Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Archive for December 2011

Three Days in Afghanistan

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John Wendle / Kabul

War is strange. It can give everything and it can take it all away. Life can do this too, but war has speed and ferocity to it – a speed that life only rarely mimics.

Just two months ago in Kunar – one of the most dangerous provinces in the country and bordering Pakistan – I hiked a thousand meters straight up a mountain for five and a half hours in the dark with the men of 3rd platoon, bravo company. We landed in Chinooks in a soggy rice paddy, expecting contact. With no night vision and no moon, I scrambled up and over massive boulders, across loose stone and through thorn trees to the small, embattled Shal Outpost. It was the hardest physical thing many of the soldiers – and I – had ever done in our lives.

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I soon realized I was proud of myself. This was something I had never felt. In the past I have said I stand on the shoulders of others and that any achievements I have had have been thanks only to the support of friends and the love of my family. This was different. This was something I had done on my own through my own strength and determination – though even that determination was bolstered by a persistent stubbornness picked up from my parents and sister and from the support of the soldiers around me.

And my pride came from not only reaching the top of that mountain with the guys, it also came from simply pulling my own weight and not complaining, in helping guys two-thirds my age up rock faces and in not hurting myself. And there was professional pride too – in trying to take pictures, even through physical exhaustion. I realized that this was an experience no one could take from me. It was mine and I could look back on it – and it would help strengthen me in difficult times to come.

Then, just a couple of days later, I was almost shot in the face. The sniper’s round missed me by a half meter. It was so close it showered sparks all over me and my camera as it ricocheted off a steel post it had hit, so close I picked up my camera and looked at the lens to see if it had been smashed. I dropped below the sandbags with PFC Cory Early, the soldier I had been chatting with. He had an astonished look on his face. Probably I had the same on mine.

In the space of a couple days I had ticked off two boxes I seemed to have had in my head that needed to be checked in order for me to prove to myself that I was a bona fide war reporter.

The first was doing something truly hard and seeing it through to the end. Conquering that mountain and reaching Outpost Shal ticked that box in a number of ways. I’ve lived in Afghanistan for two years, and have done a lot of hard things, from the hard physical labor of long foot patrols in Marjah and the Arghandab River Valley in 140F heat wearing full body armor and camera gear, to the challenge of overcoming the terror of facing the unseen dangers of foot patrols – the IEDs that have cost countless soldiers and photographers their legs – and the ambushes.

But up until I was just missed by that sniper, they had been just that, unseen. Now a conversation I had had a year ago with my dad had played out. I had been talking to him about what the work was like, but I told him that, though I had been scared before, I had never truly felt like I was a war reporter because I had never been the target of any of the shooting I had seen. My head had never been in anyone’s sites before. But that sniper shot had changed that.

I can’t even say I was scared. Surprised, yes. I hadn’t seen it coming. I continued to do my work, to take pictures, shoot video and talk to them – interviewing them for a story I was working for TIME. But now, weeks later, with those two boxes checked – physical exertion and achievement in a hostile environment and being specifically targeted to die in this war – I woke up feeling like a new man. I was confident in my job and in my personal life – feeling that I knew who I was and what I was doing in the face of all the uncertainty that this war – and this kind of life – brings.

The blast on Tuesday in central Kabul that killed 58 and wounded another 150 people, mostly Hazaras watching the observance of the Shiite holy day of Ashura, in which adherents whip their backs with chains and blades to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husain and mark his sacrifice, has profoundly changed that pride and that confidence.

The explosion radiated out in a circle through a densely packed crowd in which I was filming shirtless men whip themselves bloody. My camera and I were dotted with blood that had flown in showers off the backs, chains and blades of the men beating themselves in a frenzy of religious fervor. The bomb left a closely packed semicircle of bodies in its wake, as if a giant scythe had reached out, cutting people down like wheat in its sweep. Women, children and babies behind the bomber had been blown against a wall, compressed into a piled and tangled line of blood and scorched clothing.

The dead were dead. The wounded were horrifying behold, moving or just breathing in unnatural ways, through shattering pain and shattered bodies, they writhed or simply jerked and shuttered on the ground, or simply gaped and blinked through bloody mouths and eyes, covered in dust and gore. I saw one little girl stand up, then collapse back onto the pile of her bloody brothers and sisters. A baby lay half on her mother’s chest with her torso and head lying face first on the ground, not moving. It was the Inferno. Hell. I ran around not knowing what to do or where to go. In the center of it, all I wanted to do was close my eyes and ears and not see anymore. Then I went back to work.

I have covered numerous bombings and attacks in Kabul. You hear the boom, grab your cameras, you jump on your bicycle – easier to get past police checkpoints and to move quickly through traffic jams – and you cover the aftermath. The slicks of blood and intestines. The heads emptied and collapsed like a deflated soccer ball. Being inside the horror of that day, the second bloodiest in years, was different.

I am not proud of my work on Tuesday. I almost do not even remember taking the pictures or video that aired on CNN. I know I had to keep working though. It is my job and there were only two other photographers there during the blast. The Afghans deserved to have their story told.  And there were others there to help the wounded and carry the dead. I didn’t have my tourniquet with me – I usually carry one to bombings – and one tourniquet would not have been enough. But, though I had been only 15 meters from the blast, had nearly been trampled, then decided to not to run and to get to work, to then look for the body of my colleague and friend Joel van Houdt, a Dutch photographer, who I was covering the event with, to seeing him standing, physically unharmed and working, I did not feel the same way I felt after being nearly shot by a sniper, I did not feel anything.

And now all I feel is sadness for all the little babies and children that were senselessly killed. I do not feel like I have checked a box – though bombings have been a major part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years – I do not feel like this makes me a war photographer, videographer or journalist. I do not have any pride in this work. Just sadness and anger that people, Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami as is being claimed now – or otherwise, could do this to others, particularly innocent civilians. Children.

I used to lie to myself and my friends. When asked why I cover this war, why I’m interested, why I take risks and do what I do, I would tell them that I have close Afghan friends in Helmand that I don’t want to have to see run away, die or hide when the civil war starts after the planned American withdrawal in 2014. I felt like the only way I could do this was by showing what is going on here and helping bring it to an end – an end that does not engender a civil war. After Tuesday’s bombing I realized I am here not for my friends, but for all Afghans and everyone fighting here. As Joel observed, for the two of us, this is no longer only their war, that war over there, between the Afghans, it is ours too now, and we are here to try to give them a voice against this incomprehensible violence and brutal rage.

Another photographer, my friend Pieter ten Hoopen, told me yesterday that he is afraid of what is to come here in Afghanistan. US troops, a stabilizing force, are withdrawing and the violence will only increase. Most of us journalists and photographers predict a civil war – there is no real doubt among Afghans and foreigners who are not lying to themselves. But in the near future, Pieter is afraid that the viciousness of this attack will only make even more brutal attacks imaginable – and that they will be carried out. I, too, am afraid.

A version of this story can be found on TIME at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2101935,00.html

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Written by johnwendle

December 29, 2011 at 5:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized