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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

10 of my colleagues were killed today: Afghanistan reporter recounts bombing in Kabul

Suicide bombing targeted journalists as the overall casualty toll reached 25 killed and 45 wounded

AFP chief photographer in Kabul, Shah Marai, pictured in 2012. Marai was killed in a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital on Monday April 30, 2018. Johannes Eisele / AFP
AFP chief photographer in Kabul, Shah Marai, pictured in 2012. Marai was killed in a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital on Monday April 30, 2018. Johannes Eisele / AFP

It isn’t unusual to wake up to the news of an explosion in the Afghan capital Kabul. As the city comes under frequent attacks—increasingly in the recent years—the morning and evening rush hours remain prime targets for terrorists to inflict the most casualties. This was one of those mornings.

I live with another journalist and we woke up to the news of an explosion. The area attacked had been targeted before on account of it being a crowded commercial area. Instinctively, we started the process of news gathering, as a reporter would in such a situation, as our colleagues around the city were doing at that very moment.

The details came in slowly, between sips of coffee, phone calls and text messages. And then, half an hour after the first reports of an explosion, came the news that there had been a second bomb. One that specifically targeted the journalists who had come to the site of the first attack.

This wasn’t the first time that insurgents have used a follow up bomb to target the responders and those who come out to help the victims of an attack. This time though it had claimed the life of someone I knew and had worked alongside.

AFP’s senior photojournalist Shah Marai Faizi had been killed. Like everyone else, I was in shock, and it took me a while to process that information.

AFP Chief Photographer in Kabul Shah Marai posing for a picture with one of his young sons, in Kabul in 2013. Shah Marai was a charismatic, courageous journalist who was dedicated to reporting on Afghanistan's wrenching conflict. Ben Sheppard / AFP
AFP Chief Photographer in Kabul Shah Marai posing for a picture with one of his young sons, in Kabul in 2013. Shah Marai was a charismatic, courageous journalist who was dedicated to reporting on Afghanistan's wrenching conflict. Ben Sheppard / AFP

The recent wave of insurgency hasn’t cared much for civilian life. If anything, those attacks claimed by ISIS have made it a point to target as many innocent lives as possible. They’ve worked to infect society with fear and dread, and then they've capitalised on it. People are weaker when broken down to their basic human emotions. And today, like too many other days, emotions in Kabul are running very basal.

I left home shortly after on an unrelated errand. I knew I would be passing close to the site of the attack and could perhaps talk to eyewitnesses. All along, I kept thinking of Shah Marai, trying to recall the last time we met.

I hadn’t known him well but our interactions were always cordial and I had followed his work closely. As a freelance reporter, my stories are often published alongside images taken by agency photojournalists, and I have had the pleasure of having Shah Marai’s photographs add another dimension to my reporting.

Marai joined AFP as a driver in 1996, the year the Taliban seized power, and began taking pictures on the side, covering stories including the US invasion in 2001. In 2002 he became a full-time photo stringer, rising through the ranks to become chief photographer in the bureau. He leaves behind six children, including a newborn daughter. Shah Marai / AFP
Marai joined AFP as a driver in 1996, the year the Taliban seized power, and began taking pictures on the side, covering stories including the US invasion in 2001. In 2002 he became a full-time photo stringer, rising through the ranks to become chief photographer in the bureau. He leaves behind six children, including a newborn daughter. Shah Marai / AFP

As I navigated the road blocks that tend to spring up across the city in the aftermath of such attacks, more reports continued to pour in, one by one, of more journalists who had lost their lives in the attack. People were calling to check in on me because at least one of the killed was a woman – Mahram Durani from Radio Azadi.

I made a few calls of my own to make sure the Afghan colleagues I work with frequently were okay. One of them told me he had heard from security forces that the second attacker had disguised himself as a journalist. Armed with a camera he was able to get close to the site of the attack, which was closed to the public. Similar to how Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Masood was killed shortly before 9/11, it is believed he had a bomb hidden inside his camera, which he detonated amid the journalists.

As the death toll continued to rise, it still seemed surreal that so many of our colleagues had paid such a heavy price just for doing their jobs. Even as reports continue to pour in across social media, there were few visuals, if any, of the attacks, because nearly all of Kabul's photojournalists and videographers had either been killed, injured or were in shock.

AFP chief photographer in Kabul Shah Marai was well aware of the risks of his job. In this 2014 photo, he is speaking during the funeral for his close friend and collague AFP Sardar Ahmad who was killed alongside his family by Taliban gunmen. Roberto Schmidt / AFP
AFP chief photographer in Kabul Shah Marai was well aware of the risks of his job. In this 2014 photo, he is speaking during the funeral for his close friend and collague AFP Sardar Ahmad who was killed alongside his family by Taliban gunmen. Roberto Schmidt / AFP

At the time of writing, the number of my colleagues killed today has reached ten. The most recent succumbed to his injuries in the hospital. Hours later, I am still making calls and leaving messages, but most of these now are to pay my respects and offer condolences to those who were close to the martyred scribes.

We now know who attacked the press community, the local faction of Islamic State has taken responsibility.

In a few days, May 3 will mark World Press Freedom day. A lot will be said and written about what we do as journalists and why it is important to a healthy progressive society. Shah Marai and the others will receive deserved accolades for their commitment to freedom of press and information. It's a commitment they paid for with their lives. Instead of being regarded as the transparent medium that they are, journalists continue to be seen as opponents and threats by various factions on all sides of the conflict here.

This will not be the end; journalists and other civilians will continue to be targeted for defying elements of society that hope to destabilise it. But even so, we will keep carrying our cameras and recorders and stepping out again to tell the world the stories that need to be told.

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Read more:

Twin ISIS suicide bomb attacks kill dozens in Kabul

Afghanistan, through the lens of Shah Marai

Afghan Taliban announces spring offensive in another blow to peace hopes