Deaths of NPR journalists underscore new risks in Afghan coverage
By TIM CRAIG | The Washington Post | Published: June 6, 2016
KABUL — Like dozens of war reporters here over the past decade, NPR correspondent Tom Bowman was crammed into a butt-bruising military armored vehicle while two of the people he counted on most — a photographer and interpreter — were separated in another vehicle.
The convoy was traveling on a dangerous road in Afghanistan's restive Helmand province, where ongoing battles between Afghan soldiers and Taliban insurgents have defined a 15th year of a war that shows no sign of easing.
Suddenly, bullets, rocket-propelled grenades or mortar rounds — no one seems to know for sure — began crashing into the convoy.
The Humvee Bowman and NPR producer Monika Evstatieva were riding in sped off to a nearby military base.
"When we pulled in, we said, 'Where are our friends?' " Bowman recalled on NPR's Morning Edition on Monday, a day after the attack. "We waited maybe an hour or two, and then the Afghan army truck came in, and they opened up the back and there were two dead bodies."
When another truck pulled in later with another body, the scale of loss became apparent: Award-winning NPR photojournalist David Gilkey, NPR interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna and an Afghan soldier who had been driving them had been killed in the ambush.
On Monday, remembrances poured in as, once again, journalists were reminded of the risks associated with working in Afghanistan and other conflict zones.
Gilkey, 50, had won a George Polk Award in 2010, an Emmy in 2007 and numerous distinctions from the White House Photographers Association.
He had covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the earthquake in Haiti, among other stories during his career. He joined NPR, working for its website, in 2007.
Tamanna, 38, was also a journalist in his own right, shooting photos in Afghanistan for the Chinese news agency Xinhua and writing for Turkey's Anadolu agency.
"Zabi and David, who were on the front line to report about the truth, themselves became the victims of Taliban brutality," said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. "History will remember Zabi and David as fighters for freedom of information and expression."
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 27 journalists or media workers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. But Gilkey, a native of Portland, Ore., was the first foreign journalist to be killed in Afghanistan since 2014, when a rogue Afghan police officer shot and killed Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, a German national.
The deaths are once again causing journalists here to reevaluate the risks in a country where both the brutality of the Taliban and the number of casualties continue to grow.
Yet the determination to bear witness to the war is something Kathy Gannon, chief Associated Press correspondent for Afghanistan-Pakistan, knows well.
During the 2014 attack that killed Niedringhaus, Gannon, 62, was shot six times.
She endured 16 surgeries over the past two years but returned to her Islamabad-based job earlier this year.
"We are not motivated by danger; we are motivated by stories," Gannon said in an interview Monday. "We are driven by that desire to get as close as possible to the people in the country, in the village, and in the conflict, and the only way we can best tell their story is to be by their side."
For much of the war, journalists in Afghanistan wanting to get near the fighting could embed with U.S. or coalition soldiers. But as the U.S. military reduced its troop presence here over the past two years, those trips must now be taken alone or accompanying the Afghan military. That presents a host of life-threatening challenges.
Afghan soldiers aren't as well trained as U.S. and coalition troops, and they can react either too fast or too slowly to threats. Insider attacks from renegade Afghan soldiers or police officers remain a major concern. And if a journalist becomes injured, there is no guarantee Afghan forces will be able to arrange a Medevac flight to a hospital.
According to Afghan and coalition officials, the NPR reporting team had spent Friday and Saturday with U.S. troops on a NATO base in Helmand. But because the Americans only sporadically leave their base in Afghanistan, the NPR team also had approval from the Afghan Ministry of Defense to go on a 36-hour mission with the Afghan army's 215th Corps.
Ahmad Shaikal Tassal, a spokesman for the 215th Corps, said the journalists were traveling from Laskhkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, to Marja when the ambush took place. One tribal elder from Helmand, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his own safety, said the Taliban have effectively controlled large stretches of that road since November.
"They could do anything they wanted to do on that road," the man said. "They were planting IEDs and equipped with" rocket-propelled grenades.
But for many journalists drawn to dangerous parts of the world, those are the sorts of risks that are worth taking. Last month, before he traveled to Afghanistan, Gilkey said he was determined to sleep with, eat with, and go on patrol with Afghan soldiers to "get a look" at a war that one can only see "by going there."
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.