When we all take a moment to think through what is the closest moment we’ve come to death…some can recount the moment immediately, others may need some time…and some may not have any clue at all.
I’ve come close on a number of occasions over the years both during my military times and post military. From a dreadful military diving accident, to driving through a firefight, a handful of other moments and to what I’m going to describe right now.
Of all the years working in hostile environments this incident is the one that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Back some 12 years ago now I was working with the media in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was between assignments having one media team return to the USA and awaiting another incoming in 4 days time. I chose to spend the down time wondering around Kabul taking photos…a hobby of mine.
This particular day was cloudy and cool, but dry. A good day in Kabul for photos as the features looked sharp and not blinded by sun, haze or pollution.
I was walking in an area that I knew well, I’d already taken some 50 or so photos of people and buildings. One thing’s for sure, Afghans and Afghanistan are both up there with the most photogenic features on earth.
I was walking on a wide footpath paralleling a large ten foot high stone wall with strands of barbed wire running along the top. On the other side of that wall was a school building and yard.
The children could be heard laughing and playing on the other side of the wall. Other noises were the usual street noises of vehicles, honking horns, and people’s voices as they stand and chat or pass by.
Every 20-30 feet or so was a tree planted many years ago at the side of the road. I was thinking how great it was that these trees are still here after years of hardships and freezing winters, where in particular through the civil war period…wood for burning was hard to come by. I knew that the Taliban post civil war period (although really the civil war continues to this day) made it illegal to cut trees down within the Kabul city limits. Most wood was transported over the border by road from Pakistan.
As my mind for the present was on the trees I suddenly heard a bird or two singing up on one of the branches. The foliage was hiding the birds, and I was trying to see if I could pick them out. I hadn’t heard the sound before (I’m no “twitcher” by the way!) so I was intrigued to see what kind of birds were calling out.
I was about 20 feet from the end of the wall before it turns onto the next street on a main road and heads to the front of the school.
As I continued looking up into the tree’s foliage there was a sudden lights out moment…followed by a distinct lack of noise. Everything’s blackened…I’m now sitting on my arse with my back against the bottom of the wall. The kids are no longer laughing or playing. There are no bird noises, or birds, or foliage…the tree is a blackened mess.
As I pull myself up from the wall and stand out onto the road…I see shredded body parts of the children strewn on the barbed wire fencing running along the top of the wall towards the street junction. Shredded items of clothing hanging from the trees.
Yes, a suicide bombing…vehicle borne…from kids laughing, to birds twittering to carnage…and all in a millisecond.
If I hadn’t halted to look for the birds, I would have turned the corner as the bomber had initiated his explosive laden vehicle.
But that’s not what bothers me all these years later.
Whether a parent or not, the thought of hearing kids playing in a courtyard anywhere in the world has to be innocence personified! But in Kabul, a city of continued war and hardships, hearing children laughing and having fun is always something special to me. Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and on and on and on…
Kids will always make the best out of next to nothing no matter where they are.
So to go from pure innocence to hell in a moment is something that I’ll never forget. I’m forever thankful for being alive to write this, and as said I’ve been in “tight spots” before…but when it involves innocent kids…it’s really tough to take.
I turned the corner towards the bombing and school entrance. The target was a military convoy that just kept going…the bomber having missed his intended target. The sight before me as I walked among the blood and body parts was haunting.
Later in the day, I heard some International people at my hotel mention that it was only “collateral damage” that was caught in the explosion…really?