Image 44 of 95: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV, Afghanistan
“I was embedded with a U.S. platoon holding position at a tiny base of Afghan police. In fact, it was a misnomer to call that a base – a drab building behind an adobe wall pocked with bullet holes after skirmishes. On the first day, it was relatively quiet – a bit of shooting which ceased by the evening. At 0500 next day, all hell broke loose – shooting, a brief lull and then again shooting. A group from our platoon would set off around every 40 minutes to patrol the area from where the shots were fired. This was not far away – a sparse grove and ruined houses some 100-150 yards away. Sometimes these groups were shot at. But groups changed, while I worked alone. I accompanied a few patrols in the morning and felt knackered by midday. It was sweltering hot already – about +40 Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). So another group took off and I stayed at the base.
They were shot at again, and then it became really scary – one shot, then another, then bursts of machinegun fire and then it all turned into a deafening, unending roar. All of a sudden, an explosion roared. I can recognize explosions, and that one meant nothing good. Almost simultaneously, I heard someone shouting over the radio: “We need a doc!” The medic got ready, clutched his rucksack, I put on my flak jacket and a helmet, someone took a stretcher, and we all sprayed out of our shelter. If you ran straight, it wasn’t far – a small field and a shallow gutter. When we arrived, the first thought that flashed across my mind is – why the heck do we need a doc here? This man is dead! Half a human body was lying in the dust, parts below his waist were missing, and his clothes were gone. Everyone was busy – someone covered us, the medic started making injections, the stretcher was ready. And they kept shouting to the unconscious man: “Hold on! It’ll all be OK!” I asked if I can be of any help. I was asked to move away a machinegun. I gave a bottle of water to a soldier with a light leg wound. The guy drank it and furiously threw the bottle away. I was, meanwhile, taking pictures. I tried to be as discreet as I could. No one tried to stop me. The guy was put on the stretcher and everyone braced up for a dash back. A sergeant slung his rifle across my back, I was asked to carry a mine-detector. And so we dashed back. The guy’s arms hang down from the stretcher. Crossing the gutter knee-deep in muddy water, they shouted “raise his hands!” I took his left hand – it was warm but strangely light, as if hollow. I put it on his chest, but it fell down all the same.
A chopper arrived from Kandahar just 10 minutes after the explosion. Our city ambulances don’t come that fast! The board with a red cross made a circle above us and landed in a field in a purple cloud from a smoke grenade. The guy was taken in, they shouted something to the medics on board, made another injection and the chopper whizzed off. We remained in the dust and in screaming silence. Finally, it all caught up with me – I was short of breath and felt sick. We were back, at last. I gave back the rifle and the mine-detector. Many guys were crying; I took my time, taking pictures.A decision was taken to send those lightly wounded to a bigger base nearby in an armored vehicle. I said I would go too. On our way, a young soldier swooned, a shot of morphine followed. They have funny flak jackets – there is a tiny tab, you just pull it and off it goes! We waited in the hospital. I was sitting closer to the door, blocking the exit. The doctor asked me to help him, and I clumsily got out with his and my rucksacks, my sleeping bag and a machinegun of a wounded soldier. I heaped it all nearby. Only my cameras were still dangling on me. The guy was put on a stretcher and we carried him. Only the medics kept cool in this situation. Once we put the stretcher on a special stand with foil underneath, a female doctor said something like “you can bugger off now, we have to work”. This somewhat calmed us down.
That badly wounded soldier survived. They amputated a few of his fingers. He had numerous wounds in the pelvis area. He was 20, a year younger than my daughter Alinka.
I was editing my pictures later. Settling formalities with the army press service consumed two days. As it turned out, if a soldier is wounded or photographed during treatment, this is already invasion of his privacy, and you have to get his written agreement to publish pictures. They put it straight – he is alive, and he has rights. In principle, they are quite right. We just live in a different world. Those two featured in my pictures eagerly signed all the papers. They thanked me for the pleasure of my company and for the trifle that I had done. Some pictures will never be published. I, however, would have gladly not taken those pictures, but it just happened so.
I was told to head home. I had to go to a helicopter at the larger base. On our way there, a convoy bypassed the small building at the Afghan police station to leave food and water there. By bitter irony, shooting broke out once we had arrived and unloaded there. I even took a few pictures. We hit the road, and while moving we got a radio message that an army marksman had finally “got” the enemy shooter. I know this sniper – a small and skinny sergeant. I was told that he has bad vision in his left eye because a fragment was stuck there, but his right eye is OK. So he “got” that Taliban shooter. It was his 11th on that assignment. And I, for once, felt relief. A man was killed, but I received relief. Maybe, it is right that war is a business for the young, and I go home.”
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, lens 16-35mm at 16mm, f14, 1/640, ISO800
Caption: U.S. Army soldiers react after their comrade was wounded at patrol by an improvised explosive device (IED) in southern Afghanistan June 12, 2012.