On a starless night, just a few weeks after 9/11, I stood shivering with a handful of other journalists on the banks of the Amu Darya River. We were waiting for a raft operated by Russian soldiers to take us across the border from Tajikistan to Afghanistan.
When we arrived in Afghanistan we entered through a small sliver of the country that had not fallen to the Taliban. It was a tenuous front line held by a fragile coalition of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and other anti-Taliban forces known as the Northern Alliance.
Because the Taliban government had given safe haven to the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks on America, this ragtag bunch was about to get an infusion of air power and special forces soldiers courtesy of the United States that would help them topple the Taliban regime in less than 20 days.
I followed the Taliban retreat from the north all the way to Tora Bora on the border of Pakistan where US B-52 bombers pounded the caves the Taliban had taken refuge in. In the end, they died, surrendered, or escaped to Pakistan.
It was on this journey over a dozen years ago that Afghanistan would pop my cherry as a war correspondent, introducing me to the dopamine rush of combat and the kind of death and depravity that has haunted my memories ever since.
Now I’m back (for the sixth time), retracing the steps of that first journey. I’m crossing the Amu Darya again and traveling the length of Afghanistan to see what has changed, if anything, in the 12 years since international forces intervened here and as they prepare to leave in 2014.
Early during that first trip in 2001, I found myself in the middle of a tank and mortar battle between the Taliban and Northern Alliance in an area known as Kalakata.
I was filming in a frontline position near a Northern Alliance tank that was dug in facing the Taliban in the valley below. We heard a crack in the distance and I watched in my viewfinder as the Northern Alliance troops dove for cover. The mortar explosion behind me knocked me off my feet. It did worse to a National Geographic producer named Gary Scurka. I looked over and saw him holding his leg with blood streaming down his jeans. “I’m hit, I’m hit!” he screamed.
I continued to film, partly due to shock and partly because of the macabre thought that I might be witnessing the first American casualty of the war. After a moment I put the camera down and wrapped his leg using an Afghan scarf he had around his neck.
Scurka lived. But three other journalists were killed on the same day when the Northern Alliance armored personnel carrier they were riding in was ambushed by the Taliban. One of them was a French radio reporter named Johanne Sutton.
I didn’t know any of them very well, but I remember seeing Johanne that morning near the compound where many journalists were staying. She smiled at me briefly as I passed her on my way to Kalakata.
Of all the people I know who have died in war, I think of her most often. It's sad that she was killed in such a lonely place, in some anonymous battle seemingly so far from anything.
On this trip I returned to Kalakata and found the tank trench almost the way it had been in my memories. I also drove to the area where Johanne was killed. The field was peaceful now. While the conflict in Afghanistan is ongoing and may be for some time to come, at least in this lonely place where Johanne passed a golden crop of summer wheat paints over the evidence of some of its violent past.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist, who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep checking back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
Read an excerpt from Kevin's latest book: Killing Up Close
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites
And visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com