Women Correspondents Shot Reporting Election in Afghanistan

Anja Niedringhaus (Credit: theguardian.uk.com)
Anja Niedringhaus
(Credit: theguardian.uk.com)

KABUL, April 4— For the two seasoned war correspondents, it was not an unusually risky trip. Getting out to see Afghanistan up close was what Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Associated Press, and Kathy Gannon, a veteran reporter for the news agency, did best.

The eastern province of Khost, where Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon traveled to cover Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday, is considered dangerous, still plagued by regular Taliban attacks. But they had carefully plotted their trip, arranging to move beyond the relatively safe confines of the provincial capital under the protection of Afghan Army troops and the police.

Yet it was those precautions that proved fatal for Ms. Niedringhaus on Friday morning. As she and Ms. Gannon waited outside a government compound, a police commander walked up to their idling car, looked in at the two women in the back seat, and then shouted “Allahu akbar!” — God is great — and opened fire with an AK-47, witnesses and The Associated Press said.

Ms. Niedringhaus was killed instantly, and Ms. Gannon, shot three times in the wrist and shoulder, was severely wounded. In the span of a few muzzle flashes, the two women, who had covered the war since it began in 2001, became victims of another attack that blurred friend and foe.

For both Afghans and Westerners, the list of adversaries has expanded beyond the resilient Taliban, who have staged a series of attacks in an attempt to disrupt the election. Afghan soldiers and the police have repeatedly turned on one another and their foreign allies. The squabbling between President Hamid Karzai and American officials has grown into a deep-seated animosity.

At the same time, Afghans have seen scores of their fellow citizens killed by errant American airstrikes. And even as the United States pushes for a long-term security deal that would allow it to keep troops here beyond the end of this year, it does so with the understanding that its forces will be largely hidden away behind the high walls of fortified bases.

The dwindling number of foreigners here already live that way, frightened by a recent surge in attacks aimed at Western civilians.

Ms. Niedringhaus, 48, and Ms. Gannon, 60, had no desire to hunker down. The focus of their work over the past dozen years has been putting a human face on the suffering inflicted by the war. As a pair, they often traveled to remote corners of Afghanistan to report articles, and Ms. Niedringhaus also spent significant time embedded with coalition forces.

Many of their colleagues noted sadly that they were attacked by a police officer who appeared to have seen in the back seat of the journalists’ Toyota Corolla a pair of anonymous Westerners on whom to vent his rage. If Afghans have a dominant complaint about the West, it is that they are often treated as faceless, dismissed as nonentities by the people who say they are here to help.

That was not the case with Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon.

In this March 30, 2003 photo by Anja Niedringhaus, Iraqi women lined up for a security check by British soldiers on the outskirts of Basra. Credit Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

“They just seemed so bravely willing to go into these kinds of situations and get to the places that you needed to get to tell stories that weren’t being told,” said Heidi Vogt, a reporter who worked for The A.P. in Afghanistan until last year.

“They’re the last two people you’d expect this to happen to,” she added. “It felt like they had a little protective force field around them.”

Ms. Niedringhaus, a German citizen who was based in Geneva, first came to Afghanistan after joining The A.P. in 2002, and she quickly formed a partnership with Ms. Gannon. They were among a band of female photographers and correspondents who persevered through many years of conflict in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan.

In the process, they helped redefine traditional notions of war reporting. Even as they covered the battlefield, they also focused attention on the human impact of conflicts known for their random, unpredictable violence against civilians.

Ms. Niedringhaus’s fascination with Afghanistan continued to grow even as she was pulled away to other trouble spots, including Iraq, where she was part of a team of A.P. photographers who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

“If I’d told her, ‘You don’t need to do this anymore, you’ve earned your spurs, leave it to another generation,’ ” said Tony Hicks, a photo editor at The A.P., “the response would have been a series of expletives, then laughing and another pint.”

But, Mr. Hicks pointed out, Ms. Niedringhaus was equally at home at major sports events and other less high-stakes diversions, such as the Geneva auto show.

Hundreds of U.S. Marines gathered at Camp Commando in Kuwait in 2002. Credit Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

She was on the finish lines when Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, broke the world record for the 100-meter dash. And “she loved Wimbledon,” he said. “It was almost her second home.”

Ms. Gannon, a Canadian who is a senior writer for The A.P., arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1986 when the Afghan mujahedeen were battling the forces of the Soviet Union. She went on to serve as The A.P.’s bureau chief in Islamabad, and she was one of the few Western reporters whom the Taliban permitted to work in Kabul when they ruled Afghanistan.

Ms. Gannon was in Kabul during the American invasion in 2001, and she wrote of covering the Taliban’s last days in the city with her Afghan colleague, Amir Shah. The two cowered in the basement of a house during air raids, often working by candlelight or lantern. They tried to avoid members of Al Qaeda, who were much more hostile than the Taliban. When a bomb struck nearby, she was thrown across the room — and then went straight back to work.

“She knows Afghanistan very well,” said Mr. Shah, an A.P. reporter in Kabul, according to an article by the news agency. “She knows the culture of the people.”

But the divide between Afghans and Westerners has been deepening for years, and so-called insider attacks in which Afghan security forces turn on their coalition counterparts or one another have been the most visible symptom. Afghan and Western officials say they believe that most of the attacks are driven by personal animosity or anger about the war in Afghanistan, where many have come to view foreign forces as occupiers.

Though Western civilians working with the coalition have at times been killed in such attacks, the shooting on Friday was believed to be the first time an Afghan police officer had intentionally killed a foreign journalist.

Afghan security officials said they believed that the shooting was an opportunistic attack, not the work of the Taliban, who offered no comment.

A Marine on his way to pick up food supplies in June, 2001. Credit Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

The police commander, whom officials identified as Naqibullah, 50, was known for his anti-Western views, one official said. The officials did not believe he had advance notice that Ms. Niedringhaus or Ms. Gannon was headed his way.

The two spent Thursday night at the compound of the provincial governor in Khost, and they left on Friday morning with a convoy of election workers delivering ballots to an outlying area in the Tanai district, The A.P. and Afghan officials said.

The convoy was protected by the Afghan police, soldiers and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, said Mubarez Zadran, a spokesman for the provincial government. Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon were in their own car, traveling with a driver and an Afghan freelance journalist who was working with the news agency.

Mr. Naqibullah, the police commander, surrendered to other officers immediately after shooting the journalists and was arrested.

Ms. Gannon was taken to a hospital in Khost. She underwent surgery before being evacuated to one of the main NATO bases in the country, where there is a hospital equipped to handle severe battlefield trauma. She was said to be in stable condition.

Yet even as Friday’s shooting provided a stark reminder of how broader tensions can set off violence at the most personal level, its aftermath also highlighted the bonds between old friends and strangers alike, be they Afghans or foreigners.

Aides to Mr. Karzai, who has known Ms. Gannon for years, said he tried to get her on the phone to see she how she was doing after he heard about the attack. He later spoke with her husband, and his office then put out a statement condemning the attack.

The doctor who first treated Ms. Gannon, Muhammad Shah, was distressed by the shooting.

“Not only me, but all Afghans are disappointed and sorry for this loss of life,” he said by phone Friday night from Khost Provincial Hospital, between operations. “She was a guest here in Afghanistan, a foreigner.”

Matthew Rosenberg reported from Kabul, and Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost Province, Afghanistan.

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