Editing Under Fire in Afghanistan
I’ve spent the past month embedded with the German armed forces Bundeswehr – operating as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in northern Afghanistan – accompanying troops during missions from their bases in Masar-e-Sharif, Feyzabad and Kunduz. This is the first time the German army have allowed news agency photographers to be embedded with operational units, in the way the U.S. have allowed journalists similar access for many years. To be close to the units operating on the ground is the only way to report on their day-to-day work.
Tuesday, September 30th was a special day. It was the first day after the month’s new moon and Muslims all over the world were celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It is a joyful day for Afghans too. Families prepare delicious food and celebrate together with friends and relatives.
I was attached to a unit of German and Belgian soldiers driving to the town of Taloqan, about 75 kilometres east of Kunduz. There was tension in the air. Some roads were closed to military vehicles because suicide attacks or roadside bombs were expected during the holiday period. Just a week before, a suicide bomber driving a car had got close to a German army convoy, causing damage to armoured vehicles. German military personnel travelling inside had a lucky escape.
Our convoy was forced to use another route with very bad roads – no better than dust tracks – which were only accessible with off-road vehicles. We reached Taloqan after a rough, two-hour long journey and I noticed immediately that something was different from my last visit to Taloqan a few days before. The people were dressed more fashionably and children ran around the streets in brightly coloured clothes, much smarter than their usual dusty attire.
We passed the busy bazaar crowded with people, where children were playing on wooden merry-go-rounds. After parking the vehicles at the small army compound, we went on a foot patrol around the bazaar. The soldiers distributed greeting cards for the Eid al-Fitr festival to locals and were quickly surrounded by children.
As I took pictures, I was aware of the tension in the soldiers’ faces. The fear of being attacked was ever-present. German and Belgian soldiers don’t wear their helmets during foot patrols as it makes them appear less aggressive, but it also makes them more vulnerable. They looked intently around, vigilent, monitoring the situation at all times.
There was collective sigh of relief when the soldiers reached the main gate of the compound in Taloqan after the foot patrol. They were back, safe and sound, without incident. Laughing children and the mostly friendly faces of the people they’d encountered in the bazaar were the images that would remain in their memories.
We left Taloqan and headed back to the base in Kunduz. Another two hours on the road. I started editing and sending my pictures as soon as we reached Kunduz. In order to get the strongest satellite signal, I perched my kit on the bonnet of an armoured vehicle outside the main building.
Suddenly I heard a bang. I thought it could have been the sound of a mortar or a rocket, but it could also have been the sound of a firework set off for the Eid al-Fitr festivities. There was silence, so I continued to file my pictures. Then a couple of minutes later there was a second bang and now I was sure this was a rocket attack on the base.
I grabbed my kit and ran to the nearest shelter in the building. We were under fire. The joint operation centre gave the alarm and a coded loud speaker announcement confirmed this was a rocket attack. Seconds later there was a third bang and shortly afterward the sounds of a faraway explosion. Then silence again. In the shelter, the soldiers looked at each other, waiting for the next rocket, but nothing happened.
We waited for hours in our shelter. Fortunately, the base had not sustained any damage. This had been the first rocket attack in two weeks. “That’s normal, daily business in Afghanistan”, said one of the soldiers to me.