Journalists Find Relative Calm in Afghanistan

Residents of the Jalalabad area of Afghanistan are responding to U.S. attacks with everything from indifference to resentment to rage, according to the first group of Western journalists to visit the country since Sept. 11.

The journalists said the biggest surprise they saw in their two-day, one-night journey was an almost surreal scene of relative calm and near normalcy in Jalalabad. Almost all the city's markets were open, crowds were walking the streets and seemed to be going about their business, several journalists said.

Normal is a relative term in Afghanistan there days, of course. The journalists said markets still seemed short of food and there were scenes everywhere of Afghanistan's many economic and social problems.

"Things may be bad, but they have been bad for the last 20 years," a Jalalabad resident told one of the journalists.

There was a very different scene in the border town of Koram, where U.S. officials said more than 100 people died in U.S. attacks over the weekend.

Residents there were openly hostile toward the journalists, who said their Taliban escorts had to step in to defuse the situation.

"I’ve never seen so much hatred in someone's eyes," said Ralim Ullah Yousef, a cameraman for the BBC. Yousef said Koram residents who came out to confront the journalists accused them of everything from disseminating propaganda to helping the United States military find targets for the bombing.

A group of residents greeted the bus with jeers and shouts when it arrived in the town, several of the journalists said. Some were waving sticks and apparently threatening the group when heavily armed Taliban soldiers stepped in and dispersed the crowd.

Yousef and other journalists were bused to Jalalabad and Koram from Peshawar at the organization and invitation of the Taliban government. The group was under armed escort throughout their journey.

A cameraman for Associated Press Television said he saw more than 50 flattened buildings in Koram. He did not see any bodies, and could not verify the Taliban casualty reports. But there was a "smell of death and destruction in the air," according to one of the journalists.

Kathy Gannon, an Associated Press reporter, said she visited a local hospital and found 16 or 17 people there. Hospital personnel also confirmed a number of patients dead on arrival but could not give an exact figure.

Gannon also said she did not see any refugees headed out the Koram area toward the Pakistan border during the trip. That's no surprise, according to some of the journalists who said local residents seemed even more upset with the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf than they were the United States.

Many Afghans crossing the border in recent weeks have expressed their shock over the decision of the Pakistani government, until Sept. 11 the Taliban's chief sponsor and ally, to back the U.S. strikes.

Taliban officials said they plan to allow another group of journalists into Afghanistan next week for another escorted visit. They have consistently denied requests by Western journalists to travel into Afghanistan and freely report on events there.