Afghan 'Valley of Death'
is sure-fire hit with media
By Nick Allen
Valley (Afghanistan), Dec 10 (DPA) Minutes after the US Army
Humvee leaves its mountain base, 7.62-mm bullets tear into
the hood and turret until one finally hits driver Alex Goduti's
windshield panel dead centre.
reinforced glass withstands the impact, but the next round
or two at most will shatter it; so he slams the vehicle in
reverse and sends it lurching back up the track.
so lucky," the startled 20-year-old tells his buddies,
staring at the cobweb of cracks on the pane before his face,
while a reporter filming from the back seat wonders at the
speedy materialisation of his story.
this is par for the course in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley,
where US and Afghan government troops battle with local tribesmen,
Taliban and foreign fighters with such dependable regularity
that the place emerged as a kind of "War Story Central",
drawing reporter after photographer after TV crew.
Korengal Valley became a media magnet when word got out that
journalists who went there were virtually guaranteed to experience
combat," said Vanity Fair magazine contributor Sebastian
Junger, a repeat visitor and author of one of the most compelling
accounts of the fight in this corner of eastern Afghanistan.
a while almost one-fifth of the combat in the entire country
was occurring in the Korengal," he noted.
in Kunar province on the border with Pakistan, the Valley
of Death, as it's known to the troops, provides a vivid backdrop
to this bitter struggle.
mountains rise above the Korengal River as it winds past quaint
clusters of stone houses and smallholdings dotting the 10-km-long
valley, which through its isolation and ancient customs seems
caught in another era.
add the sudden thunderous exchanges of small arms and rocket
fire between the hill crests, strafing runs by Apache helicopters,
artillery and mortar barrages, and you have quintessential
War on Terror on tap for journalists who come embedded with
the Korengal, you photograph US troops doing what they were
trained to do, and that's fight, fight and then tomorrow,
fight again," Getty Images photographer John Moore said
after a recent stay.
great is the valley's pull that more than half the applications
received by the US military for media visits to eastern Afghanistan
request the Korengal.
it's a risky assignment as journalists are as exposed to harm
as the platoons they accompany in these treacherous surrounds.
have found in the Korengal an area of spectacular, albeit
deceptive beauty, where a seemingly tranquil paradise can
turn into your worst nightmare in a heartbeat," said
combat photographer Keith Lepor, who in September took a bullet
in the chest during a mission.
life was saved by the ceramic plate in his body armour.
was almost killed twice, both times when I least expected
it," Junger recalled of his own visits to the valley.
grateful that their efforts are not ignored, the troops regard
the media pilgrimage to one of the most perilous spots in
Afghanistan with detached amusement.
almost become a rite of passage for journalists, so they can
say 'I've been to the Korengal,'" said Lieutenant Cliff
Pederson of Viper Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment,
which lost six men killed in action and 19 wounded since deploying
here in July.
troops feel that coverage tends toward sensation and negativity,
or altogether misses the broader context of efforts to defeat
the insurgents and rebuild the country.
it gives the impression that the whole of Afghanistan is falling
apart and that's definitely not true," said Captain Clinton
Cummings, who leads a team of US Marine Corps trainers working
in the area with Afghan government troops.
also say they have to allay fears among their loved ones every
time a new report comes out.
series of pieces in October by US broadcast network NBC came
under criticism for its handling of a friendly-fire incident
in which a US mortar shell hit a house occupied by troops,
killing one US soldier and injuring six.
immediate aftermath of the blast was not shown, but the pained
cries of the survivors were aired.
don't think people back home needed to hear all of us scream
right after we got hit, my mum didn't need to hear that, nor
did the wives and kids of the people here," said Specialist
Thomas Richardson, 22.
the folks at home, Korengal looks like a picturesque hell.
By most measures it probably is. But Viper Company's commander,
Captain James Howell, notes that while hostilities are often
intense, media can get carried away with the pursuit of high
not fighting for our lives every minute of the day,"
Howell said. "It's a good story - but it's a story."