(NEW YORK) — Over and over, Kathy Gannon has re-lived the decisions that led to the death of her close friend Anja Niedringhaus and her own severe injuries, as they went about their jobs chronicling the story of Afghanistan.
Gannon, a veteran Associated Press correspondent, and Niedringhaus, an award-winning AP photographer, had worked together on countless stories and negotiated many dangers for five years. But they were always “very smart with how we went about doing the stories, because we wanted to keep doing the stories,” Gannon recalled.
Then, on April 4, they were sprayed with gunfire by an Afghan police commander as they prepared to cover the presidential election the next day.
Were she to go back in time, would she do anything differently? The answer, firmly, is “No.”
“We weren’t careless or cavalier about the security arrangements …,” Gannon said at AP headquarters in New York last week, in her first interview since the attack. “We really made sure that we had a safe place to stay, we knew who we were traveling with, we knew the area in which we were going. Honestly, I’ve thought it through so many times — I know neither Anja or I would have done anything differently.”
The stakes in the election were high for Afghanistan, a country already wracked by 13 years of war that was facing both the prospect of Western forces leaving and a renewed Taliban insurgency.
The two women had driven from Kabul, the capital, to the eastern city of Khost, then connected with a convoy under the protection of Afghan security forces that was transporting ballots to an outlying area. Their goal was to get a first-hand sense of how ordinary Afghans would respond to this window of democracy in a province considered a Taliban stronghold.
As they sat in their vehicle in a well-guarded compound amid scores of police and security officers, one of the men supposedly assuring their safety walked up, yelled “Allahu Akbar,” and fired on them with his AK-47. Then, he dropped his emptied weapon and surrendered.
Niedringhaus, 48, died instantly of her wounds. Gannon, 61, was hit with six bullets that ripped through her left arm, right hand and left shoulder, shattering her shoulder blade.,
“I looked down and my left hand was separated from my wrist,” Gannon said. “I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, this time we’re finished.’ … One minute we were sitting in the car laughing, and the next, our shoulders were pressed hard against each other as if one was trying to hold the other up. The shooting ended. I looked toward Anja. I didn’t know.”
As the AP driver sped their bullet-riddled car over bumpy roads to the nearest hospital, a municipal facility 45 minutes away, the AP translator told Gannon, “Kathy, don’t leave us.” She was sure she was dying.
“That time was very much about really making peace,” Gannon recalled. “I was so trying to just breathe and just go peacefully.”
At the hospital, Gannon was placed on a gurney, in excruciating pain. Yet there were reassurances.
“At one point the doctor said to me, ‘Your life is as important to me as it is to you. We really are working trying to save it.'”
In the operating room, she was sedated. When she woke up, she’d already been airlifted from a U.S. base near Khost back to Kabul. It was only there, still only half-conscious, that she realized her friend was dead.
Within days, Gannon flew by an air ambulance jet to a hospital in Germany, and, later, to the United States, to continue her treatment at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
The months of physical recovery and therapy have been grueling. Gannon raves about the care she has received, in particular the reconstruction work overseen by Dr. Duretti Fufa at the New York hospital that involved rebuilding her left arm with bone, fat and muscle from her left leg.
“It’s so minute. You have to attach the nerves, you have to attach the arteries, the vessels,” Gannon said. “I had a gaping six-inch (15-centimeter) hole right through where several bullets had just smashed through the arm. There was nothing there. She has completely rebuilt it.”
“She has continued at every stage to do wonderfully,” Fufa said. The hand and reconstructive specialist praised the surgeons abroad for stabilizing the complex injuries enough to allow Gannon’s arms to be salvaged, and Gannon for doing all the hard work of a patient that followed. “She is an incredibly motivated person. I could not ask for a more motivated and pleasant patient to work with.”
Said Gannon: “As horrible as everything was, there were so many times you think, ‘My God, I’m so fortunate.’ Every nerve, even the smallest nerve in my left hand, was intact. How is that possible?”
Her recovery remains a work in progress; the fingers of her left hand are still immobile. As soon as she can, she wants to visit Niedringhaus’ grave near her birthplace in Germany to say a last goodbye. And she is determined, after further surgery and therapy, to return to Afghanistan — and to report again from there for the AP.
“Neither Anja or I would ever accept to be forced out by some crazy gunman,” Gannon said. (Their attacker has since been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by an Afghan court.)
Both her tight-knit family in Canada and her husband and stepdaughter in Pakistan worry, but know her well enough to understand she will go back.
Gannon has established a strong bond with Afghanistan over three decades of covering it. As she put it, “There’s history still to be told there.”
“Afghanistan is a tremendous story of people who have really been caught in such successive traumas that they always seem to come out on the losing end,” she said. “Afghans, through 35 years, have come through one war after another always believing that it’s going to get better. … I have a tremendous affinity for that struggle that they have constantly, constantly endured and never succumbed to hopelessness.”
Moreover, Gannon says Niedringhaus would want her to go back.
Niedringhaus loved shooting all sorts of subjects, including sports, but she spent much of her working life in trouble spots — Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey — and was one of 11 AP photographers who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for coverage of the Iraq War.
She and Gannon started working together in 2009 in Kabul, when Niedringhaus had just finished an assignment embedded with a military unit. The photographer was mildly irked when Gannon voiced some skepticism about such reporting arrangements.
But “That evening we were talking about stories,” Gannon recalled. “We just hit it off … it was as if we had known each other for ever.”
The partnership flourished as the two journalists found much in common in their approaches to their jobs. They did not do their work from a distance. Instead, they got away from officialdom and spent time in villages, sleeping on the floors of mud houses.
“I loved the way Anja got so excited about the stories,” said Gannon. “She loved getting up close with the people.”
Gannon recounts all the firsts they accomplished together. They were the first international journalists to embed with both the Pakistani and the Afghan armies. They traveled from Quetta in Pakistan to Kandahar aboard an oil tanker carrying fuel to U.S.-led coalition forces. They got details of the massacre of 16 Afghans by a U.S. soldier from survivors, and visited poppy fields deep in Taliban country.
Now, Gannon insists she will do it again — without Niedringhaus, but in her memory and with her spirit.
“If it was reversed, Anja would be out there telling those stories too — she’d be telling them in the most amazing pictures,” she said.
“I want to go and try and tell them. It might be physically half a team, but emotionally and every other way, when I go back, it’s a two-person team. We’re together on this.”