I Almost Got Blown Up In Afghanistan
Ben Anderson, the man behind VBS shows Inside Afghanistan and Obama's War, sent us an email today about Joao Silva, an esteemed photographer who lost both his legs last year on patrol with US forces in southern Afghanistan. We had a chat with Ben about his own recent close shave, and Joao.
VICE: So Ben, where were you when you were very nearly blown up last month?
Ben Anderson: We were in Sangin, which is basically the most violent district in Afghanistan's most violent province, Helmand.
Ok, and the British have left now, right?
Yeah, they’ve handed over to the US Marines so that was the story I was covering. I was there for three weeks with this unit called the Three Five Marines until I got back just over a week ago.
Were you filming for a new show?
Yeah, it was for a Panorama that’s coming out soon.
You were very close to getting blown up – what happened on that day in question?
A huge thing in Afghanistan is the Taliban's use of IEDs ['Improvised Explosive Device', or, more colloquially, home-made roadside bombs]. We were in an area the British had cleared of IEDs and the Taliban before, and the British had set up three bases along this main road in order to keep things under control. When the Marines came in, they abandoned those bases, allowing the area to become a hiding place for the Taliban and their IEDs again.
So how did the Marines deal with that?
They decided they couldn't just clear the area by moving from building to building on foot. Instead, they took a heavier approach using bulldozers and heavy vehicles that, to all intents and purposes, are tanks. They ploughed these down the main road and dug up any IEDs that were there, while Marines moved down the sides of the road on foot, avoiding obvious routes wherever possible. So they'd cross buildings either by shooting holes through walls or going over roofs.
OK, so the bulldozers went first and then you’d follow?
You'd think they'd work it like that, but weirdly the marines at the sides of the road were ahead of the bulldozers, so they'd be the first ones clearing compounds and literally blasting new paths that didn't exist before through walls. If they walked a route that was at all obvious it was certain that they'd get blown up by IEDs. So we went carefully on foot, occasionally digging in the ground with our hands or our knives to check for bombs. The first building we entered we found an IED on the roof, which is usually the one place they assume will be safe. Soon after that discovery, we were forced to go down a path which was exactly the kind of path we wanted to avoid. It was at a point where a number of small streets met, and wherever there's a little bridge over a stream or a tight alleyway between buildings you're almost guaranteed to find IEDs.
"A bunch of IEDs the Marines found and have rigged up for a controlled explosion"
Kind of pinch points and bottle necks, stuff like that?
They call them 'choke points' but yeah, exactly the same thing. They wanted to avoid those areas, but we had to navigate this one because we couldn't cross using roofs. We had to keep on moving forward. They checked the whole area with metal detectors, but couldn't find anything. As it turned out, they didn't find anything because most of the metal in an IED is contained in the power source – so the battery that allows it to be set off. In this choke point it turned out there were seven IEDs, but they were all rigged up together and connected to a command wire, so in other words they were all set off by a guy at the other end of the command wire and that was where the battery was. No one knew it, but we were walking above all these IEDs that were linked together in what they call a 'daisy chain' while someone was watching us at a safe distance.
I was right at the front of the patrol. I remember thinking to myself that I shouldn't really be there – I'd promised myself I'd hang back a bit on this one. Luckily, I forgot that idea and I found myself at the front. Whoever was watching with the battery was basically waiting for more Marines to fill the area near the daisy chain, and that's when the guy set it off. So it blew up behind me and four Marines were hit, the main body of the patrol. It was pure, amazing good luck that the Marines who were hit were in between the IEDs, rather than standing right on top of them.
So there were no fatalities?
No. There were three severe concussions and one guy was temporarily blind and deaf, but he recovered a few days later. Anyone with severe concussion has to spend a month back at the base, so they went there. The explosives in the IEDs were enough to kill you or blow your legs off.
So that was towards the end of your time there?
I stayed for another four days. They were on this operation called 'Dark Horse Two', which was the Marines retaking this area that they'd abandoned when they first got there. By the time I left they had it back. The Marines tend to do a more intense tour. They do a six month tour, whereas the army do a 12 month tour. The Three Five Marine Unit had been there two and a half months when I got there, but in that time they’d already lost 26 guys and had over 100 injured. I don’t think any British unit over an entire six month tour have ever lost that many people. It's a shockingly high number.
OK, and the other reason we're talking to you is of course because of Joao Silva. He was in Afghanistan as well wasn’t he?
Yeah he was in Kandahar, that was on the trip before this one, which is all part of the same project, and we were both staying at Kandahar airbase. We were bored and we thought we were being kept away from the main story. We were actually trying to get to the Marines in Helmand. Later that trip he walked into a compound, behind a guy with a sniffer dog and a guy with a metal detector, and they’d somehow missed this small pressure plate and he stepped on it and lost both legs at the knee. He got an infection in his lower body and he was in intensive care for six weeks. He's one of the bravest, toughest, most experienced war photographers in the world. One of the most loved and respected photographers, and really one of the most experienced guys as well, so that really shook everybody – if it can happen to him, it really can happen to anybody.
If you like Joao's photographs then you can buy one, and in doing so support Silva and his recovery. For more information and to buy prints go here. There you go, worthy blog post of the day. Back to mp3s and sex jokes now.
You can catch Ben's new Panorama on Monday 24th January on BBC 1 at 8.30pm.
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