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Graeme Smith, left, on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, with a couple of Afghan National Army troops in September of 2005.
Graeme Smith, left, on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, with a couple of Afghan National Army troops in September of 2005.

On the front line

A journalist's dark hours of fear and raw nerves Add to ...

You take a deep breath before climbing into an armoured vehicle in Kandahar. You have to think about why you travel the battlefields of southern Afghanistan, and whether the task is worth the risk.

It's impossible to know what Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang was thinking as she embarked on her fateful trip out with the troops, but most journalists who cover the front lines have experienced these moments, or something similar: the dark hours of confronting fear.

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It starts before your alarm goes off in the morning, when you wake in your sleeping bag with the sound of helicopters in the distance. Were you woken by the sound of a fighter jet, or a bad dream? Or maybe it's your own nervousness that got you up, that animal instinct to face trouble on your feet.

The nerves get worse as you approach the hour of departure. Dawn is only a glimmer of orange above the razor-wire fences of the military base, too early for breakfast at the cafeteria, so you grab a handful of snacks in the media tent. The food sits uneasily in your stomach as you assemble what you need for a convoy.

At the beginning of the Kandahar mission, back in 2006, it was simple: you just threw on a helmet and flak jacket. The military added a list of other safety gear as the casualties grew; at first the journalists scoffed at the new requirements, but they stopped complaining as the deaths mounted.

Now your gear is dirty, and smells like old sweat. You have ballistic eye goggles, fire-retardant gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. The shirt is made with natural fibres. You can't wear most synthetic clothes because flame will melt that cloth into skin.

Safety briefings were later added and became mandatory for entry to Kandahar Air Field. You wondered if the medical officer had intentionally timed his slideshow of gruesome photos as a prelude to the lunch break. Those grim images stuck with you as you travelled the roads with the troops.

Journalists begged to get rides on convoys in the early days of the mission, when the dangers were smaller and minor incidents made the news. Then a bomber proved the Iltis jeeps weren't tough enough for Afghanistan, and that vehicle was replaced by the G Wagon. More bombs showed the G Wagon didn't have enough armour, either. Canada placed a rush order for the RG-31 Nyala, a vehicle designed like a boat to ride shock waves from mine blasts, but even that technology was defeated by Taliban bombs. The insurgents keep planting bigger mines, payloads that can toss a seven-ton vehicle in the air like a toy truck.

These days, journalists aren't so enthusiastic about road trips. You steel yourself against the fear, when it's necessary. Some of the methods now used for transporting people by road in Kandahar haven't yet caught the Taliban's attention, so the experience cannot be described in public. But whether you're strapping yourself into an RG-31, or clambering into the darkness of a LAV-3, or riding in a different Canadian vehicle, you're usually fighting a feeling of claustrophobia. You must surrender yourself to the expertise of the soldiers, who face these dangers frequently. You must remember to breathe.

Soldiers used to joke around on these trips. They ripped pages from dirty magazines and wallpapered the ceiling of the vehicles. They peered out at the landscape from their windows or video screens, and made up funny stories about what they imagined the local Afghans were doing. But you heard less laughter inside the armoured vehicles as the years passed. You spend hours listening to the sound of the engine and the white noise of the ventilation fans. You avoid eye contact with others in the cabin, like passengers in the subway. You are alone with yourself.

It's easy to get paranoid, after too much of this. You used to stretch out your legs on the seat in front of you, until somebody told you that your horizontal legs increased the surface area of your body that could get hit by shrapnel. You're not sure if that's true, but you tuck your legs in anyway. You shift sideways in your seat, to keep your butt covered by the extra protection of a Kevlar blanket, but it's hard to keep your spot inside the cabin as the vehicle bucks and pitches like a boat on choppy waters.

By the time the vehicle stops, and the hatch opens, you aren't just grateful for the fresh air. You are exiting limbo, a cramped metal box in which you can't do anything except worry. You step out of the vehicle and you're almost grateful to be standing in a war zone. The light hurts your eyes and your muscles ache.

Why bother? Sometimes you ask yourself that question with a note of bitterness. All the best information in the world has not stopped Kandahar from slipping further into chaos. You cannot pretend that journalists have solved any of the problems in southern Afghanistan. Still, you are optimistic by nature. You hope that better understanding of the war will somehow help the situation.

For this moment, at least, stumbling down the ramp of the armoured vehicle and blinking in the harsh Afghan sunshine, you're facing the trouble on your feet.

Graeme Smith was the Globe's main correspondent in Afghanistan from 2005 till the end of 2008.

MORE COVERAGE

Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in a blast Wednesday that also claimed the lives of four soldiers. Lang, who was on her first assignment as a war correspondent for the paper, became the first Canadian journalist to die while on the job in Afghanistan

The Globe's Patrick White crossed paths with Michelle Lang in Afghanistan recently. She took all the precautions, but wanted to go where the 'real stories' are told, out in the field, he remembers

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