Ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan
HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan, October 23 2007 – Canadian and Afghan National Army troops abandoned a dawn ambush of Taliban fighters at a mud village in southern Afghanistan and were walking across a dusty field when the first Taliban shell struck.
It exploded about five meters (yards) away from four Canadian soldiers mentoring and training their Afghan counterparts.
As a photographer embedded with the Canadians, I was hit by the blast and then enveloped by a cloud of dust and smoke as we scrambled for cover behind a mud wall shielding us from Taliban positions on the opposite side of a grape field.
Canadian and Afghan troops quickly returned fire and I focussed on taking pictures of an Afghan army soldier shooting a heavy mounted machine gun from a nearby ditch.
A second shell from an 82-millimeter recoilless rifle exploded immediately in front of him and he disappeared in the flash of light as sand blasted me and the shockwave knocked me over. I was sure he was dead, or at least wounded. A moment later, he bounded out of the ditch and ran towards me through the smoke, the heavy machine gun blazing from his hip, Rambo-style.
A third shell slammed into the solid mud wall where Canadian Sgt.-Maj. Paul Pilote was standing, punching a hole through it and sending the soldier sprawling backwards. Stunned, and with blood spilling from his nose and mouth, Pilote crawled away from the explosion on hands and knees. I kept shooting through the haze.
Under fire from Taliban insurgents, Canadian Master Corporal Frank Flibotte and Major Jean-Sebastien Fortin moved to assist Pilote.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE
I moved back from the wall taking shell hits and was reluctant to leave the cover of a ditch until I realised the Afghan troops had fled and the Canadians were busy with Pilote on the other side an open dirt road in the direct line of fire.
Not wanting to be left behind, I scrambled over the wall of a nearby compound and moved through a garden blooming with purple flowers. I was still cut off from the Canadians by the open road and needed to get pictures of them treating Pilote.
An armoured RG-31 vehicle raced to the scene and filled the open space in the firing line, so I ran behind it towards the wounded Pilote.
“Get back behind the RG!” shouted Maj. Fortin.
I wasn’t sure that was such a good idea since it was an obvious target for the next shell, compared to the relative safety of the ditch where Fortin and Flibotte were treating Pilote, but I ran back anyway, tripping and falling, like an old woman.
Pilote’s wounds were not serious and I photographed Flibotte and Fortin helping him to his feet and supporting him as they staggered towards the RG-31 while others provided covering fire. We retreated to a nearby base, where we heard the sound of heavy fighting as another company came under attack.
We had to go back out. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to go to be somewhere safe. But the troops don’t have that option and neither did I. An Afghan soldier had been shot in the shoulder and had to be evacuated.
JUST ANOTHER “TICK”
The Canadians called in armoured support from its Quick Reaction Force, consisting of more than a dozen armoured vehicles, while tanks, U.S. Humvees and U.S. Rangers provided back-up. Artillery sent in smoke cover and U.S. Apache helicopters clattered overhead. Afghan army and police also reinforced.
Meanwhile, Fortin estimated there were between 10 to 15 Taliban fighters, most of them just wearing grubby robes and sandals. None were confirmed killed or wounded.
“It shows how all the military might in the world can’t stand up to ten ragtag fighters who believe God is on their side,” a fellow journalist said afterwards, summing up the challenge facing NATO forces as they try to crush a determined guerrilla movement.
The battle at Howz-e-Madad in the Zhari district of Kandahar province was typical of the conflict gripping Afghanistan’s southern region bordering Pakistan, where at least 23 such “contacts” occurred in the last month.
The photos were splashed across front pages in Canada the next day, but in the grand scheme of things, it was just another “tick,” as soldiers here call firefights.
People often ask whether it’s worth the risk taking combat pictures. It’s only worth it if you don’t get hurt or worse. The second something bad happens, the gamble is lost.
We were lucky. Pilote suffered only minor shrapnel wounds and some hearing loss and the Afghan wounded in the shoulder is recovering well.
Under fire, you just want to get the hell out and you swear you’ll never go out there again. But the soldiers have to do it. So it’s part of the job.