Photographers' Blog

Back in Afghanistan, ten years later

By Erik de Castro

Ten years ago I was part of the three-member Reuters multimedia team that went to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. We covered the pursuit for Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban followers, who were believed to be holed up in the caves of the Tora Bora mountains, by US military special forces fighting alongside the Afghan Mujaheedin. Nobody from the press saw Osama. Instead about a dozen Taliban captured from the caves were presented to the media in Tora Bora.

As we passed the Afghan border on the road to Jalalabad following a long journey from Islamabad, Pakistan, I remember the precautions our security adviser told us: If ever we are stopped by armed men along the way, stay calm and just hand over our U.S. dollars. Weeks earlier, two Reuters colleagues (a TV cameraman and a photographer) and two other European journalists traveling with a convoy of media vehicles were killed by bandits on the same road.

Ten years after 9/11, I was back in Jalalabad as an embedded photojournalist with the U.S. military forces. I was attached to Task Force Bronco covering eastern Afghanistan. During the first week of my embed with different units, I joined the soldiers as they met with Afghan police officers and local government leaders, patrolling for hours, day and night searches for arms caches, and looking for members of the Taliban.

During patrols, local residents would smile at and greet the soldiers. Children swarmed them asking for pens, candies and one dollar bills.

On one patrol, young Afghan teenage boys crowded around a female soldier until the men in her platoon shooed them away.

Ready to record history

The call came at 10pm on a Sunday night at home. “How soon can you get to the White House”? Reuters had got the urgent call that President Barack Obama was due to make a statement within 30 minutes. It had to be something big to bring the press back so late on a weekend night. Even if I dropped everything now and raced down there, would I be too late?

I was there in 14 minutes – a new personal best, from my home three miles away. Running through White House security gates with my shoe laces still untied, I was thinking that I hadn’t made it in time for whatever the big news was. The scene outside the famous 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address was familiarly quiet, with a couple uniformed Secret Service officers and their squad car.

Inside the press briefing room, wire and newspaper photographers started filtering in, showing varying states of preparedness but all wondering the same question. Why are we here?