Three Days in Afghanistan: The Making of a War Reporter

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John Wendle / Polaris

A photograph taken by writer John Wendle shows Afghan Shi'ites observing the Ashura holy day in Kabul on Dec 6, 2011, moments before a suicide bomber struck, killing 58 and injuring 150 people

War is strange. It can change your life, for good or bad or both, with the speed and ferocity of little else. In the space of a couple days in October, I ticked off two boxes I had in my head, things I needed to be checked to prove to myself that I was a bona fide war reporter. Then came a third day, just this week, that shook the certainties of the first two profoundly.

Just two months ago in Kunar — one of the most dangerous provinces in the country and bordering Pakistan — I hiked a thousand meters straight up a mountain for five and a half hours in the dark with the men of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company. We landed in Chinooks in a soggy rice paddy, expecting contact. With no night vision and no moon, I scrambled up and over massive boulders, across loose stone and through thorn trees to the small, embattled Shal Outpost. It was the hardest physical thing many of the soldiers — and I — had ever done in our lives.

I soon realized I was proud of myself. This was something I had never felt. This was something I had done on my own through my own strength and determination — though even that determination was bolstered by a persistent stubbornness picked up from my parents and sister, and from the support of the soldiers around me.

And my pride came not only from reaching the top of that mountain with the guys but also from simply pulling my own weight and not complaining, in helping guys two-thirds my age up rock faces and in not hurting myself. And there was professional pride too — in trying to take pictures through exhaustion. I realized that this was an experience no one could take from me. It was mine, and I could look back on it — and it would help strengthen me in difficult times to come.

Then, just a couple of days after, I was almost shot in the face. The sniper's round missed me by a half meter. It was so close it showered sparks all over me and my camera as it ricocheted off a steel post, so close I picked up my camera and looked at the lens to see if it had been smashed. I dropped below the sandbags with PFC Cory Early, the soldier I had been chatting with. He had an astonished look on his face. Probably I had the same on mine.

Conquering that mountain and reaching Outpost Shal ticked the box for doing something truly hard and seeing it through to the end. I've lived in Afghanistan for two years, and have done a lot of hard things: long foot patrols in Marjah and the Arghandab River Valley in 140°F heat wearing full-body armor and camera gear, and overcoming the terror of unseen dangers of foot patrols — the IEDs that have cost countless soldiers and photographers their legs, and the ambushes.

But up until I was just missed by that sniper, they had been just that: unseen. When it happened, a conversation I had had a year ago with my dad played out. I had been talking to him about what the work was like, but I told him that, though I had been scared before, I had never truly felt like I was a war reporter because I had never been the target of any of the shooting I had seen. My head had never been in anyone's sights before. But that sniper shot had changed that. I can't even say I was scared. Surprised, yes. I hadn't seen it coming. I continued to do my work, to take pictures, shoot video and talk to the soldiers — interviewing them for a story I was working on for TIME. But that was the second box ticked off: being targeted for death in war.

With those two boxes checked, I was confident in my job and in my personal life. I felt I knew who I was and what I was doing in the face of all the uncertainty brought by this war and this kind of life. That changed on Dec. 6 when a blast in central Kabul killed 58 and wounded another 150 people, mostly ethnic Hazaras watching the observance of the Shi'ite holy day of Ashura, in which adherents whip their backs with chains and blades to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and mark his sacrifice. I was among the crowd, maybe 15 m from where the suicide bomber detonated himself. Before the explosion, my camera and I were already dotted with blood that had flown in showers off the backs, chains and blades of the men beating themselves in a frenzy of religious fervor. But, in the blink of an eye, there would be so much more blood.

The explosion radiated out in a circle through the densely packed crowd. The bomb left a closely packed semicircle of bodies in its wake, as if a giant scythe had reached out, cutting people down like wheat in its sweep. Women, children and babies behind the bomber had been blown against a wall, compressed into a piled and tangled line of blood and scorched clothing.

The dead were dead. The wounded were horrifying to behold, moving or just breathing in unnatural ways through their pain. They writhed or simply jerked and shuddered on the ground. Some simply gaped through bloody mouths, blinking in disbelief, covered in dust and gore. I saw one little girl stand up, then collapse back onto the pile of her bloodied brothers and sisters. A baby lay half on her mother's chest with her torso and head lying face first on the ground, not moving. It was the Inferno. It was the second bloodiest day in Kabul in recent years.

I ran around not knowing what to do or where to go. In the center of it, all I wanted to do was close my eyes and ears and not see anymore. Then I went back to work.

I have covered numerous bombings and attacks in Kabul. Once you hear the boom, you grab your cameras and jump on your bicycle (which makes it easier to get past police checkpoints and to move quickly through traffic jams). Then you deal with the aftermath: the slick of blood and intestines, the heads emptied and collapsed like a deflated soccer ball. But being there when the horror of that day made itself known was a completely different experience.

I am not proud of my work on Tuesday. I almost do not even remember taking the pictures or video that aired on CNN. I know I had to keep working though. It is my job, and there were only two other photographers there during the blast. The Afghans deserved to have their story told. And there were others there to help the wounded and carry the dead. I didn't have my tourniquet with me — I usually carry one to bombings — and one tourniquet would not have been enough. I had been so close to the blast, had nearly been trampled and, while getting back to work, was frantically looking for the body of my colleague and friend Joel van Houdt, a Dutch photographer, who had been covering the event with. I was relieved to see him standing, physically unharmed and working as I was. But even though I had come so close to death, had been part of the bomber's target, I did not feel the same way I felt after being nearly shot by a sniper. I did not feel anything.

I do not feel like I have checked a box. I do not feel like this certifies me as a war photographer, videographer or journalist. I do not have any pride in this work. All I feel is sadness for all the babies and little children that were killed. Just sadness and anger that people could do this to others.

I used to tell people who asked that the reason I cover this war was because I have close Afghan friends in Helmand — and I don't want to have to see them run away, die or hide when the civil war begins, as everyone seems to be predicting, after the planned American withdrawal in 2014. The only way I can do that, I explained, was by showing what is going on here and helping bring it to an end — an end that does not lead to a civil war. After Tuesday's bombing I realized I am here not for my Afghan friends, but for all Afghans and everyone fighting here. As my colleague and friend Joel said to me, this is no longer only their war, that war over there, between the Afghans; it is ours too now, and we are here to try to give them a voice against this incomprehensible violence and brutal rage.

Another photographer, my friend Pieter ten Hoopen, told me a day after the bombing that he is afraid of what is to come in Afghanistan. U.S. troops, a stabilizing force, are withdrawing and the violence will only increase. In the near future, Pieter is afraid that the viciousness of this attack will only make even more brutal attacks imaginable — and that they will be carried out. I, too, am afraid.