Slain NPR Journalists Were Targeted, Report Finds

NPR's investigation into the deaths of David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna yields some answers

It has been a little over a year since NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and interpreter and journalist Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Afghanistan during an attack on their vehicle. And in that year, as NPR investigated their deaths, it has discovered that what appeared at the time to be another random casualty in a conflict-ridden country was the result of an intentional, targeted attack.

The written report by Robert Little, as well as the audio segment for All Things Considered, are rich with detail, not just the specific and sometimes graphic details necessary to form their conclusions, but also personal ones that make it that much more tragic to read:

The fourth member of the team was Afghanistan native Tamanna. A lawyer by training, he chose to become a journalist and had worked freelance for a number of years for news organizations from around the world. He left his wife and children behind in Kabul when NPR came to Afghanistan, and he served as the group’s interpreter and local guide.

They all called Tamanna by his nickname, “Zabi” — Gilkey liked to tease him by calling him “Zabi-Dabi-Doo.” They had worked together with Bowman the year before, and this time, after three weeks touring the Afghan countryside, the team of four had all grown close. Friends.

Part of NPR’s report was informed by a recording that existed because Monika Evstatieva, a producer who had been part of the convoy that came under attack, did her job, even in the middle of an escalating situation:

As a radio producer, Evstatieva was doing what she always does on assignment — recording audio of what was going on. She sat in the back of the Humvee, but her view was blocked by the vehicle’s thick, curtained side windows. With a microphone in her hand, the pops and pings of each bullet or explosion amplified the sounds of danger in her headphones. She was scared.

She would keep recording until the moment where a truck returned with two dead bodies to the Afghan military camp Evstatieva and correspondent Tom Bowman had reached safely:

With Afghans crowded around the truck it was difficult to see, so Bowman and Evstatieva pressed in.

“At first I cannot tell, but then I see Zabi’s shoes,” Evstatieva said. “He bought those shoes, those gray sneakers, just a day before we left for Helmand. They still looked so shiny.”

Zabi was dead.

Evstatieva cried and sat down; she realized that she had forgotten about her recorder, and it was still on. Her sobs and wails are the last sounds on the recording before she clicks it off.

Gilkey’s body would arrive 45 minutes later.

The Afghan National Army’s initial story was that Gilkey and Tamanna’s deaths were the result of a Taliban attack using a rocket-propelled grenade. Observations Evstatieva and Bowman made about the condition of Tamanna and Gilkey’s bodies seemed to contradict those claims, which propelled further investigation.

The result of months of reporting that followed, including reaching out to the Taliban, has produced a different story. The attack on the convoy wasn’t random. The Taliban had been tipped off by someone from the governor’s palace in Helmand province. According to the account NPR received from a Taliban spokesperson, the convoy was thought to carry American soldiers, not journalists. NPR continues to investigate.