Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
A close call on a mission to find IEDs in eastern Afghanistan
Nicola Solic is a Reuters photographer based in Croatia. He was embedded with the U.S. Army’s Alpha Company, 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain division in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Logar. Here he recalls a day he spent with a unit tasked with finding and detonating insurgent-laid bombs or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and the moment when the vehicle he had been travelling in that morning was hit by a bomb.
When you are embedded with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, it is important to be safe and to be in a good mood, which means trying not to think about your glorious mission and concentrate only on what the soldiers around you are doing. You watch them closely and from time to time shoot some pictures for Reuters.
I was embedded with U.S. soldiers in Logar province, on the outskirts of Kabul, searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by the Taliban. I followed a dusty road with soldiers from Alpha Company, 3rd brigade of the 10th Mountain Division which is based in Fort Drum in New York. We found and destroyed four IEDs. The fifth, found us.
We left the base early in the morning in a convoy of seven armored vehicles. The roads are a dusty yellow and dark brown. Sometimes you cannot see the vehicle in front of you. We were in the fourth vehicle, a “Max Pro”, also known as a Mine-Resistant Armour Protected vehicle or MRAP – someone told me they cost over one million U.S. dollars each. Our MRAP contained a driver and Lieutenant in the front seats, a gunman on the top, and one specialist, an interpreter and me in the back.
The back of the vehicle was very claustrophobic and uncomfortable with very small armored windows which were protected with an iron net. Pictures I shot through the net looked like a dream. We passed some camel caravans, which frustrated me because we did not stop so I could shoot them in sunrise light. My Pulitzer vanished in the dust.
After waiting while soldiers from the front vehicle, called Husky, swept the road for IEDs with metal detectors, while a robot from the other vehicle, called Buffalo, checked the potential IEDs, we arrived at a crossroads with a bridge over a creek.
From this point we started a serious search. The soldiers got out on foot and took positions on both sides of the road. I followed them with the Lieutenant and interpreter. A specialist followed us, keeping his rifle aimed.
The bridge led to a road which goes north and enters the village of Sha Mazar. We walked through fields. The soldiers keep their eyes poised on the ground. I wondered if they were scared of a sudden ambush or gun attack. But they know the Taliban are not stupid enough to attack during the day and risk being killed by an airstrike. They know that the Taliban probably work overnight and prepare to surprise them on the road. We did not have to wait long before we intercepted the first “surprise”. As we entered the village, at the end of a long wall, the soldiers from Husky stopped and started to sweep. Buffalo’s robotic hand found a wire.
We needed to cross over the wall to get maximum protection and find out where this wire finished, where maybe someone was waiting to connect it, trigger the explosive, and blow us up.
I cannot believe what my body can do when adrenalin pumps through my blood. As we followed the wire, I jumped down a 3.5 meter high wall, like a teenager. I started to feel pain in my left knee when I started to run, following the Lieutenant through the fields. We found the end of the wire. It finished on the other side of another wall, not so high but in corn field. Nobody was there.
To defuse the bomb, a demining crew had to activate the IED. We took safe positions, no less than 200 meters away from the bomb. I got a nice picture of the explosion. Ground and dust in different colours flare up with a red blast. The entire time, children and villagers watched us from a safe distance near their houses.
Then we found a new wire at the end of the village. One of the sergeants said the bomb’s wiring looked tricky. Then just after a small bridge, they spotted another wire, connected to two rocks at either side of the road. It was a trip wire, set-up for a vehicle to drive through and activate a bomb.
Again, the unit went about defusing the bomb. Again, another “boom!” Again a nice picture of the explosion. And just when I thought that would be the last one, the demining crew found another IED, which was in the same place but buried in the ground. The Taliban sometimes put two bombs in the same place, one with less power on top of a much stronger bomb.
The picture of the second, stronger, detonation, became image of the day on reuters.com.
The next IED was simple to find and destroy because like many insurgent-laid bombs it was crudely and badly disguised. We found a wire in a trench between corn fields. No houses were nearby. The demining crew took care of it quickly, but it was already late afternoon.
My leg was not so good after that long walk. We took a quick rest in a patch of forest near a small creek, from where water streams into an irrigation system for the village of Ebar. The soldiers told me a story about how that village is one of the most dangerous in this province. Few days ago they lost a vehicle there and they were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) fired by the Taliban. I wanted to ask the Lieutenant if it was ok to go into the vehicle to rest my leg.
He said it was fine and directed me to the road to wait for the vehicle. I was just passing some wall when I felt, suddenly, a huge explosion. I jumped into a hole behind that wall and thought that somebody was shooting us with an RPG. I lay there for a few seconds, before the Lieutenant came and told me that we lost one of vehicle. “My vehicle?” I ask.
“Yes.” he answered. “Four to one,” I said and got up to shoot some pictures.