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The Caves And Graves Of Tora Bora

Story and photos by Stephen J. Thorne

Top: Members of 3 PPCLI unearth the graves of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards at Ali Khayl, Afghanistan; Left: A Canadian soldier marks a landing zone for incoming American helicopters; Right: Sapper Kerry Way (left) and Master Corporal Rod Hryniuk spend a long day at Ali Khayl; Armed with a 9-mm pistol and a penlight, Corporal Nick LePage of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, emerges from a cave in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.

Of all the combat missions they could have gotten, the Edmonton and Winnipeg-based troops of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, never imagined this one–in this place, at this time, with this objective. The place–Tora Bora. The time–in the thick of the war on terrorism. The objective–none other than Osama bin Laden himself.

But the Canadians were uniquely qualified for this operation in the rugged mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, just seven kilometres from the Pakistan border. Mountain-trained and hardened by four months in theatre, most were seasoned veterans of many deployments, in hellholes like Bosnia, Croatia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Some were former members of the now-defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment. Just weeks before, their parachute company, Alpha, had been hit by an American bomb while on a nighttime, live-fire exercise at a former al-Qaida training compound. It happened just four kilometres from their base in Kandahar. Four died; eight were wounded. This mission was Alpha Company’s return to action.

It was the first weekend of May 2002. We’d flown into Bagram eight long days before aboard an American C-17 transport aircraft loaded with more than 100 troops and two ambulances. I’d spent the entire 90-minute trip staring at a chain holding one of the vehicles in place. It was inches from my right leg and, as we made our rapid descent into the mountain-rimmed airfield at Bagram, the weight of that armoured ambulance jerked at the chain repeatedly. I had resigned myself to the fact the chain was going to snap and take out at least half my leg. Of course, the massive aircraft landed without incident.

We spent the next eight days in miserable wind and dust, waiting for the troops’ American superiors to make a decision on what to do. It was a frustrating time for me, a reporter-photographer with The Canadian Press, Canada’s national news cooperative. Due to operational security, I couldn’t file a word, not a picture. I couldn’t even tell my bosses where I was, though they figured it out easily enough. But at least I could talk to my wife semi-regularly on my satellite telephone. The troops didn’t have that luxury. They had been denied telephone privileges since some time before we departed Kandahar. Many didn’t have the chance to tell loved ones that something was up. Back home, the silence spoke volumes.

The troops spent those eight days getting ready for what by all accounts was going to be a very challenging mission, complete with rappelling, caving and, possibly, combat. There was simmering frustration among some, particularly the reconnaissance platoon, because the Americans insisted on inserting their own Special Forces to conduct the mission recce–finding suitable landing zones, assessing enemy threats and scouting potential cave complexes. It was a classic case of the Americans not knowing the Canadians’ potential. The American forces are well equipped and seem to have an endless supply of troops, but they are not necessarily well trained.

The thing that makes the regular U.S. Army work is its leadership–bold, decisive, rock-hard senior officers with years of rich combat experience behind them. They know how to motivate troops. They weren’t particularly good diplomats, however. And in Afghanistan–at that point, at least–they didn’t know that Canada’s army, while small and ill-equipped, is among the best-trained in the world. Canadian reconnaissance troops are highly qualified with a challenging 10-week reconnaissance patrolman’s course, for example. Many had patrol pathfinder and other specialized qualifications. All of this enabled them to perform a myriad of tasks an American commander wouldn’t dream of entrusting to his own scout platoon, much less his regulars.

The Canadians spent days and nights at Bagram, training for the mission ahead by rappelling off rooftops, crawling around the darkened hallways of an abandoned building as if they were tunnels, marching the dusty roads around the base in full kit.

One thing about Bagram, though: the food was better than in Kandahar–barbecued steaks, pork chops, and real eggs instead of the powdered yellow stuff. And the PX or post exchange store, while smaller, was more interesting. Each day there was something new, from Enduring Freedom T-shirts to canned goods to CDs and DVDs. There were even real pillows and lawn chairs available. French and British troops from the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, often showed up at the two-hour lineups to pick up American goods.

Plagued by an infestation of fleas that left their arms covered in red, swollen bites, the Canadian reconnaissance boys cooled their jets watching videos on a TV with a built-in video player. Each member of the platoon had pitched in $10 US to buy the device at the PX. At the end of the mission, they planned on raffling it off. What they hadn’t counted on, however, was that their tent became an 18-hour-a-day movie house.

Up the road was a little painted adobe building with a sign outside that read Shop at Airport. There were lineups there, too. Inside, there was enough room for two, maybe three, shoppers at a time. Two Afghans sold scarves for $2 and $3 US. Pakools, the pie-shaped hats worn by the Northern Alliance, went for $6. Burkas–gold, green, or the traditional Taliban blue–were popular items. They sold for as low as $15. There was hashish, too. Very cheap, though I never actually priced it. And for the real brave at heart, kabobs could be ordered for $2 apiece. Upon payment, a runner would disappear up the road and return 10 minutes later with the order in hand–chunks of greasy, burnt meat and fat wrapped in newspaper.

As soldiers strolled back down the road into the centre of the base, Afghans would try to sell them Afghan bills as souvenirs. “One dollar,” the kids would say, offering an Afghan note that might have been worth pennies. They hawked homemade daggers and old Soviet belt buckles, embossed with the hammer and sickle (some were knock-offs). One kid even had a grenade for sale. Afghan workers were everywhere, unsupervised. They picked through the American garbage and stole equipment and supplies. While the airfield itself was off-limits to the locals, security at the Bagram base nevertheless seemed a little lacking.

It was from this base that the Americans had launched Operation Anaconda, the largest coalition offensive of the war, back in February­March. As part of that offensive, the Canadians had staged from here for Operation Harpoon, Canada’s first combat offensive since the Korean War. Special Forces from America, Australia and elsewhere came and went. One day we saw four Australian special forces vehicles arrive back from several days’ patrol. They pulled into a large hangar just at dinnertime, bristling with weaponry. The whole scene looked like something out of a Mad Max movie. The soldiers, all bearded with dark tans and sunglasses, were caked with dust. They looked like they’d been through hell, and loved every minute of it.

At some point, the British moved over from ISAF, looking for a piece of the action. They set up their own camp, with their own kitchen where nobody but Brits was allowed to eat. From what I’d heard of the British army food, they were doing us all a favour.

Finally, on the morning of Saturday, May 4, we lifted off aboard American Chinook helicopters destined for a mountainside in Tora Bora. The Afghan countryside is a study in contrasts, from lush green valleys to barren desert to snow-covered peaks. It seemed we saw it all during the 55-minute flight to our tiny landing zone. Flying low, we raced across open plains and rocked and turned through valleys and up ravines.

My Operation Torii, as it was called, began with an uneventful drop-off about 7,500 feet up the side of the mountain known as Towr Ghar. The landing zone overlooked the site where the terrorist mastermind bin Laden was supposed to have staged his last defence. Just a few kilometres to the east were the snow-covered peaks of Pakistan. The Alpha Company boys were up top, a couple of thousand feet above us.

Canadian filmmaker Garth Pritchard and I were to spend three days with U.S. Special Forces and Charlie Company, 3 PPCLI, halfway down the mountain. About 600 feet above us was the command post of Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran, commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. In the ravine far below were the C-4 explosives experts from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment. They didn’t know it at the time, but this would turn out to be engineer heaven.

My immediate concern was to reach the engineers. Back in December, U.S. air crew had reported smoke emerging from the mountaintop after hitting what they believed was a cave entrance in the ravine. This incident and, no doubt, other evidence led American commanders to believe this was the main entrance to a vast cave-and-tunnel network. Problem was, the suspected entrance itself was now obliterated by a massive rock fall. While Canadian snipers and reconnaissance troops kept an eye on things from surrounding peaks, two companies of PPCLI scoured the area for hidden caves and bunkers. It was the engineers’ job to clear caves, including the ravine site, where they were to reopen the entrance if, indeed, that’s what it was. Already, we were hearing explosions echoing upwards from the ravine floor.

I set out with a small section of troops. Assuming I’d likely end up spending the night below, I carried my full kit­helmet, flak jacket and backpack with 24 hours’ water and rations. My laptop computer and satellite telephone had been seized back in Bagram by a Canadian military public affairs officer, who wanted to make sure I couldn’t file during the operation. And so my story and pictures would have to wait until the operation was over–a blessing and a curse.

The 2,000-foot descent was relatively easy, winding along steep goat trails and across ledges, past a shepherd’s hut nestled into the mountainside, and on down. We reached the engineers by early afternoon, only to find them in problem-solving mode. A morning’s worth of blasting hadn’t produced much in the way of results. Using explosives to do the work of backhoes may appear untechnical and brutish but, in fact, it is conducted with surgical precision. The engineers use charges called beehives, specially designed to lift rock and debris. They use a special granular explosive that can be mixed with water to compound its effect. They use hundreds of feet of explosive primacord to set them off, and they mix and match these materials like mad scientists until they get the effect they are looking for. Tora Bora was the laboratory of laboratories for this crew, the home of massive explosions–first from the B-52s when Osama was here back in December, now from the Canadian engineers trying to determine what happened to him. They would trigger some monstrous blasts over the next few days.

But for the time being, at least, the action would be elsewhere. My full kit and I had to hump it back up the mountain to Charlie Company. There was a tree with my name on it up there and the sinking sun was telling me it was time to find it. Pritchard, 13 years older than I was and with the heart of a lion and the strength of an ox, stayed with the main group throughout the hard climb. With my pack and flak jacket, I dropped ever-farther behind the higher we went, a Canadian soldier sticking with me all the way.

Throughout my time in Afghanistan, and in Kosovo in 1999, I couldn’t help but be touched by the motherly instincts of soldiers, particularly Canadian ones. Once they know you and respect you, they want to make sure you’re fed and safe and warm. It seems they can’t help themselves. I always felt it important for journalists not to exploit those instincts because, for one thing, they can wear thin. I never let them carry my kit, for example; it was enough for me that they carried their weapons.

I eventually straggled in. Pritchard and I made camp under a scrawny little tree, he on one side, I on the other. It had lots of knotty little tinges and stubs to hang gear off of, and to bump into. I must have whacked my head on the lower branches of that tree at least a dozen times, drawing profuse amounts of blood twice and providing plenty of entertainment for everyone around.

Nearby were two U.S. Special Forces soldiers who, once they got over the fact that we were media, became great friends. We would spend the next few evenings sharing stories and rations. One would always bring me the iced tea packet from his rations pack; the other would bring Pritchard his tiny burner to make coffee. They were intelligent, serene guys who liked big-game hunting and fishing when they weren’t hunting Taliban and al-Qaida. One evening, the taller of the two arrived in the dark, just as I was bedding down. He handed me his helmet with the night-vision goggles on top, then his weapon. Complete with a flash suppressor, the thing weighed a tonne. “Point this at that hill over there,” he said. Then he flipped a button and a laser beam, visible only through the goggles, reached right across the valley, aiming directly where I pointed it. It was an amazing piece of gear.

The nights in Tora Bora were cool and, just a few weeks after the friendly fire incident, tinged with apprehension whenever the roar of a jet passed overhead. I lay for hours in my sleeping bag and bivouac bag staring at the sky, counting the shooting stars and waiting for the next combat air patrol to come along. This would be my third and last mission, and I prayed nothing would go wrong.

Pritchard and I spent the next day with engineers searching caves, some with entrances barely big enough to allow a single, full-grown man to pass. It seemed like a suicide mission. Armed only with handguns, they’d enter head first, crawling along passages into what was usually a main cave. Many turned out to be shelters for goat herders, which Corporal Nick LePage, a 24-year-old engineer from Lillooet, B.C., found reassuring. He was the first person into one small cave that was about seven metres deep. “I was nervous,” he said, “but then I saw goat shit and stuff in there, so I wasn’t too nervous about booby traps or anything.” Others feared snakes.

Up top, the pioneers were facing their own demons. Pioneers are light engineers and the only guys other than Special Forces who are allowed to grow beards on deployments. The tradition dates to Roman times when pioneers would rise early and be the first ones out to lay roads ahead of the army. The top pioneer was Sergeant Tom Duke, a clever, confident 49-year-old veteran who had an insightful, if not cynical, opinion about just about everything. Deployed with Alpha Company, the California-born Duke and three other Pioneers–Cpl. John Reynolds, Cpl. Aaron Bygrove and Master Corporal Dave Bibby–destroyed eight bunkers and a vertical shaft that was initially believed to lead to tunnels. Duke had the unenviable job of being the first one down the shaft–less than a metre wide and about five metres deep. He carried only a flashlight, a makeshift ladder and a safety line. “There wasn’t room to take a gun,” said Duke. He seemed unfazed by the experience. “I had six guys to pull me out if I needed it. Hell, I was armed–I’m a freakin’ weapon.” The shaft, however, appeared to lead nowhere.

All the while, blasting could be heard from below. The main concentration of engineers was still working that supposed cave entrance in the ravine. A helicopter arrived with dozens of wooden crates filled with C-4 plastic explosives, beehives and other tools of the trade. They formed a chain line and stacked the whole business right next to our tree. This was comforting. “What’s it take to set this stuff off?” I asked some soldiers. An intense flash, one suggested. “Like a mortar round?” I asked. More like a lightning flash, I was told. Just then, lightning lit up the sky a few kilometres to the north. A few seconds later, the engineers let off another one–a big one–in the ravine. I nearly jumped out of my pants. Everyone cracked up. The cases of explosives came in handy, though, as Pritchard and I used some–still full–to build a little dining room, complete with coffee tables, next to our abode.

For the next two days, engineers would be emptying the crates and humping their contents down to the ravine where it would be used to trigger some truly spectacular blasts. I’d spend the next day with those guys and some other U.S. Special Forces soldiers. But first, I had to get some sleep.

It was the middle of the night–maybe 2 a.m.–when I awoke to the sound of rustling. There were no white lights allowed on operations, but when I opened my eyes I could see the occasional flash of light in the sky over our little tree. I turned and looked and there was Pritchard standing up with his head buried in his sleeping bag. He had a penlight in his hand and he was shuffling through the bag as if he were looking for something, working his way to the bottom. “What’s up, Garthy?” I asked.

“Somethin’ bit me and it hurts like a sonofabitch!” he replied.

Pritchard’s a big man and hard as rock. Born in Montreal, he’s an adopted westerner, a rancher from the Rocky Mountains. He’d done 10 documentaries on Canadian troops in 10 years, many of them award winners. His strength and his spirit had won him respect in the Canadian military. If it hurt badly enough for him to be doing this, I figured it must have been bad. There were scorpions all over the place. I couldn’t imagine there were any snakes at this altitude.

“What bit you, Garthy?”

“I dunno, but it’s getting worse. Maybe you’d better come take a look.”

So I pulled on my boots and went and took a look. There were two marks near his right kidney.

“Jesus, Garthy. I think you got bit by a snake!” There were seven kinds of vipers and three kinds of cobras in Afghanistan. A snake bite wouldn’t be good, especially not out here in the middle of the night. Of course, the first thing a victim needs to do is relax. My reaction didn’t help.

“Shit, Steve. Can you find the doc?”

“Sure, Garthy.” Easier said than done. There was a cloud cover. It was pitch black out. We were on a mountainside and the troops still didn’t know if there were any al-Qaida about. Furthermore, I had no idea where the doc was. Time was of the essence. I told Pritchard to lie down and I set out down the mountain, almost crawling as I felt my way along. Eventually, I almost stepped on somebody, asked him where the doc was, and he rounded him up. We made our way together back to our tree, where the doc had a look at Pritchard’s back and determined one of the marks was a mole. The other one, however, was indeed a bite and it had swelled to about the size of a toonie. The doc ordered us back to his bivouac and left.

Pritchard began to dress, but he was feeling worse all the time. The pain, he said, was worse than any bee sting he’d ever had. He was dizzy. I left him again and found the doc, but the doc refused to go back up in the dark. He was still fumbling around for his medicine. “Bring him here,” he said. So I did. He gave Pritchard a shot and some pills and we went back to bed. The next morning, the pain and the swelling had gone down. We figured it was either a scorpion or a centipede. The centipedes in Afghanistan are big and they can be vicious. They come in all manners of colours and designs. It is said the brighter the colour, the more venomous they are. Pritchard found a black-and-orange one near his sleeping bag.

We spent all that day with the engineers in the ravine. They were still trying to clear that supposed cave entrance. It made for good pictures but I spent most of my time talking to some U.S. Special Forces. They were more relaxed and forthcoming than our own JTF-2, who seemed wrapped up in their own self-importance and overly sensitive about their identities. It was explained to me by some former JTF-2 that this was because there were only a few hundred of them in all of Canada at the time, all based outside Ottawa, while there were 25,000 Special Forces in the US military.

These guys more than made up for what the American regulars may have lacked in talents and capabilities. Some spoke several languages, or at least had picked up some of the local dialects. They had a myriad of talents and did their jobs as if they were blue-collar workers on a construction site. They embodied cool. The standard dress was beard, sunglasses, ball cap with T-shirt, desert fatigue pants and army boots. They had customized weapons and usually a pistol strapped to their leg. One guy even had a modified AK-47, the weapon of choice among their enemies the world over and vastly superior to the standard American M-16.

I spent much of this day with two of my American friends pressed against a ravine wall waiting for the latest detonation. At one point, a pair of toads hopped by. A small male was on the back of what was apparently a much larger female, evidently procreating. “You know,” one of the Americans told me, “he’s not actually making babies there. He’s stimulating her. She’ll lay her eggs, then he’ll fertilize them.”

I stared at the guy. We’d just been talking about the rigours of making the grade as a Special Forces soldier. “Did they teach you that at Special Forces school?” I asked.

“Naw,” came the reply. “My dad was a biology teacher. But he was Special Forces, too.”

The engineers were still having no luck with that cave entrance.

Among the jobs the advance party of American SF troops had taken on was establishing contact with locals. While we were in the ravine, unbeknownst to us a small group of Canadian troops, American forensic experts and Special Forces were at the village of Ali Khayl several kilometres away, digging up graves. This, it would turn out, would be the focal point of the mission.

The Special Forces had learned that 25 al-Qaida fighters, all Arabs, were killed right here at this site in the ravine by a B-52 strike the previous December. There were even piles of stones marking the spots where they fell. A local Afghan commander had eventually ordered the bodies buried. A group of villagers dutifully trekked to the site and brought them back to Ali Khayl. Their final resting place had become “a shrine to martyrdom,” said Capt. Phillip Nicholson, a Canadian staff officer based in Kingston, Ont., who led two missions to the village. “We believe these were bin Laden’s lieutenants, his personal bodyguards.”

The cemetery had attracted dozens of pilgrims. One man was said to have come all the way from Islamabad in Pakistan two weeks before, walking the last 40 kilometres to pay homage to whoever was buried at the head of the hilltop cemetery beneath quartz stones and numerous martyr flags. The grave was intriguing–long (bin Laden is six-foot-four) and highly revered (more than 750 people showed up in the middle of nowhere for the burial). Nicholson, whose research on the area included geology, meteorology and topography, described a palpable tension as Canadian infantrymen and engineers went to work unearthing that first grave on Sunday, May 5, 2002.

That first day in Ali Khayl was particularly tough, since the group was small and no one had foreseen the need to bring shovels. The soldiers did their work using dull and broken spades borrowed or rented from locals. “We were looking for bin Laden,” Nicholson said afterward. “There was a sense of excitement on that first grave, like this could be him. But it wasn’t.” That was evident immediately. Everyone on the site knew well what bin Laden looked like. This body was barely six feet, if that. It had a close-cropped beard and didn’t look anything like the lanky villain.

The group dug up two more graves, then returned to the mountainside command post above our tree, though not empty-handed. The forensic guys, as they had done all over Afghanistan, had collected DNA samples, pictures and other information to feed into a data bank back in the U.S. They were actually matching some of these dead al-Qaida and Taliban with known terrorists.

The next day, Pritchard and I joined Nicholson and 40 men, this time with their own shovels, and we set out for Ali Khayl. The four-hour trip could have inspired a Tolkien novel. We descended steep mountain slopes, snaked our way along the length of that walled ravine and followed winding goat trails beneath a canopy of fruit trees.

We emerged into another world: an idyllic river valley surrounded by terraces of poppies and wheat, houses built into the sides of cliffs and an elaborate electrical system that was rumoured to have been paid for by bin Laden himself. The lush green and white terraces, including 80 hectares of flowers used in the preparation of opium, heroin and morphine, couldn’t have stood in greater contrast to the Canadians’ desert base in Kandahar, hundreds of kilometres to the south. Our procession wound its way around huge white boulders along a dry and open riverbed before coming to the village centre and a wedge-shaped rock formation that dominated one side of the valley. The feature bore an uncanny resemblance to Gibraltar on a small scale and was covered in graves, their colourful martyr flags flying stiffly in the breeze.

The troops wasted no time in proceeding with their grisly task. There were 23 graves, in all. Some of them had been here to unearth the three the day before. Now they had 20 more to finish in time to get back to camp before dark.

The job was labourious. Each plot was covered by a mound of rocks that had to be removed by hand. Beneath was almost a metre of dirt and stones ending at a floor–a roof, actually–of wood planking or sheet rock. As the digging got deeper, the stench grew stronger. Teams of infantrymen from Charlie Company took turns along with engineers. Using a penlight on a rifle barrel and a compass mirror, the engineers looked beneath the planks for booby traps before removing them, exposing shroud-wrapped bodies inside walled sarcophagi. The remains, clad in battle dress and with their heads enshrouded in a ghostly white mould, were pulled out by rope and scanned with metal detectors before the forensic guys took hair or tissue samples. Each body was then carefully reburied.

Canadian infantrymen had a perimeter set up around the site. Snipers and reconnaissance troops provided overwatch from high on nearby peaks as their comrades worked. And all the while, villagers watched from patios and rooftops on the hillsides around us. The snipers notwithstanding, the gravediggers appeared to be sitting ducks. Nicholson and the others maintained their cool, however. “These people were rabid al-Qaida/ Taliban fans when they were around,” said Nicholson. “Now, of course, they’re ‘not and never were.’ They’re very pro-coalition, as long as we let them grow their opium.”

Indeed, villagers expressed happiness the coalition had come. Standing in his poppy field, one even claimed through an interpreter that “we face a common enemy, the al-Qaida and the Taliban.”

“The Taliban were an oppressive regime,” said the man. “We feel that for the first time in 25 years there could be stability in Afghanistan.” He then listed the things he said were needed by his village, the most prosperous the Canadians had seen in Afghanistan.

I found the Afghans a very mercenary people. Their loyalties often had more to do with who could do the most for them as individuals rather than Afghanistan as a country. That wasn’t always the coalition. And regardless of whom they backed, in some areas those loyalties began eroding as promises–coalition or otherwise–weren’t kept. The Kabul-based, coalition-backed government of Hamid Karzai had the impossible task of keeping the multiple, disparate elements of Afghan society at bay. It had endeavoured to crack down on poppy operations, but an effective crackdown could never happen without another war. So deals were made. Here, in Ali Khayl, some U.S. greenbacks and the promise that the village would be left alone was apparently enough to allow this excavation to proceed. But many villagers were clearly not happy with the indignities brought upon these Arab graves.

The Canadians were careful to reassemble the plots much as they found them. When it was over, the soldiers appeared emotionally and physically exhausted, and they still had a long hike ahead of them. The sight of those ghostly white cadavers, with every facial feature still intact, would no doubt haunt some of these kids the rest of their days. “It sucked,” Cpl. Shaun Seaton said after the last grave was excavated. “I don’t ever want to do it again. I realize it’s part of the mission and it had to be done, but it’s not something I really signed up for. The smell, the shape of them and just actually having to dig up a grave…. I’m glad it’s done and over with.”

They made the trek back the way they came, all the while keeping their eyes cast upward at the cliffs surrounding them. Word was, the al-Qaida had moved over to the next valley soon after the first Special Forces had appeared a week or two earlier. It often seemed the case–the enemy would mysteriously disappear before an operation was launched.

On the way back, we passed the site where the engineers were still blasting away at that suspected cave entrance. They were wrapping up. After humping tonnes of explosives down the mountain and triggering more than a dozen detonations, they had found nothing.

In fact, no major cave complexes were found at all.

Stogran was doubtful the multi-storeyed complexes existed, at least in Tora Bora. “We’ve been chasing around a lot of country looking for these cave complexes,” he told me. “There must be something lost in the translation. Maybe the indigenous word for ‘bunker’ or ‘trench’ translates as ‘cave.'”

There may not have been labyrinthine cave complexes, but there certainly were lots of places to hide in bin Laden’s last known locale. Besides two grave sites, Alpha Company had found a complex network of bunkers. There were many smaller caves and overhangs. Intelligence officers suspected Osama was wounded at the non-cave entrance in the ravine. Locals claimed he was evacuated to Pakistan by helicopter that same December day his 25 bodyguards were killed.

The mountains have their own deceptions. Light does funny things in the cracks and crevices of Tora Bora. They are constantly changing and, what may have appeared to be a cave from the air often can turn out to be merely a shadow, an indentation or an overhang. Troops had to walk right up to some suspected caves before they realized they weren’t caves at all. By mission’s end, the whole operation was pretty much down on the idea of cave complexes. Said Stogran: “We’ve got enough spelunkers (cavers) amongst us to find a cave if there is one.”

We flew out to Kandahar by helicopter the next day. Seventy-two hours later, I was home in Ottawa, trying to believe I’d ever been in Tora Bora at all.


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