It was some rainy night in winter 2010 when I was sitting in front of my computer.
I had just typed a message to German Bundeswehr's media website. Explaining that I would like to embed with ISAF troops in Afghanistan. Explaining that I would love to show positive pictures from the Hindukush. Admitting that I had no clue about war photography. Nor warfare as such.
My cursor hovered above the "submit" button. I was convinced that sending this mail would not be answered at all. Or putting me directly on a list of potential sleepers in Germany. I was sure that sending this mail would be a bad idea.
Of course, I clicked the "submit" button.
One week after that I got a call from German Bundeswehr. They actually were intrigued by my concept. Showing good news from Afghanistan? This was a new one, even for NATO. And I got both, my approval and my media credentials. Only then I started to realize that I was about to travel to a war zone. I was thrilled and scared at the same time.
End of June 2011, I eventually embarked a plane to Dubai and then to Kabul. It was on the very same day that Taliban fighters assaulted the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul. In the attack 21 people were killed.
I arrived late afternoon. And was lost immediately. I had no idea - and no time - how to plan my next step. I just knew the name of my hotel: the famous Gandamack Lodge nearby the Iranian embassy. Soldiers and policemen ushered everyone out of the one and only terminal of Kabul Airport. Everyone was nervous about the attack on the Continental. And there I stood with my backpack and camera bag. A friendly old man approached me, asking me where I was from. "Germany" I said, which was pretty much an ice breaker. He was a taxi driver, and he knew where Gandamack Lodge was. Good enough for me. He didn't strike me as a kidnapping guy... not that I had ever met a kidnapper.
Coming to Kabul the first time did something to me. On the one hand: Soldiers, assault rifles, tanks, Humvees and the ever-present heavy smell of diesel and cordite. On the other hand: Men, women, families, markets, streed food booths, vibrant life. I felt intrigued immediately.
In the next morning at 04:00 I took a taxi to the military airport of Kabul, where I was sat into a German C-160 Transall airplane - my media embed finally began.
The next days were overwhelming with impressions that I had never before. The sheer mass of soldiers, waepons and war machinery was intimidating. Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif is the biggest military base outside Germany. Temperatures hovered around 35°C. The whole camp buzzed like a swarm. Activity everywhere. A huge machanical organism working like a finetuned machine. And absolutely no war. In 2011, Balkh Province was relatively safe.
It was only in the next days when I came closer to war. I travelled via famous "Pony Express", with courtesy from US Army 1st Cavalry, a combined arms division and one of the most decorated combat divisions of the United States Army. Based at Fort Hood, Texas, it was formed in 1921 and served during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, with the Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the Iraq War, in the War in Afghanistan and in Operation Freedom's Sentinel.
Enjoy some flight impressions from the beautiful landscape at the Hindukush...
The mood among NATO and Afghan military personnel was tense at best. It was just few days before when a 120kg IED ripped a German Marder tank into pieces nearby Pol-e Khomri, and a bomb attack killed several German and Afghan soldiers in Taloqan. Nevertheless German troopers would not stop to patrol the suburbs, trying to support reconstruction of infrastructure, health and education.
Not an easy task, given the fact that the Taliban don't fancy a "regular" education. They prefer boys going to Madrassas, where they are educated in a very traditional and highly religious was. Radicalized in some cases. And girls are not supposed to go to school anyway.
Patrolling was not always fun for the soldiers, given the prerequisites of the previous weeks. They took me along anyhow and gave me interesting insights about ISAF missions. Outside and inside of Mazar their mission was to secure the area, search for signs of upcoming insurgency, keep in touch with the local population. What striked me back then was the incredible level of trust between German soldiers and local civilians. The troopers would take of their combat kevlars as they entered the city. A gesture that might seem small, but it certainly had an impact. Some of the soldiers were talking to a local teacher who needed new benches for the classroom. German Bundeswehr cannot buy such things, as this is not part of their mandate. However, some of the trooper built wooden benches just themselves, when they came back to Camp Marmal later that day.
I have to mention one thing about German armed forces. They might not be the best equipped army in the world. But their reputation is excellent. No matter where I travelled - being a German always helped.
On one of the flights between the FOBs I met this young intelligence officer, Tony. He hopped into the chopper I was flying with at some remote FOB in Balkh Province. We instantly had a good chat although chat is not describing it adequately. We had to shout in order to get at least some of the words with the massive GE T700 engine of the Black Hawk screaming above us.
Our next stop was Kundus, and we spent the evening talking about the war, its reasons and its possible solutions - which was rather Tony's part, as I was an absolute beginner in the topic. He also showed the other side of Afghanistan, this wonderful country with its rich history and its beautiful people. After many beers we decided to grab a taxi as soon as we were back in Mazar - and visit the Blue Mosque, Afghanistans most important place of pilgrimage. Other than that we visited Barbur Garden in Kabul, roamed they city by foot and by taxi, ate at many many many kebab booths and, last but not least, had a tour at the only golf course in Afghanistan at beautiful Qargha Lake.
And this was just the beginning of a friendship that lasts until today. With Tony. And with Afghanistan.