Witnessing Death From a Distance

In the month before Afghanistan’s presidential elections on April 5, three deadly attacks occurred against journalists who became targets of terror. I was once a war reporter. Now I write about war from a distance.

Sprawl of Kabul, Afghanistan as seen from the top of TV Hill in the middle of the city. Afghanistan via Shutterstock

Once again: It was on Facebook. The death was in my birthplace, Afghanistan. It was a journalist.

It could’ve been me. Sometimes, I wish it had been me.

In the month before Afghanistan’s presidential elections on April 5, three deadly attacks occurred against journalists who became targets of terror. On the eve of the presidential elections, an Afghan police commander shot dead a German photographer and injured a Canadian correspondent. Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon were veterans of the Associated Press who had traveled and worked in Afghanistan extensively. Three weeks before the election on the Afghan New Year, gunmen as young as 16 raided Kabul’s Serena Hotel, killing nine people, including Afghan journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife, and two of their children. On March 10, a man gunned down Nils Horner, a Swedish journalist, shooting him fatally in the back of the head as he interviewed Afghans on the street in Kabul.

I met Gannon at the AP bureau in Pakistan when I was looking for journalism work in 1999. We’ve been in touch on Facebook following each others’ work. I crossed paths with Agence France-Presse reporter Ahmad briefly in Kabul during my several years of reporting there. I never knew Swedish radio reporter Horner. But their closeness to me did not matter. What mattered was that they were in my country to report, and they were dead. Journalists weren’t supposed to become targets. If we died covering a story on the front line, that was acceptable. But more and more, those targeting Westerners do not discriminate. They see the media as part of the infidel establishment, and if it’s not an ideological killing, then journalists are game as hostages for ransom. Naqibullah, the police commander who shot the two AP women, said he wanted revenge for the NATO bombings that had killed civilian Afghans. None of these journalists supported civilian casualties and would’ve condemned NATO through their reporting.

Foreign correspondents realize the danger, yet they hope for immunity since they consider themselves neutral. But the people they are covering see them as part of the enemy. Women journalists are no longer spared. Groups like the Taliban proudly kill women who defy their boundaries to spread fear among those fighting for change.

The journalists’ deaths did not end in vain. The Afghan and international media covered Ahmad and his family’s killings extensively, prompting many Afghans to vote. The Taliban had threatened to kill anyone who voted, but Afghanistan’s 60 percent voter turnout showed Afghan determination for change in the face of death.

I was once a war reporter. Now I write about war from a distance. These deaths only motivate me to return to the field, capture what’s on the front line, and tell the rest of the world. But I stop myself each time I get the urge.

I spent the first seven years of the millennium covering the United States’ wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and I’ve spent the last seven years trying to adapt to peace in a California suburb. I left Kabul three months pregnant with my firstborn in summer 2007. On my last day, I clutched my notebook and pen as I stared at pieces of flesh hanging on a tree after a suicide bombing had killed 29 Afghan soldiers. I haven’t returned since. I grew up with the dark demons of war, with nightmares and flashbacks of bloodshed. How could I raise a child in war?

From age 5 until 9, I lived through the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. I saw a classmate’s head severed, my favorite uncle disappear, my family’s history unravel. My family fled when I was 9 years old in 1982. I spent my adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I didn’t forget what I had seen. I returned to war as an adult so I could face my demons, so I could understand this crime of humanity. I’m still figuring it out.

Now back in the Bay Area, friends and family tell me to disengage from war. But I can’t stay away. I’m Afghan—I don’t have the luxury of turning my back. For me, war has become normalcy. I still have relatives, in-laws, and friends left in Afghanistan. I return to war zones daily on social media and the Internet. I witness the deaths from afar, seeing photos and paeans to the dead, reading the details of how they were killed. I heard about the attack against the AP women getting shot from a close friend and AP photographer Massoud Hossaini on Facebook. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Afghan photographer worked closely with both women and was one of slain journalist Ahmad’s best friends. He saw the tragedies up close. I emailed Hossaini, begging him to leave Afghanistan. I told him no story was worth his life.

“You are so kind my friend, I will leave some day but I have to fight for freedom yet. Thank you very much,” he quickly replied.

His response paralyzed me and filled me with the survival guilt I have been carrying for seven years. I was angry with myself for leaving the country. I quietly shed tears, grieving the loss of colleagues I barely knew but wishing I had been them. These reporters had been brave enough to stay and so was my friend Hossaini. I was the coward who left.

Hossaini knew how hard it would be to leave the violence because witnessing war from a distance denies you its gruesome reality. Social media does not allow you to touch the bodies, to attend the funeral, to face the assailants who are either dead or in jail. The eulogies and exasperations of others on Facebook and Twitter fade away so quickly in the newsfeed, but I scroll back as I try to get closer to the event.  When it’s just virtual, it’s unreal. There’s no processing, no closure.

I typed on my laptop on the kitchen counter and clicked on an airline site to buy tickets to Afghanistan. Maybe I could make it in time for the elections.

Then I heard my youngest child Andisha, 2, call my name. She was hungry. Where was her breakfast, she wanted to know.

I closed my laptop and looked at my two daughters; my firstborn daughter, Bonoo, is now 6. I took a step back, leaned against the fridge, and came to my senses. It wasn’t about me anymore. I had left to give security to my children. They needed me more than Afghanistan did right now. Gannon would recover and might return, and there are hundreds of other Afghan journalists to bear witness to war. Maybe someday, I can return with my children when the war ends. It won’t be anytime soon, I know. But I’ll continue to watch my homeland from afar, no matter how painful.