NPR Journalists David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna: What We Know A Year Later Journalists David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Afghanistan last year on a reporting trip. Our investigation found that the story of their deaths is not what we originally reported.
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Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge From Investigation Of Slain NPR Journalists

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Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge From Investigation Of Slain NPR Journalists

Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge From Investigation Of Slain NPR Journalists

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A year ago this week, we lost two colleagues, NPR photographer David Gilkey and Afghan journalist and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna. They were on a reporting trip in southern Afghanistan when they were ambushed and killed. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR producer Monika Evstatieva were also on the trip, but they weren't injured.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Afghan National Army first said that David and Zabihullah were killed by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, and that's what we reported. But Tom and Monika continued to pursue more details, and they learned that what happened that day is much more complicated.

SIEGEL: Today, in a special report, Tom and Monika remember David and Zabi and share what we know so far. We are also for the first time airing recordings from during and after the attack, recordings that some listeners may find upsetting. Here are Monika and Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: We'd gone to Afghanistan to report on the security situation. The U.S. military handed over control to the Afghan National Army at the end of 2014. Most of the Americans who are still working there were trainers for the Afghan military.

MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: And by and large, we were told the Afghans were making progress.

BOWMAN: But Helmand province in the southern part of Afghanistan is the most dangerous province, and the Taliban had recaptured a lot of territory there. By Sunday, June 5, 2016, we'd been in Afghanistan for several weeks.

EVSTATIEVA: In the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, we interviewed the new Helmand governor, who says the area is getting better.

BOWMAN: We also speak to the top Afghan general in Helmand, Faqir Mowein, who tells us Helmand province isn't so dangerous anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOWEIN FAQIR: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "The route to Marjah is open," he tells us, and we can drive without a problem.

EVSTATIEVA: The general assured us the Afghan military cleared Taliban fighters from the area three days earlier.

BOWMAN: General Mowein says his troops can take us to Marjah so we can see for ourselves.

EVSTATIEVA: We talk it over, and we decide to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you.

BOWMAN: Good luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you.

BOWMAN: There were four of us that day. I'm the Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

EVSTATIEVA: And I'm the producer Monika Evstatieva. My job is to collect the sound you hear and help Tom report the story.

BOWMAN: Together with us is NPR's photojournalist David Gilkey. David's a tall, imposing character, and he's a legend in the photography world. But he's really more like a 14-year-old. He's fun. He loves dumb jokes, eats corn dogs and all sorts of crappy food. Here he is earlier on our trip, mimicking a host reading into my story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID GILKEY: On a recent night, dozens of Afghan commandos climbed aboard an American helicopter at the base. They flew north and spilled out into the mountainous districted of Shah Wali Kot.

(LAUGHTER)

BOWMAN: And when he's not a goofball, he's an artist, a true artist. David's an awesome photographer who has covered conflicts all over the world - Chechnya, the Balkans, South Africa. He and I have been to Afghanistan countless times together. He's been there almost every year since the war began, often embedded with U.S. troops. Here he is reporting in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILKEY: So every time I go out on a patrol, I'm not only taking pictures, but I strap a recorder to my helmet. So you'll hear both the camera shutter and the gunfire going off.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

EVSTATIEVA: The fourth member of our team is Afghan journalists, our guide Zabihullah Tamanna. We call him Zabi for short. Zabi has been a journalist and a photographer for many, many years. Sometimes when you hear a story on NPR from overseas, you hear the voice of someone speaking to us in their own language. And then you hear the voice of the interpreters who work with us in the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZABIHULLAH TAMANNA: Ready?

EVSTATIEVA: Yeah. Here is Zabi. He's taping a translation. And that's me recording him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAMANNA: We have lost several outpost in the east of Lashkargah city, and heavy losses were inflicted on our forces.

EVSTATIEVA: OK, very good. Just say outposts.

TAMANNA: What did I say?

EVSTATIEVA: Outpost.

TAMANNA: No, come on - again?

EVSTATIEVA: Mhm (ph).

TAMANNA: We have lost several outposts.

EVSTATIEVA: Zabi is a lawyer by training, and he's as big as David at 220 pounds.

BOWMAN: And he never raises his voice despite being the dad of three and the butt of David's jokes. David calls him Zabi-Dabi-Doo morning, noon and night.

EVSTATIEVA: Zabi-Dabi-Doo (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

EVSTATIEVA: Back on the road, we leave in three armored Humvees driven by Afghan soldiers. Tom and I are in the first vehicle alone with a one-star Afghan general. His name is Noor.

BOWMAN: General Noor is tall and lean with a thick mustache and a deep voice. Think Barry White. Our driver is a young soldier, maybe not even 20.

EVSTATIEVA: And there is one more soldier at the top of our Humvee. He's manning a large .50-caliber machine gun. Zabi and David jump into the second Humvee. The third is full of Afghan soldiers.

BOWMAN: So we take off to Marjah. It's a district that has a long history of violence. It's basically a center for heroin production and insurgency. In ten minutes, we leave the city noise, and the road opens up to vast, flat farmlands. The only people we pass are soldiers at checkpoints guarding the road.

EVSTATIEVA: Before we left, I called the U.S. base. They agreed to watch us on the drone feed.

BOWMAN: The road looks calm, but the remnants of recent fighting are obvious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: All these destroyed trucks along the road - we just passed two of them destroyed by roadside bombs, or IEDs.

We drive very fast, and we only slow down to drive around the huge craters in the road. The Humvee has no side mirrors, and we can't open the thick glass window.

EVSTATIEVA: We couldn't see David and Zabi's Humvee or very much else that was around us. All we could see is the road ahead. There was no obvious danger. There was nothing to put us on our guard. Most of the soldiers we pass are sleeping under their vehicles, trying to hide from the scorching sun until this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

BOWMAN: Seconds later, we hear a second gunshot.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

BOWMAN: So I ask the general...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: Taliban out there?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

EVSTATIEVA: Like on any other reporting assignment in the field, I had the recorder going and my headphones on, so the sound is enhanced. I can hear the bullets striking the vehicle. I get really scared. I touch Tom on the shoulder. He sits right in front of me. He turns around and says...

BOWMAN: Everything's going to be OK, and I really meant it. We'd been shot at with mortars on previous trips. And this is going to sound nuts, but this really didn't sound all that dangerous.

EVSTATIEVA: But this is my first gun battle. I'm horrified. I keep recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

EVSTATIEVA: The Humvees stop. The gunner is shooting off to the left-hand side of the road, but we cannot see anything. There are bushes. Suddenly the sleeping Afghan soldiers are up and running towards our vehicle. Others are shooting.

BOWMAN: One of the Afghan soldiers out on the road walks up to my door and motions me to get out. I jump out and look down the road, and I see everyone, all the Afghan soldiers, firing.

EVSTATIEVA: I see one of the Afghan soldiers shooting back with a mortar. The general and the soldier who told Tom to get out start yelling at each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

GENERAL NOOR: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: Later we were able to translate their conversation. "Give your guests to me," the soldier says. "I'll keep them safe." He wanted us to get into a ditch and take cover. The general shouts back, "get the journalists back in. Close the door."

BOWMAN: No one seems to know what the hell is going on. I jump back in the Humvee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Tom, can we go back now?

The young driver turns the car around, and we speed back.

BOWMAN: I was worried then that we'd flip into the canal because we were so close to the edge of the road.

EVSTATIEVA: This is also the moment I realize that the other two Humvees are not behind us.

BOWMAN: Including the one carrying David and Zabi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: We're really safe in this thing. And also, they sound like they were pretty far away.

EVSTATIEVA: We race to a small camp only, like, five minutes away. We stop only to make a quick radio call to the rest of our convoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: He's saying, "Adel." That's the name of another driver - but no response. We've lost communications.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: We arrived to the camp's gate. It's so confusing. The general is furious. He pounds his fist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: He is angry. Don't make him angry.

BOWMAN: We get out of the Humvee. It's this rustic camp of Quonset huts and sandbag walls. There are all these soldiers just standing around, looking at us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Where is everybody? Where is David?

Where are David and Zabi?

BOWMAN: The soldiers here only knew a few words of English, so we get some scraps and information about what happened to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Where are they?

BOWMAN: It sounds like their tire got blown out.

EVSTATIEVA: Where - their tire?

BOWMAN: They OK, good?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Good, no problem.

EVSTATIEVA: They tell us David and Zabi are hunkered down at another outpost. Then the waiting begins. We spend the next hour on the phone, frantically calling them. But the calls just go straight to voicemail. I also call the U.S. base two hours away by car. The cell phone reception is very spotty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: There is not a lot of reception.

BOWMAN: The Afghans give us water. Later they feed us with nuts and raisins, then lamb, rice and tea. Everyone around us seems to know very little. At least that's what they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Does someone here have a cigarette?

BOWMAN: Cigarette?

EVSTATIEVA: Does somebody have a cigarette?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Certainly.

EVSTATIEVA: And yes, I chain smoke for the next hour, checking in with the Americans every 20 minutes or so. Then they tell me they saw something on the drone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: They just - when the Americans - I just called them. They said they just saw a Humvee being blown up, but I don't know what they were talking about.

BOWMAN: It just didn't make any sense. It was so frustrating.

EVSTATIEVA: Then the wounded Afghan soldiers started coming in. Every time we see a truck or a Humvee pull in, we run towards it, hoping to see David or Zabi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: There's a soldier they're pulling out of an armored vehicle. He's on a stretcher. Is he OK, good, OK? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: One wounded?

We're reporting on the ambush until they open the back of a pickup truck. Two bodies were inside, both men, this time clearly dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: Who is that?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Taliban?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: No Taliban.

BOWMAN: Civilians?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah.

EVSTATIEVA: What?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah.

EVSTATIEVA: At first, I can't tell. But then I see Zabi's shoes. He bought those shoes, those gray sneakers just a day before we left for Helmand. And they still look so shiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Tom, can you check if this is Zabi?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Zabi, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah (foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: (Crying) Oh, my God, please, no, please, no.

BOWMAN: Zabi was dead. We expected the worst for David.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWMAN: Where's David, the photographer? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: The clinic.

BOWMAN: David, photographer, baseball cap - is he OK? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yes (foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Is he alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BOWMAN: We waited another 45 minutes.

EVSTATIEVA: I call the Americans to tell them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Sir, our fixer is dead. Our fixer, our fixer - they just brought him. He's dead.

BOWMAN: We kept waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVSTATIEVA: Oh, my God, what did we do? (Crying).

After I stopped crying, I turned off the recorder. I sat down on a bench. And you came to me and said...

BOWMAN: Just know that David's probably dead, too.

EVSTATIEVA: And I remember simply nodding 'cause I knew this was true, too.

BOWMAN: And finally another Humvee pulled up.

EVSTATIEVA: Then you told me, wait here. I'm going to see who it is.

BOWMAN: And they open up the back of the Humvee. David's body was there by himself. That's all I remember. I was numb, shocked. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

EVSTATIEVA: Then you came back, and you told me...

BOWMAN: I am so sorry you have to go through all of this.

EVSTATIEVA: And I said, it's not your fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCASTS)

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm very sorry to report this breaking news. We've just learned that NPR journalist David Gilkey and Afghan translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed today on...

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: David Gilkey and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna were on assignment with an Afghan military convoy.

SIEGEL: When they came under attack by the Taliban. The Humvee they were riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

BOWMAN: Rocket-propelled grenade - that's how the Afghan army told us they died.

EVSTATIEVA: But once we recovered from the initial shock, we started to think. That did not make any sense. For one thing, their bodies looked so different. We spent an hour staring at them on our helicopter flight back to the U.S. base that night.

BOWMAN: Zabi looked like he was asleep, as if he had a heart attack. The only thing that stood out was a small stomach wound. David, on the other hand - and this is very hard - had severe burns. But they'd been sitting next to each other in the same Humvee.

EVSTATIEVA: Also, we started asking ourselves, why did it take 45 minutes to get David's body back after Zabi's? Why didn't they arrive together?

BOWMAN: All that had to wait. The U.S. military helped us get Zabi's body back to Kabul. David's body was headed to Dover, Del., to the military mortuary.

EVSTATIEVA: When we got back to Kabul, I went to the local market, and I bought a big, fat sheep. This is the traditional funeral present to bear respect to Zabi's family.

BOWMAN: Four days later, we were back in the U.S. We started talking to all of our sources.

EVSTATIEVA: We cannot reveal the names of the people who have been helping us because of the extreme danger it poses to them. Here is one of them explaining what happened. We've changed his voice to protect his identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: (Unintelligible).

EVSTATIEVA: He says, "the Taliban knew you were coming. They ambushed you. They were really happy." Someone tipped them off while we were at the governor's palace that morning.

BOWMAN: Other sources confirm this. They knew exactly when we would be on that road. 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.

EVSTATIEVA: Then, a month later, we get more information, this time an email from the U.S. military.

BOWMAN: Brigadier General Charles Cleveland writes, U.S. Army special forces have killed the Taliban leader who ordered the ambush.

EVSTATIEVA: Cleveland said the man behind it was Mullah Ismael, and he was killed with three other Taliban associates on 12 June.

BOWMAN: Our Afghan sources also confirm this and even sent us pictures of the dead Taliban leader.

EVSTATIEVA: So we reached out to the Taliban ourselves.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: This is Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban.

BOWMAN: He denied Mullah Ismael was dead and said the picture we had was of someone else. But he also told us, yes, the Taliban did attack our convoy. But then he said the Taliban had no idea there were journalists in the convoy. They thought we were American soldiers. If he had known we were journalists, he said, they wouldn't have attacked.

EVSTATIEVA: That also did not make any sense. No American convoy had been on that road for two years. And the Americans never used old Humvees. There is also one more confusing thing Mujahid tells us. He said they only used mines and rocket launchers in the attack that day, no rifles, no AK-47s.

BOWMAN: An autopsy of Zabi was never performed. It's just not done in Afghanistan. But all we could see was a small wound on his stomach. How can that have been created by an explosive RPG, the kind of weapon that can rip apart a Humvee?

EVSTATIEVA: What the Afghan army initially said about the RPG attack wasn't adding up.

BOWMAN: We needed more answers, so I called Baryalai Helali, the spokesman at the Afghan Ministry of Defense. The phone line is hard to understand. When I pressed him, he said, you're right. He said David was killed inside the Humvee but not Zabi.

BARYALAI HELALI: And the other one who got outside the vehicle - he got shot by the Taliban.

BOWMAN: He got outside the vehicle and was shot by the Taliban.

HELALI: Yes.

EVSTATIEVA: So an RPG did not kill Zabi. He was shot. But who shot him? If you believe the Taliban, they say they did not use rifles.

BOWMAN: And David - remember; he had severe burns. His autopsy indicated he died of those burns and smoke inhalation.

EVSTATIEVA: And that's unusual. His body did not show any blast wounds, and his internal organs were not damaged.

BOWMAN: We reached out to several military doctors who have years of experience dealing with combat wounds. They said you can never be certain, but the autopsy is not typical of an attack by an RPG.

EVSTATIEVA: There was one more thing that did not make sense. Zabi was wearing an armored vest like all of us. How could he have been shot in the stomach wearing it, especially from such a distance?

BOWMAN: The Taliban were about a hundred yards away from our convoy, so if they attacked with an RPG, how was it that Zabi got out of the Humvee but David could not? And since David didn't have any blast injuries, what happened? What caused the burns?

EVSTATIEVA: Remember; the U.S. military had a surveillance drone above us, and they saw a Humvee on fire. We were told this footage is part of an investigation being conducted by the FBI. They investigate Americans killed overseas. But if the FBI has the footage, they wouldn't let us see it.

BOWMAN: So the original story from the Afghan army of what happened doesn't hold up or the story from the Taliban, for that matter. Zabi wasn't killed by an RPG. He was shot. And David died of burns, not a blast. This wasn't a random Taliban attack. They knew we were coming or at least that Americans were coming. We were sold out.

EVSTATIEVA: We still have a lot of questions, and we might eventually get some answers. We are told David and Zabi's Humvee is still somewhere in Helmand. That may provide some clues.

BOWMAN: The Afghan military was able to retrieve both of David's cameras from the Humvee. One had pictures from earlier that day. The other one was kind of melted, but we still hope to get some images from it. Maybe his final pictures could provide us some more clues.

EVSTATIEVA: The FBI wouldn't comment, but they're still investigating. So is the Afghan National Directorate of Security, sort of like their version of the CIA.

BOWMAN: And maybe they'll help us answer the biggest question. Who sold us out? Who shot Zabi? The Taliban admits they attacked, but they say they never shot anyone. Can we believe them? There were of course other people out there with guns that day, members of the Afghan army. And it's not unusual for Afghan soldiers to actually support the Taliban, even to attack for them. These so-called green-on-blue attacks used to be common in Afghanistan, but the ministry of defense firmly denies that's what happened to us.

EVSTATIEVA: It's been a year. Tom and I haven't been back to Afghanistan since. We miss Zabi and David every day. Zabi's wife, Fauzia, has become family to me.

BOWMAN: I think about David and Zabi a lot, and it's comforting to know that some of David's ashes were scattered in a river in Afghanistan, a country he loved so much.

EVSTATIEVA: We do have an answer to the one question that brought the four of us to Afghanistan in the first place. Has the Afghan government and military brought stability to a country wrecked by 16 years of war?

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. The Taliban is still on the move. A few hundred Marines are now back in Helmand. They could be working with the same people who tipped off the Taliban that we were there. And the road to Marjah - people there say it's still not safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "ANYTHING YOU SYNTHESIZE")

SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman and Monika Evstatieva reporting on the deaths of NPR photographer David Gilkey and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. They were killed a year ago on assignment in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "ANYTHING YOU SYNTHESIZE")

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