Chris Woolf: Then, and now
Woolf’s memoir details his brief trip as a young journalist through the uncertain Afghanistan of the early 1990s, after the Soviets had withdrawn and before the Taliban had taken over. He recounts seeing death all around, striking out at random, interspersed with a beautiful countryside and welcoming, hospitable people. This two week long excursion left him with nightmares, and Woolf masterfully conveys some of how that felt. Woolf tells his story as primarily one of trauma—his own trauma admittedly brief in comparison with that of those living in the war zone but nonetheless real.
Early in his reporting career, Woolf had considered serving as a foreign correspondent, so when the chance came to visit the BBC’s correspondent in Afghanistan and see what the job actually entailed, he took it, trusting that his experience in the army and in stressful situations would prepare him for what he faced. In his journey into Kabul, taking part in a caravan traveling to the rebel-held north of the country, and leaving the country after his visa expired, he was shot at, under artillery attack and nearly stranded on the wrong side of a pass when winter made it impassable. In between all of that, he also managed to take the photos which ably illustrate the text, and interview a Russian prisoner who converted to Islam and joined the Afghan forces.
Woolf is both gripping as he relates these tense stories and humble in his reflection on the heroism of the Afghans and various international aid workers and journalists he met. He describes many more unforgettable incidents than you might expect given the brief length of his time in the country. Readers looking for an exciting memoir about travel through Afghanistan or a look at how the trauma of continued danger can weigh on someone will find this a satisfying read.
Takeaway: Fans of travelogues or war stories, particularly of Afghanistan, will find this memoir compelling.
from Publishers Weekly
An important memoir. Historically significant. A compelling page-turner. Emotionally brave. It’s an on-the-ground scene-setter from waning days of Afghanistan’s communist-backed regime. What’s unique about Woolf’s story is his military and journalist background gave him enough expertise to undertake a journey to Afghanistan in the waning days of the communist-backed government, while simultaneously being naive enough to undertake a journey to Afghanistan in the waning days of communist-backed government! What results is an endearing candor, and the courage to reveal his resulting trauma from the experience 30 years later.
What’s relevant about his story today is that September 11, 2001 exists within the middle of a complex history that began long before that tragic day. The journalist in Woolf shares relevant background into the region, but he also unveils his growing fear and anxiety as he “bumbles” through an active war zone when he gets the opportunity to take a “road trip” on a UN humanitarian aid mission.
This book is equal parts a multifaceted Afghanistan history offering valuable insight to the country’s status today, a ride-along adventure story from Kabul up and through the mountain range called the Hindu Kush, and candid personal history. What’s more, Woolf is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to benefit disabled children in Afghanistan, and a non-profit clearing landmines from Afghanistan and locations worldwide. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
host of the Daring to Tell podcast
Published on GoodReads, 11 Sep 2021
I was fortunate to be asked to read this terrific memoir ahead of publication. I will admit to knowing very little about this period in Afghanistan’s history and so I was fascinated by Chris Woolf’s account of his journey behind the battle lines in 1991. The memoir is as well-written as you would expect from a BBC journalist and it strikes the right balance between fleshing out Chris’s back story alongside the tale of his dramatic, enthralling and frankly harrowing time in the wild lands of Afghanistan. The account does a terrific job of bringing Chris’s journey to life whilst conveying the shock and effect of having to deal with real fear and genuine danger. As a journalist, Chris is not a conventional veteran and I think this is one of the book’s greatest strengths in that is offers a unique viewpoint and insight into the situations he faces. Highly recommended.
Paul Fraser Collard
author of historical fiction, including the Jack Lark series.
Published on Goodreads, 1 Sep 2021
Combat can feel like the ant on an elephant’s tail: overwhelmed and along for the ride. Chris Woolf’s memoir of his ten days in late-1991 “bumbling” into the war in Afghanistan is just such an up-and-down tale, with the momentary highs and gut-crushing lows common to combat. When the teenage goat herder fires his AK-47 in the first few pages – you’ll know how that ant feels, just holding on, exhilarated, terrified, never really knowing what comes next.
Lt-Col ML Cavanaugh
Senior Fellow, Modern War Institute at West Point; lead writer and co-editor, “Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict.”
Bumbling Through the Hindu Kush is at once gripping, informative, suspenseful, and at times it reads like a thriller.
Qais Akbar Omar
A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story
Chris Woolf has written a truly personal tale that is both gripping and historically significant for the war between the Soviet-backed government and Mujahedin in Afghanistan. His mix of personal, cultural, and wartime reflections make this a story well worth the time of Afghanistan aficionados and casual readers alike.
Dr Jonathan Schroden
former senior adviser to the US military’s Central Command, and to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan
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