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On New Day on Wednesday morning, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward beamed images of the crowds trying to make their way to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai airport, hoping to secure a spot on a plane leaving the country.
“I have covered all sorts of crazy situations. This was mayhem. This was nuts,” Ward said, reporting from the side of the road.
“What was crazy about it is that normally there can be chaotic situations, but there is some kind of protocol, or form of order outside an airport where people form a line and people show their documentation,” Ward told The Hollywood Reporter a few hours later.
“Today at the airport, there were far fewer people, but it is still just absolutely chaotic because there is no sense of order,” said Ward, who had since returned to a secure location in Kabul. “The Taliban fighters who we saw, who were sort of providing security around the perimeter, basically charged with crowd control, are relying on some pretty coarse methods. They are beating the crowds back with truncheons and whipping people. We saw a fighter run up right behind us, and he took the safety off of his weapon, an AK-47, held it up in the air as if he was about to fire into the crowd. Of course, people were screaming, and we were among them, and then he put his weapon down. That is just not a scenario you often see.”
Ward, a six-year veteran of CNN (and a foreign correspondent for CBS News, ABC News and Fox News before that), has been one of only a few U.S. correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan, delivering the stories and images that are leading nearly every newscast. At CNN, she has been a regular presence almost every hour of every day this week. Her reporting has painted a picture of what is happening in the country with the clarity that only having someone in the streets could bring.
“I tried to ask a Taliban fighter who was I guess kind of securing the area, however you want to phrase it, a question, and he barked at me to cover my face. He didn’t want to talk to me,” Ward recalls of the scene outside the airport. “But he said he would speak to my male colleague, and he said this is America’s fault because they are lying to all of these people, these people believe that if they get into the airport, they can go to America when they should just stay here and help build their country. That is how the Taliban sees this, they have to fight back crowds who are being fooled into believing they can get on these planes.”
Ward, who says she has been working 19-hour days since arriving in Afghanistan, is no stranger to the country, having covered the conflict there for more than a decade. But the situation as a journalist has been turned upside down.
“As a reporter, you were always embedded with the U.S. military and covering the Taliban as an insurgency,” Ward said. Now, the Taliban effectively controls much of the country.
“To be here on the ground and watch the capital of Kabul fall in a matter of hours, without hardly firing a single shot, while American forces have withdrawn, it feels like witnessing a pretty profound moment in history,” Ward says. “And then to see out on the streets the next day, Taliban fighters manning checkpoints, running the city essentially, watching the Taliban provide security around the perimeter of the airport, which is under the control of the Americans, I mean, there are so many images and scenarios going on in this last week that I don’t think anybody could have predicted in their wildest dreams.”
Ward has also been able to interview Taliban leaders, and credits “working with the right people” for helping to deliver on that coverage. Specifically, she called out Afghan filmmaker and journalist Najibullah Quraishi (who has also contributed to PBS’ Frontline).
“We first worked together on a story about the Taliban a year and a half ago, and having that exposure to the Taliban back then, and having a better sense of how they operate and how they interact, I think has really helped me to cover this story,” Ward says. “It has meant that I can distinguish between the real fear, like today there were moments of genuine concern about the situation, and then just the fear that has been drummed into you, like that everyone who is from the Taliban is going to try to kill you or kidnap you because you are a Westerner. Whereas I feel that I have had enough exposure to the Taliban to understand that if you are working with the right people, and you have the right permission, and approach things in the right way, you can absolutely do your job as a reporter.”
Ultimately, getting the stories, the images and video out to the world is a team effort, with Ward, Quraishi, her producer Brent Swails, and cameraman William Bonnett all playing a critical role.
“What I love about television is that it is a collaboration. You stumble out of your room and grab a cup of coffee after four hours of sleep in the morning, and it is like, ‘All right, what’s possible? What can we do? Where do we go? Do we try to hit the presidential palace? Do we want to get to the airport today?'” Ward says. “There isn’t one singular process that leads to these decisions, but you just kind of talk it out as a team and decide what is possible, and you also talk it out with your security staff as well, there is multiple components to a story like this, you can’t just get in a car and go. There are boxes that have to be ticked, and planning that has to happen first.”
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