War in Afghanistan

CNN veteran camped out under the stars to get first footage of American bombing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2002, 12:00am

The historic and exclusive first footage of Kabul being bombed by the US was shot by a Hong Kong cameraman who had taken to sleeping under the stars beside his camera in the expectation of an attack.

Far from the peace of his Clearwater Bay home, CNN cameraman Wojciech Treszczynski, 35, a Polish-Canadian expatriate, had set up the camera on the roof of a ruined house converted into a military outpost north of Kabul.

He was in the middle of a satellite phone test transmission to the station's headquarters in Atlanta when the bombing started, too far away to hear but close enough to see flashes and tracer bullets from anti-aircraft fire.

The test turned into live coverage beamed around the world within minutes once the station concluded it was 'not a thunderstorm, definitely bombing', recalled Treszczynski, who is now back in Hong Kong.

Before the US strikes he had known something would happen but not when. When it came, Treszczynski said, it was unmistakable.

Adrenalin? That peaked when the batteries started to fail after he had been filming and transmitting most of the night.

It was not the first time Treszczynski had been in a war zone, and the same was true for another Hong Kong-based cameraman who was part of CNN's Afghanistan team - freelancer Mark Phillips, 34, an Australian who lives in Happy Valley. They reeled off Chechnya, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Bosnia.

The pair are among a group that gets the call when the action starts - and answer it without hesitation. Phillips got two calls on the night of September 11 as he sat in a bar - the first from his wife telling him of the attacks and the second from CNN, asking him to get on a plane.

For Treszczynksi, the call came a few days later, sending him to Tajikistan initially because he speaks Russian.

Phillips, who has been to Afghanistan 13 times, said airport and hotel staff in some trouble spots knew him by name.

Both of the cameramen are married with children. Phillips' two-year-old son can say Afghanistan and locate it on a globe. At one stage he said his father lived there.

Being with CNN in Northern Alliance territory, the cameramen could not travel light. Their trucks carried tonnes of equipment and an entourage of translators, drivers and 'fixers' - respected local people who acted as guides, hagglers and intermediaries.

US bombs were far less worrying than the risk of traffic accidents, food poisoning, landmines or being shot. There was a rumour Osama bin Laden was prepared to pay US$50,000 (HK$390,000) for each dead journalist.

The cameramen recall war stories that are hair-raising, but tell them quietly, without bravado. Phillips described being pinned down by a Taleban gunman - luckily not a crack shot - about 300 metres from the frontline. They often could not wear bullet-proof vests - they were too heavy and also it was insensitive if there were not enough for all the staff.

Phillips also recalled being sick and missing a convoy that was ambushed, with several journalists shot. On another occasion, a mortar missed him by a few metres - 'That was a good day because we got up there and we got good [footage].'

Treszczynski once crawled around the roof of a building he later found was mined.

Phillips said his initial motive for his work was to show the world the bad things happening and help to get them stopped. He admitted that did not work.

'You see this misery and keep on seeing it and to a certain degree you don't care any more and that's when you start to question why you do it,' he said. 'I don't know [why I do it now]. This is what I do for a living.'

But at other points in the interview, certain motives become clear - the satisfaction of coping with long hours and tough conditions; the camaraderie that comes from sharing everything from shower water to satellite phones; the desire to be where the world's big story is.