Last week’s suicide bomb attack in Kabul dealt a huge blow to the country’s media sector, killing 12 journalists including Afghanistan’s best-known photojournalist, AFP’s Shah Marai.
Though little known outside the country, Afghanistan has a brave press corps running the gauntlet of suicide attacks by the Taleban and ISIS in Kabul and all over Government-controlled territory on a daily basis. Shah Marai was one of the bravest.
Shah Marai, 41, never left the country though his blind eldest son constantly urged him to do so.
The slain photojournalist comes from a family genetically pre-disposed to blindness. A father of six, he supported a large family including three blind brothers and two blind children. His only daughter Khadija, was born only two weeks before his death.
"Afghanistan’s best-known photojournalist Shah Marai killed in a suicide attack"
"Shah Marai, 41, never left the country"
Shah Marai started life as a driver for AFP and learnt photography gradually. His bravery became evident when he began working for AFP as a photographer under Taleban rule in 1998. All foreigners were expelled from Kabul in 2000, and the bureau, with Shah Marai as its sole representative, operated discreetly from a house.
He wore traditional clothes when going out and took pictures with a small camera hidden in a scarf. It was dangerous work because the Taleban forbade taking pictures of all living beings, including animals.
One day, as he was photographing people lining up to buy bread, the Taleban questioned him.
"Among those killed alongside was a cameraman, who recently sold his bicycle to buy medicine for his ailing mother... "
He told them he was taking pictures of the bread. Luckily for him, they had no way of checking in those pre-digital days. When news photos were sent out, he signed them as ‘stringer.’
Then a few happy years came along as the Taleban were driven out in 2007 and Kabul returned to normal life, with foreigners, including the press corps returning in large numbers.
But he began to despair after the Taleban returned to wage war in the provinces in 2004. In an essay titled ‘When Hope is Gone’ which he wrote for the AFP correspondent blog in 2017, he said starkly:
“There is no more hope. Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity. I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out. It’s a time of anxiety.”
"Ahmad Sardar, a friend and another AFP journalist, was gunned down with his wife and children inside a restaurant."
There is an incredible ruthlessness about the way the Taleban have targeted those deemed to be their enemies. Ahmad Sardar, a friend and another AFP journalist, was gunned down with his wife and children inside a restaurant. Only one of the children survived. Fifteen years after the American intervention, ordinary Afghans are without money, largely unemployed and live in terror of the Taleban.
But Shah Marai bravely persisted with the job. Among those killed alongside was a cameraman, who recently sold his bicycle to buy medicine for his ailing mother. He was engaged to be married.
A young female radio reporter who died was the sole wage earner for her family, and had just moved to a better-paying job so that she could take part-time university classes.
"There is an incredible ruthlessness about the way the Taleban have targeted those deemed to be their enemies. Ahmad Sardar, a friend and another AFP journalist, was gunned down with his wife and children inside a restaurant. Only one of the children survived"