Anja Niedringhaus was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Kathy Gannon has covered Afghanistan for more than 25 years, longer than any other Western reporter.
The two AP journalists knew their way around dangerous places and shared a special gift for finding the humanity in the most war-ravaged places, something that shines through instantly in Niedringhaus’ photos and Gannon’s reporting.
They were working together Friday, as they had many times before. By their standards, it seemed a relatively benign assignment: watching Afghan election workers make preparations near the eastern city of Khost for Saturday’s presidential poll.
They were sitting in the back of their station wagon when a police commander named Naqibullah walked up to the vehicle, shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” and opened fire with his AK-47, the AP reported.
Niedringhaus, 48, was killed instantly. Gannon, 60, was hit in the arm, according to her husband. She was flown to Bagram, the huge U.S. military base north of Kabul, and was in stable condition.
Gannon is a journalistic institution in Afghanistan. A Canadian who arrived in the region in 1988, she began covering Afghanistan’s turmoil when the Soviet army still occupied the country.
From her base in Islamabad, Pakistan, she sneaked into Afghanistan with rebel fighters during this period, walking with them for days through the high mountain passes to cross the border and get glimpses of the war. On one trip, her group ran out of water and nearly perished from dehydration.
She has covered every twist and turn in Afghanistan since then.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Gannon was among the few Western reporters who continued to go to Afghanistan on a regular basis and report on the impact that Taliban policies had on ordinary Afghans, particularly women and girls.
She never pulled her punches when reporting on the Taliban, and yet was so well connected, she continued to receive visas to get into the country. Perhaps the most striking example of this came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan that began the following month.
Gannon was the first and one of the few Western journalists who received a visa, and was able to cover the war from Kabul while the Taliban were still in control of the capital.
Asked why she was allowed in, Gannon said:
“I spent a lot of time on the front lines. I was there all the time and one former Taliban, who has since been killed, said to me, ‘You have been here through everything.’ I think that is what you have to do to gain their respect; convince them of your courage and make allies of them.”
Fueled by a fierce determination — and perhaps a dozen cups of coffee a day — she has continued to doggedly cover Afghanistan in the nearly 13 years since the fall of the Taliban. She distilled her vast reporting in a book, I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan.
Gannon is also renowned for her hospitality, opening her home in Islamabad to the many visiting journalists who came to the region to report on Pakistan and Afghanistan. She’s hosted countless dinners for journalists and her well-placed sources, allowing them to compare notes from places where access was difficult, if not impossible, due to the dangers of traveling in many parts of Afghanistan.
Niedringhaus, a German native, had been covering Afghanistan and other wars for some two decades, including Iraq, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was known for her ability to get deeply personal portraits of both the combatants and the civilians in the conflicts.
She was among a team of AP photographers who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for covering the Iraq War and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2006-’07.
As AP’s Angela Charlton wrote of Niedringhaus:
“Niedringhaus leaves behind a body of work that won awards and broke hearts. She trained her camera on children caught between the front lines, yet who still find a place to play. She singled out soldiers from their armies as they were confronted by death, injuries and enemies’ attacks.”
Greg Myre, the international editor for NPR.org, worked with Kathy Gannon in the AP’s Islamabad bureau from 1993-’95.