Price: Reporting from Afghanistan full of risk but badly needed to gather dark news

jprice@newsobserver.comApril 4, 2014 

— “They’ve shot an AP photographer and reporter,” I told my wife Friday morning, looking up from my smartphone. The reporter’s alive, I said, sounds like she may be OK.

My wife didn’t have to ask where. Afghanistan, where I still follow events by email alerts and Twitter, and where the run-up to Saturday’s presidential election has been harrowing.

I worked there most of last year, on loan to The News & Observer’s parent company, running the small McClatchy Kabul bureau until we closed it in October, our planned departure coinciding with the major drawdown of U.S. troops.

She didn’t say anything. I guess she didn’t need to utter the words because they were so obvious. “Last year, that could’ve been you.”

And so I didn’t need to give my standard reply, “No, I was always really careful.” Which was true, but beside the point. Careful mattered, sometimes a lot, but mostly only a little.

Kathy Gannon, the Associated Press reporter who was shot Friday by an Afghan police officer, didn’t live through nearly two decades in Afghanistan, or years in Pakistan, by not being careful. Nor did the photographer who was killed, Anja Niedringhaus, who had also long worked in such places.

I didn’t know either of them. Gannon, who is 60, had worked out of Kabul for years but is now based in Pakistan. But I can read between the lines of journalists’ qualifications, and I’m a dilettante compared to them – tough people who committed most of their adult lives to working in the most dangerous places. And dauntingly smart and talented: Gannon was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Niedringhaus, 48, was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq.

These weren’t rookies. They were among the best and most experienced conflict-zone journalists around.

They were shot while working on an election story in the eastern province of Khost, where I haven’t been since 2005, when it was significantly safer. Still, as the Taliban have ratcheted up the pressure over the last few weeks in advance of the national elections, there have been a lot of moments like Friday morning in my house, a lot of things unsaid about places in Kabul that have been attacked.

“The Taverna du Liban?”

“That hotel, the Serena?”

“The interior ministry?”

Yes, I did go to those places, and to some of the other restaurants and lodges popular with foreigners that the Afghan government this week ordered closed, apparently until after the election, because they’re targets.

Most of us were trained by security consultants to stay away from such places where Westerners gather in large, tempting numbers. But after days or weeks of nothing but work, eventually you had to balance the risk – always nebulous – with quite real mental health needs, the desire to carry on a small semblance of having a life.

Now, though, that unknown level of risk, particularly in Kabul, is clearly higher. I worry about the other journalists that I used to eat lunch with at the little cafe around the corner, or have dinner and drinks with at that famous expat hangout, the Gandamack Lodge. People like Sean Carberry of NPR, Patrick Quinn of the AP, Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian and Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal, who all knew I wasn’t really one of them in many ways but treated me as if I was. The risk was a leveler.

They and Niedringhaus and Gannon deserve our admiration for doing work that many journalists would refuse – work that the world badly needs, illuminating what otherwise would be dark places indeed. And with luck, the violence, at least in Kabul, will fall off after the election, and they can breathe a little.

Mainly, the people I worry about are the Afghans, who don’t get to make decisions about which country they live in or what kinds of brutality they have to live with. Will their lives improve after the election? That seems unlikely.

As U.S. casualties fell in the last couple of years, casualties among the Afghan security forces rose to such levels that U.S. and Afghan commanders there say the security forces, long term, aren’t sustainable unless something changes. And it’s worse for civilians: Their casualties jumped 14 percent last year, with nearly 3,000 civilians killed and almost 5,700 injured.

Among the victims in the attack at the Serena, a heavily secured hotel where I and other Western journalists sometimes went to news conferences, was an Afghan journalist, Sardar Ahmad, who worked for Agence France-Presse. The attackers also shot his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son as his wife begged for their lives, then shot her. Their 2-year-old son was wounded.

Ahmad was a sharp, thoroughly modern journalist. He had founded a media company, Pressistan, that I used for its rapid, text-message alerts on breaking news.

My Afghan colleague in the McClatchy bureau, Rezwan Natiq, and his wife have a daughter who is less than a year old. I keep telling Rezwan it would be smart to get his family out, by whatever means. He is more optimistic than I am, though, about the election and his country’s future. During an email exchange after Ahmad and his family were killed, I reminded Rezwan to stay away from places where Westerners gather.

“We are careful, but no one can predict what will happen, but we have to go and vote,” he wrote back.

Price: 919-829-4526

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