After an unexpected stop at a remote compound, the soldiers are caught in a firefight with insurgents. Mark Schapiro talks by Skype with journalist Mimi Wells on assignment for CIR in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.


Mark Schapiro: Nice to see you again, Mimi. You e-mailed us recently that you were in a firefight off the base. Tell us what happened.

Mimi Wells: The incident that I was telling you guys about happened in a nearby area – it’s called the Ghaziabad area. It’s a region that the Taliban and insurgents use to ferry in weapons and fighters from Pakistan, smuggle them across the border. We’d gone on a couple of foot patrols and we took some fire, nothing too major, but the worst of it was the night we left.

We got in the trucks, and we’d driven about 10 minutes when we stopped. Eventually, we found out that heat signals had been spotted in a cornfield ahead, and they thought IEDs had been planted in the road and that they had intercepted chatter that there was a possible ambush up ahead. So we couldn’t move.  

We were in the trucks for, I think, about 12 hours, stuck there in the road. And basically, by the time they killed the two guys in the cornfield and disrupted whatever was going on, it was daylight. So now we had no option but to pull into the nearest place; it’s called Jalaleh compound.

It’s a known bad place, but we had no choice but to be there. And, you know, it was a beautiful compound; it was amazing. It was the way you might have imagined Afghanistan might have been hundreds of years ago, before war: handcrafted wood moldings all around the building, handmade wooden doors. There were rose bushes of every color, lime trees, walnuts.

I pretty quickly fell asleep sitting. You know, we’re all sitting on the floor, and I was down for a few minutes when there was a huge explosion. There’s an unforgettable sound – a sound I’d never heard before, which I find out later is the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade. Now there’s the terrible sound of our gun trucks fighting back; terrible, I mean, just because of their sheer – how loud and thunderous they are – the walls of the compound are just shaking.

And all the officers are in the doorway, and they’re trying to get out. But we were so close that the mountain where the insurgents are in is directly behind the compound, so they were looking at us. And we were so close to them that when you would step outside the door, they’d shoot. So for a minute, we were all really sort of trapped in the room.

Another RPG hit, and a huge cloud of black smoke went up out of the parking lot, and we knew that that was one of our trucks, and so at that point, the lieutenant colonel sprinted out of the room, and pretty soon thereafter, the rest of the Afghan commandos started going out and they headed in the opposite direction to scan what was going on.

I was left alone in the room with the translator, and it’s a crazy feeling. You have no control over anything that is happening. I was literally in a room between the two sides that are fighting. So the Americans are fighting this way, the insurgents are fighting that way, and here I am. The whole firefight probably only lasted 10-15 minutes, but for me, it lasted a year, a lifetime.

Eventually, the fighting died down. We learned that a truck had been hit. It was my truck. And I found out afterwards, at the end, that the RPG ­– rocket-propelled grenade – had hit the back of our truck. The whole truck caught on fire, and everyone had to escape through the turret, but it didn’t hit with impact on the body of the truck, so everyone was safe.  

Then all of a sudden, I look up and some Afghans are serving us chai and walnuts and sweets, and now we’re sitting in the courtyard drinking chai and sort of talking to everyone. It was an incredible experience.

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Mimi Wells

Mimi Wells is a multimedia journalist based out of New York. In May 2011, she graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She then studied Pashtu on a scholarship from the South Asia Language Institute. In September 2011, Mimi traveled to eastern Afghanistan with the support of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Her writing and photography have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times.

Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.