Last night, while watching the playback of a National Geographic program I had DVR-ed, I watched a brief minute of footage that sent shivers up my spine and sent my mind racing with thoughts of an experience I had in Afghanistan last year. The recorded two-hour program made an attempt to explain the key players and the chronological events that lead up to the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Enveloped in emotions of frustration and anger, I sat on the edge of my couch, listening to the ominous words of the narrator and glaring at flashing array of photos of the terrorist pilots who would go on to kill nearly 3,000 Americans.
With only ten minutes left, the program was rapidly approaching its climax. Despite knowing the ultimate end to the story, I was completely engrossed in the intense, historical accounts. The dates flashed in the bottom corner of the screen: August 22nd, August 29th, September 5th… slowly approaching September 11th.
The date bar flashed September 9, 2001, and I gasped. There, on my television screen, was the face of a man that I knew… not personally but I had a rare connection.
In late June 2012, I went on a mission to an ABP kandak in Northeastern Afghanistan. The mission itself is another blog but it was during this mission that I had an experience that no one else can ever say they’ve had.
I had been on mission with this particular team a few times before so the team’s Afghan counterparts knew me, in my public affairs role, and accepted me as part of the team. The ABP commander, who was along on this trip, also knew who I was and respected me as part of the team.
I was the only female on this mission and we were in an area where the Afghan Border Police had not seen a female American Soldier before. Additionally, according to our Intel report, the area had not been without action. I was fully aware of all of this so my senses were slightly elevated but I reasoned with myself that my team had my back if need be. Charlie Mike (continue mission)…
Members of our team had been invited to eat with the kandak leader and the ABP commander. The food was to be served in the room they called “The Shrine”. Hesitantly I entered the long white plaster walled room. Our leadership was already seated on the red carpeted floor around a dull yellow plastic food mat. Large rectangular windows lined two walls of the room. The windows had no screens but were wide open to allow as much air and light into the room as possible. The men sipped chai tea and ate apples and dried beans with their fingers.
I took a few photos of the gathering but was very distracted by the walls of the room. Stretching down the long side of the room nearest the door was a very large poster-like painting. Beside that, another painting. Bedside that, on the far wall, another painting. Hanging from the walls in between every window were magazine clippings. Taped up like a teenage girl tapes her favorite musician’s or actor’s magazine photos, were pages and pages of one man: Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The most revered mujahideen, Massoud was the leader of the resistance to the Taliban.
The ABP commander noticed I was looking at the photos and came to talk with me. He really hadn’t ever talked directly to me, not without one of our males directly beside me, but the team was in the room so he I guess he felt comfortable enough.
“Sergeant Lambas (my name in Dari).” he started. “Do you know the story of Massoud?” he asked through our interpreter.
“No, Sir,” I replied, slightly embarrassed that I didn’t know enough of his history to engage in the conversation.
“Stand right here,” he went on as he put both arms on my shoulders and guided me over just a foot or two to my left.
“Here is where Massoud was killed.” he said. I froze.
“Do you know how he was killed?” he continued.
I listened to the interpreter but said nothing.
“He was killed by a journalist. The bomb was in the camera.”
There I stood… with my camera in my hands… standing in the very place that their most beatified mujahideen has been slaughtered… by a camera bomb.
I think he noticed the blank yet slightly shocked look on my face, so he turned and began speaking with our commander. I don’t think he was upset with me for not reacting or saying anything. Actually, I’d like to think he and I slightly bonded at that moment. I stood there motionless for a moment as I let what he told me sink in. The magnitude of my rare position came over me: the only female, an American, in a sacred room, carrying the same device that was used as a weapon nearly 11 years before. My heart was heavy and my thoughts were clouded and racing.
My mentor and very good friend had been standing just a few feet away from me. I snapped out it as he walked up to me. We quietly walked over to where the two commanders were conversing. The ABP commander was showing our commander photos of himself with Massoud and others not long before Massoud was killed. Again, I felt another pang in my stomach. The Afghan general knew Massoud. I slowly raised my camera and took just one photo of the general pointing to himself in the photo on the wall. Usually ambitious about taking photos, I now felt out of place and almost scared to take photos in that room. I had to step out.
Last night was the first time I had seen video, not still photographs, of Massoud. I had only heard the story about the camera bomb once before and it wasn’t from a narrator on a film. It was told to me years after Massoud’s assassination, directly in the place where he had been killed, and by someone who knew and worked with him.
Only I can tell this story…