Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Archive for February 2011

Suicide bombing photos

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My photos from the February 14 suicide bombing can be found posted with my photo agency at: http://www.atlaspressphoto.com/_ATLASPRESS_/ga_multi_list.asp?adSearch=&searchtype=0&searchtext=john+wendle&ssSearchtype=2&ga_category=&within=0&ga_country=&x=0&y=0&cType=1&fDate=1900-01-01&tDate=2009-05-28&orient=0&color=0&photographer=

Some of the pictures are graphic, so please be aware.

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Written by johnwendle

February 26, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Valentine’s Day bombing in Kabul – the backstory

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I heard a boom through my window. Loud enough to be big and without the echo that usually accompanies a training exercise or the military blowing up arms caches. I ran down stairs to my housemate Joel’s room, and we almost ran smack into each other as he was running out, pulling on his jeans and grabbing his cameras.

I said, “Are we going?” And he said “yeah.”

So, I ran back upstairs threw on my jeans, grabbed my cameras, took a piss and we were off, my hands shaking. He’s been to one of these before and – at 28 – has taken pix for 10 years. He said we needed to be at the bombing 10 minutes ago.

So we’re running down the street and he’s talking in Dutch on his mobile to his friend Bette who writes for a big Dutch paper – trying to get the details of the bombing – and I’m just running along behind him. He is totally mindless of mud and 6in deep puddles covering the street – running at full speed right through them. I’m a little more careful.

We turn down a mud alley and he finally stops at a muddy lake blocking our path – but we run around it and a car comes skidding up in the dirt and mud at the end of the street and we jump in and Bette introduces me to her fixer.

So we’re waiting for her housemate to get in the car – the reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. I’m all jittery and don’t really know what’s going on. Joel starts honking the car horn to get the guy to hurry up. He’s got to tie his boots and then he forgets his camera. Joel wants him to hurry since the police block off bombings pretty quickly and you have to get there fast to beat the wire snappers.

Finally we’re off driving faster than I’ve ever driven in downtown Kabul – straight into oncoming traffic and honking and blindly cutting around busses. Then we hit a traffic jam and Joel says, “I’m out! I’m going to run.” And I say, “Ach. OK.”

So I get out too and I’m trying to keep up. He’s been living here straight for 7 months at a mile altitude and I’m left chugging and slurping along after him out of breath.

The Afghans on the street see us running together with our big cameras, boots and bags covered in mud and are laughing and pointing. They’re just sitting there.

They know there’s been a bombing, but they’re used to violence and this sort of thing – so they think its funny that two foreign guys with big cameras are running at high speed, covered in mud, to get to the site of a bombing. It really shows the absurdity of the long war right there.

So we finally slow down and I’m coughing and spitting and we finally get up to the cross street where the bombing is and the police have already set up a cordon. We got there about 10 or 15 minutes after it happened.

And the press corps slowly filters in behind us. The Afghan press, as usual, were on the scene first. There’s a bit of pride with being some of the first foreigners there. Then the foreign press starts to trickle in – snappers and hacks and video guys. My first introduction to everyone is as a sweat-covered, shaking, spitting mess coughing up half a lung. We’re passing around a few jokes with some cigarettes and then there’s shooting. Like an idiot I go hug a wall instead of getting behind a tree. So I walk over and get behind a car, mindful to stand by a wheel so I don’t get shot in the feet – nervous about getting shot by a stray round through the glass.

Up the road some police Hilux pick-up trucks have started to pull up and police in helmets, body armor, knee and elbow pads with assault rifles are piling out and running in the building after reports of two more suicide bombers.

But we can’t really see anything from where we are – we’re down the street about a hundred meters and slightly around the corner from the bombing. We’ve all come from behind our trees and cars and are chatting again and the police continue to push as back little by little – accompanied by ineffectual joking from some of the photogs about trying to stay closer to the action.

Eventually Misha, a new friend of mine, says “enough” and asks if I want to go get some kebabs – meaning he wants to walk around and see if we can get closer on another street. So we walk about 20 paces and there’s a big open pit construction site and we see two other photogs going down through the pit and climbing up a mud and stone cliff on the other side.

So Misha, Joel and I, plus two other photogs go down – Joel starts running again – and we pull each other with the help of some laughing Afghan bystanders up the wall of mud. We’re now covered in Kabul’s dirt.

I’ve just run 3k and am beat and I haven’t eaten anything but a big bowl of oatmeal at 9am. Its now 2pm.

So, we cross an empty lot – right next to the guesthouses that were blown up last year that caused so much damage to the nearby Safi Landmark – the building that has just been attacked.

We come out on the street and there is a big police presence, but here we can get right up onto the sidewalk where the bombing took place. Security guards at the shopping center stopped the bomber at the entrance and he blew himself up there – almost on the sidewalk.

There’s blood, glass, metal, police, dirt, snow, water, sterile gloves, investigators, soldiers, photographers, journalists, foreign security guys and ISAF bomb disposal guys everywhere.

We’re all straddling the open drainage sewer that divides all streets from sidewalks in Afghanistan trying to get pictures. There’s a white and red painted guardrail we’re all pressed up against. We’re all pressing in, trying to get closer.

As we get there there’s already dozens of Afghan journalists and photographers and videographers and lots of their foreigners already snapping away. We’ve missed the first 20 minutes, but now we’re in the thick of it.

Police continually try to push everyone away – but besides being a bit rough, aren’t violent. The photographers are all pressing in and their luck, trying to get closer. Trying to get into the debris. No luck.

An investigator, not wearing any gloves, picks up the head of one of the victims – maybe the bomber – with two ginger fingers. I assume its that of one of the security guards since its laying near a lower leg that disappears into a beaten up military style boot.

The head is like a deflated soccer ball with scorched, burnt hair. Or – more – like a pinata made of terracotta and wrapped in paper – that has now been beaten, soaked in water and broken into shards that are still held together by the paper. I see an ear. I take pictures.

Later I bump into Lynsey Addario. I’m speechless – and finally get out a lame, “Wow. Cool.” I think I get in one of her shots as I step into a fresh juice shop that has been turned upside down by the blast – only 25ft away.

Afghans love fresh juice and these shops are all over the city. There are bright, skinned carrots all over the floor and pomegranates and bananas are smashed all over the place.

After shooting through a blown out window – a perfect “frame” – I look down and see a viscous goo and skin hanging from my foot covered in blood – I get out, “oh, fuck” – but Linsey says, “don’t worry, its bananas and pomegranate juice.” Infinite wisdom. Probably just practice and common sense and a cooler head. She’s been to lots of these. Slowly, the scene quiets down. I meticulously scrape off the banana and pomegranate with the toe of my other boot.

Incredibly the police open up the previously blocked road and start letting traffic through. Joel and I – and another guy we’ve just met – a very nice French snapper named Philip – voice incredulity and a bit of concern that they would allow cars though with so many police around.

If the Taliban wanted to use a secondary bomber to wipe out a lot of police and cops, it’d be easy. A fat British sergeant who has arrived with a UXO bomb team tells an Afghan cop to close the road. The sergeant’s body armor presses down, leaving a bulging loaf of gut exposed to bullets – protected only by a straining green tee-shirt. The cop says “yes,” then wanders away and does nothing.

Finally I convince Joel to leave. He’s got a Dari lesson in 15 minutes. Philip catches up with us. As we’re walking away down the paved main road we came up on, ever mindful of security, one of us, Philip I think, asks if we want to walk down an unpaved side street, covered in mud. It is blocked by a big open hole between it and the main street. We all veer off through the mud and water.

I say, “Well, I’m glad that happened today.” Then realized how messed up that sounds – to anyone but a photographer or a journalist. Joel jumps all over it. Making fun of me. But teasingly. He understands.

I feel I have to explain though. “Its good that that happened now, just a couple weeks after I got here. You know, to give me a taste of what’s going on. What is like. How to operate.”

I almost add, “it was good that it was an easy one,” – because the cops didn’t beat us and there was no secondary attack, there was only a little shooting and the blast was right on the street and there weren’t dead bodies scattered everywhere – but then I realize that this will sound even more messed up than the first statement – just an hour after three people lost their lives and I’ve seen a human leg torn off at the knee – the inside of the knee exposed, bloody and broken, looking like a dark, hairy, ripped off chicken hip – and a head crushed, bloody scorched and gutted on the sidewalk.

I say it anyways. They agree. We walk home through the streets of Kabul. On the way back we buy some bread.

The photo at the top is mine.

Joel’s photos can be found at http://www.joelvanhoudt.nl/

Philip’s photos can be found at http://www.philip-photos.com/

Linsey’s photos can be found at http://www.lynseyaddario.com/

My photos from Russia can be found at http://www.lightstalkers.org/john_wendle

Written by johnwendle

February 18, 2011 at 10:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized