Veteran photographer recounts his first Afghan war assignment

July 16, 2013

Michel du Cille, The Washington Post's associate editor for photography, went to Afghanistan for the first time earlier this year, to accompany The Post's Kabul bureau chief, Kevin Sieff, and report on a series of articles on the Afghan army. A winner of three Pulitzer prizes, du Cille is no stranger to conflict. Below he recounts his experience from his first assignment in Afghanistan.


My recent trip to Afghanistan was in a word, challenging. I did not set out on my first Afghan war assignment to chase or seek out what we in the photojournalism world call “bang bang.” This time, bang bang found us.

My mission, as a Washington Post photojournalist, was to document the Afghan military’s ability to fight the war without major involvement from the International Security Assistance Force, following the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. My goal was to try to answer, through my photographs, one question — how will the Afghans fight the war without coalition forces?

The Post’s intrepid Kabul bureau chief, Kevin Sieff, spent months making plans to embed with the Afghan military. I was given the choice to go, and I willingly, perhaps naively, jumped at the opportunity. Kevin’s plan came together in the beginning very quietly; there was no drama. We traveled wearing helmets and flak vests into Logar and Wardak provinces.

On day two of our Afghan army embed in the Tangi Valley, a place that had been overrun by the Taliban, we calmly and methodically entered a village called Hassan Kiel. Sieff, a writer with enormous bravery, Sharif Mohammed, our courageous Afghan interpreter, and I, still catching my breath, had just taken a little break from the tiring trek. I was beyond exhausted. The burdensome, heavy and uncomfortable body armor had me sweating in the cool mountain air. My cameras and other gear felt like expensive bags of rocks.

(Read: Afghan soldiers enter a Taliban nest, without U.S. troops by their side)

Our rest was brief, as sounds of unrelenting gunfire suddenly began. The Afghan soldiers began scurrying to unknown corners as we encountered more gunfire. It seemed so very, very close, and it was. The commander, Col. Mohammed Daowood, sprinted past with a pistol in his hands. I began to follow him. Moments later, Sieff said, “We need to take cover … and get your helmet back on.” The shooting continued for what seemed like a few minutes, when two Afghan soldiers emerged, with arms and shoulders locked around a wounded soldier. He had been shot in the belly and was bleeding.

The shooting stopped, but the effort to stabilize the wounded man took considerable time. I remember thinking they were doing everything wrong. They carried the wounded soldier piggyback, which undoubtedly caused severe pain to his belly wound. They took substantial time trying to figure out how to transport the soldier. The soldier eventually made it to the hospital in Kabul and recovered. But their handling of his injuries stuck in my mind as an example of their unpreparedness.

Our next story involved jumping in and out of helicopters, documenting the care for wounded members of the Afghan military. Our emphasis was on the Afghan military's ability to transport their wounded from the battlefield for medical help. It was during that story we encountered a seemingly quiet man whom we called “the bodywasher.” Noorulah Noori spent his days in a makeshift morgue at the Kandahar Regional Military Hospital, where his main duty was to wash the bodies before returning them to family members. He kept a bed in this repurposed refrigerated shipping container, where he often rested between caring for the remains of fallen Afghan soldiers. A large number of battlefield fatalities were starting to arrive regularly.

(Read: In Kandahar, preparing Afghanistan's war dead for burial)

Three bodies, all victims of makeshift bombs, first arrived by ambulance in flag-draped coffins. What happened next seemed routine but will always be an image that I can never erase from my mind. The first body was uncovered from a white cloth folded over a large mass inside the wooden coffin. Inside was simply a partial torso -- no head, no arms, no waist, no legs. Noori at first stood motionless over the gruesome scene. I took a couple of frames, then heard my inner voice telling me I couldn’t shoot that. Noori then simply folded the white cloth back over the partial body and resealed the flag-draped coffin. There were two more coffins to go. I quietly kept my focus on Noori as he opened and washed two other badly mangled bodies.

The third body was the least battered, least gruesome. The dead soldier had severe injuries, but his body was still intact. As I photographed the washing process, I kept thinking how much he looked as if he were sleeping. I was simply trying to understand how such a horrible death produced such serenity on his face.

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Max Fisher · July 16, 2013