Montreal Gazette
Tuesday, October 30, 2001
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Column: LEVON SEVUNTS In Afghanistan
Dateline: ZARD KAMAR, Afghanistan
Source: The Gazette

The Gazette’s Levon Sevunts, a veteran war correspondent, reports from the front line of fighting where the spirited Northern Alliance is outnumbered 4,000 to 200.

Ten U.S. soldiers called in air strikes from the Puze Pulekhomry hill near this village on Sunday, local villagers told reporters yesterday.

Zard Kamar, about 30 kilometres southwest of Khwaja Bahuddin, the temporary capital of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition, is a half-deserted frontline village.

The villagers reported seeing 10 U.S. soldiers with communications equipment accompanied by General Attiqola Bareollay, the deputy defence minister of the anti-Taliban coalition, at the hilltop position.

According to Commander Mahmud, whose platoon faces the Taliban positions on Kala Kata hill, the U.S. planes dropped nine bombs on Kala Kata.

“They dropped six bombs in the morning and three in the evening,” Mahmud said yesterday.

When asked by reporters about the U.S. soldiers, Bareollay flatly denied there was any U.S. presence on the ground.

The military leadership of the United Islamic Front (the official name of the Northern Alliance) is kept abreast of U.S. bombing plans and warns its fighters to keep their heads down whenever U.S. targets are close to their lines, Mahmud said.

“Americans have pictures of this place and they know where to bomb,” Mahmud said, explaining why he is not afraid that U.S. planes could hit his positions, which are about 800 metres from the Taliban line at Kala Kata.

“About 10 days ago, the front lines were about 100 metres from each other, but we pulled back not to be caught under U.S. bombs,” Mahmud said.

But despite Sunday’s aerial bombardment, the anti-Taliban forces haven’t moved forward and Mahmud acknowledged that it would take far more U.S. bombing to break the back of Taliban forces.

“Their morale and their supplies are low,” Mahmud said, as a Russian-made T-55 tank fired at Taliban positions on the slopes of Kala Kata. “For every 100 shots we fire, the Taliban respond with one. But we are only about 200 soldiers here. The Taliban have 4,000 facing us, mostly Punjabis, Arabs and Chechens.”

Mahmud’s men, sporting Russian camouflage fatigues and boots, seemed to be in good spirits nevertheless.

“We have everything, all the weapons we need,” Mahmud said, displaying his platoon’s firepower, a variety of Russian, Chinese, Iraqi and Iranian weapons. “We are waiting for the orders to drive the Taliban out.”

As he spoke, a shell came whooshing in our direction. About a dozen reporters and fighters dove to the ground covering their heads. The shell, aimed at a tank position several hundred metres behind us, exploded without causing any damage.

A second shell followed two minutes later with the same result.

“These days, Taliban positions are quieter than usual,” said Saidwasi, one of the soldiers accompanying us.

His friend Ismail opened up with his Russian-made PK machine gun at Taliban positions hidden from view by a line of poplar trees, filling the air with the acrid odour of burned gunpowder.

A few minutes later, the Taliban responded with a retort from their large-calibre DShK machine gun.

Neither side hit anything.

But the road to Zard Kamar was full of evidence of much heavier fighting this year.

To get to Zard Kamar from Khwaja Bahuddin, one must take a two-hour bone-jarring ride to the town of Dasht-e Qala and, from there, go on horseback to cross the Kokcha River and the village on the other side of the riverbank.

As we approached Zard Kamar, we could hear the thunder of a cannon firing at Taliban positions.

Near the Puze Pulekhomry hill, we had to get off the horses; we were close to the front line and our Afghan guides didn’t want their animals in harm’s way.

On the top of the Puze Pulekhomry, about a dozen Northern Alliance soldiers had set up a position and were correcting the fire from the tanks hidden in a poplar grove below.

We were told later that U.S. soldiers were on the same hill the day before.

As we moved along a dry riverbed at the edge of the deserted village, we could see hundreds of spent DShK large-calibre machine-gun shell casings on the side of the road.

Some of the houses were burned down, and the only inhabitants of Zard Kamar were small traders who had set up their shops on the ground, selling biscuits, soft drinks and cigarettes to soldiers going to and from the front lines.

Small children wandered around, playing and laughing, seemingly unperturbed by the deafening thud of the tank fire.

Most of them were not old enough to remember life without tanks and shells landing in the local orchards.