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 façade 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!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Being a 'war' photographer

I think the very word ‘war photographer’ seems to conjure up romantic images of a profession that is actually far from being romantic. The image of a grungy, unshaven and cameras slinging photographer maybe immortalized by real personage like Robert Capa and Ernest Hemmingway and portrayed in film by Dennis Hopkins (Apocalypse Now) and James Wood (Salvador). The truth, however, is much more and much less than that.

Covering a conflict is never glamorous and very often dangerous. The number of local and foreign journalists/photographers that has died since men took pens, notebooks and cameras into places that has experienced armed conflicts and civil war is a testament to the danger involved. The Iraq war saw the highest number of journalists killed in a single conflict and that doesn’t even take into consideration those who were wounded during combat action, kidnapped by insurgents and arrested by the military. The worst outcome would be a beheading by your kidnappers. The case of Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and later executed by his captors in Pakistan is one unfortunate example. There are journalists and photographers who would go to great length to get their stories and pictures but the price one pay can be very high. And we have yet to touch on the mental aspects of the job.

Why do journalists and photographers deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for stories is anyone’s guess but for each and everyone you ask, you will hear a different answer a different truth. For those covering conflicts that bear a connection to their homeland, things will and must take on a different meaning than for others. As a Singaporean in Afghanistan embedded with the US forces, I tend to have a less emotional link to it: none of my fellow countrymen are dying everyday from combat action in a foreign country that isn’t really welcoming us with open arms. However, forging a bond with the troops you are embed with is somehow unavoidable and that becomes painful when you hear about or even actually experience the loss yourself. The fear of being wounded or killed while doing your job becomes plausible and real. The look I’ve seen of some men who has survived combat while their brother-in-arms didn’t is something that words cannot describe adequately. One can’t help but think of how the families of fallen men cope with their loss and the time they will need to heal from the emotional wounds.

Being a photographer or journalist covering conflicts can be exciting, dangerous, strenuous, and perhaps, rewarding but it can never a ‘dream’ job. Because there is nothing dreamy about the death and destruction of the land, the people, and most of all, the body, mind and soul of those involved.

A night mission and a near miss...

Thursday 17th September. Paktia Province

Not much has been happening the past few days as the weather have turned significantly cooler and it has been raining almost every afternoon till evening. This means ‘Red Air’ gets called (no flights) and missions has to be postponed. This is also the time for soldiers to relax, carry out maintenance and minor work on the base.

However, we did go on a night patrol on midnight Sunday. It was to be a short recon mission into a nearby village that has known to harbor insurgents and IEDs has been found on this stretch of trail. Everyone was carrying the minimum kit and ammo and we were to use night vision devices also known as NODs (Night Optical Device).

Now the NOD looks good when you see it on TV or the movies where everything seems to be casted in an eerie greenish glow. It actually is pretty cool, for the first 10 minutes anyway! Then you need to constantly try to stop your helmet from slipping down your face due to the weight in front, and your vision screwed because you don’t get any depth perception and you see everything through only one eye. Trying to walk a narrow trail without any depth perception and a fall means into a small river or a deep ditch makes the entire walk a royal pain in the butt! Whenever we walked past a house or two the dogs would raise hell and that was unnerving. I could only pray that we won’t get contact this night. As we walked past a house, the dogs started again and a light suddenly came on. I could only see the silhouette of the man who came out with a light and then he fired a few shots into the air! That’s when you hear the safeties go off the rifles and everyone braced for a possible incident. Tense minutes later the guy went back into his house and we decided to turn back. Whew!

It was soon getting light and I realized that we have walked for nearly 5 hours. The return trip was much more sedated and we walked past several fields of marijuana. The pungent smell of these plants tickled my nostrils and it was a shame I couldn’t take any photos of it!

Nearly 6 am… The entire platoon was dead tired and we trudged along the trail and finally made it back to the COP. And we were hurting!

Later in the afternoon, an IED went off just outside the COP on one of the roads that lead up to it. No one got hurt but we realized that had the platoon taken the other road this morning to come back to the COP it would have hurt much more than the 5 hours walk…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A couple more pics...

Just another day in Afghanistan

Thursday, September 10. COP Herrera, Paktia Province

So I’m finally back in COP Herrera after a 3 months absence. Much has changed here since I left: new buildings, new personnel, new regulations banning the use of Humvees vehicles and the mood in the boys of Charlie Troop.

Charlie Troop has since lost one man killed in action, and two with serious injuries. The countless ambushes and close calls has seen the men unwilling to take more risks than necessary and many were happy if missions were scrubbed. It’s hard to imagine what’s going on inside the heads of these men who are so young and yet seen brutal combat.

I’ve seen old friends and made new ones and I’m happy to be with them even though my time is limited here. I will eventually say goodbye in a week or so and move to another outpost.

Anyway, I went on a foot patrol a couple of days ago with the new MP unit here. It was a patrol combined with practical exercises for the local ANP (Afghan National Police) whom the MPs has been training. Walk, set up checkpoint, search vehicles, people, hand out leaflets and ‘tag’ military age males. You know, military stuff. Once again, my physical condition is being called into question and even though it wasn’t walking down a steep mountain and carrying lots of shit, it was rough going walking at over 2000 metres. The patrol included two females MP and the only thought going through my little head was that I can’t ‘lose’ to them! Ok, the fact that they were half my age, each with a pack, one carrying a SAW and the other an AT-4 rocket means that I cannot be a ‘malu’. Such is the pressure I face! :D

Last night, they had a fire mission with the 120mm mortars and no, I didn’t get to shoot it but got a couple of cool photos through the night vision device.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More pictures from the arty

Fire in the hole!

After 5 days of boredom I finally had something to do! I'm gonna keep this short as I'm tired and badly in need of a shower. First off, I went up to the shooting with a couple of guys from the artillery unit - just to shoot off some rounds. They let me have a go at the biggest, baddest sniper rifle ever: the .50 cal Barrett Sniper Rifle. It was big, long and had a surprisingly mild kick! I mean that in relation to the size of the weapon. Pretty impressive!

Then the artillery unit had a fire mission on their 105mm field gun late in the afternoon in support of a patrol base. The guys were pretty professional yet relaxed about the whole thing. And the bonus: they let me actually fire the last round! (BIG GRIN!) Now that's the biggest gun I've ever fired!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Of BBQ, flash flood and boredom

Tuesday, 1st September... Still in COP Wilderness

I've been here 3 days now and has yet to go on any mission and most of it is because of 'Red Air' - a term for bad weather that may prevent medevac helicopters from evacuating causalities. So the entire COP pretty much sits around and wait. Yesterday, the intrepid boys in green decided to have a BBQ/cookout and invited everyone to come over. Hamburgers, steaks, hotdogs and baked beans. Then the base got hit - with a giant thunderstorm! So intense that it caused a flash flood and took away the road and nearby bridges. From the safety of the camp the flood looked like a raging river. Now no one goes anywhere because there isn't a proper road anymore... This is the mountains and unpredictable weather, they tell you.

No rain today but the main road is still in a shambles and I'm still not getting anything done. Nothing except reading, watching videos, napping, and eating. A couple of pictures of men cleaning big guns and the local Pashtun guard by guardhouse. Maybe I'll go to the gym tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Take a walk on the wild side

Saturday, 29th August. COP Wilderness, Paktia Province.

What started as a normal day ended with total exhaustion, revelation and I daresay it was one of the most physically trying day in a long, long time.

So finally my orders came through and I was to get on a convoy which will take me to another outpost before being picked up for my final destination: COP Wilderness. As the name suggests it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Our departure was delayed due to an ambush on the mountain pass but eventually we rolled out but at about halfway to the pickup point we had to dismount because an overturned truck had blocked the road. Now this was at the beginning of the KG Pass, the mountain pass that leads to Khost Province, and the terrain was rocky and steep. Well, the US Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that instead of waiting we would climb down, over said rocky and steep terrain, to meet up with our pickup vehicles. This is where the fun part begins!

When your body hits the tender age of 40 and above it tells you every so often and this was one of those. I was fortunate that someone volunteered to carry my main pack and I was left with my small pack jammed with an extra camera, lens, hard drive, a laptop and a bunch of other shit. Now add on the body armor with protective plates, helmet and a main camera and you get the picture. It was downhill all the way, literally! My knees were trembling and weak, my breath came in short gasps, and I felt like puking. All the good living in Beijing with minimal exercises and outdoor activities has taken its toll on me. Plus being 44 didn’t help. It took forever to get down and all the while you worry about getting shot at. Granted I had Uncle Sam keeping an eye on me but that didn’t dispel my worries.

Finally I made it down without tripping, falling, puking or passing out. Walking to the waiting MRAP with wobbly legs, I told myself perhaps this should be my last embed ‘cos whether I care to admit or not, this is a young man’s game. Or maybe I’m just a whimp…

Friday, August 28, 2009

A bakery in Kabul

One of the many that you will find in Kabul. They are friendly and very curious about outsiders.

FOBs, COPs and waiting..

Friday, 28th August, FOB Gardez

BAF = Bagram Air Field (main US base in Afghanistan)
COP = Combat Outpost
FB = Fire Base
FOB = Forward Operations Base
PB = Patrol Base
PX = Post Exchange. A store at a US military base selling food, clothings, etc.

Nothing to do but wait… Sometimes the military is a lot about waiting and for journalists going to different bases in eastern Afghanistan, it’s mostly waiting for clear weather in the mountain passes and sometimes the availability of Apache gunships escort into hot zone. One Italian journalist was apparently stuck at a FOB for 10 days before he got a ride out and he spent most of it watching movies (I heard about 4 movies a day). Now that’s legendary!

Most bases, with the exception of small COPs and FBs, are pretty well set up. There is usually a small PX, barbershop, café, a recreational room with Internet and phone facility (aka MWR), and a gym. Of course the further away one gets from the main hub the more ‘primitive’ it gets. As such, waiting is not such big deal but the boredom can be very trying.

Once you get to your assigned base things begin to get much better as you settle in and get to establish some sort of routine. Now you would think that it’s action time but the reality is that on most days, you go on patrols or attend a local tribal meeting and then return to base all tired, dusty and hungry and realized that you have nothing much to write home about. In other words, reporting from the frontline is never a guarantee for action. However, having said that there are bases that get shot at every other day and I guess you would spend half the time keeping your head down. So take yer pick!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dear Mom: War is Hell!!

War, indeed, is hell on earth... Today, I learned that a young soldier I met in May on my last week of the embed was killed in action in July. He was young, easy going, and always with a ready smile. He was one of the first soldier I photographed when I was attached to Charlie Platoon in COP Herrera. Today, I pay my respect and tribute to Nicolas Gideon, a young lad sent to a foreign land to fight a war that shouldn't have been and didn't make it home. Today is the first time someone I know died a combat death... May Gideon's soul rest in peace.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Election Day Photos! Finally!

It's not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one. - Robert Capa