Disclaimer: this is my personal recollection of the events of the June 22nd, 2012 attack on the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake, Afghanistan. If you want the official report on this event, I suggest you consult an official news source (like the New York Times article here).
I hate to write the first of my planned blog posts on Afghanistan with the account of yesterday morning’s events. This trip has been one of the most eye-opening, fulfilling travel experiences I have ever had, and I do not want to give it an aura of danger that, quite frankly, did not exist at any point during my time in Kabul, Herat, and Panjshir.
As my host in Kabul, Tom, told me before coming here, living in Afghanistan is like having the opportunity to see real-life movies. What Tom meant by this is that if there is an attack in Kabul, you can make the decision to witness death and destruction on a level that most Westerners would only ever experience in the cinema. The key thing to remember though is that it is a choice. For most Western journalists here, you choose to go to where the violence is at. That was certainly the case for us yesterday.
Let’s start at the beginning; at 4:30 am on Friday, Tom was woken up by a national news radio program that called to inquire about the hostage situation at the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake. Tom had gone to bed at 11 pm on Thursday night, about a half an hour before the insurgents stormed the restaurant. Although he was completely unaware of any details of the attack, he took several moments to catch up on the events that transpired overnight and then provided some situational analysis. Upon conclusion of the interview, he began making calls to find out more information about the situation. At around six he woke me up to see if I was interested in going to the site of the attack. Of course I was, and by around 6:30 we had a driver picking us up to take us to Qargha Lake.
We passed by about three police checkpoints before getting to the outer military cordon, at the base of the Qargha dam, just below where the gun battle was taking place. At this point I was introduced to Tom’s journalistic modus operandi in Afghanistan, which is to let the Afghan journalists assess risks (as they can do better than Westerners) and follow them when they decide to move. This method of risk management first led Tom and I – in tow behind a gaggle of local journalists – to the top of the hill overseeing the lake, then to the bottom of the hill on the road to the restaurant, and finally to a shore-side outdoor lounge area. This location came with a very convenient brick wall right along the shoreline that served as excellent cover for the twenty or so reporters that had massed together.
I would say we were about 600 or 700 meters away from where the fighting was taking place across the lake – likely out of range of most automatic weapons being used in the battle – but we could still hear the occasional stray round cracking overhead. It was at this point that Tom called his Afghan partner, Zubair, to ask him to contact the Taliban for a comment about the attack. This is how we learned that a spokesman had claimed Taliban responsibility, saying that the restaurant was a target because it was popular with foreigners and Afghan government officials who go there for “illicit fun.” The spokesman also said that the hostage takers had killed a number of foreigners and government officials, which later turned out to be false.
We waited for several hours as the gunfight between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army (ANA) ran its course. During this time I was able to fully appreciate how big Twitter has become in breaking news. Everyone was tweeting; the Western journalists were tweeting, the Afghan journalists were tweeting, and the Afghan security forces were following the tweets. Through the grapevine, I heard that one Afghan journalist was grossly exaggerating events by tweeting that ‘shrapnel was flying overhead,’ ‘bullets were cutting down tree branches,’ and he saw a soldier ‘die in front of his eyes.’ This same journalist was not ten feet from where I was sitting, hiding under a table no less. None of these tweets were true. When I asked one Western journalist about this lack of integrity, he sighed and said simply that Afghan journalism was “still evolving.” As it turned out, one of the leading Afghan military commanders on scene that morning was following these disingenuous tweets and reprimanded the Afghan journalist to the point where he looked like a sullen, embarrassed school boy for the rest of the morning.
It was also during this long waiting period when many of the other journalists asked me, as the new guy, who I was “with.” Well, despite my best efforts, I had not been able to obtain press credentials for the trip, so I would just reply that I was a “tourist.” One time I replied in a very weighty tone of voice, “I’m with Asda’a Burson-Marsteller . . . [leaning forward solemnly] public relations.” None of this was going over well with the cadre of seasoned Afghan and Western correspondents on scene, so Tom advised me to just tell people that I was a freelancer. If you’re wondering how I managed to be involved in any of this without some kind of press identification, it’s because no Afghan security personnel asked for them. Seriously, at no point during the day was I even asked to present my passport.
As the fighting started winding down around 10 am, the Kabul police chief, General Salangi, started giving remarks. Needless to say the remarks (in Dari I presume) were unintelligible to me, but like one of those scavenger fishes that attach to sharks, I meandered through the crowd and collected whatever scraps of information I could get from the real journalists. Apparently, a van of Taliban fighters had made there way to the site from the mountains of Paghman, taking a route which avoided any military or police checkpoints. With no fortified entrance and only three lightly-armed security guards (all of whom where killed), the restaurant was no doubt considered a ‘soft’ target by the Taliban.
The choice of launching the attack on a Thursday night (the beginning of the weekend inAfghanistan) guaranteed that the restaurant would be crowded. As of the writing of this blog post, it appears that the victims (numbered at 20 in the latest official statements) consisted exclusively of restaurant employees and well-to-do Afghan patrons of the restaurant.
At around 11 am the fighting had finally ended and the mob of journalists now assembled was allowed to move up to the gate of the restaurant. There soldiers were being led in victory chants by a senior Afghan commander, which soon turned into more interviews with commanders, civilian leaders, and witnesses who were on site. Unlike in the West where hostages would immediately be sequestered and treated for shock, the Afghan military actually paraded around two young Afghan boys, no older than ten years old, who had been rescued by the ANA. Within an hour of having their lives in peril, they were put in front of a throng of reporters to answer questions. I guess it makes me a hypocrite, but my concern for their mental well-being did not stop me from taking a thousand pictures of them during this impromptu Q&A session.
The last part of this narrative is my account of the inside of the restaurant itself. If you have a sensitive stomach, I would perhaps stop right here (and certainly before the photos at the conclusion of this paragraph). It has been several years since I have personally seen the body of a man killed by severe trauma; I didn’t enjoy it then, and I didn’t enjoy this part of the experience yesterday. I was there to take photographs though, and thus I sallied forth as best I could and documented everything I saw with my camera.
Really, it could have been worse; there were no dead women, and no dead children. Just men, two who’s ammunition belts gave them away as insurgents, one potential insurgent, and eight who were clearly civilians. It was ugly business walking around the burnt out rooms and blood-stained verandas, imagining the lovely time guests were having before the Taliban arrived. Walking through the kitchen, you could still see chicken in the fryer and boiled meat in a giant pot. No one had any idea this was coming.
I don’t really know enough about this country to comment further. This is what I saw that day, and maybe at some point in the future I’ll be better able to understand this horrific violence. For now though, I can only share what I saw as accurately as I can with whomever may be interested.