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Authors: Michael Petrou

Is This Your First War?

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Praise

“Within hours of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11, rookie news reporter Michael Petrou found himself launched on a decade-long journey through the conflicts of the Islamic World. Fresh from covering the rubble of New York, Petrou was to ride horseback into rugged Northern Afghanistan to cover the campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in twenty-first century's first new international war.

Few reporters make so abrupt a transfer from peace to war, and this was to be just the first of his many lone travels through conflicts of religion and ideology that now makes
Is This Your First War?
riveting and always insightful.

It is the remarkable personal story of a reporter who made the unlikely leap from being a newspaper intern to highly respected foreign correspondent within a few years due to sheer skill and willingness to take risks in the field. Along the way Michael Petrou's keen ear for dialogue brings the stories of those trapped in a world of crisis richly alive for the reader.”

–BRIAN STEWART
,
VETERAN FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT AND DISTINGUISHED SENIOR FELLOW AT THE MUNK SCHOOL OF GLOBAL AFFAIRS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

“Is This Your First War
is a romp through time with a clever navigator at the information wheel. It takes the delightful roaming style of Rory Stewart's
The Places in Between
and travels from Tajiks and Ottawa editors to Chad, Iran, the West Bank and Afghanistan. The text is at times raw, making you feel like a voyeur who has slipped through the back door into a raging conflict. But the stories are witty and irreverent as well as deadly serious. If you want to know what's going on out there in the world and what it's like to be a journalist on the front line of history, this is the book to read.”

–SALLY ARMSTRONG
, AUTHOR OF
BITTER ROOTS, TENDER SHOOTS: THE UNCERTAIN FATE OF AFGHANISTAN'S WOMEN

“This book is a gritty, up close and personal chronicle of the great freedom struggle of our time. The world is rattling and humming from tremors that come from down deep, at the same tectonic level as the French Revolution.
Is This Your First War?
is a lively travelogue across a confounding terrain that goes by many names — the War in Afghanistan, the Iranian uprising, the Arab Spring. When the world shakes like this, as it did during the Third World independence wars of the 1960s and 1970s, and during the collapse of the Soviet Empire, nobody knows what the landscape will end up looking like. But Petrou brings his readers deep into forbidding territory, across the front lines and back again, and journalism of the kind you'll find in this book is indispensable to understanding the lay of the land. Besides, it's a rollicking ride.”

–TERRY GLAVIN
, AUTHOR OF
COME FROM THE SHADOWS:
THE LONG AND LONELY STRUGGLE FOR PEACE IN AFGHANISTAN

IS THIS YOUR
FIRST WAR?

Travels Through the
Post-9/11 Islamic World

Michael Petrou

Dedication

For Norah and Nikolas

Prologue

T
he
first hint that B-52 bombers were circling overhead came from glints of sunlight. The lumbering planes were too high to be properly seen, but as they banked in their slow, graceful arcs, their silver wings caught the sun and sent it into our eyes as we sheltered in Northern Alliance trenches 10,000 metres below.

I had awoken that morning, in October 2001, on the ground inside a mud-walled compound run by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia, who controlled a small corner of northeastern Afghanistan and whose fortunes were about to change because of those B-52s and the unseen Americans on the ground directing their bombs. Graham Uden, a British photographer with whom I was travelling, and I then hired a driver with access to one of the jeeps the Russians had left behind during an earlier war. We trundled westward out of Khodja Bahuddin, the small village where we slept, toward the front lines about 15 kilometres away. We passed below Ai-Khanoum, the ruins of a hilltop city once known as Alexandria on the Oxus, where Alexander the Great had established an outpost of his globe-spanning empire 2,300 years ago. Alexander's empire slowly disintegrated and his city on the Oxus was sacked, leaving pottery shards and marble column pediments scattered among the shell casings and gun emplacements of the Northern Alliance. When we reached the Kocha River, we left the jeep and hired horses from the wranglers who worked its banks. Their animals were skinny but strong, and while saddles could usually be found, none had stirrups, and my legs ached from hanging loosely against the horse's flanks after a kilometre or two.

There were fewer and fewer people in the fields on either side of the dirt road on which we rode as we got closer to the front lines. Soon the cracks and sharp explosions of small arms could be heard, so different from the muffled rumble of airplane bombs that would occasionally reach us in Khodja Bahuddin. I stopped to talk to Abdul Haq, a lonely looking farmer, ethnically Uzbek, probably in his late teens, with a flat face and squished features. He wore one brown sock and one black and was hacking at the dirt below him with a hoe. He said that 300 people had left his village because of the fighting nearby. He left too but had nowhere else to go, so he returned with his mother. Then one morning as she dug at the very same dirt, she dropped dead, felled by a stray and almost spent bullet that came from so far away he couldn't see the shooter. A one-in-a-million chance. “It is difficult to live here now,” he said.

There was one more village before we reached the front lines, and this one really was deserted — “except for the holy warriors,” as the local Northern Alliance commander said. They slept in the shells of buildings, the broken walls of which held belts of ammunition suspended from pegs and nails, and they had boiled tea over fires in houses with blown-off roofs. Enterprising boys from the village down the road brought bread. There were a few mortars set up among the ruins and a larger rocket battery behind the village. A hill rose above the buildings, treeless but with bits of green grass still clinging to its soil, and rolled toward the Taliban trenches visible on the horizon.

We climbed that hill, crouched over and bent at the waist, and then dropped into a trench as we neared its crest. The men and boys who manned that section of the front were happy to have company but warned us to keep our heads below the lip of the trench. “Taliban snipers will get you,” one said, and sure enough, when we did peek, tiny figures could be seen moving through their trenches about half a kilometre away. Until now the Taliban had been imagined more than seen, even when their bullets passed directly over our heads, and now there they were, just out of rifle range. Some were probably closer. I could have thrown a rock into the nearest Taliban trenches, but if they were occupied, the people in them were keeping their heads down, too.

The Northern Alliance fighters in the village below had fired off several mortars and a barrage of rockets as we arrived. Now the Taliban were shooting back. Their mortars were the most unnerving. There was a whooshing sound of rushing air as the small projectile shot in a high, looping arch toward us, and a second explosion when it hit. In between there was nothing to do but wait. I crouched lower in the trench and put my forearms on either side of my head. The Afghans said nothing until the impact bang sounded from a safe distance away and then passed around a bag of sunflower seeds.

Abdullah, black-bearded and older than the teenagers around us, scuttled grinning into our trench lugging a .50-calibre machine gun. He swung the barrel over the lip of the trench, cranked open the gun sights so they were set for a distant target, and took aim at the nearest Taliban, who appeared to be digging some sort of machine gun nest themselves. He blazed away, one shot at a time, and then looked at us and smiled again, almost apologetically. “I did my best,” he said.

I went back to sitting on the ground, spitting sunflower shells into no man's land. There were no sandbags to reinforce the trench walls, only loose dirt piled between the Taliban and us. The trenches themselves were closer to ditches. I could kneel and still look out of them with only a little stretching. One of the fighters, Karim, explained that they spent one night in the trench and the next in the ruins of Chagatay village, below the hill. “The nights are quiet. We watch and we wait,” he said. The Taliban had now finished their tit-for-tat barrage that followed Abdullah's long shots, and Karim and I could converse easily. A few weeks earlier, he said, he had been given five days leave to visit his wife and children. “I used to be a teacher, and at home I saw some of my former students. When this is over, I'll teach again.”

It was a surreal experience, in 2001, to ride horses to front lines that had barely budged in months, as though the war were unfolding a century ago. Yet this illusion was shattered easily enough. The commanders had satellite phones, while the grunts on both sides conversed across no man's land, not by shouting, but through their walkie-talkies. Most exchanges were prefaced with Islamic formalities — “Peace be with you.” “And also with you.” — and then the trash talking and entreaties would start.

“You are not true Muslims.”

“Why are you fighting with foreigners?”

“Join us.”

But nothing dragged Afghanistan into the twenty-first century like those behemoth American B-52 Stratofortresses circling overhead. When they first flashed into view, desperate puffs of smoke rose from the Taliban's primitive anti-aircraft batteries behind their trenches. They knew what was coming, and there was nothing they could do about it. The planes seemed to circle for a long, long time. My mouth grew dry. The previously cheerful Northern Alliance fighters stopped talking. A few ducked. Then the hill shook and the Taliban position nearest to us disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. The explosions came rapidly, one after the other, like a booming drum roll. I huddled on the ground in a fetal position. When it was over, two of the teenage soldiers grabbed their walkie-talkies and tuned in to the frequency used by their enemies on the next hill. Voices crackled over the airwaves.

“Talib! Talib! Are you okay? What is your condition?”

A Taliban fighter's scratchy voice from somewhere down the line came through. He was trying to contact his comrades who had been bombed.

The two Northern Alliance soldiers were grinning like school children, barely able to suppress guffaws.

“Ohhh! Ohhh! I'm hurt,” one moaned, pretending to be a wounded Talib, while his partner giggled into his hand.

“What happened?” the real Talib asked over the radio.

“Ohhh! I lost one eye.” There was a long pause. “Now we all only have one eye each.”

The Northern Alliance soldiers burst into laughter while their opponent swore at them over the radio and disconnected. They had been mocking Mullah Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, who really had lost an eye during the war against the Soviets in 1980s.

I watched all this from the floor of the trench, still catching my breath from the bombs that had landed so close, they made the ground tremble beneath us. When I looked behind me I saw another Western reporter I hadn't noticed before. He was lounging on top of the trench, cradling a large and expensive camera. His balding head was shaved close, a cigarette dangled from his lips, and he wore a checkered
keffiyeh
scarf wrapped around his neck. He seemed to be posing for someone as he looked down at Graham and me. His voice, when he finally spoke, was a perfect Parisian sneer.

“Is this your first war?” he asked.

He didn't wait for an answer before continuing. “I can tell because your face is so white.”

Afghanistan was my first war. It started eight months into my first real job as a newspaper reporter at the
Ottawa Citizen
. The bulk of my reporting experience before that had been at the
Queen's Journal
, the student newspaper at the university I attended in Kingston, Ontario, a few years earlier. Most of us who worked there spent far more time in a shambling old brick house on Earl Street putting the paper together than we did in class. I loved my fellow editors and writers for their idealism and irreverence. We had our campaigns and vendettas that mattered to far fewer people than we imagined. But I found it immensely satisfying to see people picking up the paper we had lost sleep to produce. I graduated in the rare position of having a pretty good idea of what I hoped to do with the rest of my life.

Like a lot of people in their early twenties, though, I wanted to delay buckling down and getting on with it for at least a few more years. I did a Master's degree. I travelled a lot. I wrote stories and tried, sometimes successfully, to sell them. I took a few jobs in journalism, but none that lasted more than six months at a time. When I got the internship at the
Citizen
, everything I owned fit easily into the back of truck. The contract was for one year. It was the most permanent job I had ever had.

The assault on New York and Washington ended any sense that this twilight zone between university and real life might continue indefinitely. My emotions watching the Twin Towers come down were shock and sadness, but also gratitude that the attacks happened during my shift, at a time when I had a proper job as a newspaper reporter, and not while I was flitting from youth hostel to youth hostel somewhere in Europe. It was clear that what was happening would have enormous influence over the years that followed. I wanted to cover it.

Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban who sheltered and protected them, were not completely unknown to me before they so dramatically announced their presence to the world that morning. I had backpacked around Pakistan's tribal and frontier regions the previous year and sat with an Afghan refugee on a dusty hill overlooking his homeland. Within weeks of the September 11 attacks I was back in Central Asia, this time on the other side of the Afghan frontier, slipping into the country as rockets and tracer bullets lit up the night sky and carrying little more than a satellite phone and blanket I had stolen from a hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

This book is about that trip and others in the Middle East and Central Asia, from the borders of Darfur to the Khyber Pass and beyond. My time in the region began almost accidentally. I was looking for an exciting place to trek through and happened to pick the one that was incubating the radical and belligerent version of Islam that inspired the terrorist attacks against the United States a year later.

I've travelled widely since then, moving around on foot, in taxis, and on the roofs of minibuses — rarely in convoys of armoured vehicles or embedded with Western soldiers, though I've done that too. I've tried to talk to people outside embassies and government ministries. I haven't spent a lot of time with politicians, but I have with those who must live with their decisions.

The countries and people covered in this book are starkly different. There are, however, common themes that run throughout: ethnic and religious nationalism; the prospect — sometimes welcomed, sometimes feared — of Western military intervention; brutality and repression; resistance and hope.

There is also the spectre of Islamist extremism. Despite the nostalgic rhetoric and medieval mindset of many of its adherents, Islamism, as an anti-Western political movement of Muslim supremacism, is a modern phenomenon that owes much of its foundation to twentieth century ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, rather than to traditional Islamic scholarship. It has much in common with extremist movements of the left and the right that flourished and festered in twentieth century Europe. As the British author Jason Burke notes, it shares with fascism an obsession with morality and racial or religious purity, and an appeal to a supposedly golden past, so different from the corrupt present.

There is also the same hatred of Jews.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
, an anti-Semitic text with origins in the Russian Empire that later became part of Nazi propaganda efforts, is widely available in many Muslim countries.

Like radical Marxists, Islamists see a dogmatic explanation for the world's ills and offer an equally dogmatic cure. They believe in a revolutionary ideology. It is one that will transcend national borders. And its triumph is inevitable. Like fascism and communism, Islamism has gained momentum as a reaction to extreme and rapid social change, and among those who feel alienated by modernity. It is notable that Qutb, writing about America while living there in the 1940s and 50s, focused his contempt on its supposed sexual wantonness — manifested, for example, in church dances and jazz music. It was a new world. He wanted an anchor.

Despite the ongoing clash of modernity and tradition in many Muslim countries, and despite the thousands murdered by Islamists in the last two decades, radical Islam's strength, one cautiously predicts, is fading. In December 2001, Osama bin Laden released a videotape in which he claimed it didn't matter whether he lived or died, because “the awakening of the Muslim nation has started.” Since then, al-Qaeda and associated Islamist groups have said their radical version of Islam offered the only alternative to domination by the corrupt regimes ruling most Muslim countries. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq for a time before his 2006 death in a U.S. airstrike, described democracy as “the big American lie.” In a 2005 Internet posting he said, “We have declared a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it. Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion [and that is] against the rule of God.”

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