I was an intern at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper on the morning of September 11, 2001. Like a lot of reporters of my generation who would later spend time in Afghanistan, I tend to divide my life between what happened before and what happened after.
I came into the newsroom as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, erasing any doubt America was under attack. The news editor started pointing at people, seemingly at random, telling them to get into cars and drive to New York. I was one of them. Another reporter and I rushed home to pick up clothes and passports. I called my new girlfriend and told her I wouldn’t be home for a while. The first tower collapsed as we drove south toward the border on Highway 416.
Back in Ottawa two weeks later, journalists at the paper gathered in a pub on Elgin Street one night after we had put the paper to bed. I told the editor-in-chief to send me to Afghanistan. He said he would. It was like a dare from which neither of us wanted to back down.
I got a plane ticket to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. From there, I travelled overland to northern Tajikistan and then south over mountains to its capital, Dushanbe, where I joined a convoy of journalists and unidentified men heading to the border with Afghanistan.
We reached the Amu Darya River that separates the two countries at night. I stepped onto a floating barge to be towed across. At my feet were several large bottles of water and my backpack in which I had stuffed a blanket from my Dushanbe hotel room. Our guides had forbidden flashlights and the far shore was murky in the darkness. The raft swung into the current and lurched toward the far shore. I peered toward it. Men on the Afghanistan side of the river took shape. They wore loose-fitting clothes, turbans and blankets. Jeep headlights flickered on, revealing clouds of fine dust around their feet. Hills rose sharply beyond the shore. Above them, green tracer bullets and the softer glow of explosions lit up the sky.
Professionally, much of my reporting since has wrestled with the many repercussions of that morning 20 years ago and the so-called War on Terror that followed. It affected how I approached a lot of those stories, too. My most formative time in Afghanistan was the fall of 2001, among people who said they opposed the Taliban and had often fled from them. It was a war zone and colleagues died there, but, away from the front lines, Afghanistan never felt like a forbidding or hostile place to me.
It was also obvious that America and its allies, including Canada, were joining a war already in progress between the Taliban and Afghans who rejected its illiberal brutality and mirthless approach to life. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan may or may not have been the right thing for Canada and other foreign countries to do. But it was never just about us. Plenty of Afghans struggled against the Taliban before we joined their fight, and that struggle will continue, in one way or another, after the Taliban’s victory last month.
A similar dynamic plays out all over the Middle East and beyond. Iranians, to give but one example, have been ruled by a religious dictatorship for more than 40 years. When they demonstrate against it, we wonder what role America might be playing behind the scenes. Often the answer is none. Iranians want freedom because they know what it’s like to live in a theocracy. Syrians want to be free of Bashar al-Assad because they’re sick of his regime killing them. Ukrainians aren’t passive pawns in a power struggle between Russia and the West. They have their own agency and can make their own choices about the direction they want their country to move in.
It’s perhaps because I remember the idealism and hope of Afghans I met two decades ago, and others I have known since, that I don’t think the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with the Taliban back in power and America defeated and humbled, is the conclusive ending it appears to be.
That doesn’t lessen the pain and sense of loss for those of us who care about the place. And yet, despite the traumas large and small that come with covering war, I look back on the fall of 2001 with something like nostalgia.
Some of this stems from recognizing it was an inflection point in my own life. I was young, then. Sometimes fear bled into excitement. Riding horses through a river valley beneath the ruins of city founded by Alexander the Great was a thrill. Every story I wrote felt important and I wanted to write more. Ottawa, Canada, suddenly seemed small.
At the same time, the war helped make clear other things I wanted in my life. I married the woman I was dating then. We had three children, and so I had more to lose when reporting on war in the years that followed. And yet, even in those early days of 2001, that dimly imagined future, and the thought that it might be extinguished before it had a chance to become real, hovered like a ghost over every trip to the front.
Earlier this summer, I received a message on social media from a man I hadn’t heard from since that fall — a Syrian journalist I slept beside on the ground under the same blanket the night we first entered Afghanistan. War damages everything it touches, but friendships made during war are often special. He included a photo of the two of us and a third journalist from those days, our arms around each other. What strikes me about the photo now is how happy we look. It feels like a long time ago.
A version of this essay is published in the Ottawa Citizen.