Photographers' Blog

Big chip gamble in Afghanistan

I’ve witnessed the U.S. military’s interaction with Iraqis and Afghans during several embeds with different units both in Iraq and Afghanistan, my latest embed with the U.S. Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Helmand province was quite an experience.

I was told by an officer that they had a mission the next day to deliver snacks to a village called Deveelak on the second day of Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

Before leaving the camp, I saw soldiers loading boxes of chips, muffins and milk onto their armored vehicles. Each of the Marines practiced how many stacks of boxes they could carry for the upcoming trek.

U.S. Marines from 1st Light Armoured Reconnaisance Battalion, Alpha Company carry boxes of snacks for residents of Deevelak village in Helmand, Afghanistan September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

We traveled in a convoy of armored vehicles from the camp to a location less than an hour away.

I anticipated seeing a crowd of people waiting for us to distribute the snacks.

We arrived in a remote place and the Marines carried snack boxes and hiked approximately 30 minutes to a location beside a small mosque where two elderly Afghans sat.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures September 12, 2010

As the anniversary of the 9/11 attack coincided with Eid celebrations, Florida based Pastor Terry Jones announced that he would burn the Koran as a protest  to plans to site a Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero , stoking tensions in Asia.  Add into the mix millions in Pakistan suffering from lack of water, food and shelter after floods, a parliament election in   Afghanistan and a U. S. -led  military campaign against the Taliban around Kandahar -  photographers in the region had lots of raw material to work with.

Raheb's picture of relief and joy caught in the harsh light of a direct flash seems to explode in a release of tension as news spreads that Pastor Jones had cancelled his plans to burn the Koran. It has to be said that ironically earlier in the day in Pakistan US flags were burned in protest against the planned protest.

AFGHANISTAN/

 Afghan protestors shout anti U.S slogans as they celebrate after learning that U.S. pastor Terry Jones dropped his plans to burn copies of the Koran, in Herat, western Afghanistan September 12, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Life and death on a medevac helicopter

An Afghan man suffering from multiple stab wounds is loaded onto a medevac helicopter near the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Taking pictures of people who are suffering and in pain is never an easy experience. From the jump seat in the back of a Blackhawk medevac helicopter, a constant stream of injured, dead and dying men and women passed in front of me during a recent week-long embed. The wounds were as varied as the patients; an Afghan soldier with kidney stones to a Marine whose legs had been nearly severed by an IED blast.

An Afghan man holds his daughter onboard a medevac helicopter after she was shot in the ear during a gun battle between Marines and insurgents near the town of Marjah, in Helmand Province, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong The medevac helicopter crews were part of the 101st Airborne Division based at Camp Dwyer, a dusty Marine base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.  During my one week embed with Charlie Company, I would generally work from 6am until it got dark around 7:30pm. The busiest times of day seemed to be in the morning and then again in the afternoon, but calls were received 24 hours a day. About 50% of our patients were Afghan nationals, both military and civilians; with injuries ranging from amputated limbs blown off by IED’s to stab wounds from domestic disputes. The military medical facilities offer the same level of care to locals and soldiers alike, in no small part to gain a bit of good will in this hostile and volatile province.

One morning I was in my tent when the call went out over the radios, “Medevac Medevac Medevac” I joined the crew as we sprinted to the helicopter and within minutes we were airborne. The noise inside was deafening, and earplugs brought the level down to a dull roar. After about 15 minutes, the pilot increased our speed to around 175 mph (280 km/h) and we dropped to tree-top level for our final approach. The helicopter rotors kicked up a cloud of dust as we touched down and the flight medic jumped out to help board the wounded.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in pictures

Rarely do so many big stories of global interest happen at the same time from one region but last week in Asia its been incredible.

Soldiers and aid workers struggled to reach at least a million people cut off by landslides that have complicated relief efforts after the worst floods in Pakistan in 80 years. Poor weather has grounded relief helicopters and more rain was expected to compound the misery of more than 13 million people . The floods have killed more than 1,600 people. 

PAKISTAN-FLOODS/

Marooned flood victims looking to escape grab the side bars of a hovering Army helicopter which arrived to distribute food supplies in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan's Punjab province August 7, 2010. Pakistanis desperate to get out of flooded villages threw themselves at helicopters on Saturday as more heavy rain was expected to intensify both suffering and anger with the government. The disaster killed more than 1,600 people and disrupted the lives of 12 million.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Life in a minefield

The last day of our Reuters multimedia embed at COP Nolen.

0600 July 30th, 2010.

I woke up and watched as two squads of U.S. Army soldiers exited Combat Outpost Nolen, a small base in the heart of the volatile Arghandab Valley. One squad would try to demolish a wall that insurgents used as cover to fire AK-47’s and RPG’s at the base almost daily. The other squad carried concertina wire to surround a couple of nearby abandoned houses in an attempt to deny insurgents locations to plant Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s).

Moments later, the base was rocked by a huge explosion. A column of smoke and dust rose just 20 meters outside the walls and we heard the cries of a soldier in agony. Troops rushed into the base and called for a Medivac helicopter. I threw on my flak jacket and helmet and ran outside the gates to the scene of the blast.

A soldier with the US Army's 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division shouts instructions after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded just outside Combat Outpost Nolen in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar July 30, 2010.  One soldier lost his leg and another was hit by shrapnel after an IED blew up during a patrol near the base. REUTERS/Bob Strong

I rounded the corner into a courtyard and saw one soldier sitting on the ground being treated, his face pockmarked with shrapnel wounds. A sergeant yelled at soldiers to secure the landing zone for the Medivac helicopter.

Streets of Wootton Bassett

A historic market town with a distinctive 17th century town hall, Wootton Bassett is worth a visit – but the crowds that gather here with grim regularity are rarely interested in the tourist sites. Instead, as British troops face a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Wootton Bassett, west of London, has become synonymous with the repatriation of soldiers killed in action.

After they arrive at a nearby air base, the bodies are driven slowly through the town en route to a hospital. For the past two years, townsfolk have joined grieving relatives in paying spontaneous tribute to the passing dead.

Covering the repatriation cortege is an uncomfortable assignment. There is always awareness that some people think photographing and filming mourners at a moment of emotional vulnerability is a thoughtless intrusion. Even after scores of similar ceremonies, this feeling of awkwardness is evident, including at the latest one I attended on July 22. Friends and family of soldiers line one side of a narrow road in Wootton Bassett while photographers and television crews face them from the opposite side.

Embedded in Taliban territory

Photographer Yannis Behrakis is seen in Afghanistan.

One of the most challenging and exciting parts of my job is working with some of the toughest and best-trained men in the most dangerous and challenging spot in the world. Last January, Reuters photographers received a group email asking for volunteers for an embed in Afghanistan “during the two most dangerous months of the year, May and June”. I did not think much before responding. I was on my way back to my home base in Greece after a two-year assignment in Israel.

By mid-March I was back in the gym to be fit for the embed. After a series of emails with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and a bit of paperwork, I received the approval for a three-week embed with the 2-508 Infantry Parachute regiment, (the Red Devils) part of the 82nd airborne, based in Arghandab valley near Kandahar. I was very happy and relieved to get the go ahead. I arrived at Kandahar airfield (KAF) on April 30. After a two day wait at the airbase, and a few rocket attacks, I got the green light to fly on an Australian Chinook chopper to my base in the valley — a region considered the most dangerous on earth at that time. To whoever is a fan of extreme games, I suggest a flight with that “bird.”

Canadian and U.S. Army soldiers board an Australian Chinook transport chopper in Kandahar airbase in southern Afghanistan, May 3, 2010.   REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

We flew at a maximum of 300 feet over fields and small villages at high speed, zigzagging all the time with the gunners occasionally shooting their machine guns. The flight was supposed to be less than 20 minutes, but the “bird” stopped at several small bases to unload or pick-up soldiers. The flight ended up lasting for more than two and a half hours. At some point it had to go back to the KAF for refueling. Most of the soldiers were throwing up after the first 10 minutes of our long flight. Myself and two Canadian soldiers were the only ones not vomiting. We joked that our Australian crew had made a bet to see how many of us they could make sick.

A shot in the dark

A soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, Alpha Troop, 2-1 Infantry Battalion, 5/2 Striker Brigade Combat Team scans the area with a scope during a night observation mission in Kandahar Province April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

It’s 1:00am, I’m sitting in a small dirt hole. Not sure exactly where but somewhere in western Kandahar‘s Maiwand district. How did I get here? On a journey that has involved too much time spent waiting. Waiting at Forward Operating Bases, waiting for planes, waiting for people, waiting for helicopters, waiting for convoys, waiting for patrols.

The short version is it hasn’t been the most productive assignment. I am itching to get ‘out there’ and shoot. So I have jumped at the offer to join an observation post patrol on a moonless night in a flat and treeless landscape, looking for militants laying IEDs.

I’ve bumbled my way out the back of an armored Stryker, across rocky ground, closely tailing a few soldiers who unlike me are equipped with night vision gear. It’s inky black, no illumination permitted. I even have the small red indictor lights on my camera’s back covered with tape. So now I’m in this little dirt hole. It’s dark, really dark. No light at all…… Well, except the billion or so stars above.

Destination: Afghanistan

It all started out with a phone call from Reuters News Pictures Washington Editor In Charge Jim Bourg on Thursday night informing me there was a secret Presidential trip leaving on Saturday to an undisclosed destination which Reuters would like me to travel with the president on. I was told that this was very secretive and that I was not to mention it to anyone and that no details were available yet. I had been with President Obama on his secret trip to Baghdad last year, so it was pretty easy to figure out that the destination this time might be Afghanistan, a trip which had been highly anticipated since Obama became president 15 months ago. I was to expect to be contacted directly by the White House for a meeting to discuss the details. But I was to “open” the White House as the first Reuters photographer arriving there on Friday morning at 7am, my scheduled shift, and to go about my day as planned acting as if everything was normal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That afternoon I was called in to meet with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in his office at 4pm, along with some of the other members of the 14 person media travel pool who would be going on the secret trip aboard Air Force One.

We were given a schedule of events and were sworn to secrecy. I headed home to pack and test out the BGAN satellite phone I had been provided by Reuters for the trip.

Protests: A study in necessity and choice

Kabul-based, Afghani photographer Ahmad Masood, is spending a month based in Berlin.

On my first day of work in Berlin: a very different city from my city, Kabul, Afghanistan, I covered a demonstration by students demanding improved conditions at schools and universities. I have covered some hardcore protests in Afghanistan, where about 8 out of 10 resulted in death or serious injuries. This time I was in Germany and I didn’t expect any violence.

We arrived at the scene. There were many young men and women gathered with banners and some armed with whistles in their mouths. People were laughing and smiling. There was music playing on a loud speaker.  If that was not enough, some protesters were blowing their own trumpets and other instruments. It was just like a party. The students looked to be in pretty good condition, so I was wondering “Why? What are you complaining about?”.

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