KABUL — Last year we were late, so we were there when the bomb went off in the Afghan capital.
Suddenly I was nearly thrown off my feet by crowds of men running away, from the Ashura Shia holy day rites, some screaming “Ya Hussein!” I thought about running, took cover behind a car, then considered following dozens of others who had jumped down a retaining wall and were wading across the filthy Kabul River.
Then I realized I had not seen Joel, a photographer friend of mine, for a few minutes and that I needed to capture what was going on. I fought my way through the terrified crowd only to find the street slick with blood and dozens and dozens of bodies laid out, blown out into a near perfect semi-circle.
I wrote then that it was, “as if a giant scythe had reached out, cutting people down like wheat in its sweep.” The image of the perfect geometry stays with me today. So does the memory of the feeling of being walled in by blood.
It has taken me a year to be able to write this without choking up. I still do, from time to time. Sometimes I have problems with what I saw. Mostly, though, it is a memory – or something not to be touched (see photos, some graphic, from Ashura 2012 here.)
This year it was hard, but different. On the night before this Ashura, I sent Joel a text, asking him what he would be doing on Saturday. We had talked around the topic, but had not come up with any plan. He said he would go back down to the river. I was anxious and had doubts, but told him I’d meet him the next morning.
I met him early this Saturday morning. I dropped off my bike and we started walking down towards the river. We walked through the diplomatic quarter of the city – the area’s high gray blast walls just starting to be tipped by the orange of the morning light. The snow-capped peaks around Kabul glowed with the same color.
As we walked, we talked about last year. Part of the reason for going back down to the river, to photograph the men flagellating themselves, was to overcome fear. “If you don’t go, you’ll just get more afraid,” he told me. Part of the reason, on my end, was to see if security had improved. So, we were not just going to photograph a news event – it was also some sort of way to help ourselves.
This year security was much tighter. Ropes were strung out, blocking off one quadrant of the square in front of the Central Bank, while others blocked off roads heading towards the river. A big man walked over and asked us who we were and where did we think we were going. I made a few jokes in Russian and the big guy answered.
For all of the security – and there was a lot – all it took was to have a shared foreign language to get us through. After 15 minutes, we were finally down on the strip of road running between the Abul Faz Mosque and the Kabul River.
We stood joking with a couple other journalists who had come down early. Groups of women in chadors – black or colorful as rainbows – streamed into the mosque to pray. Later, groups of men began to arrive.
The crowds came through a gate some 300 feet away and were frisked by armed police. The crowds were orderly – and the police professional – almost resembling the gates at the Afghan Premier League soccer finals a few weeks before – though much more somber.
In a three-story house still under construction and overlooking the normally busy road, a policeman was stationed with a machinegun. He wore belts of machinegun rounds wrapped around his belly in a shimmering gold cummerbund and drank tea from a golden teapot, but seemed aware enough. Trucks with machineguns mounted in their beds were parked along the edges of the road and police and border police were stationed every few meters along the top of the river’s retaining wall.
Indeed, the only frenzy, the only disorder of the day, was when the flagellations and chanting started. Drops of blood flew through the air, spattering onlookers and flagellants alike, as everyone from young boys to old men beat themselves. The crowd thumped the rhythm of the chants on their chests. Dozens and dozens of onlookers had a mobile phone out, filming the event.
After a few hours, the rite had finished, all of the different mosque delegations had come through, and the square emptied. We walked home down the same road we had walked down the year before – this time through two police checkpoints. There was the familiar feeling of having put in a good day’s work – but also a lot of relief that things had changed this year.