First come the CIA agents, two of them, playing good cop, bad cop inside the dusty Qala i Janghi fortress near Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. Twenty-year-old John Walker Lindh, an American kid from northern California, listens as Agent Mike Spann and another CIA operative known only as "Dave" threaten to leave him there to die if he doesn't start talking.
Through it all, Lindh sits silently with his head down and his arms bound at the elbows behind his back. Lindh is a Taliban fighter and the Northern Alliance has taken him prisoner. It's the end of November, a month and a half into the current Afghan war.
Next come the grenades. Taliban fighters, Lindh's comrades, have smuggled them into the fortress underneath their desert robes. The uprising begins. U.S. and British Special forces sweep in, but not in time to save Agent Spann. Taliban prisoners beat, then shoot him to death. Rounds tick off; Red Cross officials and the other CIA agent make a narrow escape.
The U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces also flee. The Taliban fighters push them out of the fortress. Sometime during the melee, Lindh is shot in the leg.
Now it's time for an air strike. Overhead, high in the skies above Afghanistan, American pilots punch in their coordinates. Qala i Janghi sits in the crosshairs. Soon the bombs fall, leveling the fortress and sending Lindh limping into the cavernous basement.
He and the other Taliban won't come out, so the Northern Alliance pours diesel fuel into the basement and sets it ablaze.
But the river of flame doesn't kill everyone, so the Northern Alliance tries water, thousands of gallons of it, gushing into the hole where Lindh hides. Taliban fighters too weak or injured to stand drown in the torrent.
Finally, after three days in the basement, Lindh and the remaining 86 Taliban soldiers surrender. Lindh struggles out of the rubble and into the daylight where he's loaded onto a flatbed truck.
Nearby stands journalist Colin Soloway, a Chapel Hill native and veteran war correspondent. The 33-year-old contributor to Newsweek walks over and steps up onto the truck's bumper.
Inside he finds the biggest story of his career. For nearly a decade, Soloway has worked as a war correspondent. He's made a living on the sidelines of atrocity, in places where humanity sinks to newsworthy lows. He covers the "shithole patrol," or as they say in the business, "the bang, bang." Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan: Nothing about these places resemble the quiet streets of Chapel Hill where Soloway grew up.
His father still lives in the house on Morgan Creek Road. It's in the same neighborhood that produced James Taylor and his brother Livingston. Colin came along a generation later. He wasn't gifted like the Taylors, but by his senior year at Durham Academy, he could hold his own on the drums and the guitar.
Music followed him to the University of North Carolina in the fall of 1987. At the Lloyd Street Studios in Carrboro, he jammed past midnight with early incarnations of two fondly remembered bands: Pipe and Archers of Loaf.
By then, Soloway was mostly playing drums and rarely sang, but in class he aimed to find his voice as a writer. He enrolled in Doris Betts' creative writing class freshman year, and according to Betts, "worked very hard to not be typical."
While taking his sophomore year abroad in Montpellier, France, Soloway dropped out of his exchange program and headed to England. There he found a punk band that needed a drummer. They called themselves The Instigators and in the spring of 1989, they played behind the Iron Curtain on a stage in Poland. The band thought about booking a gig in East Berlin, but worried about smuggling all their gear across the border.
When Soloway returned to UNC, he continued to work on his English degree, and his history professor father thought he might be headed to graduate school. But by then, Colin was bent on becoming a journalist.
"When I was about 19, I sat down and decided what I wanted to do, or really what I didn't want to do, no 9 to 5, no boss," recalls Soloway.
Professor Betts had seen this happen before. Students arrive at Carolina as freshmen with dreams of becoming writers. Then they realize that fiction doesn't always pay the rent.
"I knew Colin as a writer of poetry and short fiction and we lost him to journalism," says Betts, who remembers Soloway as "talkative, a livewire." It seemed only natural that he gravitated to reporting.
"Basically I wanted to go and do something good," explains Soloway. "I wanted to learn. I wanted to go where I wanted, write what I wanted and get someone else to pay for it."
Soloway's first port of call was Columbia, S.C. He went to cover the end of a century-long cold war between the historically white Citadel and the historically black South Carolina State University. The two schools had never played one another in football. At least, not until January 1990.
Soloway was there to listen for what he called the "faint echoes" of the American Civil War. He wrote about the game for The Nation, then used this clip and others to get a foot in the door at The Independent.
Indy staffers remember Soloway as a driven, ambitious college kid "with pinwheels in his eyes." Those wheels continued to whirl after Soloway graduated from UNC in 1992 and took a job with The News & Observer. The N&O dispatched him to Chatham County, where he covered the emerging Latino subculture and plans to build a nuclear waste dump.
"It was a fascinating beat. Unfortunately, I had an editor who thought it was great for animal stories," says Soloway. After nearly a year on the job, he told his dad he was leaving town.
"The way he put it to me was, 'I'm going to Romania,'" recalls Dick Soloway, now senior associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at UNC. "At first I thought he was kidding. But Colin was a kid ... you wouldn't try and dissuade him. You just listen and ask questions."It was the spring of 1993 and Romania was just recovering from the haunting effects of Communist rule. There were mass graves to uncover, political prisoners to profile and thousands of orphans crying out for the world's attention. The country was filled with compelling stories. But as Soloway quickly learned, if he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, he had to go to the front lines.
At the time, that meant moving to the Balkans. He settled first in Belgrade, where he managed to connect with Roy Gutman. Gutman, a veteran correspondent to New York Newsday, had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking stories about Serbian-run death camps. He was at the top of his game, and Soloway latched on as his assistant.The war in Bosnia was raging, villages were being decimated by Bosnian Serb troops and Muslim women were being routinely taken at gunpoint to be raped by Serb paramilitary leaders.
It was Soloway's job to chase down these stories, but he usually spared his family the details when he called Chapel Hill to check in.
"He's a very undramatic person. And he was careful not to worry us," says his father.
Soloway shrugs it all off, saying, "You were covering mass murder. You were covering genocide. But it's still a job. You still have to ask who, what, where, why and how?"
By 1994, the "where" became Central Bosnia. His beat lay outside of Sarajevo, near a British peacekeeping base where he and the correspondent for The New York Times would swap war stories over glasses of whiskey.
On one outing behind Serbian lines in Central Bosnia, recalls Soloway, he and his interpreter were detained after taking photos of Serbian troops. A local commander got wind of the photos and summoned Soloway and his interpreter to a room with blown-out windows. Soloway says he "tried the whole outraged journalist thing" when the Serbian officer asked that he turn over his film.
When that failed, his interpreter strongly suggested they do what they'd been told. Soloway complied, and as he remembers, "We drove out of there thinking we had a sniper scope on our necks."
It turned out that the Serbian commander was especially uptight that day because, "The next morning the Serbs launched a massive attack."
Boot-deep in the Balkan debacle, Soloway felt himself becoming battlefield savvy. Like a farmer predicting the weather, he began to sense when brewing trouble was about to boil over. It was a sixth sense that kept him where the action was, but sometimes even that wasn't enough to keep steady paychecks coming.
"You spend a third of the time looking, a third of the time working and a third of the time trying to get paid," says Soloway. "So you live hand to mouth and you're only as good as your story last week."
And as the war dragged on in the Balkans, editors back in the states were getting bored with the stories coming out of Bosnia.
"You'd get into these disgusting conversations trying to sell them the day's body count," says Soloway. "They'd say, 'Humm.' And you'd say, 'But they were all teenagers.' And they'd say, 'Humm.' And you'd say, 'But one was a pregnant woman and a shell exploded near her and it blew her head off. Both she and the baby died.' And they'd say, 'Sounds good, but we're going with Joey Buttafuoco and the Long Island Lolita.'"
By September of 1994, Soloway was back in Chapel Hill stringing for Reuters. The sleepy beat turned electric in early 1995 when UNC law student Wendell Williamson went on a shooting rampage near the corner of Rosemary and Henderson streets killing two. Soloway was once again at the center of a big story. In the rush to file for the national news wire, he beat the Associated Press by an hour and a half.
The scoop pleased his editors, but Reuters didn't have enough work to keep Soloway occupied. He soon drifted into the cubicle world of tech writing, banging out eyelid-drooping filler for Ventana Press. That gig happily ended in the summer of '95 when Soloway decided it was time to return to Bosnia.
Back in his old haunt, Soloway felt like an old hand at covering war in the Balkans. He scored work with U.S. News and World Report, National Public Radio, and London's Daily Telegraph.
The United Nations was busy trying to piece Bosnia back together and Soloway was an intrigued witness to it all. "There were 60,000 U.N. troops on the ground and it was great, wonderful, fascinating."
It was also dangerous. In January 1998, while covering the inauguration of the new president of Montenegro, Soloway was beaten by a mob and had his passport stolen.
"Well, that stuff happens with mobs and riots," he says.
During the next few years, Soloway filed fewer stories, working instead for a pair of watchdog organizations, the International Crisis Group and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He provided policy and media analysis. And his positions were salaried, so Soloway was able to sock away enough money to live on while he wrote a book about his experiences.
In 2001, he flew to New York to pitch his ideas to publishers, but by then "Balkan books were out." So he returned to Sarajevo hoping to land some magazine assignments.
He was working a deal with U.S. News and World Report. But even it--a magazine named "World" Report--was closing its foreign bureaus. Everywhere, foreign correspondents faced cutbacks. For most of 2001, news of bureaus closing and reporting budgets being slashed sounded like a "death knell to foreign correspondents," says Soloway.
"Look at what was coming out, what they were covering," he continues. "It was trends. 'Jesus is in.' Gary Condit. Americans were obsessed with minutia. Basically, it was all different varieties of banality."
Then came the second Tuesday of September 2001. Journalists with war zone experience were suddenly in demand again.
Dick Soloway was at work when an e-mail arrived from Colin in Sarajevo. It asked "What's going on?" Colin's dad then wandered out into the hall and asked his co-workers if they'd heard anything about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. It was around 9 a.m. on Sept. 11. A month later, Colin caught a flight back to North Carolina. "Then, when I picked him up at the airport, I said, 'What are you doing?' And Colin said, 'You haven't figured that out yet?'" recalls the senior Soloway. "I said, 'Where, Afghanistan?' almost joking. And he said, 'Yeah.' That really upset me, but Colin's going to do what he wants to do."
In Chapel Hill, Colin got his finances together, updated his shots at the doctor's office, bought a backpack at the Trail Shop and plotted his course to the front lines. The fighting in Afghanistan was just starting and journalists were already hunkered down 30 miles north of Kabul. Soloway called some of them on their satellite phones and asked about how he should try and cover the story.
"I knew my chances of scoring a gig with the major papers were better on a less busy front," says Soloway, who set his sights away from the concentration of journalists around Kabul. He decided he'd focus on the Afghan town of Mazar-e Sharif where the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance was having success against the Taliban forces holding the city. "I reckoned if Mazar fell, there would still be Taliban between it and the journos on the Kabul front and that there would be a better chance of getting in there before the hack pack arrived and getting some good scoops."
He decided the best route to Mazar-e Sharif was through Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic where the United States was establishing an airbase and the locals smeared dog meat grease on their chests to ward off the common cold.
On Oct. 16, Soloway flew to Frankfurt, Germany, then on to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Before leaving, he bent the ear of Newsweek's chief of correspondents, Mark Miller. Miller agreed to work with Soloway on a couple of stories, but nothing long-term.
Over the next month, Soloway covered the U.S. buildup in Uzbekistan. American forces were using an airbase outside Tashkent, where helicopters and bombers could stage their air support efforts for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to the south.
This was Soloway's fourth war. During all those years in the Balkans, he learned how far certain helicopters could fly and which planes did what. On the ground in Uzbekistan, he knew enough to piece together disparate details into a single, telling picture: If the U.S. deployed one kind of helicopter instead of another, then it was possible to guess where the American forces were flying in Afghanistan. That's what Soloway figured, anyway. But he kept much of it to himself.
"I thought it would be wrong to report this," says Soloway. "It could jeopardize operational security."
Piecing together the military puzzle and swapping theories about what was going to happen next is a favorite parlor game of war correspondents. For those stationed in Tashkent at the beginning of the Afghan war, a favorite gathering place was one of the city's few upscale bistros. Here European fare could be ordered instead of the old Uzbek standards. (In one of his first dispatches to Newsweek, Soloway reported that local dishes should be washed down with a pot of Uzbek tea because it "acts as a sort of antibacterial agent to kill any unwanted bugs in the food.")
One night at the bistro, early in his stay, Soloway sat at the head of a table filled with foreign correspondents. To Soloway's right sat a correspondent for The Nation named Matt Bivens. It turned out that Soloway and Bivens had a lot in common. They were roughly the same age, they'd spent the last several years reporting from abroad and they were both loyal Tar Heel fans. Bivens graduated in 1990 and Soloway remembered seeing his byline in The Daily Tar Heel, where the political science major helped edit the editorial page.
"We happened to sit next to each other by chance," remembers Bivens. "And it quickly got around to North Carolina."
"In a very competitive business, I thought he was very collegial," continues Bivens. "He even offered to lend me a couple thousand dollars."
Bivens was able to sort out his money troubles without Soloway's help, but he was struck by his former classmate's generosity and third-world moxie. He told Bivens that he'd paid his way to Uzbekistan. Once he made it to Afghanistan, Soloway was gambling the assignments would come rolling in, followed by enough paychecks to cover his expenses.
"It was financially courageous. He said he hoped to break even," says Bivens, who along with Soloway and the other correspondents in Uzbekistan, was busy looking for a way into Afghanistan. At the time, Tashkent was full of journalists with their feet in the starting blocks. They all figured that if the Taliban-controlled city of Mazar-e Sharif fell, "Then we could all go into Afghanistan."
After their meeting at dinner, Bivens would drop by Soloway's hotel room and see him out at the bistro. But a few weeks later, their paths split when Bivens decided he didn't want to wait any longer for the Afghan border to open up.
"I ran out of patience," says Bivens, who completed his reporting for The Nation and flew home to Maryland.
Meanwhile, Soloway was moving closer to landing steady work with Newsweek. He was hired on at $200 a day, plus expenses. His job: To get into Afghanistan as soon as possible and report on what he found.
Then on Nov. 9, the Taliban forces in Mazar-e Sharif fell. The U.S.-backed Northern Alliance captured the city and all the foreign correspondents holed up in Uzbekistan began clamoring to cross over into Afghanistan.
"Unbeknownst to us, the Uzbeks had already picked a handful of journos who had been the first to get on a list the week before," says Soloway. CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, and much to Soloway's horror, the reporter for Newsweek's chief competitor, Time magazine, were the only journalists allowed to cross into Afghanistan.
Newsweek and Time were in a footrace for news from the front. Soloway decided the fastest way to the action was through the neighboring country of Tajikistan, where he crossed the Afghan border on a makeshift bridge. The bridge was made of old pontoon floats left by the Soviets before their unceremonious retreat during the 1980s.
Afghanistan bears many scars left by the back and forth thrusts of military campaigns. In the second week of November, when Soloway arrived, the tide was shifting strongly in favor of the Northern Alliance. But the Taliban was still returning fire, something several reporters learned the hard way."As soon as foreign correspondents started charging into Afghanistan, they started dying in droves," says Bivens, reflecting on what's become a chillingly long list of journalists killed in action. Three of the eight killed so far died on Nov. 11, during a risky night mission into contested territory. Soloway says, "Those three were stupid." Four others, who were stopped by gunmen along the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, were "really, really, unlucky." All four were beaten, then shot by strongmen under rule of Pashtun warlords, who Soloway refers to as, "lying, thieving, murdering, scum."
By late November, there were more journalists dead in Afghanistan than U.S. soldiers.
Back in Chapel Hill, Dick Soloway tried to keep up with his son's movements as he advanced with the Northern Alliance into Taliban territory. Colin would send e-mails when he could, but most of the time his dad was left with the day's headlines and his own imagination.
"I continue to have worries about where my son goes to work," says Soloway. "I've always worried that if something happened, it would be a landmine or something totally unpredictable."
What did happen was fairly routine. Colin made his way to Mazar-e Sharif, passing through armed checkpoints and hiring an interpreter with the necessary connections. His name was Najib and he was the 21-year-old nephew of a senior security official under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the men who led the Northern Alliance's return to Mazar. Before the Taliban took over the city in 1997, Dostum was known for allowing, as Soloway reported for Newsweek, "music, liquor and even university education for women, who were not compelled to wear the shapeless head-to-ankle burqa that the Taliban forced on them. And the mustachioed commander had lived in a modern villa with a pool, multiple satellite phones, and an armored Cadillac."
Soloway quoted one source who described the Taliban retreat from Mazar by saying, "Men are shaving their beards. Women are burning their burqas. All of these things are happening in Mazar-e-Sharif."
In fact, a lot was happening. Soloway was busy trying to absorb it all in his scramble to catch up with the reporter for Time, who had already published a compelling story about the Qala i Janghi fortress.
Qala i Janghi means "fort of wars." It was Gen. Dostum's headquarters before the rise of the Taliban. Now that Dostum was back in power, the fortress was being used as a detention center for Taliban prisoners.
Among the POWs was a kid from Marin County, California.
It was about 3 p.m. on a cloudy Saturday when Soloway arrived at the Qala i Janghi fortress to interview survivors of the uprising that left CIA agent Mike Spann dead six days before. Rubble, the calling card of American smart bombers, was scattered everywhere. While Soloway interviewed some representatives from the Red Cross, his interpreter, Najib, pumped Northern Alliance soldiers for information.
Suddenly, Najib was at Soloway's side. He heard there was an American--maybe someone from U.S. Special Forces--in the open-topped cargo truck parked nearby. Soloway climbed up on the back of the truck and found the bed filled with wounded Taliban prisoners.
Then a guard gestured to one of the prisoners. Soloway looked down and saw someone who didn't quite fit in. He had a dark beard and long dark hair. Soloway would later say he looked like a hippy kid.
"I turned to him and asked him, 'Are you an American?'" recounts Soloway.
"'Yeah,'" said Lindh, beginning what would be a short but remarkable interview.Soloway kept the conversation going for 15 minutes. Lindh said he'd come to Afghanistan to support the Taliban because he wanted to help create a true Islamic state. To Soloway, he seemed intelligent. His speech was measured and his words were carefully chosen.
When Soloway asked if he supported the Sept. 11 attacks, Lindh hedged, saying only, "That requires a pretty long and complicated explanation. I haven't eaten for two or three days, and my mind is not really in shape to give you a coherent answer." But Soloway pressed him and Lindh said, "Yes, I supported it."
In Soloway's eyes, the pinwheels were starting to turn. While Lindh was driven off to a POW camp, Soloway made a dash for his laptop.
"I ran back to Mazar and called my boss and woke him up," says Soloway, who was told to file something as soon as possible.
That night, Soloway wrote up the story at a guesthouse in Mazar. Then, using a satellite phone hooked into his computer, he stood outside on a balcony and e-mailed the dispatch into the cold, night sky. It appeared on Newsweek's Web site the same day.
The next night, Soloway interviewed Lindh's mother by satellite phone.
"I told her, 'The good news is he's alive and he's in U.S. custody and he's not going to be killed. The bad news is he's a Taliban,'" remembers Soloway. "She was completely in shock."
It was a strange, but not unfamiliar place for Soloway to be. Here he was interviewing yet another source shell-shocked by war. But Lindh's mother was at home in California, thousands of miles from the front lines.
"Speaking as a reporter, I told her she should continue talking to Newsweek," says Soloway. "Speaking as a human being, I'd say you should get a damn good lawyer. ... I warned her to get ready for a real ride. I told her it would be just like the movies with the TV trucks and the reporters in the neighborhood."
The story was out and the "hack pack" was swarming. CNN interviewed Lindh in an Afghan hospital. He was reportedly juiced on morphine and coerced into granting the interview, though Soloway says that hasn't been confirmed.
Still, the interview touched off a debate about what was becoming a made-for-TV phenomenon. "The infotainment industry," remarked The Village Voice, "doesn't care much about technical issues like obtaining consent and drugging witnesses. After all, this guy is a gold mine! Now that his face is ubiquitous, Walker has become human Silly Putty--Monica Lewinsky and Richard Jewell rolled into one, a blank screen on which to project our fantasies."
Remaining ahead of the pack but not out of the fray, Soloway's "American Taliban: The Saga of John Walker" made the cover of Newsweek on Dec. 17. The epic story unfurled like a twisted remake of Lawrence of Arabia. He was named after The Beatles' John Lennon. The Autobiography of Malcolm X steered him toward Islam at 16. By 18 he'd moved to Yemen, then Pakistan to study the Koran. Six months before his capture, he'd joined the Taliban and met with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
It's one of the most unusual stories ever uncovered by an American war correspondent. And Americans ate it up because the main character was a white kid from California.
In most foreign news, says Soloway, Americans, "see these dark skin, foreign looking weirdoes and it's hard to connect to that and understand. All of a sudden here was someone they could latch on to--a bridge, a link to this world--a face they can relate to."
Soloway unearthed a gem, and Larry King, Don Imus, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric wanted to eye the prize. While still in Afghanistan and busy with the details of other breaking news, Soloway fielded questions from the talking heads and Newsweek paid him $100 for every interview he did. He'd wind up making $2,400. Meanwhile, the checks ABC and CBS wrote for footage of Lindh topped out at five figures.
When the initial media buzz around the Lindh story died down, Soloway was staying in Newsweek's comfortable five-bedroom house in Kabul. There were servants, a cozy living room and sit-down toilets. With this as his new home base, Soloway set out to report from Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden was said to be hiding.
But in order to reach Tora Bora, Soloway had to first travel the treacherous route between Kabul and Jalalabad where the four journalists had been stopped and executed a few weeks before. The passage required striking a deal where Soloway and some other journalists were escorted by both Northern Alliance forces and a group of Pashtun fighters native to the region from Sorobi.
Once the journalists arrived in Jalalabad, the Pasthuns from Sorobi demanded more money. They were "threatening to get us on the way back, and the escort leader threatened to shoot them then and there."
The Northern Alliance escorts told the Pashtuns, "If anything happens to these Americans, your town will be flattened."
The threat of an American retaliation by air was enough to get the Pashtuns to back down. But it was a tense moment, one Soloway described to his father in an e-mail by saying, "I'm going to have nightmares about this."
"I'd never heard him say that before," insists Soloway's dad.
Of the Pashtuns, Soloway says they're "the worst people on earth." Worse than the Taliban, which was welcomed into the region as a preferable alternative to the murderous Pashtun warlords.
"It's very hard for Americans to understand what that means," says Soloway. "[The Pashtuns] will continue to kill and steal unless someone stronger stops them. These are the people we're told are our allies."
For Soloway, the lesson Americans should take away from the current conflict in Afghanistan is this: "The United States is a colossus. No other country comes even close. And Americans live in a very isolated world, sort of Oprah to Oprah. But they are citizens in a global empire and as a result, there's a degree of responsibility. You ignore problems in this world to your peril."
After returning to Kabul from Jalalabad and the Tora Bora region, Soloway hopped a U.N. flight and headed back to the states. He landed in New York on Jan. 4, where he soon reunited with two friends from UNC, Ian Williams and Tessa Blake (the pair are currently producing a film called The Pink House).
Williams and Blake threw Soloway a small dinner party, then accompanied him to the set of Late Night With David Letterman, where the reporter was upstaged by bombshell actress Jennifer Connolly and something new for the office: a rolodex made of deli meats.
While Soloway waited to go on, he chatted with Letterman's stage manager, Biff Henderson. It turns out that Henderson grew up in Durham and knew the family of one of Soloway's classmates at Durham Academy.
While Soloway chatted with Henderson, Dave milked laughs. The joke went like this: One after another, different people stormed up to Dave's desk and screamed at him in a foreign language. That was it: Letterman, sitting there, while someone berated him in Turkish, Russian and Japanese. The people raised their voices and made hand gestures, but Dave didn't bother trying to understand. He was too busy staring into the camera with that same dumb look on his face.
Now based in Washington, D.C., Colin Soloway is a contributing editor to Newsweek and roving terror correspondent. He says a book project about Lindh is currently in the works.