Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Surviving an IED in Afghanistan’s Helmand
Reuters photographer Asmaa Waguih was embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. for two months. Here’s her account of a close shave with an IED blast.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that a large part of my time with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan would be marked out by the Marines’ order : “hurry up and wait”. I would wait for hours for flights to remote places, for a foot patrol to start but above all wait for action to happen so I could shoot live combat.
The first thing I asked the officers at the 3/6 Marines base was : which battalion or company were going for the longest patrols and which had got shot the most, so I could embed with them.
There were so many patrols taking place and so intense were the searches in IED (improvised explosive device)-strewn Helmand that it was hard to keep track of what was going on. I went on several of these patrols but didn’t find any action, despite hours of walking, jumping over ditches in the poppy belt. The Taliban simply seemed to have vanished. Somebody said they were waiting for the poppy harvest and once the money came in, they would buy ammunition and start attacking again.
I extended my embed by another month in the hope that the next patrol I went on would end up in an engagement with the Taliban who were surely lurking in the area. But my luck was running out in a perverse way; all the patrols I went on turned out to be peaceful affairs while the others ran into action. Why couldn’t I be in one of them ? I kept asking, rather loudly a major at the main base as the day of my departure approached.
A captain heard me and said : ”You need action shots, come with us tomorrow, we get shot at everyday”. I signed on immediately and next morning we were on the road headed for a compound where the Marines had engaged in a firefight the previous day.
Our mission turned out to be peaceful, we didn’t find any enemies and we were heading back to base, with me again without any live pictures. The one odd thing I noticed was that we took the same route back as the one we had come out on. Whatever little I had learnt from my experience with the other patrols was that you never took the same road back because of the threat of IEDs.
It was easy for the Taliban to plant the IEDs. A bit of gunpowder, a timer and a cellphone to trigger it off. They would tell residents not to come close to the road till the foreign soldiers passed by and then they would trigger the explosion with a cellphone.
I was in the middle of an 11-member Marine patrol walking close to the captain. We were not far from the base. And then I heard the explosion on my back. For a moment I thought someine had fired a rocket-propelled grenade from the other side of the road. I hit the ground instinctively and near me was the broken jar containing the explosive which hadn’t fired well.
The captain looked at me and said : “They did it again, they didn’t mix the powder well, otherwise me and you specially woud have been killed. Congratulations you survived your first IED.”
I got my picture, finally, but it was a close shave.