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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

3 Fun-Filled Weeks on the Warlord Trail

Things are looking up. Inspiration has descended in the form of a travel project that has caught my imagination and shaken me out of a particularly long and depressing period of disaffection with Moscow, made worse by intermittent, self-destructive binges of hedonism. The answer to the Moscow blues is, of course, to go somewhere even more dangerous and godforsaken. You could call it the Mongolia syndrome, pioneered by Matt Taibbi (he of Mongolian Basketball Association fame). So, I'm off to arguably the most godforsaken, dangerous place on this continent -- Afghanistan.


A nice, three-week working vacation in a country that's been the world's most consistent trouble spot for the last couple of millennia? Sounds good to me. I'm going to do a story on the warlords of northern Afghanistan, one of the last refuges of a medieval political system, medieval social structure and medieval diseases on the planet. Sheiks Dostum and Masoud are the major players, but there are plenty of small-time, free-lance warlords to add color.


My favorite is Said Haroun, hereditary spiritual and military leader of the Ismaili sect, who used to work as a pizza delivery man in Philadelphia before returning to join the "family business" back in Afghanistan. He lives in a plush villa in a remote mountainous area accessible only by horseback (after Dostum blew up the only road to stop the advancing Taliban rebels), listens to AC/DC, takes pot shots at roadside land mines for fun and complains about how bored he is. I can't wait to meet him.


Warlords and I go back a long way. The first one I met was Zjelko Raznjatovic, aka Arkan, an incredibly evil Serb commander whose unit, the Tigers, took Vukovar and massacred thousands of Bosnian Moslems at Byelina. I buttonholed him at a Red Star Belgrade football match in early 1995, and spent a couple of hours chatting to him. He's a creepy guy -- very slick and charming, but with cold, killer's eyes.


Walid Jumblatt, head of the Druze sect in Lebanon and one of the key players in the civil war, in contrast, was incredibly urbane, witty and humane. Of course, he led (or at least permitted) a massacre of Christian civilians in the Chouf mountains, but that's part of the warlord brief, I suppose. We had lunch in the book-lined study of his beautiful, 19th-century palace at Moukhtara, perched on a craggy, impregnable hillside in the Chouf. It was like an oriental version of an English country house -- library globes, foxed prints on the walls and smelly King Charles spaniels -- apart from the loaded Kalashnikov leaning by the dinner table and the heavily armed military checkpoint in the drive.


The only trouble with embarking on free-lance projects is dealing with arrogant, overpaid Manhattan magazine editors. They like treating writers like trying schoolchildren and are under the impression that men's magazines for thirty-something yuppies are the pinnacles of literary excellence. I now realize that the only way to deal with these idiots is to be equally arrogant and offhand, demand contracts, kill fee promises and generally act like I could eat them for breakfast.


I'm going with Robert King, a Sigma photographer who has spent time in Afghanistan. He's slightly crazy, like all good photographers, but luckily he seems to have enough common sense to keep us both alive, which is more than I can say for the last photographer I worked with in a war zone, a nutty French girl called Murielle. She would insist on running around during bombardments taking useless photographs of plumes of smoke and fires, screaming at me for my alleged cowardice. Still, I'd rather be a live coward than a dead free-lancer -- I can think of better things to die for than a glossy magazine article.