Reporter Kathy Gannon won't be 'held hostage' by brutal shooting in Afghanistan
Canadian journalists honour correspondent recovering from wounds
Kathy Gannon, a journalist for The Associated Press, gingerly lifts her hand in front of her face.
It's pale and her fingers are partially paralyzed. The Ontario native has had 14 surgeries on her arms, shoulder and hand.
"The doctor says we’ll get these typing," she says, wiggling her fingers.
She smiles, her blue eyes twinkling. “Now I can cross my fingers, which I couldn’t before, so I’m hopeful."
Gannon, who was in Toronto to receive an award Wednesday night from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, was shot at point-blank range by an Afghan police officer on April 4, 2014.
She was covering the Afghan elections outside Khost in the east part of the country. Gannon and Anja Niedringhaus, a close friend, colleague and Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, were waiting out a rain squall in the back seat of a car.
They were inside a police compound. The unit commander suddenly walked up to the backseat window and fired a full clip from his Kalashnikov, shattering the glass.
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"I don't remember the beginning of the shooting. But I do remember toward the end, the last bullets hitting me because your body jerks when you're hit," she said in one of her first interviews since the shooting.
'I do remember toward the end, the last bullets hitting me because your body jerks when you're hit.- Kathy Gannon
"I thought it was an explosion near the car. Then I could smell the gunpowder really well. When it stopped, I looked down and my hand was (nearly) separated from my wrist."
Niedringhaus, sitting on the side closest to the shooter, took the full force of the bullets.
"There was a lot of blood…. I could see Anja; we were sort of pressed against each other, her hair looked fine," Gannon says, pausing as she gets lost in her reverie trying to explain how she wasn’t sure the extent of her friend’s injuries.
"I wasn't able to say much, I just looked over at our translator and our photographer and I said: ‘Please help us.’ "
The nearest hospital was 45 minutes away. With the artery in her wrist blown apart, and a punctured lung she later found out, Gannon believed she wouldn’t make it.
“I was trying to breathe and go slowly and peacefully, you know, saying your goodbyes and everything, because I was sure that I was dying."
Remarkably, she made it to the hospital and was whisked into surgery.
The Afghan doctor said to her: "I just want you to know that your life is just as important to me as it is to you."
When Gannon was able to inquire later, she found out her friend had in fact died instantly, shot multiple times.
Both women were veteran journalists working in Afghanistan. Gannon, originally from Timmins Ont., has spent the better part of three decades reporting from the region. She is married to a Pakistani and lives part-time in Islamabad.
Never, even while trooping the mountains with the Mujahideen or embedding with the Pakistani military or in her countless visits to the volatile city of Kandahar where Canadian troops were once based, had she been badly injured.
She had dodged the bullets, until that day.
Under the protection of police and military on April 4, the journalists were unprepared for an ambush.
Why did he shoot?
“At first he said there was a bombing in my village and some of my family members died and I just had to take revenge," Gannon says.
Then he said: "No, no, it wasn't my village, it was a nearby village. But it was my tribe's people so I had to take revenge."
In the end, he claimed he was just crazy.
An Afghan court found him guilty in July and sentenced him to death in Kabul.
"It’s a very volatile country today," says Gannon who follows Afghan politics closely and has many friends inside the country.
"There are a lot of people angry because they thought Afghanistan would look different after almost a decade and a half, so much money and the involvement of so many countries."
Is she angry?
"No," she says. "I was at one point, but I don’t want to be held hostage to this shooting; I don’t want it to define my future."
She cautions that "it’s one crazy gunman, you can’t hold a nation responsible," even if many people would.
On Wednesday evening, Gannon was honoured by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) – with the Tara Singh Hayer memorial award for courage in reporting and taking significant risks to tell stories. Hayer was an Indo-Canadian journalist who was shot to death in his garage in Vancouver in 1998.
A $1 million US scholarship honouring Niedringhaus was set up by the International Women’s Media Foundation, funded by Howard Buffet, son of multibillionaire Warren Buffet.
Even with rising tensions and attacks on foreigners working in Kabul, which prompted a warning from the Canadian Embassy this week for Canadians to get out of Afghanistan, Gannon is resolute she’ll go back.
"There are stories left untold," she says admitting she won’t give in to the residual fear.
She wiggles the fingers of her left forearm still encased in a tension bandage and held straight by a brace. She’s had 14 surgeries and needs a few more,
“I’m getting really fast (keystroking) with a couple of fingers,” she says.
She then draws sober as she considers her talented teammate, Niedringhaus.
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"A few times I’ve said it, you know, I wish it would’ve been me."
She pauses again. “I feel more just sad that she’s not here, I miss her all the time."