Isabel Seliger for NPR
NPR journalists David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna died a year ago this week, ambushed on a remote road in southern Afghanistan while on a reporting assignment traveling with the Afghan National Army.
Since their deaths, NPR has been investigating what happened, and today we are sharing new information about what we learned. It’s a very different story from what we originally understood.
The two men were not the random victims of bad timing in a dangerous place, as initial reports indicated. Rather, the journalists’ convoy was specifically targeted by attackers who had been tipped off to the presence of Americans in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Gilkey, an experienced photojournalist, and Tamanna, an Afghan reporter NPR hired to work with him, were sitting together in a Humvee when they were attacked.
“After the loss of our colleagues, we wanted to be sure we understood what really happened on the road that day,” said Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR. “So we kept reporting.”
In addition to discovering that the attackers had been told about the convoy Tamanna and Gilkey were riding in, the continuing reporting revealed new, disturbing details about how exactly the two journalists were killed.
Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.
New reporting confirmed by Afghan officials indicates that Gilkey died inside the vehicle, and Tamanna died outside.
Gilkey died of severe burns to his upper body. It is unclear whether his vehicle was struck by an RPG. Aside from the burns, he did not have any injuries that would indicate close proximity to a blast.
The Original Story: Improved Safety Along A Dangerous Road
The NPR journalists had come to Helmand province that day to assess the effectiveness of the Afghan National Army, which had taken over responsibility for security of southern Afghanistan from American forces.
For Gilkey, a well-traveled war photographer who had been to combat zones and disasters around the world, this was familiar territory. He had been to Afghanistan nearly every year since the American involvement began there in 2001.
Same for correspondent Tom Bowman, a veteran Pentagon reporter who has deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq, typically with American troops. He and Gilkey had been on assignment together at least eight or 10 times — enough that Bowman couldn’t remember the exact number.
With them was Monika Evstatieva, a veteran producer for the NPR program All Things Considered. Unlike her two American colleagues, she was making her first trip to Afghanistan — or any combat zone.
The fourth member of the team was Afghanistan native Tamanna. A lawyer by training, he chose to become a journalist and had worked freelance for a number of years for news organizations from around the world. He left his wife and children behind in Kabul when NPR came to Afghanistan, and he served as the group’s interpreter and local guide.
They all called Tamanna by his nickname, “Zabi” — Gilkey liked to tease him by calling him “Zabi-Dabi-Doo.” They had worked together with Bowman the year before, and this time, after three weeks touring the Afghan countryside, the team of four had all grown close. Friends.
“There were four of us that day.”
They went to Helmand province toward the end of their trip, first touring military bases and then arriving at the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The group met with the governor of Helmand and interviewed the top Afghan general in the region, Mowein Faqir.
The general declared that his security operation in Marjah was successful, and he invited the journalists to see for themselves by driving in a convoy of Afghan soldiers to the town, about 20 miles away. Faqir assured the group that his troops had fought off Taliban forces on the road to Marjah three days earlier. The road, he said, was open.
“We decide to go…”
Three Humvees formed the convoy to Marjah. Bowman and Evstatieva got into the first one, along with a pimple-faced driver, a one-star Afghan general and a third soldier manning the vehicle’s 50-caliber machine gun. Gilkey and Tamanna rode in the second Humvee, followed by a group of Afghan soldiers in the third.
Helmand is flat, dusty and hot — even hotter from inside a sealed military vehicle whose windows don’t open. Bowman and Evstatieva settled in and watched the countryside roll past through the thick front windows, catching glimpses of Afghan soldiers walking along the road or resting in the scarce shade under their parked vehicles.
The violence was subtle at first. A few thuds and pops. Bowman turned to Evstatieva and said, “Everything is going to be OK.”
“I really meant it,” Bowman recalled. “We have been shot at with mortars on previous trips. This is going to sound nuts, but this really did not sound all that dangerous.”
Evstatieva, caught in her first firefight, had a different reaction. “I am horrified,” she said.
As a radio producer, Evstatieva was doing what she always does on assignment — recording audio of what was going on. She sat in the back of the Humvee, but her view was blocked by the vehicle’s thick, curtained side windows. With a microphone in her hand, the pops and pings of each bullet or explosion amplified the sounds of danger in her headphones. She was scared.
The Afghans, meanwhile, were frantic. The driver stopped, and a soldier outside motioned for Bowman to get out of the vehicle. He did, and looked back to see the roadway cluttered with soldiers shooting off toward the roadside to his left. He couldn’t see the other Humvees in the convoy, nor could he tell what — or whom — the Afghans were shooting at.
Soon, the Afghans were screaming at each other. “Give your guests to me — I will keep them safe,” the soldier said.
“Get the journalists back in! Close the door!” the general screamed back.
Bowman jumped back into the Humvee, and with the sounds of bullets and explosions behind them, the group raced off toward a small base nearby. Through the front windshield, Bowman could see them driving so close to the shooting soldiers that he feared they would shoot his vehicle by mistake.
After just a few minutes, the Humvee reached safety when they pulled through the gate at a nearby Afghan military camp. Bowman and Evstatieva got out. The Afghans had tried contacting the rest of the convoy over their radios, but no one answered. Bowman and Evstatieva settled in to wait.
“…everything’s going to be okay.”
Evstatieva also called the closest American base. She had been in touch with American troops throughout the trip to Afghanistan, and they had offered to watch the group’s convoy to Marjah with a surveillance drone. The U.S. military officials she spoke with told her they didn’t have any details about what had happened but said they saw something: a Humvee on fire.
Afghans at the base didn’t seem to know what was happening. They gave the journalists nuts and raisins to eat, then lamb and rice. Slowly, vehicles began to arrive at the base, carrying Afghan soldiers who were wounded from the firefight. Bowman and Evstatieva rushed to them each time, hoping to find their colleagues.
The few people who spoke any English seemed to offer words of encouragement, saying things were OK, or suggesting their friends had a flat tire or were at another camp. The journalists didn’t know what to think.
Almost three hours passed. Then, a truck arrived with two bodies in the back, both of them clearly dead.
“Taliban?” Bowman asked the Afghans.
“No Taliban,” was the response. “Zabihullah.”
Zabihullah. Tammana’s first name. Bowman and Evstatieva were in disbelief.
With Afghans crowded around the truck it was difficult to see, so Bowman and Evstatieva pressed in.
“At first I cannot tell, but then I see Zabi’s shoes,” Evstatieva said. “He bought those shoes, those gray sneakers, just a day before we left for Helmand. They still looked so shiny.”
Zabi was dead.
Evstatieva cried and sat down; she realized that she had forgotten about her recorder, and it was still on. Her sobs and wails are the last sounds on the recording before she clicks it off.
Bowman came over. “Just know that David is probably dead too,” he said.
She nodded, and the two sat on a bench and kept waiting, together.
Gilkey arrived 45 minutes later, laid down alone in the back of a Humvee. Bowman got up to look and quickly recognized Gilkey’s checkered shirt. He could tell immediately he was dead.
“That’s all I remember,” Bowman said. “I was numb, shocked. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
He went back to sit with Evstatieva.
“I am so sorry you have to go through all of this,” he told her.
“It’s not your fault,” she said.
“It’s not your fault.”
No Clear Answers
It was a Sunday afternoon. Helmand province is 8 1/2 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, so by the time the news made it home it was Sunday afternoon there, too.
Early accounts, based on information from the Afghan National Army, said Gilkey and Tamanna were killed by the Taliban, when their Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
But once Bowman and Evstatieva had gotten over the initial shock, they started to think: That doesn’t make sense. How could they both have died the same way, when their bodies looked so different?
The night of the attack, they had flown out of Helmand on an Afghan military helicopter and later took an American Chinook to Kandahar Airfield. During the half-hour flight aboard the Afghan helicopter, Bowman and Evstatieva had gotten a long look at their colleagues. Gilkey clearly suffered serious burns to the upper half of his body, but Tamanna looked like he was asleep. The only wound they could see was a small cut on his belly.
Months later, the report of an autopsy on Gilkey conducted by military doctors in the United States added to the confusion. It noted the obvious burns but didn’t find any other injuries except smoke inhalation, and it determined that the burns killed him. The journalists checked with military doctors, who had years of experience in Afghanistan dealing with combat trauma. They said one can never predict what combat injuries will look like. But with a rocket-propelled grenade, you would often see serious tissue or organ damage from a blast. Such wounds were not present.
Bowman and Evstatieva decided to confront the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Back in the United States by this time, they found reporting complicated by language and time differences. But they finally arranged a call with Baryalai Helali, a Defense Ministry spokesman, and this time got a different story: Tamanna wasn’t killed by an RPG. He was shot, outside the vehicle. Helali had no explanation for how Tamanna got out of a Humvee, without any apparent injuries, if it had been attacked by an RPG with enough force to kill the person sitting next to him.
Meanwhile, an American military official reached out to NPR to inform us that U.S. forces had killed the Taliban leader who they believed had launched the strike against them. His name, the official said, was Mullah Ismail.
Sources in Afghanistan confirmed to NPR that Mullah Ismail had been killed and even provided a picture of the dead Taliban leader.
Still, a lot of things didn’t seem right to Bowman and Evstatieva.
For one, during their trip from Lashkar Gah to Marjah, they passed scores of Afghan soldiers along the road. The Taliban could have attacked any group of soldiers that day but didn’t strike until the NPR convoy was on the road. Why?
Sources in Afghanistan confirmed their suspicion. They said the Taliban fighters knew they were coming — were very happy about it, one source said — because they had been tipped off by someone at the governor’s palace that morning.
“They knew exactly when we would be on that road,” Bowman said. “It almost seems obvious now. It was broad daylight and the Taliban usually don’t attack in midday. There were lots of other soldiers on the road — standing outside their armored vehicles — resting under the vehicles. The Taliban could have hit at any time. They only started shooting when we arrived.”
Bowman called the Taliban to ask. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that Taliban forces carried out the attack but said the group had information indicating that American military troops were in the convoy, not journalists.
“This attack was not meant to target journalists, but [an] American caravan and American soldiers,” Mujahid said, adding, “If these journalists had informed us … in advance about their visit to our area, we would have given them a safe route.”
Mujahid disputed the Americans’ claim to have killed Mullah Ismail and said the Taliban leader is still alive. And he added another detail that didn’t make sense: He said the Taliban used only mortars and rockets in the attack, not small arms like rifles or pistols.
NPR journalists didn’t know whom to believe. But they were certain of this: The early story about a random RPG attack didn’t add up.
There may be some more answers yet to come. Gilkey and Tamanna’s Humvee is said to still be somewhere in Helmand, and it might offer some clues.
Also, Gilkey was carrying two cameras when he died, one of which contained pictures taken earlier that day. The other was melted and its memory card partially disintegrated. NPR is trying to work with forensic investigators to see whether any photos of the convoy can be recovered from the card, which might offer more clues.
Officials at the FBI — which investigates the deaths of Americans overseas — say they are still looking into Gilkey’s death, but wouldn’t comment. The Afghan National Directorate of Security, akin to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is also investigating.
One answer has become apparent — to the question that took Gilkey, Tamanna, Bowman and Evstatieva to Helmand province in the first place: Have Afghan authorities brought security and stability to a country wracked by decades of war?
The answer is no. The Taliban says it is on the move in Helmand, and earlier this year, American Marines returned to the district in hopes of restoring order. They might be working with the same people in Lashkar Gah who tipped off the Taliban that Americans were in the convoy carrying NPR journalists.
While the lack of clarity about precisely what happened to Gilkey and Tamanna seems to underscore the continued instability in Afghanistan, Bowman and Evstatieva said they took some satisfaction in at least getting closer to the whole truth. And they plan to keep reporting.
“We’re not going to let this drop,” Bowman said. “We not only owe it to David and Zabi, but to the Marines and soldiers who still deploy there, who will continue going into harm’s way.”
This week, NPR dedicated a memorial to the journalists at its Washington headquarters, including a display with one of Gilkey’s cameras from Afghanistan and photographs of the journalists. Evstatieva and Tamanna’s wife, Fauzia, have become close friends.
“We miss Zabi and David every day,” Evstatieva said.
NPR’s Nicole Beemsterboer produced the radio story and audio components of this digital story.