Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Photos from the 'incident'

'First' Firefight!

Tuesday, 20th October - Korengal Valley

I must confess that this wasn’t the first but it was definitely the most intense and the longest – all 20 minutes of it! Both firefights happened in the tiny village of Lanyal, which is across the valley from the outpost and as the crow flies, only about 2.5 km away.

The mission to the nearby village of Lanyal is nothing new as it is part of the patrol routine for the 2nd Platoon of Baker Company and since my arrival here in the Korengal, things has been awfully quiet. The soldiers here would often recount to me tales of frequent firefights and enemy shelling.

The platoon left the base in the morning and it was an arduous walk (more like a up and down climb really)! This was my third time here and the last time when we came here the platoon took some light fire. By the time we walked into the observation point my lungs were about to burst! We sat waiting while the ANA (Afghan National Army), with their US Marines mentors, swept up from a different position in hope of catching any enemy hiding. After about an hour with no contacts the platoon decided to pull out of the village. The LT (Lieutenant, and in this case, the platoon leader) and his element were in front of me and we had to walk past this short, open stretch of trail when the enemy opened fire! I took cover behind a tall wall along with two terps (Afghan interpreter) but my only thought was to reach the LT and get into position to take photos. Can’t do anything behind a tall wall, can I? Besides the terps said to me, “You run down to them and we will follow you.”

And so down the trail I ran! It was the longest 20 metres ever and I could hear the crack, crack, of bullets hitting all around me. I never realized I could run that FAST down a rocky trail. I finally made it to the main element and discovered that there isn’t really all that much cover there at all. I looked back and none of the terps had followed me! The only things racing through my head were 1) to avoid getting hit, 2) not get in the way of the soldiers or in front of their guns and 3) take photos! Bullets, spent cartridges and rifle grenades were flying all over and the machine guns were so damn loud that I had to stop a couple of times to cover my ears! By the way, I did have my earplugs on. Support fire came from 120mm mortars from the outpost and an air strike was called in. I pressed myself as close to the wall as possible while holding my camera up and pressing the shutter as fast as I could! Crack-boom! An air force jet just dropped a 500 lbs bomb on top of the enemy positions. The ensuing silence was punctured by radio calls, men checking the status of equipment, ammo and the excited chatters of soldiers pumped up on adrenaline. I was breathing so, so hard!

Finally we were able to pull out of Lanyal without any incident. It was later that the terps told me they saw bullets hitting some 5 feet (about 1.5m) from me as I was running down the trail. They decided it would be a bad decision to follow me and it was safer behind the wall after all! Thanks, guys!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Korengal Valley

Tuesday, October 13, Korengal Outpost, Kunar Province

After more than a week at FOB Blessing and several cancelled flights later I find myself in the most vicious valley in Afghanistan: the Korengal Valley. It’s a remote valley about 10 km long and surrounded by wooden mountains on all sides. The people that lives are known as the Korengalis and they have their own unique dialect that is different from the Pashtun that is commonly spoken in this part of the country. The mountain slopes are dotted with trees, little villages and terraces of corns and a big stream flows down the valley feeding the inhabitants with water for their crops, livestock and themselves. It’s almost a picture pretty setting and many of the trails resembles hiking trails in a national park. This is easily the greenest and prettiest place I’ve seen in Afghanistan but under that benign fa├žade is the strong presence of insurgents, both religious and criminal, that controls much of the Korengal. The main activity here is the illegal felling of timber and smuggling it from here to Pakistan, often using mules and donkeys to transverse mountain trails in order to avoid detection. Most of the timber is used for making ornate furniture.

Korengal Outpost, aka the KOP, is the biggest American combat outpost here in the Korengal. All the supply, ammunition and men have to come here by helicopters, as the roads are too vulnerable and dangerous. The soldiers here tell me that no one has gone up the last 4 km of the valley. The KOP sits on top of an old sawmill that used to be owned by a local merchant to process his timber. When the Americans took over the mill he lost all the revenue from the illegal timber trade and has since taken up arms to harass the troops there.

Due to the mountainous terrain, all the patrols carried out here are on foot and these are very intense, energy sapping and not to mention that getting shot at is usually part of the routine. However, the military might of the US is always at hand to help out with fighter jets, attack helicopters, heavy artillery, mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles. So the question I ask is: how safe is it going on a combat patrol here?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Photos from Pech Valley

FOB Blessing

Monday, 5th October. FOB Blessing, Kunar Province

It has been almost a week since my arrival here in Blessing, Kunar Province, and I've already seen and experience more than my entire embed (with the exception of that one incident in May with the Talibans). Kunar Province is pretty green and lush and the Pech Valley where I am is no exception. The Pech River runs through it with green terraces of corn dot both sides of the rugged valley and trees hug the villages providing ample shades as well as concealment. It certainly reminds me of Michael Yamashita’s photos of some the places he travelled through when he went on an assignment for National Geographic on the Silk Road.

Yet, under this benign beauty lives the very soul of aggressive tribalism and the ever-violent Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Kunar Province has earned the title of the most violent province in Afghanistan and with good reasons. The craggy mountains and rugged terrains provide cover and concealment to both local Taliban and foreign fighters moving men and supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Pakistan is a mere 40 km from where I sit. Many of the Pashtun villages are inherently hostile or neutral towards the presence of foreign forces with the exception of a few friendly villages. Many of these hostile villages provide shelter and food to the fighters while the neutral ones will do so out of fear or the tradition of hospitality to strangers.

All these become a daily game of cat-and-mouse between the American forces and the Taliban/al-Qaeda fighters. Firefights happen almost on a daily basis and the resident big artillery pieces play a tune of deadly bombardment with the ever-elusive enemies. The very first time a 155mm gun went off in Blessing it sent a shiver of panic through me and left me wondering what is going on and if I should run to a bunker or something. A week later it has began to resemble occasional but necessary loud background noise.

On one occasion I went on a mission with the MP (military police), which was more like a courtesy visit, to one of the bigger police station. En route we passed a burning truck that was probably attacked by the insurgents in that morning and then we ran into a firefight. Bullets were plinking off the hull of the armored truck while the Americans responded in kind and the craziest thing happened: local boys were running in between our trucks, in the midst of the firefight, picking up spent brass cartridges! Apparently brass cartridges are worth their weight in gold in this area and with no concern for their safety these boys would try to collect as many as they can from the American trucks firing at the insurgents!

The stark contrast between the natural beauty of the valley and the man made conflict being inflicted is mind numbing. I guess if one is only concerned with survival then the appreciation of your environment pales in comparison to your basic needs of feeding mouths, clothing bodies and keeping warm.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Life and Death in Afghanistan

Thursday, October 1st, FOB Blessing.

This morning, I received an email from a friend who runs a photo agency and whom I send photos every so often. In it he said that a soldier that I had taken photo of was killed a few days ago. I checked online and this is what I found:

“Army Pfc. Matthew M. Martinek, 20, DeKalb, Ill., died Friday at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, of wounds suffered in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Sept. 4 when enemy attacked his vehicle with an improvised-explosive device followed by a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire; he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska.”

I didn’t know PFC Matthew Martinek that well. I went on a mission with him one day, rode in the same vehicle and got along pretty decently. Now, he’s just a number in the statistic of American casualties in this drawn out and increasingly unpopular war. Martinek is the second soldier whom I’ve photographed to die in action. Gideon was the first when he was killed in 6th July after a particularly brutal ambush. Both died in similar ways: their vehicle struck a powerful IED followed by RPG attack. Am I jinxed in some weird way or is this just war where people die whether their photos get taken or not…

I give my deepest respect to both young men, my sympathy to their families and hope that their death will not be in vain.

Monday, September 28, 2009

To Blessing...

Monday, 28th September. Kunar Province

My time in Paktia Province has come to an end and it was with a little sadness that I said goodbye to COP Herrera and the boys of Charlie platoon. The change in demeanour of these soldiers who has gone through intense combat in July is apparent and the ‘go-out-and-get-them’ attitude is now less evident. Self-preservation has become the motto and in the words of a platoon leader the combat loss of one of his man probably won’t hit home until they return stateside.

Being embedded also means that I get to meet a myriad of journalist, photographers and private contractors whenever I am in transit and they invariably always surprise me with their colourful characters. Take Richard, a seasoned 64 years old (yep, 64!) journalist who started off as a photographer and is now a writer. He covered the Iraqi invasion for over a year and was in Afghanistan in 2002. He was a joy to talk to, an inspirational character and living proof that at 64 one can still be a conflict journalist wearing heavy armor and go on missions with soldiers the same age as his sons. However, the price he paid is a bagful of medication for various symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Then there is Tony, a private contractor, working in Afghanistan for a security company akin to the infamous Blackwater. A man, who was in the British SAS for many years and dished out great doses of Brit humor which felt like a fresh breeze in the company of mainly Americans. The people you get to meet are certainly never your average Joe!

After countless flight delay I find myself being offered a place on a convoy going from Jalalabad to FOB Blessing in the Kunar Province. From what I heard it is the most violent province in Afghanistan but is probably now in the same league as Helmand Province (southern Afghanistan). It is also pretty green and wooded. As Lady Luck was smiling on me, I arrived without any incident although we had to stop off at an outpost because there was a firefight on the road ahead of us. Now I find myself in a pretty neat FOB surrounded by mountains on all sides and given one of the best room I’ve ever slept in since I arrived as an embed!