Ashura - too close to death!
In December 2011, 58 innocents were blown apart by a suicide bomber in Kabul. This is my story.
When they began to dress Kabul in a decorous display of religious festooning, my interest grew as rapidly as the silk and cotton erections on every street corner - black and green and red banners that seemed to partition one sect of Afghan culture from another. It was Ashura, the 1300 year old commemoration by Shi'a Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. If I wanted my chronicle of Afghanistan to be complete, I needed this in my portfolio.
During Ashura the participants spend days in special communing houses preparing for what will come - a bloodbath of self-flagellation whilst in a deep and consuming trance, a place that is always a synapse snap from violence.
I asked all the right questions of all the right people; should I attend, how should I attend, where and for how long, is it safe? I make my assumptions on all the advice I receive because it is frequently at best protective, often inhibiting and if I did what everyone told me I would do nothing and I may as well come home.
I was advised not to go, but if I were to then stay for 30 minutes, get what I needed and leave.
So I made my decision to go, hired a driver and asked a friend and fellow photographer if he would like to join me. In a blink he agreed. My driver was sanctioned to pick us up at 10am and take us to the most suitable Ashura of the many that were taking place across Kabul. At the appointed time we headed off.
Ashuras across the Middle East and Asia have often been the target of sectarian violence, such events are frequently bombed in Iraq, but since the fall of the Taliban over 10 years ago, there has not been a single instance of sectarian violence in Afghanistan. It was in that light that we, amongst many western journalists, photographers and foreign nationals attended.
Our only fear was that in a mood of violent trance we may unwittingly be attacked, but as best as we could be, we were on top of that possibility. As we arrived they were trucking in lorry loads of children, packed like lambs to the slaughter with varying degrees of excitement and fear split across their innocent stares. I grabbed some snaps from my car, a ghastly portent!
We barged and hustled our way through the throngs of assembled onlookers and found ourselves encircled in a human amphitheater, as tens of Shias trashed and beat and sliced their topless torsos in a mesmeric bloodletting. David and I, my companion for the day, looked at each other and smiled, we had pulled it off and we were in business.
We worked our way around the event for 45 minutes of continued and energetic shooting, switching lenses and trying to grab that perfect shot. Occasionally we would get separated as the crowds ebbed and moved and swallowed, a changing seething mass of anxious, frenzied emotion. But always we found each other again, smiled and continued on our merry way. Trying to get as close to the action as we could, a drizzle of blood was beginning to freckle our complexion and kit as we worked. Every time David and I bumped into each other we laughed as we became increasingly bloodied, faces spattered like an airbrushed visage. Still we worked on.
The site that we were attending had two amphitheaters split by a fabricated bridge, a demarcation between life and death. I wandered over to David, we had worked this scene enough and I wanted to amble the 30 feet or so to the other gathering to get a different angle on everything.
David wasn't so sure, he had enough stuff he felt. I was about to tempt him when I checked my phone and noticed three missed calls from Achtar, my driver. I unlocked my phone and called him back but I could not hear anything above the chanting of the crowd. I tried again, but I just struggled to hear even a dialing tone. I grabbed David and said I was going to walk away from the crowd to make my call, he said he would follow.
Achtar did not answer, so we strolled the 50 meters or so to where he was parked to enquire why he had been calling. He was asleep in in the car. I banged on the window and aroused him. Whatever he wanted, I wanted this conversation to be quick, I was keen to get back and shoot the other side of the bridge. David had a different idea, he wanted to find another gathering somewhere in Kabul, or better still have lunch.
I needed to get to an ATM to get money to pay Achtar for his day's work, and in a split 'life saving' second, decided to grab the money now and continuing shooting after. We headed off.
I have checked the missed calls on my phone, logged the calls I made to Achtar, and I know the time that the bomb went off. My best calculation is that we were probably in second gear and just pulling away when it detonated, killing 58 people, wiping out six children from the same family - lambs to the slaughter.
We didn't hear a thing. We rushed to Spinney's to get cash and as we jumped back into our car Achtar's phone rang. It was his son, calling to announce what atrocity had just taken place. We told Achtar to drive back as quickly as possible, we wanted to shoot what we could of the aftermath, he looked puzzled, but we pressed home our desire to get back and so he obliged.
Immediately we hit roadblock after roadblock, our direct route back was locked down, but by circuitous means we managed to find ourselves within half a mile of the devastation, some 15 minutes after we had left. We grabbed our kit and began to navigate the back streets as hastily as we could. At each turn police stopped us but we negotiated our access and got closer. Soon we met with an Afghan journalist who was also attempting to get to the bombsite, and we joined with him, stripping through narrow alleyways and closed bazaars, until we reached our final impediment, the final police checkpoint. We were stuck, 600 meters from where we wanted to be.
A negotiation commenced, a police officer cracked me with the wooden stock of his Kalashnikov, a taste of the aggression to come. With the help of the Afghan journalist, we passed on details to a secret police officer, and access was agreed.
We headed firstly at speed, but then more nervously to the destruction and as we did, a fleet of police pickup trucks swept by, each packed to bursting with bodies, a speeding siren blast of death - it was horrible.
As we got to within 30 meters of the site, the last remains of those who had perished were being removed and placed in black plastic body bags. I saw shoes with feet in them, David photographed the remnants of hands with a wedding ring still attached. I moved closer just ahead of David, grabbed just four shots, and from the corner of my eye saw someone heading to towards me at pace, and with intent. He smacked me.
And then another came to me, and another, and I had nowhere to go. I started to retreat but they kept coming, so I turned to move away. I saw someone pick up a rock and hurl it at me.
It was now out of control and I began to run. I saw a police officer and headed towards him, but he just grabbed at me and pushed me back towards my attackers. I had lost contact with David.
Running as fast as I could I got broadsided by someone and went flying, headfirst into the tarmacked road, and in a tumbling somersault I was up and running still. I looked at my camera - smashed. The road was becoming a tunnel in my mind, either side flanked by people who picked up rocks and hurled them at me, or who rushed to join the others. On four or five occasions people caught me but somehow I managed to fling them off and get away. All I know is that I was faster and fitter than everyone, I do believe this saved me. Eventually after an utterly breathless dash and chase I arrived back at the police checkpoint!
Some of the officers tried to feed me to the crowd but two plain clothed Afghans grabbed me and threw me in the back of a car. This was almost the worst part. Outside of the vehicle people were trying to grab at me, inside, was I being kidnapped - I just didn't know. Soon that concern was irrelevant though, it was clear inside was safer and the car sped off, but soon halted at a roundabout.
When we parked up I got out. Where was David, was he alive? An elderly police commander gently walked towards me, took out a handkerchief from his top pocket and started wiping the blood from my face, such a kindly gesture, and a calming one too. I felt finally safe. I got back in the car and desperately tried to call David, no answer. I phoned my driver and my minder, no answer.
All communications seemed to be cut. I still had concerns as to who my protectors were, and as much as I enquired they would not answer me. As I became more frantic trying to phone David to no avail, they handed me a phone, and showed me their badges, NDS, National Security Directorate, Secret Police. I breathed so deeply, my lungs burned with oxygen, everything was okay. And then my phone rang and it was David. He had been smacked a couple of times, had escaped and was on his way back. We met up, contacted Achtar, jumped in our car and headed home.
Going back is always the most dangerous thing you can do because terrorists frequently plant secondary devices, and the crowd so often turn on any westerners who are there.
We knew this but didn't heed the warnings. The Shia community had witnessed 58 of their own, including far too many children, die in a bloody blast.
Photojournalists always reside in this complex middle ground between respect and getting the story. Without them we would not know the truth of conflict, and yet there can be a prurient side to our endeavors - what to do, the world should see the truth. We weigh these things up, and make our decisions, and this time it was a mistake, it could have been a terminal one.
To breath another day is a relief, but for the grace of god, we could have become an unhappy statistic.
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