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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

October 28, 2009 at 10:46 PM

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A wake-up to gun fire

Posted by Hal Bernton

KABUL -- Sometimes, I wake up hear to the sounds of birds chirping in the garden. Sometimes I wake up unexpectedly to an editor's late-night phone call or to the sounds of a cat fight.

A few days back, I was jolted awake by the violent shaking of my room as an earthquake struck this land.

On Wednesday morning, I was roused before 6 a.m. to the sounds of combat. First, I heard a few machine-gun shots. Then for more than an hour, they waxed and waned sometimes reaching chilling, explosive crescendos.

Sometimes gunfire seemed so close, I thought it must be right outside my guest house. Then it sounded more distant. The way the shots echoed in the narrow, wall-lined streets here, it was difficult to tell what direction they were coming from.

As I lay in bed, I imagined a gun battle playing out through different parts of the neighborhood. It seemed imprudent to head outside to investigate.

It's been a difficult few days.

On Monday, I had just returned from a full day of reporting north of Kabul to news that three helicopters had gone down resulting in 14 American deaths. I scrambled to write about the deaths in a dispatch to McClatchy News.

Then Tuesday night, after another full day of reporting, I got a late press release about eight American service members who had died in southern Afghanistan from roadside bombs. One soldier had died after his vehicle was hit, seven others from a bomb and insurgent attack on a second vehicle. Sources were saying that at least one of the two vehicles was a Stryker in the Arghandab, which would mean that the Fort Lewis-based brigade with which I was recently embedded with had suffered more losses.

There is a communications blackout that follows tragedy and prevents other soldiers from phoning or e-mailing as next of kin are notified. So I was in the dark, like other journalists, about the details of the attacks.

In the morning, in my room, I was once again in the dark.

I listened to all the fire fight, knowing that something awful was quite likely playing out nearby -- but the who, what and why were unanswered questions.

Finally, the gunfire subsided, and I joined Hashim Shukoor, my Afghan colleague and another American journalist in a three-block walk to an intersection where an angry-looking young policeman motioned me to stay. He finally allowed Hashim to continue farther.

Hashim brought back the some incomplete details about insurgents storming a private guest house full of United Nations workers. There had been some sandbags out front, a few small blast walls, and five guards -- two of whom were shot along with five United Nations workers, three insurgents wearing suicide vests and one civilian who lived in a nearby house.

There was a huge fire. It wasn't quite clear how it started, but plumes of smoke were wafting into a crisp blue morning sky.

I interviewed the guest house manager, Wais Sherzai, who said all the rooms were blackened by fire and that some of the people had been trapped on the top floor by flames and gunfire.

photo credit Hashim Shukoor

Sherzai had not seen much of the attackers, whom police said were wearing old police uniforms they may have purchased in the marketplace. The attackers also had suicide vests. There is dispute about whether they were able to detonate them or not.

The police said they arrived at the scene and killed the attackers before they could detonate the vests. But one of the men lodged at the guest house told ABC News that one attacker had succeeded in detonating a vest and that killed a woman who was trying to escape the flames.

There is no doubt the insurgents set off grenades, and this appeared to have touched off the huge fire somehow.

I still have unanswered questions. Some of the gunfire that I'd heard in my room seemed very close to where I was staying. Some seemed much farther away. So I wonder whether there were other clashes or if I was just hearing to some trigger-happy folks taking pot shots far from the scene of the battle.

The Taliban claimed credit and said they were striking out against election workers. Some, but not all, of the people at the guest house were working on elections. All these U.N. workers were civilians, and here with the hope their work can help make Afghanistan a better place.

In just the last post, I wrote about my run through Kabul with the Hash House Harriers, and how it felt good to get out from behind walled off compounds to course through the streets.

Given the ferocity of Wednesday's attack, it seems almost certain there will be more blast walls, more sand bags, and more security guards. Already, the assault has triggered a big lockdown for international workers who live within compounds.

Later in the day, a big thunderstorm rolled into Kabul. In this high-altitude area, the thunder was loud and sharp. I jumped when I heard the biggest thunder clap but quickly realized that this time it was nature.

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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.