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'He Had A Great Eye For A Story'

Jun 6, 2016
Originally published on June 8, 2016 12:24 pm

A few months back, I asked a favor of my friend and NPR colleague Zabihullah Tamanna. We'd just spent a busy day going from interview to interview in Kabul. I had some urgent writing to do. Would he mind going out onto the streets and taking some photographs?

For those who live and work in conflict zones and war zones, it's easy to become somewhat numb. Violence and danger can corrode your sense of humanity. But the pictures that Zabihullah took that day were the work of a journalist whose compassion was entirely intact.

Zabi spent more than an hour with a group of boys who earn a pittance by wandering from car to car waving tin cans containing smoldering seeds. (Some Afghans believe the smoke from these seeds wards off evil.) He returned, handed me the camera, and quietly remarked that he thought he'd captured some "nice images."

He was right.

Zabi, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday along with NPR photojournalist David Gilkey, was far more than just a "translator-fixer" for NPR. He was one of a group of Afghan journalists who carry on their crucial work despite great and constant personal risk. They have extraordinary courage.

I first met Zabi early last year, on the recommendation of an Afghan colleague. I was looking to hire a journalist to help me report the continuing tragedy in Afghanistan during my occasional visits there. He'd earned a reputation as an excellent freelancer who'd worked for some years with China's Xinhua News Agency.

He was a tall man with a warm smile, who somehow managed to couple a casual manner with a quiet sense of authority. It soon became clear that he had a great eye for a story, and that people from every level of society simply liked and trusted him, an essential quality in the journalism business.

Zabi seemed at ease with everyone; he persuaded senior politicians, young male migrants heading to Europe, female victims of war, and many, many more to speak into NPR's microphone — and, by doing so, to shine a light on their nation's unending conflict.

On one unforgettable occasion, he managed to persuade an Afghan people smuggler to sit down and tell us all about his illicit trade over a lunch of grilled chicken and green tea.

Zabi was a man of many talents. He could have been a doctor (he studied medicine for a while). He could have been a lawyer (he had a degree in law and politics). In the end, he chose journalism. He plied his trade with a deep concern for accuracy, an appetite for hard work, great photographic skills and a lovely sense of humor.

In particular, he proved a true master of the tricky art of hacking a path through the forest of red tape that the Afghan authorities wrap around foreign journalists. Zabi told me he deeply disapproved of the widespread practice of paying bribes for documentation. To him, getting accreditation the legal way was a matter of pride. He never lost his temper — even at the most frustratingly stubborn of pen-pushers. And he never moaned.

Foreign correspondents simply cannot operate without people like Zabi. He was one of many behind-the-scenes journalists out in the field who often get far less recognition than they deserve. Zabi was the best in the business. He will be remembered by his NPR colleagues with deep gratitude and respect. And he will be greatly missed.

He is survived by a wife, and three young children — two sons and a daughter.

You can see footage here of a service held for Zabi in Kabul.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Today the president of Afghanistan called an attack which killed two journalists an act of, quote, "completely against all principles and values of Islam and humanity". Those journalists were NPR's David Gilkey and the network's Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna who went by Zabi. They were killed yesterday while traveling with an Afghan army unit. We'll be remembering our colleague David elsewhere in the program.

But right now we want to tell you more about Zabi. He was 38 years old. NPR's Philip Reeves worked with him closely.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: He was a lovely man, a very good journalist, a tall person with a warm smile and an engaging manner, rather understated but with an air of authority about him. He was very good at quietly pressing home his goals and getting what he needed to get our job done.

He was an absolute master of the incredibly difficult art of hacking a path through the forest of red tape that the Afghan government spins around foreign journalists. Zabi had the patience of a fisherman waiting to, you know, catch his prey.

He would sit there quietly. He would be insistent, and he always said that he did not want to end up what a lot of people do do, which is pay bribes. He had contempt for that. It was a matter of pride that he should do things the legal way.

CORNISH: Could you tell us a little bit about Zabi's background? He was a family man, right? And he was doing very dangerous work.

REEVES: Yes, Zabi had three young children - two sons and a daughter. You could see that he deeply loved his family. He initially studied medicine. He went on to study law and got a degree in law and politics and got involved in journalism.

He belongs to this kind of group of journalists in Kabul who, with incredible courage, carry on trying to report the conflict that is engulfing the country despite great personal risk, constant threats and so on.

CORNISH: And what does that mean for his role working with you? You were there in Afghanistan filing radio stories.

REEVES: Yeah, we have a very close partnership in the field with journalists such as Zabi who work with us. I mean, without them, people like me would simply be totally unable to do our jobs. And so he is a source of advice. He's a source of ideas. He taught me a huge amount about Afghanistan just in conversations. He was a very, very good photographer, so he often went out with NPR's camera and got wonderful images with that.

CORNISH: Is there a moment where you worked together, something you want to remember him by?

REEVES: Well, I remember him - he had this ability to get people to like him and to trust him. So he was able to open the door for interviews with generals, with top politicians. One I particularly remember was when he persuaded a people smuggler to sit down and talk to us.

CORNISH: And let's hear that smuggler followed by Zabi's voice interpreting what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) No passport, no visa - it's all by foot and by car. It's, like, smuggling ways, and you don't go there officially.

REEVES: It's illegal in Afghanistan to smuggle people out of the country to help them migrate to Europe, but Zabi had won this person's trust to such a degree that he sat down and had lunch with us. We had grilled chicken and green tea and talked for hours. And that was the kind of story that Zabi held the key to, and through his great skills and delightful personality, he gave us access to that.

CORNISH: NPR's Philip Reeves - Philip, thank you for speaking with us.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.