arrived at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress. They were all volunteers from other countries who surrendered with the Taliban at Konduz. They were separated from Afghan fighters who were let go home under an amnesty deal. "We did not surrender," a Pakistani fighter told me in English. "We are here because God ordered us to." A few hours earlier I had asked the Northern Alliance general in charge, Abdul Rashid Dostum, what he was planning to do with the prisoners. His answer was, "We will hand them over to the United Nations." But how he planned to do that was unclear since at that time there was no UN security presence in Afghanistan.

That alone led many to conclude the prisoners knew they had no hope of returning home anytime soon, and accepting surrender may have been an excuse to be brought closer to enemy lines -- a sort of modern age Trojan horse tactic.

If Dostum's intentions were unclear, his security measures proved catastrophic. I felt that way when I found myself in an open field inside the fortress surrounded by 15 security guards and some 400 disarmed fighters being stripped of their personal belongings. They had surrendered their guns, but underneath their baggy clothes they were hiding all sorts of lethal weapons including hand grenades. Even before the uprising began, one of the prisoners killed two top Northern Alliance security officials and himself by detonating a grenade. I was standing 100 feet away. That is how the uprising began a day later. What made the prisoners wait one day I'll never know, but I'm surely grateful for that.

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