Death on film

Vanessa M. Gezari, for the Pulitzer Center

Pulitzer Center Maywand shrine A shrine recently erected to the victims of a January suicide attack that killed 18 people including two Americans in Maywand, Afghanistan (photo by US Army Capt. Trevor Voelkel)

At the American base in the center of Maywand District, you can watch a videotape of a suicide attack that killed 18 people, including two American soldiers, in January. The bomb went off in the bazaar, which lies just outside the base walls. The explosion was recorded by one of more than a dozen cameras that look out on all sides of the U.S. compound, registering the movements of men, children, vehicles and livestock.

There's no sound in the video. It's late afternoon, and a shaft of sunlight angles down from the upper right corner of the image. You can see the market stalls and beyond them, the paved highway that links the bazaar to Kandahar in the east and Helmand in the west. Trucks pass along the road, dark blots against the sun.

Suddenly, an orange fireball erupts from a cluster of shops. The blast radiates out, rippling the air like water when a stone's thrown in. Smoke billows into the sky and a child rounds the corner at a run, entering the picture momentarily before disappearing into the shadows. For a while, no one comes near the explosion. Minutes pass. Two men approach cautiously, then retreat. On the highway, trucks roll past.

An American platoon from Charlie Company of the Second Battalion, Second Regiment, First Infantry Division, known as Task Force 2-2, was patrolling the bazaar on foot that day. Staff Sgt. Joshua L. Rath, 22, of Decatur, Ala., and Specialist Keith E. Essary, 20, of Dyersburg, Tenn., died quickly, along with an Afghan interpreter named Riazi. The bodies of Afghans littered the marketplace, and dozens were wounded. The platoon medic, 21-year-old Corporal Travis Shelton, was 20 feet from the blast and survived, while men behind him crumpled and lay still.

"There was nothing to prepare us for anything that happened out there," Shelton says. "It just happened."

In the videotape, the next thing you see is a Gator – a small, green vehicle, part golf cart, part tractor – speeding toward the base with bodies draped across its rear cargo bay. The Gator returns several times to collect more wounded. An Afghan National Police truck pulls up and police pile out and walk toward the smoke. Plumes of flame shoot from burning stalls. When the fires stopped burning, three shops were destroyed, six damaged.

Back at the base, the medics were working. They've treated at least 100 trauma cases since they arrived in Maywand in September, mostly from improvised explosives, or IEDs. They also get Afghan police and security contractors who shoot each other in turf battles, men with gonorrhea who swear they got it from drinking a mix of green and black tea, and Afghans so high on locally-grown drugs that they feel no pain.

Pulitzer Center Maywand Army Medics
US medic team in Maywand, who treated the wounded. Far left is Corporal Travis Shelton next to the head of the medics, Staff Sgt. Lester Medina (arms crossed).

The suicide attack was their biggest mass casualty. Fifty-three Americans and Afghans were wounded, of whom 36 were evacuated by air for further treatment. All left Maywand alive, but two Afghans died the next day. A head and feet were all that remained of the bomber.

Pulitzer Center Maywand_shrine_2 Last month, they erected a memorial to the bombing victims in the bazaar. The names of Afghans who died are inscribed on marble tablets; the two Americans are mentioned, but not by name. A member of the Canadian development team in Maywand says he's waiting to see if the Taliban torch the small, domed shrine.

In the video, the last thing you see is an American foot patrol running back to the base in a loose circle, guns pointing everywhere. The Maywand bazaar is a center of Taliban activity in the Afghan south, a place where people from across the district and beyond come to shop and trade information. To the Americans, it's crowded, inscrutable, threatening. The Afghan police have tripled their patrols since the attack, says Captain Trevor Voelkel, the American company commander at the base in Maywand, but his own troops haven't been back.

Capt. Voelkel is skilled in the practice of counterinsurgency. He talks easily with villagers and readily sheds his body armor, helmet and sunglasses at meetings with local leaders. His knowledge of Pashto is not extensive, but his accent is excellent. Yet even for him, there's a point at which winning hearts and minds takes a back seat to force protection. His decision not to patrol the bazaar – so near, yet impossible to secure – illuminates one such point. The risk of another attack, he says, is simply too great.